Friday, February 26, 2010

18" of Snow Later . . .

atheism, atheist, christianity, evangelical, fundamentalism,
It's still snowing and here I am at work. Just me and Meanboss. Good times.

I thought I'd discuss the phenomenon of "passing"* as it relates to being an atheist/agnostic in the US today. A woman wrote to the Freakonomics blog with the following observation:

We are agnostics living deep in the heart of Texas and our family fakes
Christianity for social reasons. It’s not so much for the sake of my husband or
myself but for our young children. We found by experience that if we were
truthful about not being regular church attenders, the play dates suddenly
ended. Thus started the faking of the religious funk.

It seemed silly but it’s all very serious business down here. We don’t
go to church or teach or children one belief is “right” over another. We expose
them to every kind of belief and trust that they will one day settle in to their
very own spirituality. However, for the sake of friends and neighbors, we
pretend we are Christians. We try not to lie but rather not to disclose
unnecessary information. As the children are getting older, this isn’t so easy
for them and an outing is probably eminent.

I wouldn't call this "pretending to be Christians", I would call this "passing as Christians", which is something that, in my experience, the majority of atheists/agnostics do. I do it. I don't tell people I'm Christian, I don't claim to go to church, I just don't discuss beliefs I don't hold. I just don't say how I really feel. I allow religious conversations to flow over me. If forced to make some sort of observation, I go with "interpretable any way you want" vague.

Is passing necessary? Absolutely. The writer above isn't the only atheist I know who had playdates for the children cancelled after they were outed. I'm not the only atheist I know who has been fired after being outed.

The comments to this article are quite telling:

I am so tired of the anti-Christian bigotry in the mainstream media,
especially the liberal media like the NYT.
How do I know it’s bigotry?
Because I know for a fact that the NYT would NEVER do a story entitled “We
Pretend We Are Jews/Muslims/InsertAnotherReligionHere”.
btw, I faked reading
“Freakanomics” for a polsci class one year. Passed with flying colours.

Hey, Jackass, you know why nobody in the US passes as Jewish or Muslim? Because 75% of Americans are Christian. If this article were about Israel or Pakistan, then yes, we would discuss passing as a Jew or a Muslim. I know for a fact that a certain number of Iranians are passing, but that's not the discussion here.

I completely understand where G.D. is coming from. I too am deep in the
heart of Texas, where the mere mention of atheism causes folks to break out in
hives. Evangelical Christianity is pervasive in every aspect of life here,
including the workplace. Where else would you get a talk about finding the Lord
Jesus Christ in an employee review? (I’m not kidding, I was told this right
before I was asked to resign)

Been there.

If you don’t “…teach [your] children one belief is ‘right’ over another,” how
far does that go? Is stealing OK? Lying, cheating, murdering? How about just not
being altruistic? If your kids decide that some of those things are “right” for
them, will you teach them otherwise? Relativism doesn’t work, folks. You’re
setting your kids up for disaster, and robbing them of years of their lives that
could be spent getting to know the God of the universe and understanding His
love and power.

And that's why we pass.

I had to fake it for 12 years of private Catholic school. We had mass every week
at school and my parents made me go every Sunday. At mass, I had to go get
communion, even though I didn’t believe the bread was actually God. In
Catholicism, receiving communion without believing it is God is very seriously
frowned upon, but no one knew I didn’t believe and going up and eating bread at
every mass was easier than the torment that would await me had I chosen to stay
seated during the ceremony. One time a girl in my class didn’t want to go
because she wasn’t sure she believed and wanted to be safe and not make God
angry. She was ridiculed for 2 years for it (devil worshiper, witch, etc.) and
had to switch schools. I kept my mouth shut and head down until I moved away for

Been there, too. I faked Catholicism for years, including taking the eucharist every Sunday, even though it was blasphemous to do so. What I love about this one is the "devil worshiper" was being honest and respectful of the Catholic faith- and was crucified for it.

So I was raised totally muslim, yet now probably count as an agnostic. Although
truthfully I just don’t think about religion at all. But being in the army for
the last 6 years. I would lie lie lie about it to avoid all kinds of problems
and lectures. These included, with held promotion, deferment of favors and
awards even when documented, and a general feeling of being watched at all

I don't blame him. I do find it shameful that a man willing to die for our country has to lie in order to avoid discrimination.

I faked being a Buddhist for years because of the social stigma that’s
associated with being an Atheist. I had a few run ins with die hards, but it
seems that having a religion is enough to stave off of the majority of rabid
theists. I’d been hiding under my cover for so long that when I finally dropped
it and joined a local Atheist group that friends of mine corrected me and
explained that I was a Buddhist.

That's not uncommon, either. While evangelicals view Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists as being devil worshippers, they do seem to prefer devil worship to no worship at all.

I don't know what I'd do without the internet, without this blog. Here, I am allowed to be honest, while in real life, I hide. Some days I just want to have I DON'T BELIEVE IN GOD tattooed on my forehead, I'm so sick of it. Then I remember that I need to do things like eat and pay for heat and go online to be real.


  1. This is my favorite so far. So moderate and brief.

    "See? Lecture (#14) Not all of us need an invisble finger, wagging at us and threatening damnation. If you need to be threatened into being a moral person, that’s your deal.

    — novemberrose"

  2. I pass every day. I live around a bunch of YECs. There are at least 2 Creationist museums within easy driving distance (3 to 4 hours). My sister told me, when discussing evolution, that she knew Jesus was real (religion was never brought up before that). My company has an optional Christmas part, where I have won a 32" LCD TV and a digital camera the two times I went, that opens with a prayer and the giving away of a family Bible. Of course I pass what else am I supposed to do?

  3. In some ways, letting people think that you're Christian is like, for me, when I let people (strangers mostly) think I'm heterosexual. Sometimes.... it's just easier and safer.

    It's a social survival mechanism that many people who belong to a minority group adapt. It's bizarre that that one NYT commenter claimed that passing was "anti-Christian bigotry." But, I'm not particularly surprised. Part of being in the majority group means the privilege of being able to make everything about them them them.

  4. I have so many friends who happen to be atheist, agnostic, or non-theist Buddhists, so I sometimes find myself in a safe little bubble where we all talk about things in a totally open manner.

    It can be a bit of a shock when I'm at, say, a family function or a Shabbat lunch at a friend's. And I rankle when my husband tells people, "Well, I'm Jewish, my wife's Catholic," even though we are both atheists... But it's an easier way to answer the question of, "Are you Jewish/Christian/etc.?" than, "Well, I was raised Jewish and my wife was raised Catholic, and I consider myself culturally Jewish, but we're both really atheists."

  5. I used to do this when I was a little kid to other kids (for some reason it was a taboo to say 'I don't believe in God', sort of like if you dismissed that Santa and the Tooth Fairy might be next!).

    However, it is good in Australia. I've never had any religious related discrimination in the workplace.

  6. I will admit to letting it "pass" when someone tacitly takes me for being Christian, because in a way I am. I have faith in the basic goodness of humankind, and I have the humility to acknowledge my ignorance of divinity. I believe, based on little-to-no solid evidence, that kindness is the path to peace. It is only the personlification of kindness and love as a jealous and wrathful diety that I object to. Does that make me an Athiest, or an Agnostic? Or does that make me a better Christian?

    The proud Christian has forgotten that pride, by his own theology is a sin. It is the corruption of joy, and a threat to the idea of love. It is what allows Evangelicals to disregard the spirituality of others, and I fear eventually to exterminate it. But that is precicely why I do not care to tout my own version of humanism to them. Spirituality is deeply personal. I wouldn't want to be so disrespectful myself.

    But by keeping my non-theistic values in the closet, am I setting myself up to be persecuted in more sinister ways? Does Christianity grow stronger and more prideful because of our complacency? And are we, the non-theists, really the minority we think we are? Or are we fooling each other as we fool the Christians?

  7. I sometimes feel a little guilty/fakey in talking about my church attendance at the very evangelically oriented company I work for. On the one hand, yes, the church is real (Unitarian Universalist); I absolutely, positively support just about everything my congregation and the umbrella UUA stand for, and realize that the Bible-thumpers I work with are decent and generous, despite the underlying delusion.

    On the other hand, no, I don't go out of my way to tell people I'm UU. One or two at my old location probably knew it, but very few have asked. And if they don't ask, I don't tell (LOL). I half wish someone would ask, because there's this little UU evangelist buried deep within me that is restless to get out. It wants to tell people that so many people avoid Christian churches because 1-they come from a mixed marriage; 2-they are in a mixed marriage; 3-they had no religious instruction in their childhood and are unfamiliar with it; 4-they DID have religious instruction in their childhood and it was not a constructive experience; 5-they are "spiritual but not religious;" 6-they are not spiritual at all but very tuned in to the here and now and want to make THIS world a better place NOW. And if someone were to ask me which of these categories I fall into, I could say "just about all of the above."

    Here's what amuses me: Take your average mainstream Christian congregation, one that's just fundie enough that members walk around inserting "Jesus" into conversation on a regular basis and have witty Christian bumper stickers. This is a medium to large congregation, not Westboro Baptist. Then find a way to slip all the members some truth serum. Then ask them to articulate their beliefs. I can confidently estimate that at least 20 percent would either declare that they are atheist, or agnostic, or believers in reincarnation, karma, or natural spirits, or something else that goes against biblical orthodoxy. Then they'll tell you they continue at their church because they don't want to lose the love of their families and the respect of their community. From the example of my own mother (The Angry Catholic), I know a lot of people are out there, going through the motions, expending a lot more time building socially acceptable facades than taking the time to explore what's out there that might line up more with their own instincts. That's why religion is so destructive. It forces people to go against their own nature and their own selves. How can disaster NOT ensue?

  8. Apparently, I'm a mutant: my parents instilled in me a healthy respect for my beliefs and the beliefs of others, and I grew up in a place where religious affiliation is generally unimportant.

    That is to say, here in MA, no one cares whether you're a Christian or an atheist or whatever. Religious belief is generally a private thing.

    I have a really difficult time imagining that there are places in my country where religious belief must be displayed in a prominent place, like the dump sticker on my car...

  9. Here in Austria, too, religious affiliation is pretty much a non-issue, as it was back in the Bay Area in California when I was growing up. It is amazing to me too that there's anyplace in Western Civilization where religion is an issue, but I guess not all parts of America have fully accepted Enlightenment principles yet...

  10. Adding my voice to the choir of the priviledged, down here religon is mostly private. But I've got YEC friends who have no idea I'm an atheist, so I guess I "pass" to them.

    Mind you, rather than going to schoolies on the gold coast after leaving Year 12 (does America has a schoolies equivilent?) I went to a 3-day christian camp. So, rather than booze and sex, I got prayer night and mono-gender dorms. Yay me!

    Don't get me wrong, the activities and socialising were fun, but I had to physically shut down each facial feature one-by-one everytime religon came up to prevent my inborn sarcasm from getting me burned at the stake...

  11. You really have to be careful when you buck a "social norm", and I don't mean the one on "Cheers".

    From my youngest days I had issue with all the sloganistic but unsupported clap trap that I had been exposed to. This, to my parents vexation, included publicly stating that I did not believe in any deity, along with other things. Life was less than comfortable on many levels.
    My father used to literally spit the word "renegade" when he mentioned my name. I was of course, not one since I had never bought into the whole thing.

    But a teacher told my father that if he had his way, kids like me would be taken out and destroyed as soon as identified. The fact that we would not accept the fictions necessary for a society to function on the terms that it had determined were relevant made us very dangerous, and that there was no place for us.

    He said that even juvenile delinquents (a favored label back then) had a part in society, and did in fact accept most of these things.


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