Being the Atheist Guy
by Noah Lugeons
Before I started this podcast, I wasn’t very public about my atheism. I’d tell anyone interested enough to ask that I was an atheist and if they wanted to know why I would tell them. But I never invited the conversation. I’d been told so many times that it was rude to “attack” someone’s faith that I started to believe it.
And now that I’m “the atheist guy”, I really wish I’d flushed that nonsense along time ago.
Again, I’ve been an “out” atheist for years. It wouldn’t be fair to say that I was “quiet” about it, as I’ve always been quick to point out the bullshit in a religious claim and I’ve never given much of a damn about whether the person I was pointing it out to was religious. But I never allowed it to be a defining part of my personality. I’d never been an activist.
But now I am. Now everyone I work with or regularly interact with knows that I’m a vocal atheist and many of them see this as my defining characteristic. I’d never wanted this before because I feared it would land me in one pointless debate after another. But it turns out that that fear was entirely unfounded. Much of this is geographic, of course. Living as an open atheist in NYC is quite a bit different than being the atheist guy in Vinegar Bend, Alabama, but even with New York’s notoriously diverse religious population I worried about the constant barrage of well-meaning devotees trying to save me from the bad parts of the afterlife.
And yes, there’s been some of that. I have an acquaintance that seems obsessed with turning me “back to Jesus” (her phrase, mind you, as I’ve never been a Christian). She’s a nice person, she means well and I put up with it with a smile. I rib her a bit for it and I tell her I know she means well and I avoid her every chance I get. To be honest, she’s one of those people everyone kind of tries to avoid.
But those interactions are a trifling minority compared to the people who have come to me with genuine curiosity. Many of these people have known me for years without knowing that I was an atheist. And contrary to the fear that I would lose some of their respect, it turns out that by and large I’ve given them more respect for atheism. They know that I’m a moral, friendly, intelligent, well-mannered, polite, hard-working (and occasionally self-aggrandizing) guy and knowing that I’m a nonbeliever has helped chip away at their stereotype of the angry, unhappy atheist.
Of course, this shouldn’t be a revelation to me. It’s been one of the dominant thrusts of the atheist movement for the last several years. Be vocal, counter the stigma by being openly atheist, give them an example of an atheist that isn’t frothing at the mouth. In fact, I feel like I’m one of the last people to the party on this one.
But I’m not the last person.
So I’m writing this to everyone who is still on the fence about “coming out”, or, more appropriately, being vocal about your atheism. I was guilty of overestimating the negative reaction and underestimating the positive reaction. I think most of the people who are vacillating are probably guilty of the same. Sure, some people have to be careful, as they risk alienating family, losing friends, losing social and financial support, damaging their marriage, losing their job… but that’s all the more reason the rest of us should be as vocal as we can be. It’s up to those of us who can change the image of atheism to do so for the sake of all those who stand to lose so much.