I am a white, middle-aged American man who just happens to be an atheist. As such, I am a member of the least trusted and most reviled class of people in America. Recent polls have shown that atheists are held in less regard than blacks, Muslims, gays, and other minimalized groups in this country when it comes to any number of principles, i.e. electable, trustable, etc. Atheists live in the shadows of freedom when it comes to the ideals of our nation.
I am still ‘in the closet’ as an atheist with the majority of my family, friends, co-workers, and the general population. I’m in the closet less because of a fear of what they’ll think and more because my atheism just isn’t what defines me. Unfortunately, to most believers, being an atheist is exactly what defines me.
I’ve seen the reactions of people when I’ve told them I’m an atheist. I’ve been lucky enough to have never faced any hostilities, but I have faced confusion and, to a small degree, resentment. Some of the people that now know I’m an atheist don’t pass up a chance to lump me into small categories when they see a news article depicting, for instance, the fight over religious displays in the public forum or the conflict over the removal of ‘god’ from public schools. To my family and friends and co-workers, I am atheism; I’m the only atheist they know.
So for better or for worse, I’m the face of atheism.
I don’t lose track of this as I walk through my days here on Earth. I’m setting an example of what an atheist does, thinks, says and is. And that’s not an easy job.
Recently my girlfriend and I visited the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky, strictly for curiosity’s sake (curious as to how people could actually believe, if I may). While we were in the area, we saw a store that features a particular type of bed not available in our hometown, so we went in. The clerk, a very nice lady about my age, asked us where we were from and why we were visiting. I told her why we’d come, and then told her we were atheists. I thought it was appropriate at the time, given the nature of the exhibit we’d come to see.
She immediately let us know she was a believer, both in a god and in miracles, but soon the conversation turned to her sales pitch, and I assumed our lack of belief had been forgotten; I was wrong. Upon our leaving, the clerk said, “Even though you think you’re an atheist, God blesses you.”
I may have been the first atheist this woman had ever met. Even if I wasn’t, it was obvious that she had no idea who an atheist actually is. So I wrote her a letter; and in it I said:
“I have the feeling that you’ve rarely, if ever, encountered an atheist directly. Truth be told, you have encountered atheists: you sit beside us in a movie theatre or restaurant, you talk to us on the phone, we shop in the same market you do, and we come into your store occasionally. But since our atheism is a personal thing (just as your faith is), it’s not something we ordinarily bring up to the average person.
So please, if I may, let me tell you a little bit about atheism, and offer you a bit of friendly advice:
Atheists are the one set of people who actually have no religious beliefs. We don’t believe there isn’t a god, we merely state that there isn’t any evidence to support the existence of one. We don’t have any dogmas, we don’t have any churches, we don’t have any rules or laws. What we do have is a common set of humanist beliefs, things we strive for that we feel every human should try to attain. A few of these can be found in your bible, but that’s not where we get them. We get them through thought, reason and logic.
We try to treat others as fairly and equally as we want to be treated, to take care of each other, to exist peacefully with everyone, to accept everyone as they are…black, white, gay, straight…exactly as we wish them to accept us. These are secular humanist beliefs, and have absolutely nothing to do with deities or faith.
Please remember that your belief is based solely on your faith. You have faith in your god and your religion. And your faith ends external to yourself. It cannot be placed upon others, no matter how strongly you believe.
So the next time you meet an atheist (one that you know exists, not just the one sitting next to you at the doctor’s office, or standing behind you in line at the bank), tell them to have a nice day, and try to remember that they respect your right to believe in your god…just as you should respect their right to not believe.”
We are atheists. We bleed, we hurt, we care, we laugh and we cry. We do charity work, we give money to homeless shelters, we donate time to animal rescue organizations, we work at food banks and volunteer at the local hospital. We’re scientists, engineers, philosophers, doctors and school teachers; we’re truck drivers, welders, checkout clerks, mail carriers and auto mechanics; we’re mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents. And we’re white, middle aged American men.
The only difference is, we don’t believe in a god.