The Scarlet Letter

Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers have endorsed the "OUT" campaign that encourages atheists (or agnostics, if that's your semantic druthers) to publicly declare their lack of believe in gods and the supernatural. To help make the point, the campaign comes equipped with a red letter "A" that can be worn as a T-shirt logo or displayed on a blog. While there can be no doubt that society needs more people to declare their unfaith, is this new campaign a universally good idea?

I fear not.

It all depends on the context, or more specifically, the social environment. For Dawkins and Myers, academics who have built their reputations, in part, on criticizing religion, there are no negative consequences to branding themselves as atheists.

For those without tenure or some such secure financial and social bulwark against the bigotry so common among overzealous theists, announcing your apostastic or skeptical philosophy is not so easy. The most challenging context would be communities dominated by religious fundamentalists predisposed to dismiss the arguments, no matter how reasonable and compelling, of anyone who doesn't share their particular creed.

In many parts of the American Southeast, and in most of the Middle East, for example, atheists aren't likely to make much headway in the battle to establish, or reestablish the foundations of a secular government. Note the survey results in the U.S. that suggest an atheist candidate for public office is less likely to win public support than a member of just about any other category.

It is important to keep the big picture in mind. What is the goal of this "New Atheism?" Long-term, I suppose it would be the demise of religion as a serious political and social force in society. In the short-term, however, is it not more important to convince fundamentalists of the importance of the separation of church and state? After all, the American First Amendment, which brooks no government intervention in the affairs of churches, was passed to protect the churches from the people, even more than the reverse. This will not be accomplished by atheists alone. Indeed, it seems unlikely that atheists -- or at least those who to admit to atheism, will play much of a public role in the trenches of this battle.

(As suppliers of inspirational source material, Mssers Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Myers are invaluable, but I doubt they have changed many minds themselves.)

It may sound disingenuous, but keeping one's lack of faith off the radar, and let the power of the argument speak for itself, seems like a better strategy for many secular warriors. If you start off as an atheist, your words will be so much dust. But if you impress with a good case first and only, if necessary, address your atheism as a concluding footnote, maybe, just maybe, the audience will be that much less likely to scorn atheism in general.

For more on this, read Sheril's post at the Intersection on why she doesn't declare where she stands

There is also the unavoidable fact that, in many parts, a public declaration of atheism could actually undermine not only your rhetorical capacity, but your ability to find gainful employment, friends and even a decent environment in which to raise a child. Consider these comments to PZ's post announcing his embrace of the red "A."

I understand your hesitation and "cowardice." I live in south Louisiana and have a nearly four year old (in December, no less) who I would worry about if I was as out as I would like to be. Where I live, the religionists carry guns. If it was just me (and when it was just me) I would be/was more outspoken. I have a friend whose wife (with four kids in the car) was harrassed on the highway because of a damn Kerry/Edwards sticker.

Be careful what you say. I informed my family of my disbelief years ago, and although I wouldn't change that decision, it has caused me no end of grief and continues to do so. I'm an outcast, and becoming more so, as they drift further and further into the wacky right (now they're into all this Israel and armageddon crap). It's scary. Like invasion of the body snatchers, or something.

Exactly right! The most common reaction I get when a believer learns that I'm an Atheist / Secular Humanist is something like, "Surely you're not, you're such a nice person!"

I'm not particularly crazy about wearing a target here in the Bible Belt. Although I really like the Darwin fish car stick-ons I don't put one on my vehicle because i have too many clients that see any form of nontheism/evolution pushing as threatening. They will tolerate tthose who work for them even if they don't agree with their religion as long as they believe in a god but the godless are intolerable. The only thing they fear worse than atheists are wiccans. All anti-religious displays incite these self righteous, zealous bastards here in the Lone Star State. One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is never bait a drunk or a religious believer. They don't have the capacity to reason and you will only piss everyone else off around them. The bottom line for me is, will it affect my bottom line?

Coming out as atheist, just like the gay movement that inspired this one, isn't easy for everyone. It is important that those who can do so, and as publicly and proudly as possible. But for those not in a position to jeopardize their careers and/or families, patience is recommended.


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Beautifully written and I can only add that it is important for those in better situations to understand how bad it can be in certain areas. My situation is about half. I want Dawkins, et al, to continue fanning the flame, shouting from the rooftop and I will continue to look for opportunities to chip away. Anyway, I am surprised that in western North Carolina you have not been beaten or killed just because of your last name.

By trailrider (not verified) on 02 Aug 2007 #permalink

As an "in your face" athiest I hardily agree with Dawkins. I come from a fundamentalist family and though they don't agree with my view of the universe they have come to accept it and me. The fratricide has died down to a level of occasional good natured jabbing.

I understand that some don't enjoy confrontation but that doesn't mean that they should be encouraged to hide in the shadows. If everyone that lacked a belief in a diety wore an occasional red letter "T" shirt or cap or whatever, it would give support to other nonbelievers and show the theists that there are more of us than they expected.

I have lived in the "Bible Belt", including Texas, and have been exposed to threats and intimidation. I have found that if I stood up to these people they quickly backed down. I once worked for a company that actually had an openly Christian mission statement. I didn't conceal my atheism, but I didn't shout it either. I know that it did affect my status in the company, but hey they were a private company and they had the right to espouse their philosophy and if I didn't like it I could leave. Which I eventually did.

I still think that if more people "came out" it would enhance the status of nonbelievers in our society.

Look at the effect that openly gay people have had on the standing of homosexuals in our society. I'm sure it wasn't, and still isn't, easy to be openly gay but they have clearly made headway in the acceptance of society to their lifestyle.

It isn't going to be painless but why would you expect it to be? Either you remain quiet and accept second class citizenship or you stand up and demand that your rights, which are gauranteed by the US constitution by the way, are protected.

We're here! We're Godless! Get used to it!

I quite agree that there are times and places where being "out" may be more provocative and foolhardy than wise. If one compares this "out" campaign to the gay "out" campaign, one can usually hide one's sexual affinities in some circumstances and be open about it in other safer times and places.

A kind of silly thought about the "A" symbol:
There are varying degrees non-belief from strong atheism to unsure agnosticism. So, I think that the symbol should be in different colors according to the strength of nonbelief, with "Au"thentic Atheists having the A on a gold background and "Ag"nostics having the silver background.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 02 Aug 2007 #permalink

While there can be no doubt that society needs more people to declare their unfaith, is this new campaign a universally good idea?

OK, but is anything a universally good idea, you relativist you?

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 02 Aug 2007 #permalink

Dear aunt Sarah keeps two sets of dishes for use when "people are over". When "family" is about she isn't so observant. This is her adaptability in action. It squares with her upbringing in another place/time and it offers no affront to anyone.
In this time/place the Christian Dominionists challenge persons who aren't observant of their interpretations of the TANAKH with a curiously strict adherence to Saul of Tarsus. Saul never met R. Yeshua who, by his theme, was of the school of R. Hillel.
My dear Aunt figured that out long ago. We are delighted with Dawkins and Hitchens (etc) and agree that one should pick the place for a battle. Hitchens IS a "Saul" of the rational reformation and he uses the "press" with style and energy in a Darwin -Huxley arrangement with Dawkins.
Be polite, be authoritative, show no anger.

Well, of course. There is no compulsion here, only opportunity, and no one is saying anyone must wear the silly t-shirt. It's been rather strange to see all the indignation -- it's like some atheists feel compelled to say that not only will they not join anyone in being "out", but they detest the atheists who do join in.

Oh, and the tenure argument is bogus when applied to me. I was an activist atheist in the 1990s, long before I had tenure and even long before I had my current job. Nothing changed at all when I got tenure.

I could scarcely agree less. The notion of "outing" is well-chosen, as a glance at the mainstreaming of homosexuality demonstrates. Tolerance has been growing mainly because more and more people have learned that nice, ordinary people are gay and that they are not all the depraved monsters that they were imagined to be. There was nothing to be scared of, after all.

If non-theism is ever to have the same success, we need many many more incidents of "Surely you're not, you're such a nice person!" Atheists can easily be imagined to be evil precisely because too many people don't know (that they know) any atheists.

Isn't it a bit akin to a religious symbol, the equivalent of a cross or a star of david or a crescent moon? Implying to some eager minds that atheism/agnosticism is "just another religion"?

Yay!!! We get our very own scarlet letter!!!

While we're at it why not have weekly meetings where we can hold rituals to induct converts - say by spritzing them with nature's life source, "water" and then we can go out into the city square and preach the good word.

I'm all for being outspoken and even confrontational about my atheism but I refuse to form a cult-like identification system to brand us with. It's primitive, absurd and stinks of the same corrupting herd mentality that religion, politics and race already do enough to exploit.