‘Terry, I’m (gasp) an atheist!’
Was not a hint of anger in her during the entire time “Mary” and I talked that afternoon in the crowded sandwich shop. Fact is, that it was just the opposite.
Mary laughed, we laughed, so hard and so much that out of the corner of my eye I could see icy stares from booths nearby “telling us” to pipe down so that they could get back to their business dealings, tuna sandwiches, chips and lattes.
But first, here’s the email Mary sent me the Friday before that prompted that meeting at the coffee shop:
“Terry, I’m an avid reader of your columns and so glad to finally meet you. I’m an atheist and it’s hard to identify as an atheist. I’ve never brought up my affiliation (or more accurately lack thereof) to my family, so I definitely do not bring it up at work. I’m sure that a majority of people wouldn’t have any issue, but I have noticed that sometimes individuals see nonbelievers as different from someone of a different religion (but still religious.). Just writing this in an email makes me more nervous than it really should. I’d like to meet with you but stay anonymous and in the heathen closet!”
Now, many thoughts darted through my mind the evening before I met with Mary. I tried to imagine how it would feel as an atheist to live daily on the fragile outer edges of being found out and rejected by family and co-workers. I tried to imagine dreading the inevitable “What church do you attend?” or those “Bow your head, and lead us in prayer” moments. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to have to live in fear of disappointing others, well-meaning others. I jotted these concerns down with a few questions I hoped to pose to her.
As we sipped our soups, it became obvious to me that Mary was a smart electrical engineer. But beneath her smile lurked traces of concern, the paramount being fear of rejection.
ME: As an atheist Mary, what do you worry about the most?
MARY: My biggest fear in ‘coming out’ to my family is being rejected. I know that coming out at work will cost me my current job. I remember when I first came out as an atheist years ago at another company that the responses were many, from ‘God works in mysterious ways,’ to ‘No you are really religious,’ to ‘what! But you are such a good person,’ to total silence. A few even steered their children away from me during a company event as if I had a disease of some sort.
ME: At what age did you realize that you did not believe?
MARY: As a child I went through the motions happily. I sang the songs, read the stories and prayed the prayers because that was expected and normal. It was presented as fact so I absorbed it the same way I did subjects at school. I started to get suspicious as I went through confirmation in the seventh and eighth grades. By the time I wrote my “faith statement,” I felt like I was lying and didn’t like being disingenuous.
ME: What are some common myths and stereotypes about atheists?
MARY: Atheism is Satanism, and we are a bunch of hedonistic troublemakers drifting through life with no purpose or direction. Another is that all atheists want to rid the world of all religions, think less of religious people and want to get rid of Christmas. None of this is true.
ME: What are some common hidden and not-so-hidden costs of being a closeted atheist?
MARY: There’s a cost of watching words and avoiding mentioning secular activities. If atheists are open, they may cost themselves social and career opportunities if someone reacts poorly. Whether we like it or not, religion or lack thereof is a large facet of one’s personal life. It’s taxing to hold this in.
ME: What else would you like others to know?
MARY: First, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secular humanists all exist alongside Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others. And the reality of that existence doesn’t mean we’re bent on eradicating any and everything religious. Second, Atheism is not a denomination and is not equivalent to Baptist, Lutheran, etc. And third, rather than make assumptions, or ask personal questions, about a person’s religious affiliation, don’t assume. Allow them to volunteer that information if that’s their choice. Nonbelief can be a lonely place. I think it is valuable that we’re free to hold any beliefs we like in this country and I will not begrudge anyone something that brings them peace.
ME: Thanks Mary!
MARY: No, thank you Terry for allowing me to voice the sentiments of many in my community.
At that, we headed for the front door, laughing, with dagger-like stares bidding us farewell …..and good riddance!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is also a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Huffington Post and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org