atheism & identity

In the Friendly Atheist’s latest post, Atheism Inherently Offends, he disagrees with Herb Silverman’s observation:

Saying you don’t believe in God is no more anti-Christian or anti-religious than saying you are black is anti-white, saying you are female is anti-male, or saying you are gay is anti-straight. In the words of that great philosopher, Popeye the Sailor Man: “I yam what I yam.”

Friendly Atheist’s response:

There is a fundamental difference between saying you are an atheist and saying you are black, white, female, male, gay, or straight. Those are all personal statements and don’t reflect on others.  Identity is pluralistic – there are as many identities as there are people, and none of them are “incorrect”.

Declaring myself an atheist states what I think is true in the world.  Unlike the other examples, the assertion is not simply a personal statement about identity.  It is a truth-claim about the objective facts of reality – and I am saying I think religious individuals are wrong about those facts.  That is anti-religious.

There is one reality and some of us are correct while others are incorrect.  It’s no longer merely a statement about myself – in essence I’m saying, “I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.”

I appreciate Friendly Atheist’s approach, but I see it a bit differently. First of all, while I may wish that everyone shared my skepticism, their beliefs are really none of my business, as long as they grant my atheism the same courtesy. When I tell someone I am an atheist, I tend to follow right up (perhaps a little defensively) by saying I respect the beliefs of others, as long as they’re not involved in trying to deny the rights of others or in any way force their way of thinking on people who disagree with them.

I agree that identifying as an atheist is different from identifying by race, gender, or orientation — atheism is a choice, the others aren’t. But atheism is still an important facet of one’s identity, in fact it is one of the primary identification questions asked on, for instance, medical forms. Views on the afterlife are taken into consideration in any situation in which a person might die, so that the appropriate provisions can be made. When I identify as an atheist, I must be prepared for an unpleasant reaction, much as someone who identifies themselves as gay or a member of a racial minority. In fact, since atheism is a conscious decision to reject a commonly accepted belief system, it might even be considered more objectionable; whereas I might be a member of a racial minority yet find grudging acceptance from a racist by being “one of the good ones”, what are my chances of being considered a “good atheist” by someone who thinks atheists have no reason to be moral? Here are a couple of examples of the fear and hatred directed at people who identify as atheists:

So yes, being an atheist is not like being white or black or gay or straight. But I think the spirit Herb Silverman’s initial observation is correct: being an atheist is a part of who we are, and subject to the same need for acceptance, and the same dangers of rejection, as any other facet of our identity.

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