I'm sure many of you know it, but just to set the stage for my discussion of this topic, last week was 'A' Week. Atheists have been encouraged to set their Facebook (and other social profile, I suppose) picture to the scarlet 'A' -- or, in a twist on the concept that I personally prefer, to take a picture of themselves smiling with a small sign saying that they are an atheist, and use that for their profile picture.
'A' Week is a strategy which I highly support.
'A' Week is an event in which I do not participate.
Coming out of the closet as an atheist (or agnostic, humanist, nontheist, antitheist, nonbeliever, freethinker, skeptic, or whatever) is easy for some people, and less so for others (yes, I know, I am to be lauded as Captain Obvious henceforth). 'A' Week has the potential make the process easier by providing support and a visible in-group for those participating -- without this, an out atheist may feel like more of an outsider, and may be subject to more discrimination by those who don't realize that atheists aren't uncommon, evil baby-eaters. A contingent of visibly out atheists increases the visibility of the movement, and connecting a person to the big scary label can decrease the negativity that the public associates with atheism.
All this combines to make atheism more accepted in society, which makes it easier for more atheists to come out, which feeds back into the cycle.
Hopefully, one day, it won't be a terrifying thing for anyone to come out as an atheist. Unfortunately, we're not there yet.
While, ideally, everyone would participate in 'A' Week, if everyone did, there would really be a lot less of a point to it. I'm not saying that it would lose all value, but if everyone who didn't believe in a deity felt comfortable admitting it, we'd be a hell of a lot closer to 'winning' this battle.
As it stands, not everyone can come out as publicly as we'd like. I'm one of those people. I'm an outspoken atheist when it comes to friends or strangers, but my family takes serious issue with my lack of belief. My mother has made it quite clear that under no circumstances am I to let my extended family find out about my lack of faith. I interpret this as concern for how she feels it will reflect on her and my father's parenting skills, and because my parents have a closer relationship with my extended family than I do, I have decided to respect my mother's request. To be entirely fair, I'm also a bit terrified of what she would do if I didn't, and of my paternal family's likely reaction to the revelation that, hey, I don't subscribe to their Catholic belief system anymore.
All in all, though, I would be willing to out myself to my extended family and damn the consequences to myself, but I am not willing to drag my parents (or my brother and sister) down with me against their will. It would just be impolite, and at this point in my life, I am trying more to salvage my relationship with my immediate family than to stress it further. I suppose it is a question of principles and priorities.
Regardless of my reasoning for not participating in 'A' Week, though, I feel guilty for shirking what I see as almost my duty as a confident atheist. I think that the message is important. I know how hard it is to be alone and struggling with disbelief, how terrifying it feels to know that literally everyone you know would disapprove of your disbelief, the fear of being disowned by your family and shunned by the community. I know that freedom from religion is not something we can take for granted. And I want to help; I want to be raising awareness, telling people that, hey, I'm really not a bad person just because I don't believe in gods, that I am perfectly capable -- perhaps moreso -- of living a moral life.
These are messages that we need to be sending. We need to be seen and heard and accepted. We're a part of this world, too, and because it's the only world we believe in, it's probably even more important to us than to religious believers.
But some of us, for one reason or another, cannot shout these words to the world in the same way. I know that I can't, and that fact really does hurt me. But 'A' Week is not the only way. There are other things we can do.
National Ask an Atheist Day is coming up. I'm participating in that -- in fact, I'm organizing the booth on my campus.
There are local groups all over the place; I'm running for office in the student/community group I belong to, Free@VT.
The internet is full of atheist blogs, and blogs on every faith. I comment, and I post my own opinions here.
We can write to our political representatives, to protect our right to be free from religion. We can attend protests and rallies and conventions. We can sign petitions and donate funds. We can talk to people we know, or to strangers on the bus or online. We can be visible in some places, even if we need to stay invisible in others.
I believe that it is our duty to come out as atheists... But I also believe that is our duty as people to protect ourselves and those we love. In some cases, that duty precludes the first. In some places, it's not safe to be an atheist, or even to be associated with one. In some situations, atheists and those they know can face severe social sanctions. It is up to us as rational, moral individuals to assess our situations, and to decide whether a drop in the bucket is worth the risk to ourselves and those we know.
We need all the drops we can get, but sometimes, it's better to wait, and in the meantime, there are other ways to contribute.
Even if you can't, or just won't come out as an atheist and participate in things like 'A' Week, don't abandon the movement. Don't think that you can't help. Even if all you do is comment anonymously online, your voice is of value. You're one more person who doesn't think of us as the other, as the enemy, as amoral or evil or wrong.
Knowing that you're there gives us strength. Hopefully, we can give you some support, too.