Why Are There So Many Secret Atheists?

Recently I attended a meeting for atheists and agnostics. The primary purpose of the group, as I understand it, is to function as a community of support. To start the meeting everyone was asked to introduce themselves by relating their religious history. Having just recently written about my how my religious history is unusual for an atheist, I was curious what I would hear. I was worried that everything I had written would be contradicted just days after it was published. It wasn’t. 

Mostly what I heard was not surprising. Most of the people present had been raised in families of various degrees of religious adherence. Several people came from extremely religious families. Their stories were of not fitting in. Their family’s religion didn’t make sense to them. They felt like frauds participating in religious rituals. Finally telling their families of their true beliefs resulted in strained relationships or, in at least one case, total abandonment by their families. Finding communities of like-minded people, like this one, was life saving. 

Other stories were of less religious upbringings. These were households that only went to church when the grandparents were in town. They only attended temple during the high holidays. Of course they believed in God, but that belief didn’t have much impact on their day-to-day lives. When they realized they actually did not believe, the biggest change was their perspective on their life. How they lived it remained much the same. 

There was one other person who, like me, was not raised in a religious family. Like me, this person’s extended family was religious, but their immediate family was not. There was some tension among her extended family about their beliefs, but by and large they were not an issue. 

What surprised me was that when several people “came out” to their religious family members, some family members revealed their atheistic beliefs in turn. One woman discovered that her mother, father, and only sibling were all also atheists. Her entire nuclear family had all been acting for the sake of the others for decades. The parents, though atheists when their children where born, did not want to indoctrinate their children. They took their children to a church in the denomination of their extended family. They allowed, indeed encouraged, their children to attend churches of other denominations with their friends. When they wanted to go to church camp they did. The two sisters both explored several religions but ultimately decided none of them made sense for them. But they continued to feign Christianity when the family was together.

Why am I telling this story to an interfaith community? Because despite the evidence from their childhood that their parents were open to any number of religious traditions, both sisters were afraid to tell their parents that they were atheists. Atheist beliefs are viewed, even subconsciously, as something fundamentally different than theist beliefs. I don’t know how many times I have witnessed interfaith discussions that concludes with “at least we all believe in God.” 

I was dismayed at this atheist meeting by how quickly my comments about my work with religious people were dismissed. I was told that the work I wanted to do was a losing battle. The only worthwhile work in this area was to protect nonbeliever’s rights as religious people are constantly working to take them away. I, of course, stood my ground explaining why interbelief engagement is both necessary and worthwhile. 

Not everyone spoke against my work. Some quietly applauded it. But those who spoke up spoke loudly. These were the people who had been hurt by religion and religious people. They want nothing to do with religious people. Not ever.

After the meeting I got to thinking about the presence of these two kinds of atheism: secret atheists and anti-theists. It reminded me that interbelief work is not only about the big picture, as it is most often portrayed. Usually when interbelief moments are reported it’s when rabbis are invited to the Vatican. It’s when interfaith services are held in the wake of a tragedy. It’s when a church donates it’s space to a Muslim community that does not yet have it’s own building. These are wonderful moments. I support them. It’s hard enough getting positive stories into the news. 

Hearing these stories made me remember that while interbelief work at the community, national, and international level is important, it is ultimately about the personal level. It’s about keeping families together. If we can’t keep families together, what hope is there for bring communities separated by race, religion, and nationality together?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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5 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many Secret Atheists?

  1. This is a great post; thanks for your contribution!

    I think you are right to mind the layers of interfaith/interbelief/interreligious work; I think you are right to observe that they are not, eo ipso, stratified: that work on the personal level will impact the communal, the national, and eventually the international.

    It is all too telling that the stories of keeping up appearances for the pretensions of the group are common. Often, groups will ‘hide’ that which they think ‘needs hiding’; and, so, I consider it prudent that the perceptions of atheists and atheist belief need to be confronted and challenged.

    A while back, I posted about an atheist/theist interfaith engagement gone wrong: http://goo.gl/PfLaUJ. Whilst I am not proud of this interaction, I do believe I learned a great deal from it. Now, as one who floats between theist and atheist communities, as well as being active in many local interfaith groups, I – as a theist – am often equally dismayed at the theonormativity of the language used therein (e.g. ‘At least we all believe.’).

    Thanks, again, for your ruminations!

  2. Wendy,

    I loved that your article touched on something I’ve felt but was never able to articulate. I’m an atheist, but also a cultural Jew who studies Islamic theology. I don’t hate religion, at all. I lack, I think, a capacity for belief in God, but I think religion is fascinating and I support my (religious, Muslim) boyfriend in everything he does; I even fast Ramadan with him. But other atheists/agnostics keep questioning my intellectual bonafides; there is a sense that if you’re not “anti-theist” then you’re one of them. I wish I understood better how to handle this judgement and disdain from otherwise very intelligent, very likable colleagues and would-be friends. Your article gives me hope that I’m not alone in noticing this phenomenon!


  3. My mother is technically emotionally abusive. I’m a minor now, already saving and planning for when I move out, but I don’t think I’ll ever come out to my southern baptist/mega conservative family.

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