Life As A “Quiet Atheist”

This is a pretty good story about people who are nonbelievers but don’t get into arguments about it or talk about it. They just quietly live their lives without a religious faith.

It’s risky to say anything categorically about atheists – for a more individualistic bunch would be hard to find. But let’s propose that there are two kinds of atheists: the kind you hear about, and the kind you don’t.

The kind you hear about are crusaders with a specific agenda: to challenge religious bigotry wherever it raises its head. Since 9/11 particularly, they have stepped up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority, cataloguing the harms that have been done in the name of organized religion. That strategy, while it has definitely raised atheism’s profile — partly by polarizing the religious debate — hasn’t exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls consistently show that dislike and distrust for atheists goes wider than for any other identifiable group.

The kind of atheist you don’t hear about is different—in strategy or temperament or both.

Some of them, of course, do this because they’re afraid to admit they don’t believe.

Within that group of self-identified atheists and agnostics, almost one in five were part of a religious community—attending a church or temple or mosque with some regularity. Ecklund pumped for explanations. And with sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee, she published her findings last fall in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Turns out, her subjects’ reasons were mostly perfectly rational – as befit a group that “places a high premium on reason and making sure that they live consistently,” as Ecklund says. Her atheist scientists found themselves in the precarious centre of a Venn diagram. They needed to reconcile, all at once, their identities as scientists, as nonbelievers, and as spouses and parents. They may have had a religious husband or wife. They may have drifted into the pews after they had kids, drawn to the social glue a church community can provide, or the moral structure that kids can benefit from, or the chance to reconnect with family cultural traditions. Whatever motivated them, there they all were, in the church or synagogue or mosque or temple, cheek-by-jowl with believers, and unchallenged in their reasons or right to be there.

I definitely understand and identify with this issue in particular, and I agree with the advice:

Not long ago Wade received a letter from a British woman who called herself “Christmas Elf,” and described her fairly common dilemma thus: Her aging parents had asked her help putting on the Christmas Pageant at her church. Kind of awkward, as she is an atheist. Love and familial duty was suddenly colliding with an uncomfortable personal sense of hypocrisy. She was leaning toward helping with the pageant. What did Richard think?

He was with her. “You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents,” he said. “You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously.”

The great thing about being a nonbeliever is that nothing bad will happen to you if you participate in religious events. Sure you’re encouraging that religious faith in others by doing so, but what are the chances that your participation will help anyone or hurt anyone? It’s mostly neutral, whereas your refusal might hurt your family. So, why not take communion or something if they ask you to?

I draw the line at baptism, however.  Baptism is a very big deal in the church, and it involves initiating a young child, unable to make his or her own decisions, into an organization he or she doesn’t understand yet.

Anyway, I recommend reading The Atheist at the Breakfast Table. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it, for instance, how to deal with your kids when they ask you about god or religion… but that’s one of the many reasons I don’t want kids. That whole situation sounds like a nightmare to me, and good luck to atheist parents who have to deal with it.