Updated: Aug 20
A couple of nights ago, a really nice in-the-closet atheist sent me an email talking about why he remains in the closet. He’d read my post about Neil Tyson, and talked at length about his thoughts on what I said. He asked me many questions, but one, in particular, stood out because I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it here:
What’s the harm in pretending to be a believer? Why does anyone have to know I don’t share their beliefs?
After my complete shock that there is at least one person out there who sees zero issues with not outwardly being true to yourself, I thought,
Well, now, wait a minute you godless ass… remember nuance?
Of course, there are situations in which it is probably best to keep your apostasy to yourself. They include:
Situations in which you face violence for not being a member of the accepted religion of your community.
When you face potential death as a result of your atheism.
When your family could be physically threatened because you don’t believe in god.
When you could lose your home, job, family or freedom because you’re godless.
When you could face criminal charges for your atheism.
If you are not financially independent and the person or people you rely on for a roof over your head and food on the table could kick you out if they found out you are an atheist.
Despite the danger, some brave people in these situations still come out and are honest with the world around them about their apostasy. I appreciate these people and I admire their courage, but I would never encourage anyone facing these risks to come out.
If you don’t face any of these possible consequences, though, there are plenty of reasons why faking belief is a bad thing:
1. Faking belief suggests that you think the religious faith of others is more important than the truth; that’s it’s more important than your freedom to be yourself. Other people’s feelings about god hold more value than your own. As an atheist, you know this is the only life we get. Why waste it being something you’re not for people who can’t accept you for you?
2. In 13 countries people can be put to death legally for being an atheist. Not only are you pissing on your own rights to be godless by hiding it, but you’re perpetuating the idea that atheism should be kept in the shadows; that it’s something to fear. You’re contributing to the culture that has enabled some countries to set death as a punishment for apostasy.
3. In over 40 countries, atheists can be jailed for nonbelief. In these countries, atheists really have very little choice but to keep their godlessness to themselves. These people would die to be in your shoes, living in a free country where you are granted the right, in our constitutions and our charters, to be free of gods. How do you explain to people who face criminal charges for atheism that you’re free to be an out and open atheist with no legal repercussions, but you choose not to because someone’s feelings about Jeeby might get hurt?
4. The more of us out and open atheists there are, the less shock value “atheist” will hold with religious people. As the word comes up more and more in conversation, and more and more people identify openly with it, fewer people are going to care. It’s called normalization and it’s worked for other things before atheism. Most recently, it worked for the LGBT community. At one point in time, it was a shock to find out someone you knew was gay. The more people came out and admitted they were, though, the less of a shock it was. Now, we all know at least a handful of people who are openly gay and it’s no big deal in most places. There is still much work to be done, but this is where we want atheism to be. With both the LGBT community and atheism, we want it to be so common, so mundane, that no one thinks twice about it. No one dies for it; no one gets locked up for it; no one loses family over it. Your voice can add to the momentum currently taking us there, or your silence can detract. You choose.
5. Over half a dozen outspoken atheists have been murdered in the past couple of years – these people have been in the risky situations listed above, faced them head-on and said, “Fuck it. I may die for it, but I can’t not be who I am.” These activists are heroes who knew the risks they faced and did what you are afraid to do despite the fact you face much less risk for doing it.
6. Discrimination against atheists still happens in the west, whether you want to believe it or not. Here’s a woefully incomplete list of instances of discrimination against atheists I threw together a while back. It’s much easier to discriminate against small minorities than it is against a growing population – the more of us these forces of discrimination realize there are, the fewer instances of discrimination there will be. You are a number in our favour but not if you’re in the closet.
7. There are young people struggling with doubt in the religion they were brought up to believe. There are young people who are facing depression and isolation and loneliness thinking they must keep their doubts to themselves. There are young people who struggle with their doubts because they think doubting god will make them immoral or angry or a terrible person. You have the opportunity to be a role model for someone who desperately needs to see that being an atheist is something to be proud of; that atheists can be very happy people; that atheists can be just as charitable and kind. You could change someone’s life just by saying, “Yep. I’m an atheist and I’m happy and life is still awesome.”
8. You are denying yourself the exhilaration felt by many an ex-theist when they decided it was time to out themselves as the godless heathen they were. Nothing really quite compares to the freedom to openly be one’s self.
9. You’re potentially denying the world one more example of a happy and secure atheist with a good moral framework, compassion, purpose and meaning. You could be one more chip out of the negative connotations associated with atheism, doing your part to better our image and destroy the stereotypes.
10. It makes you a liar, plain and simple.
So, I guess my question is, if you’re not facing any serious or life-threatening risks, why would you fake belief? What do you gain from it that outweighs what you and the rest of the world would benefit from you being honest? What possible justification is there? I mean, I can only really think of one: sparing the fragile feelings of those with a god belief.
The thing is, there’s no way I could ever consider purposefully slowing the pace of progress for a few hurt feelings. How can you?
Can you think of reasons for or against faking belief that maybe I have not thought of? Let me know in the comments!