Monday, May 4, 2009

Closeted Atheists: WE NEED YOU

Go here for a moving story of an atheist finally coming out to her family.

No doubt some of my readers are in the same position that Everythingelseatheist was until the last forty-eight hours. It's scary, but look - she survived. It seemed like it wasn't even as bad as she anticipated. And she got an immediate outpouring of support. She, and you, are incredibly important to keeping rationalism's momentum going. You have the energy of the born-again, no pun intended, and you have links back to the old world - you know what's important to people and can speak their language. When you come out, there won't be time to worry about occasional harsh words from friends and family, because you'll have a mission, to help others make the same transition. You have the opportunity of a lifetime, and we need you.

To my fellow atheists from nonreligious/mildly religious families - our new sisters and brothers in rationalism deserve and need our support. When people come out we have to be there for them, and we have to remember how important they are!

Coming from an atheist household, I might not be the guy to talk to about how to handle coming-out encounters with religious family members. Still, it seems to me that it's worth pointing out to your (possibly distraught) relatives that none of us chooses our beliefs. You don't have free will about them. You don't wake up and decide that you believe capitalism is good (or bad), or that the noise your car is making is your transmission; you're automatically forced to those conclusions by evidence, and/or by processes that often (usually?) don't take place in your conscious brain. It's handed to you at the end of a long effort of number crunching - especially something as important as this. Because religious people are fond of revelation, this should at least temporarily placate them. If their belief came to them in a flash, it wasn't something they decided, either - and neither was your own "depiphany".


vjack said...

I am still undecided about the whole choice over belief thing, but I wholeheartedly agree that a critical part of what we need to to involves supporting others in the reality-based community.

Michael Caton said...

I agree that there are certainly cases where you need to undertake a conscious process of figuring out what evidence is telling you, particularly in cases involving thigns from outside traditional human experience. When I'm flying cross country, I hope that my pilot is staying conscious when s/he reads the dials on the plane - but ultimately it's the evidence that's "forcing" you to a conclusion. Skepticism also might cause you to throw out a belief and adopt a new one after proceeding through a conscious process of critiquing the belief. Finally, we sometimes adopt provisional beliefs because of risk-benefit analyses ("I don't *think* that snake laying across the trail is poisonous, and it looks dead, but I don't remember every snake native to Guatemala...let's go back and take the upper trail.") But for the most part, our beliefs "come to us" automatically and withot conscious deliberation, and ultimately we're forced to the beliefs we have because of the evidence they're based on.

Thanks for challenging me Vjack, I've never though much about this before. Maybe I'll post about this on my cog sci and evolution blog.

localtraveler said...

I wandered into this post from Unreasonable Faith where I just was thinking about this after reading responses to his “despair” post. From what I’ve been reading, it seems that many atheists say that they arrived at their conclusion as a result of logically, and it seems to me, consciously, weighing arguments and evidence. This has never fit for me, and this post/comment helps me understand why. (Thanks!)

Though my arrival at the point of atheism probably undoubtedly involved weighing lots of evidence (some scientific, but mostly subjective,) it always felt more subconscious than what I see others describe. So when I got to the point of declaration—to myself and eventually to others—my conclusion felt rather spontaneous and organic, like it took place without me even knowing it. I was walking with my dog when it hit me, out of nowhere and seemingly out of context: there is nothing after this. (It annoys the crap out of me when a Catholic friend says about instances like this, “That’s the voice of God,” or in this case I imagine she would say The Devil.) But no, this “depiphany” (I love that) was being slowly shaped, without much fanfare, for years. Perhaps it was without fanfare because I had no church or evangelicals to rage against. At any rate, I did not feel that I had made a decision per se, it was a conclusion arrived at and for me that feels more like a belief. Julian Barnes begins his recent book “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Though his reason centers on fear of death, there have been many times when I have shared that sentiment, feeling as I did shut out from so many shared cultural experiences (especially in my rural area.) But I cannot choose to believe, any more that I chose not to. And this is why it is so important, as you say, for atheists to come out of the closet.

Michael Caton said...

Local Traveler, thanks for visiting. I think you're making a good point that the basic needs that believers are trying to fill are tendencies that all humans have - fear of death, a desire for meaning, you name it. I very highly doubt there has ever been a single instance of a devoutly religious person saying, "Hmmm, you know this argument of Russell's is correct - poof, I'm an atheist!" With such an important decision as how to live your life, I hope that people give themselves a little time to mull over their conclusions, whether they're arrived at consciously or not.

RE depiphany, I do try to try in zingers here and there. :)