Atheism: An Identity, Not A Choice

About two weeks ago, Washington Post columnist Susan Jacoby published an article in which she asserts that atheists should take a page out of the gay movement’s “playbook.” The crux of her argument is that it is impossible to advocate for secular values, break through stereotypes and generally advance the world’s perception of atheism without truly owning one’s belief (or lack thereof, in this case). 

This comparison is certainly a natural one, and it has a great deal of merit. Atheism and homosexuality are similar types of minorities in one very important respect:  they are not immediately obvious upon first encountering a person. In both cases, one must “come out.”

As Jacoby points out, atheists are far behind gay groups in many respects. Secular clubs at high schools and colleges are only beginning to emerge and many people, in circles that do not tolerate discrimination against homosexuals, propagate (sometimes unwittingly) stereotypes about atheists.

To provide a personal example, in college I was out to dinner with some friends, and the discussion turned to religion. When it became clear that I was an atheist, someone turned to me and asked: “Wait, you’re an atheist? You seem so happy.  How are you not depressed all the time?” This inquiry might seem silly or innocuous to some, but in reality he was acknowledging a deeply held stereotype about atheists.

The question naturally arises: Why do people, otherwise open-minded and educated, freely acknowledge stereotypes about atheists?

A possible answer is that atheism is viewed not as a legitimate minority distinction, but rather as a choice. The original word for heretic comes from the Greek word for “choice,” indicating that those who do not believe in God have deviated from the natural path of religion by their own volition. 

This is the root of the problem: While homosexuality is for the most part accepted as inherently essential to one’s identity, something that one cannot change, atheism does not have this level of legitimacy yet, as other religions do. This is the most apparent difference between atheists and the gay movement, and atheists have to overcome this enormous hurdle to legitimacy before real progress can be made.

For argument’s sake, replace the questions above with a stereotype about another group, Judaism. If my dinner companion had asked me if, because I was Jewish, I was very good with money, the others present would have expressed shock at his willingness to accept such a stereotype. No such outcries occurred after his admission of his stereotype about atheists.

The first step is therefore to affirm atheism as an immutable aspect of one’s identity, in the same way as any religion, sexual orientation or racial identification. Without this important step, many will not recognize that questions such as “You’re an atheist? How are you a moral person?” are indeed discriminatory.

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