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Should atheists "come out of the closet"?

Science says atheists should come out of the closet for their own good

Scholarly attention to the problem of discrimination against atheists has increased significantly over the last couple of years. Some of the results offer concrete answers to questions that have divided the atheist community, often bitterly. For example, there has been considerable debate over whether atheists should "come out" and live openly as atheists, or adopt a more "live and let live" policy of non-disclosure. According to a 2011 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the answer is "come out" (Gervais, 2011). That is, come out if you would prefer to live in a less discriminatory society.

The idea actually runs contrary to a "common sense" reading of the literature on discrimination. Negative attitudes towards outgroups generally tend to increase as the perceived outgroup population increases. That is, if we feel negatively towards Blacks or Hispanics, we will feel more negatively if we find ourselves confronted with more of them. The accepted explanation for this is that negative attitudes towards these groups are based on fear. Whites fear Blacks and Hispanics; English Protestants fear Irish Catholics, and so on. For atheists, it appears to be different because the root causes of discrimination are different.

Two recent studies have demonstrated that discrimination against atheists is based on distrust, not fear. The difference is subtle, but very important. In America, prejudice against Blacks and Hispanics is driven by fear of personal safety, and to a lesser extent, fear of property loss. This fear is often reinforced by the media, which is keen to report on rampant gang problems and crime waves in urban areas. We are also reminded that property values tend to decline as "unwanted" elements move into previously White neighborhoods. Neighborhood watches are often expressions of this very fear, as the tragic case of Trayvon Martin illustrates. The natural extension of this fear is the belief that if there are more of "them" around, our lives and property are more at risk.

Prejudice against atheists is a more generalized feeling of moral distrust. In other words, if you were to ask a hundred random Christians what specific things atheists do, you wouldn't get a lot of agreement. Instead, you would hear that they are generally immoral, lead lives of depraved sexuality, or other such vagaries. This is also reflected in the media, which often portrays atheists negatively (as in the World Trade Tower Memorial debate), but rarely if ever points to any specific crimes committed by atheists. When surveyed, Christians often say that atheists do not share the "American vision." But exactly how they are deviating from this vision is seldom expressed, save for their rejection of Christianity.

From these observations, researchers proposed a hypothesis: If Christians were to realize just how many atheists there really are, their conceptions of atheists would be challenged, since so many of their neighbors -- and often dear friends -- are secretly atheist. The direct evidence that their friends, neighbors, trusted employees, and beloved family members are not immoral or untrustworthy might well soften their opinions.

Across four different studies, this hypothesis proved spectacularly true. After controlling for relevant confounding variables, the evidence was clear. When prejudiced religious people come to believe that atheists are very common, their opinion of atheists shifts away from distrust towards more acceptance.

These findings are likely to cause some exuberance among highly visible atheist groups such as American Atheists, which frequently engages in public awareness campaigns, posts prominent ads in metropolitan areas, and whose leaders make frequent TV appearances. Of course, there is still the question of whether all publicity is good publicity. It's certainly possible that some kinds of ads have a detrimental effect on public opinion. Then again, the "visibility effect" might outweigh the "content effect." More research is necessary.

On the other hand, the message for individual "closet atheists" is remarkably clear. By doing nothing other than publicly identifying as atheists, they can play a valuable part in reducing anti-atheist prejudice nationwide. Even "indirect coming out" is likely to be helpful. For instance, if enough atheists register with the Atheist Census, those numbers could prove to be a powerful indicator of just how common we really are.

This is potentially a very exciting time to be an atheist. With a desperate and increasingly defiant Republican Congress escalating religious hatefulness towards women and gays, with the first president to acknowledge our existence, and now with powerful scientific evidence that the best thing we can do for ourselves is to simply live openly, we stand poised to accomplish real social revolution without all the awful things that accompanied previous social equality movements. Maybe we can do this without the protests, the violence, and the social upheaval of the Equal Rights Movement or Stonewall. Maybe as more and more of us come out, it will become more and more apparent that the Extremist Christian Right are the ones whose morality and trustworthiness should be questioned. Maybe we'll start asking each other why they hate us so much when it's obvious that we're just ordinary folks who live next door.

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What do you think?  Is it better to stay silent and just keep your atheism/agnosticism to yourself, or to "come out", letting people know that you (general) are atheist?  Can you see a benefit to more people admitting to not following any religion or believing in any gods?

Answer Question

Asked by jsbenkert at 8:57 PM on Jan. 29, 2013 in Religious Debate

Level 37 (89,331 Credits)
Answers (25)
  • I don't think anyone should have to hide who she is. If you want to be an atheist, be one. If you want to tell everybody, tell everybody. I distrust people based on how they treat me and those I care about, period. I trust them till they show me they prefer otherwise.

    Thomas Jefferson said, in paraphrase, "What difference does it make to me if my neighbor has one god or twenty, or none at all?"

    Answer by Ballad at 9:03 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • I will admit, I am non religious. Probably more agnostic than atheist.  I definitely am not into organised religion. I don't pray. I don't worship. I went to church until I was 30, but I always felt like a faker. I didn't "feel" it. So I finally was honest with myself, and stopped pretending.


    Answer by musicmaker at 9:09 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • This is a case where regions have to take the lead to make it safe for other areas of the country. Just like gay rights - the leading movement is not going to be in Alabama and Texas - it needs to overtake California and New York first. While there are some parts of the country where being "out" is just a personal preference, there are still many where being "out" puts your job and family at risk, regardless of how illegal it is.

    Answer by NotPanicking at 9:15 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • I agree NP. No one at my work knows I am a non believer. I'm sure there would be problems (social) if I did tell them.


    Answer by musicmaker at 9:21 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • Yeah, I'm in Texas & although I'm in a metro area I'm still not about to put a Darwin symbol on my car (although I love the one that eats the Jesus fish). I moved here from upstate NY (extreme culture shock). I miss having everyone not assume I'm a Christian. The only reason I can somewhat mange it is b/c I grew up in LA. But, I was raised in a college town not far from the Sin City of the South so, they're actually less religious there than the majority are here.

    Answer by 3libras at 9:30 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • I do believe we have to come out in order to be recognized and respected. However-the religious zealous and rampant fear in this country makes it unsafe at times.
    Not to mention detrimental to ones job/security for ones self and family. Not to mention the repercussions your child may face , such as bullying at school as I have learned first hand with my ds.

    Answer by sahmamax2 at 9:35 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • i don't feel the need to run around telling every random stranger my personal beliefs. if someone asks, i'll tell them. and, im an atheist on facebook so if people "close" to me bother to check that they would know. i dont hide it, im definitely not ashamed of it but im certainly not all in people's faces with it either. ill admit at first i was scared of 'coming out' due to fear of the backlash/judgments i would receive. so far the only person who has criticized me for it is my dad, which was to be expected anyway. i dont think more people 'coming out' as atheists would remove the stigma attached to it. unfortunately there will always be people that think we're a bunch of kitten killing god hating baby eaters.

    Answer by tnm786 at 9:40 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • I dont hide I am an atheist but nor do I broadcast it.

    Answer by LostSoul88 at 9:59 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • I think I'm a little too late for the "closet" thing. Hee-hee!

    Answer by witchqueen at 10:22 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

  • I don't think the author or the study suggests "broadcasting" where one stands on the religion spectrum.  I think the point is, should atheists remain quiet about it, or should we be open about it.

    I, for one, don't hide that I don't believe in any gods or in religion.  I also don't go around stopping strangers to tell them, or interject it into any conversation.  If it's pertinent to a situation, I'll be honest.  I'm not ashamed, nor do I feel that I have any reason to be, and I won't be subjected to social pressure to pretend to be something I'm not, or to believe something I don't.


    Comment by jsbenkert (original poster) at 10:26 PM on Jan. 29, 2013

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