Cowardly LionDid you ever get a compliment that humbled you because you knew you didn’t deserve it?

I just did, in an email from someone who read my commentary in the Times Union on Greece v. Galloway. He said I was brave.

It was sweet of him to say, but I disagree.

It takes no courage to write about being an atheist and raising my kids as atheists. No courage for me: I’m self-employed; I live in the Northeast; I have a supportive husband, more-or-less like-minded friends and family, and no intention of running for public office.

Type, type, type, alone at my desk. Easy peasy.

You know what’s hard? Telling people in person. Childhood friends who don’t know the grownup me. Distant relatives I see once every few years. Jewish elders I admire. A mom I just met with an infectious laugh and a cross around her neck. My good friend’s devoutly Christian girlfriend.

In person, I am rarely as brave as I want to be–as I should be. I hedge and I dodge, even seemingly innocuous questions: “What are you working on?” or “Is Noah getting ready for his bar mitzvah?” or “Have your boys thought about joining the Boy Scouts?” Duck. Duck. Chicken.

Still live in the Northeast, still can’t be fired, still not planning a political campaign. What makes being honest in person harder than being honest in the paper? What am I afraid of? Here it is in all its pettiness: I’m afraid that they won’t like me or think I don’t like them. I’m afraid they will judge me or think I’m judging them. I’m afraid–horrors–of having an awkward conversation.

So I stay quiet. Not always, but more often than I am happy to admit. More often than a brave person would. And so what? Does my silence really matter? Do people really need to know that I don’t believe in God? Isn’t it conceited to think that my religious beliefs are of interest to anyone beyond my family? How important do I think I am?

Not very, I promise you. But my insignificance is precisely why I should speak up—I,  the nice, chatty mom who brought the killer cupcakes. If “atheist” is ever going to stop being a scary word, atheists have to be willing to say in casual conversation that . . . we’re atheists. All of us do. Not just the intellectual gadflies among us, the full-time activists, the celebrity comedians.

Fear of being disliked is no excuse.

Fear of being fired, ostracized, physically attacked, or financially ruined . . . those are excuses. Are you an atheist running for school board on the buckle of the Bible Belt? Then feel free to keep it quiet, and God bless (wink, wink). Just do your best to keep your sanity and those of us with less to lose will try to ease your way.

Did you ever get a compliment that inspired you to deserve it?


  1. The more we “come out,” the easier it is. I’ve been surprised at how often, when I carefully admit my own atheism, my friend or relative will reply, “Me too.”

  2. I’ve avoided lots of in-person opportunities myself to come out and just say I’m an atheist. The fear of having an awkward conversation is there for me but I think there’s more to it than that.

    One reason is that I have a very strong certainty that THEY won’t appreciate my forcing THEM into that awkward conversation. There’s never a good moment for it.

    Another hesitation comes from wondering whether it’s better to let people get to know me first and THEN tell them I’m an atheist. If they just met me and they have a problem with the idea of atheists, they will probably never talk to me again. But maybe if they already know me by the time I tell them, then they’ll have to really think about it.

    I also have a lot of people telling me I shouldn’t. I’ve mentioned I wanted to come out more often to some people who are close to me and been told things like “There is no need, nobody cares whether you’re an atheist” or that it’s inappropriate to mention it in stations like at work to coworkers. I’m very shy and so when even people who are fellow atheists are telling me not to, I have a very hard time being brave and initiating that conversation in spite of that pressure.

    And I am repeatedly surprised how much I can sweep aside by simply saying “Oh, I’m not very religious.”

  3. The problem with telling people you are an atheist is that there is a powerful public taboo against suggesting that religious belief is false. People tend to confuse a lack of faith in God with immorality lack of spiritually, dangerous, an anarchist. My position is very different from the usual one of nonbelievers. I see no reason to assert a belief or a lack of belief in God. That’s not the point. Who cares if there is a God? And, really, how can anyone know for sure there isn’t? The point is that to live in the fantasy that, If God exists, He (or She) is running everything and our prayers are our salvation (paradoxically from the very miseries that God in his infinite wisdom and extreme power has inflicted on us, so why should he take them away anyway?) is to shirk our personal responsibility to struggle to correct the injustices in our world, overcome our own weaknesses and our own misfortunes UNDER OUR OWN SOLE POWER. And, even more important, to realize that salvation cannot be bestowed on us by the simple act of faith in a savior. Rather, it is the acceptance of our guilt and the internal remorse it produces that will help us to grow into better people. When you get “out of Jail free” courtesy of Jesus, why bother trying to better? We are told we are all imperfect. True, but to strive to be perfect is what makes us our best selves. I regard religion at best as an early aid to developing a sense of ethics and a way of helping us to understand our place in the world and in history. But continued into adulthood, it is like riding a bike with training wheels forever. To say you are an atheist really means that you believe you are responsible, fully, for your own destiny and that of the world. And that is another aspect of professing atheism that takes even more courage than facing the social stigma that may be directed at you. It takes courage to face life with complete responsibility and no heavenly incentive. Doing right for right’s sake is harder than doing it to please some big traffic cop in the sky.

  4. I know this piece is about atheism, but it’s also about writing. It is easier to write things than to say them to others because, well, people react. Writers have themselves to please, which is not always easy, but it is easier than pleasing others. One of the pleasures of being a writer is provoking others—willingly or unintentionally—and not being there to see them harumph and sputter. The silence, in this case, is a gift if you don’t like conflict. I loved your last line. I’m looking forward to hearing how you live up to the compliment!

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