Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Out (as atheist) at work?

The news just keeps coming in about the rise of atheism, even in the good ol' U.S.A.! The latest research shows that the people who actively self-identify as atheist or agnostic now outnumber Mormons (1.6% of the population vs. 1.4% of the population). And if you count people who are technically atheist (don't actively believe in the existence of God, but don't call themselves atheists), we're 12% of the population!

So why is it that the Mormons can count senators, governors, even serious presidential contenders among their ranks? While non-believers get so little respect that people are astonished when the president takes one second to acknowledge their existence?

My guess is that a lot of it has to do with lack of organization and lack of geographical grouping. (Also, perhaps, the lack of the special right to tax-free political organizing that the religions enjoy.) But, since we all know that atheist is the new gay (see here), let's take a page from the gay and say it's visibility.

Sure you can put the Dawkins "A" on your blog and/or join Mojoey's atheist blogroll, but who are the people most likely to read your atheist blog? That's right -- your fellow atheists. It seems like it would be good to be "out" in real life. But this is where we're at a big disadvantage: there's practically no reason for it to come up in conversation!

Compare to the gay example. Even if you don't put a picture of your spouse on your desk -- even if miraculously nobody ever asks you about your home life or what you did over the weekend -- eventually your family is going to get invited to the company picnic. And that will clue in your colleagues. (Wait a minute... your S.O. is a woman, just like you.... What...? Oh, I get it...)

Religion is the same way -- it comes up naturally. "Why do I do a partial fast once a week? Because I'm a Hindu." "Why don't I ever drink coffee? Because I'm a Mormon." "Why won't I shake your hand? Because I'm an Orthodox Jew and you're a woman." (And, yes, I have heard that last one from a colleague at work...)

But atheism? It's just not the same! If religion doesn't happen to come up, then it seems inappropriate to bring it up. The best I've done so far is to wish my colleagues a "Happy Darwin Day" on Darwin's recent 200th birthday. The one replied "Oh, I believe in 'Intelligent Design' -- Hahahahaha!!" and the other one is always cracking irreverent jokes about his Baptist upbringing.

Nevermind, they're probably already atheists anyway...


helensotiriadis said...

i find it comes up all the time -- and more often than not, i volunteer the information when discussing current events. even the rocks in my area know i'm an atheist.

i don't see how, with all the insanity in the world, it can not be an issue.

the thing is, it's not just the atheism -- critical, reason-based skepticism is rare and should be defended in everyday conversation.

just yesterday an acquaintance was telling me that the venus i photographed the other day was not venus -- it's really a planet that's hidden on the other side of the sun (so how did i photograph it? oh... never mind..)

anyway, he got an earful.

Unknown said...

While listening to my local NPR station yesterday. Talk of the Nation did a piece on representation of minorities on prime-time television. Like Will and Grace and the late "L-word" (gays). I'd never heard of that one (I don't have cable or care for television all that much).
Essentially it was about how representation of minorities (even marginal) slowly gets those minorities more accepted in society.

Sorry but I'm rushing. I stumbled onto your post RIGHT when I have to get ready for work! LOL

Have a good day!


Christopher Bigelow said...

Did you see this yet:

Varina said...

Hmm, my immediate thought is that being gay doesn't really casually come up in conversation (at least for me). This may be partially that I forget that if I don't point out to people that I am gay they will assume they know everything about my sexuality and then be surprised and disbelieving if I do come out, so I rarely make a big point of it. I just forget that people assume they already know. It is surprising how long it takes the penny to drop for a stupid amount of people. In an almost too perfect example of the pervasiveness of heteronormativity, I have had conversations with people about there being no good gay clubs for girls in Geneva, and then having those same people be surprised when one time I say "ex-girlfriend" instead of my usual "ex".
By contrast I find my (lack of) religion comes up all the time. I mean really anytime someone starts talking about their religion is an opening. I have also had people (other Americans, always) ask is I go to a church locally quite directly, but then for reasons I don't fully understand au pairing tends to attract religious conservatives so I hang out with lots of religious folk. Also no one assumes they know what religion you are until they ask, that would be absurd.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey TooManyTribbles!!!

Weirdly, I've found that atheism doesn't necessarily come up naturally even when talking about politics. I've had a colleagues mention how shocking it is that a young-Earth-creationist could be a serious contender for the vice-presidencey, and I've discussed religious right politics with my husband's colleagues at parties, but you don't have to be an atheist to be opposed to theocracy. Of course, I should probably just stop being such a wimp and just toss in an "Well, I'm an atheist myself, and I think..."

The funny thing is that if anyone asks me directly, I'm very happy to tell them, and will probably talk their ears off about it. But some part of my brain is convinced that it's rude to bring up religion, in case the other person doesn't want to talk about it. Maybe I was traumatized by the "every member a missionary" ethic of my Mormon upbringing...

Hey Larro!!!

Probably true. And, from what I hear, atheists are getting a lot more attention in the media these days...

Hey Christopher!!!

Yeah, I saw that. Actually, it's very much in line with what I was saying in the religious right vs. young people.

Hey Sabayon!!!

Hmm, that's interesting. The thing is that in my circles almost nobody is religious. IRL I hang with Math professors and European (or world-traveller) I.T. professionals, so nobody assumes anyone is religious. Nobody asks where you go to church because the default assumption is that you don't, unless you specifically indicate otherwise. Which, I guess, is a sign that it's ridiculous for me to be worrying about this...

Donk said...

The problem in the US is that if someone hears you are an atheist, you are automatically treated as a leper. It's like the assume you are a depraved lunatic if you don't have heaven/hell hanging over your head. I miss the Czech Republic where the majority of people don't believe in god and it's just the opposite (if you are under 50 at least, church is just for old people).

gburnett said...

You are right that we normally find out about someone's religion because of the restrictions placed on them by that religion - and atheism has no silly diet or clothing restrictions, so it's not likely to come up.

I find it very interesting that almost all religions require some sort of sacrifice or ritual from their followers - it's an excellent way to remind them of what religion they are, so they don't get sloppy with the church-goin' and the tithin'. :-)

I imagine every time you have to give up something really good (mmmm, bacon) that it's a reminder of your special friend(s) in the sky who are smarter than you so you have to do as they say! A very smart adaptation by religions to keep their followers in the faith.

John Evo said...

It doesn't come up for you because you are around a lot of free-thinkers. For most people it comes up all the time. Everyone has always known that I'm an atheist.

The problem is that most atheists disguise their atheism. Even some of the most vocal bloggers are, in REAL life, quite silent about the fact that they carry no superstitions - some even lie about it and simply parrot the name of whatever religion they were raised in.

Gays started gaining popular support and respect when, in the 70's, they started coming out. Many people genuinely believe they don't even KNOW an atheist. That's pure bullshit with 15% of the population telling surveys that they either are atheist, agnostic or simply "don't know" (and don't attend any church, mosque or synagogue).

The more people come out, the more others will too and the more others will be forced to think about what they believe and why.

Superstition isn't cool - pass the word. Hey, no one wants to be the uncool one!

Lorry said...

"The problem in the US is that if someone hears you are an atheist, you are automatically treated as a leper."

The United States is a really big place. This is not true everywhere! I was happily "out" as an atheist for years in the States. But yes, it IS true in some places and I've lived there too, less happily.

In Denmark, religion never comes up. My husband doesn't even know if his own twin sister believes in God. No one talks about it. Ever. So I can identify with this post. A number of people only know I'm an atheist because they see me on Facebook becoming a "fan" of Pat Condell or the Richard Dawkins Foundation. (Yes, it's on my profile too, but how many people actually read their friends' complete profiles instead of lazily waiting for interesting things to crop up in the newsfeeds?)

Anonymous said...

Even though I live in the same town that is home to James Dobson's Focus on the Family organization, I have never been asked what my religion is at any place I've worked. I actually find that strange, now that you've got me thinking about it, Chanson.

John Evo said...

Paul said: I have never been asked what my religion is at any place I've worked.

I would agree that would be a little less ordinary. I don't go around asking people what their religion is.

However, do you mean that in the course of getting to know co-workers some of them don't VOLUNTEER their love of Jesus? This is "religion coming up". This is the point where you say something like, "I'm an atheist. Why on earth do you love an imaginary man"?

The Sinister Porpoise said...

yes, but can you imagine the many people who experience no sexual attraction at all over the years who have been mistakenly identified as gay?

And no need to put that Dawkin's "A" up, Dawkins made some mistakes in his book, making him little better than the many Creationists who redefine scientific theories to fit their viewpoint.

John Evo said...

Sinister Porpoise: That last line about Dawkins was meant to be read ironically, right?

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks for all the great discussion!!!

I've been contemplating what you guys have said (as you can tell from my new post), but I'd still like to respond individually to comments here:

Donk -- Everybody says that, but it must really depend on where you are in the U.S. I've lived in a lot of different places in the U.S., and aside from actual religious communities (eg. churches, BYU), I've never had the impression that people see atheism as all that exceptional. Even back in High School, when I was a believer, it wasn't odd. Of course, that may partially have been because of others who were out in the open about their atheism, as I explained here.

GBurnett -- So true! It's weird, but it seems like the universal signal of a devout believer (across all religion lines) is that some random perfectly harmless action is taboo. Sociologists can probably explain this better than I can, but it may work to foster group cohesion and discourage social interaction with other groups.

John -- Very good point! As you can see from the above, I've just started a meme (which I hope will catch on) to encourage the silent-in-real-life atheist bloggers to think about how "out" they really are.

Lorry -- Isn't Europe cool? :D

Paul -- That is unexpected! Now that I've got you thinking about it, I hope you'll be posting your ruminations! :D

John (again ;^) ) -- For myself, I haven't had anyone spontaneously tell me how much they love Jesus. That would really weird me out. I think the closest I've come to that is having mishies bear their testimony to me.

Sinister Porpoise -- It's true, some people just have such a low sex drive that it's practically nil. And, in such cases, a lot of people jump to the conclusion "you must be gay and in denial." In this case, being "out" as asexual might also work to change people's attitudes. But as for Dawkins being little better than a Creationist? What? Which mistake did he make that puts him on that level???