Coming Out Skeptical
by Sigfried Gold
How do we imagine atheists? What images, what feelings, what associations come to mind when we think “atheist”?
Melanie E. Brewster’s Atheists in America presents 27 first-person “coming out stories” garnered through a national solicitation, giving us something like actual faces to tie to the label atheist—much welcome for anyone who wants to go beyond polemics and think about atheists as people. Dr. Brewster is a professor of Counseling Psychology at Columbia University and her book seeks to redress the extreme paucity of academic research (1,200 peer reviewed articles related to atheism compared to 480,000 on religiosity and spirituality in general) by presenting “personal narratives that will illustrate how people from different cultures, religious backgrounds, cities, ages, sexual orientations, and family structures have reached their identities as atheist.”
Brewster’s commentary makes clear a political agenda in addition to this academic aim: she wants to establish atheists as a stigmatized, marginalized identity group alongside other such groups in the “broader multicultural and social justice discourse.” Beyond framing these as coming out stories (and the obvious reference to Angels in America in the title), she draws parallels between atheism and LBGTQ identity in terms of marginalization and the issues faced in disclosure and closeting.
Many of the stories are of people who came from dogmatically religious families and communities, people who had to fight hard against internal conditioning and external pressures and coercion before they could emerge as atheists. The majority of the stories take place in the Bible Belt or other conservative parts of the country. Atheism seems to frequently accompany the awakening of liberal political consciousness. I’m not well-versed in the demographics, but suspect a significant subset of atheists are politically conservative libertarians, sometimes even Republicans; atheists like that don’t seem to appear in the book much if at all. There are also only a handful of stories from blue electoral districts. Brewster did intend to show a cross-section of American atheists. I wish I had a better sense of just how representative her sample is.
Most of the stories speak powerfully to the marginalization and isolation atheists feel in religious families and church communities, in small towns, even in secular workplaces. The stigma attached to atheism for many of these writers turns the process of questioning religious dogma into a long, painful ordeal, fraught with doubt, fear and the disapproval of loved ones.
Between the stories and the commentary we do get a picture of atheist identities, how they are formed, and the obstacles they face. But for all the valuable work this book does, it raises, in my mind at least, a host of questions that are never explicitly asked, much less answered, in the book itself:
- What kinds of experience push a person over the edge from not believing to positively identifying as an atheist? The book does address the question of how people decide to come out of the closet once they have taken on the label internally, but the Pew Nones on the Rise report and other sources suggest that those who identify (in or out of the closet) as atheist are a small tip on the iceberg of those who don’t believe.
- What causes those who do identify as atheists to take the further step of seeking out atheist or humanist communities? Strangely, the stories say almost nothing about the writers’ participation in these communities; but I assume a good portion of them do participate or, otherwise, how would they have come across Dr. Brewster’s solicitation for submissions? And for those who do participate, how do these communities meet or fail to meet the various needs met by faith communities?
- In only one of the stories does the writer express a heartfelt sense of loss at leaving a religious community. The religious communities most of the authors emerged from sound singularly awful. Taken together, the stories reinforce my sense that the tone and stridency of a given person’s atheism, the self-righteousness of his claims to rationality, the virulence of her opposition to religion, is strongly reflective of the religious style of the family or community he or she emerged from. But is this conjecture just a bit of facile folk-psychology? It would be nice to see a book like Atheists in America address it head on and debunk it if it’s insupportable.
- What do people lose—beyond inclusion and social standing—when they leave their religion? Several authors give cursory nods to humanistic values, their appreciation of the natural world, and the sense of freedom and self-determination that opens up when they let go of religious dogma; but have they also lost access to valuable spiritual tools? Most of these writers did not experience particularly good versions of their religions, so maybe not. Still, the recent appearance of godless congregations or atheist churches make one wonder what these “secularizing exits” leave behind.
Despite these questions, I urge you to read this book. The stories are mostly well-written. Others are interesting in themselves for offering an unvarnished view of some of “our” less appealing qualities. It’s helpful to hear these voices outside the context of heated polemic or reasoned argument; to hear what emerges when an atheist is just telling her own story. We get unguarded expressions of the writers’ intransigent rejection of others’ beliefs, glimpses of an injured, defensive grandiosity, but we also see genuine empathy and efforts to connect with others, to live openly and harmoniously with people of all beliefs. These stories are sufficiently varied to provide a base of source material from which to begin addressing vital questions around belief, unbelief and the space between. Atheists in America offers a forceful provocation to other scholars, researchers and journalists to explore these questions.
More importantly, I am eager to see how non-academic readers respond to this book. Will it act in the revolutionary way that the appearance of gay and lesbian coming out stories have since the 1970s? Will it give closeted atheists a mirror in which to recognize themselves? I personally know few atheists whose unbelief grew out of the hostile soil of an evangelical landscape, but now that I am aware of their prevalence, I hope these stories can reach and encourage others struggling to shape their own ideas.