"Coming out" now may be a clichéd term, but as the "We Are Atheism" project has shown, it hasn't entirely lost its currency. The new organization encourages others to be open about their atheism, an act that is more than a confession; it holds the real risk of losing family and friends.
By affirming "it's OK to be an atheist" and encouraging video testimony from those who have already made the journey out into the open, "We Are Atheism" hopes to help others do the same. There are, however, serious hurdles for the no-longer-closeted to overcome.
According to the recent Public Religion Research Institute's "2011 American Values Survey," 67 percent of Americans are "somewhat uncomfortable" with the idea of an atheist as president, with 48 percent being "very uncomfortable." Muslims fare better here than atheists, and in the current political climate, that's saying something.
Even more shocking, a recent study by the University of British Columbia showed that when it comes to trust and atheism, "only rapists were distrusted to a comparable degree."
Being an open atheist, then, is a path toward marginalization.
I am certain there are religious people in my own community and elsewhere who welcome these numbers, but I suggest three reasons to reconsider that reaction and to resist the urge to silence the atheist voice. Underlying each of these points is The Golden Rule: to treat others as you would have them treat you.
Firstly, open atheism not only helps the religious understand "the other," but it is also a tool for understanding oneself. Atheism may not be a religion, but the life of an atheist is often birthed within the walls of the religious. For many atheists, part of the path to disbelief is not only the conclusion that there is no evidence for God, but also the experience of being among those who have given them little reason to reconsider. In other words, if you want to understand why people leave religious communities, either for rational or experiential reasons, then dialogue with an atheist is essential.
This was evident to me the first time one of my graduate religion students interviewed an atheist for a class assignment that I've dubbed the "Listening to Others Interview Project." He expected his interviewee, a non-theist, to be morally problematic; his paper was clear on this and I suppose this placed him within the 67 percent mentioned above. What he discovered, however, was someone whose sense of right and wrong was not all that far from his -- someone who also operated out of The Golden Rule. The student not only gained a fresh perspective on why someone would choose atheism, but also a window into his own soul and presuppositions.
Next, consider the social consequences when one forces the atheist into silence. Spend some time in the forums of Think Atheist, for example, and one can get a good look into the concerns of real people who are trying to understand how, after coming out, they can salvage relationships with friends and family who have ostracized them. They often feel severed from those closest to them.
Maintaining relationships is not the problem of the atheist alone; religious family and friends can set that tone as well. We should enable positive contributions from members of our families or communities; we should not marginalize those whose crime is honesty. If the shoe was on the other foot, how would you like to be treated?
Lastly, inviting atheists into the open is an investment in the future, which currently appears to be a world of religious decline. Admittedly, this last one is the most selfish use of the Golden Rule. If there is anything the history of Christianity has taught me, it is that suppressing other voices never works. Christianity began as a small, marginalized group oppressed by other religious systems that were supported by the empire, but eventually was transformed into the religion of the empire under Constantine. The tide can, and usually does, change.
Under Henry VIII, for example, closeted Protestant reformers like Thomas Cranmer eventually established the Church of England. The next chapter in that story involved the new Protestant majority pushing -- sometimes violently -- other Protestant and Catholic communities to the margins, until eventually toleration had to be legalized to maintain a stable society.
Today, polls seem to indicate that tight controls on religious belief eventually give way to a society with God-fatigue. The "British Social Attitudes Survey" published in 2011 shows those who describe themselves as "non-religious" rose from 31 percent in 1983 to 51 percent by 2009. And a poll of England and Wales released earlier this year shows that 48 percent (less than half) of those who accepted the label "Christian" actually believed that "Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God."
Surveys in the United States are indicating a similar future. The Barna Group's survey released in August 2011, for example, showed an 11 percentage point decrease in church attendance in America by women---historically considered the pillar of attendance for religious services. "You can't force someone to be a Christian, only a hypocrite," the Protestant missionary William Carey once said. Perhaps many are no longer able to live as hypocrites. And why should religious people want them to?
Maybe I'm too much of a realist, but resisting the future is not as valuable as accepting and working with the present. A Gallup poll tracking survey of 2011 shows that 15 percent of Americans identify themselves in the category of "none/atheist/agnostic" on the question of religion, compared to 23.6 percent who identify themselves as Catholic, a population considered large in the United States. As Gallup puts it, their "methods of measuring religious identity have changed over the decades, but one major trend that is clear from Gallup's and other organizations' surveys is the increase in the percentage of Americans who do not have a formal religious identity. Some 60 years ago, in 1951, for example, just 1% of Americans in Gallup surveys said they didn't have a religious identity."
What could 2012 hold for atheism? Could these numbers soon surpass those of Catholic Christians?
If religious folks need a selfish reason to accept their atheist neighbors, consider this: it may not be too long before the shoe is on the other foot and the religious minority will be the ones hoping for a place at the social table. What I can say for sure is that inviting atheists to be open and engaging them as valuable neighbors is not only best for all involved, but also, simply, a better practice of The Golden Rule. Don't suppress the voice of others if you do not want them to suppress yours.