Atheists Are Like Anthropologists… May 5, 2009

Atheists Are Like Anthropologists…

Do your parents know about your atheism? Are you still in the closet at home?

Neon Genesis posed a wonderful analogy about such atheists on the Friendly Atheist Forums:

I also don’t think it’s hypocritical for you to hide your atheism from your family. I think it’s your family that’s being hypocritical since Christians claim to love people but put atheists in such situations where they have to hide who they are for fear of being hated. And it’s not like you’re lying but more like you’re not disclosing everything about you to them.

The way I like to think of it is: imagine you’re an anthropologist in the jungle that’s researching the natives and you have to assimilate with their culture because you might upset the natives if they find out who you really are.

I like it!

Would anyone else like to propose an analogy for atheists who are still in the closet with their families?

(Thanks to SarahH for the link!)

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  • lizzyshoe

    I would agree with that. Plus it fits with my love of anthropology!

  • Sabriel

    I think it’s right on point! I’m open about my bisexuality with my family but still dance around being atheist. And I’ve been open about my atheism for far longer, maybe that’s why I was so nervous about coming out to them about my sexuality?

  • Curtis

    This is how I think when I am invited to an event with religious overtones such as a wedding or funeral. That is why I have no problem bowing my head respectfully for prayers.

  • anon

    The term for the described strategy is called participant observation. I wouldn’t say that it involves anthropologists trying to hide the fact that they are anthropologists from the group they are studying (the demographics of anthropologists up until recently has made that difficult – being the only white male living with the !Kung is hard to explain away), but it is true that they do attempt to follow the cultural norms of the group to gain as much access as possible.

    I would think that most anthropologists are like atheists in that they are actually atheists… at least I am.

  • helen

    Well, at first it sounded great, but… if you are so estranged from your relatives as to consider them a strange tribe, are they still relatives?? I mean, it’s OK if you don’t want an open conflict and prefer not to discuss the subject, but with such an abyss between you, what do you have in common? What is their love worth, if the person they intend it for is, well, not really you?
    Or: where does politeness stop and lie begin?

  • Robyn

    I have to wonder if my mother knows that I’m an atheist, already. Or at least a maltheist. I keep making irreverent comments (rather, intelligent ones about the Bible) and I never go to church. She’s known that I’ve hated church all my life and pretty much has to bribe me to go.

    Man…she REALLY SHOULD have gotten some kind of clue by now. I mean, she found me reading once, for goodness’ sake.

  • papercrane

    While I agree with the overall sentiment, I feel I should point out that anthropologists are discouraged from ‘going native’ or appropriating local cultural identity. Participating in cultural practices is one thing, but attempts at assimilation are heavily frowned upon. The idea is that we are all products of our own cultures, and it is fundamentally dishonest to take on a cultural identity on the surface level.
    Plus, the natives all know who is and is not a genuine native. Think of it another way–if you were being studied by an anthropologist from, say, Peru, you’d know she or he wasn’t from your hometown. People from pre-industrial societies aren’t stupid. In fact, they’re far more likely not to get upset if the anthropologist openly acknowledges difference.

    That said, I don’t see any problem with the closet whether in a queer or atheist context. There are real and valid reasons for incomplete disclosure of one’s identity, ranging from personal comfort level to legitimate fear of physical, economic, etc. retaliation. Nobody should be obliged to broadcast their various identities, despite visibility or lack thereof; it must be a choice made on the personal level.

  • Sam

    Personally, I think it reflects some secular values to stay closeted. Like Neon Genesis analogized, its an opportunity at observation. That is how I have thought of it for a long time. We value objective empirical evidence and watching our religious families is a perfect opportunity to see how a group of theists act amongst themselves when their ideas are not threatened.

    I have found it interesting how often religion comes up as morality but yet so little for the myths underlying the morality. I have concluded from my familial observations that, given another framework for discussing morality, Christianity would likely fall to the wayside. For this reason, I have recently tried to inject other moral frameworks, such as Kant’s rights and Bentham’s utility.

  • I think of myself as Conquistador, spreading my atheist “disease” amongst the unexposed masses.

    Welcomed in with open arms, the unseen killer is always lurking, and prolonged exposure will ultimately result in contamination.

  • the audience

    it might take too long to describe my own secular/theistic blend of beliefs (in short theres ‘something’ but too ‘far’ to ‘know’ except for hearsay–“Hearsayist”?), but out among the religious, i think of myself as the neighbor god wants them to love. i dont have a single problem telling them about it if they ask, because their own religion says i’m still ok. let them think of a metaphor for me 😉

  • CatBallou

    I find the notion of treating my family like an object of study to be abhorrent and patronizing. I can certainly understand why people want to keep some part of themselves private, and I don’t argue about religion with my family, but I do still respect and love them.

  • Tom

    I am gay. Since you’re talking about revealing your atheism as “coming out of the closet”, I’m sure the analogy is obvious to everyone. So let me talk about coming out the closet in general terms, from the perspective of a gay person. We gay people have plenty of experience with coming out of the closet.

    We recognize that sometimes it’s a bad idea to come out of the closet to your family. This is true in cases where you are underage, and thus your family can make your life a living hell if they don’t like your revelation, or in which you’re financially dependent on them, in which case they can cut you off and leave you broke if they don’t like it. In these cases we generally advise waiting until you’re a legal adult and not financially dependent any more before you come out to the family. We also advise taking steps to ensure financial independence as soon as possible so you can make this happen.

    Conversely, once you’re in a position to do so without your family ruining your life, there are several good reasons why you should. First, and most importantly, if you never tell your family this important fact about yourself, they will not love you. Instead, they will love an inaccurate view of who they think you are. To receive true love from your family, you have to take the risk of revealing to them who you really are, and that includes the parts they won’t necessarily like.
    Secondly, you will not be able to be comfortable with them. Every time you are with them, you will have to live a lie and conceal important aspects of yourself to make them happy. You may even have to pretend to be things you are not, such as religious or heterosexual, and this may make you exceedingly uncomfortable, which quickly translates into being uncomfortable around your family. Most people in this situation find themselves drifting away from their family because of the discomfort. For example, when I came out to most of my family, they accepted me but told me “don’t tell your grandparents!” As a result, I didn’t see them for two and a half of the last three years of their lives. Only when I finally realized that the closet had ruined my relationship with my beloved grandparents just as fully as I feared coming out to them might did I find the courage to tell them, put together some kind of relationship with them again, and see them one last time.

    Third, you owe it to your (atheist, gay, whatever) peers to come out of the closet. Coming out of the closet is not merely a convenience for yourself, it is a political statement to everyone around you that says “look at me, I am the face of (atheism / homosexuality). You’ve known me for years, we’re friends, you know I’m normal, you’ve already accepted me. Dontcha think you should be accepting other (atheists / gay people) too?” Research on acceptance of gay rights indicates that knowing an openly gay person is the #1 factor toward a heterosexual person believing we should have equal rights. I would strongly suspect it will be the same with atheism. Coming out is the way you can help build our future of freedom from religion. It’s more important than buying a copy of The God Delusion, more important than donating to the FFRF. (Although both of those things are good.)

    I recognize that you can lose some people when you come out of the closet. When I came out as gay 18 years ago, I lost the friend who meant more to me than anyone else in the world, and before we could reconcile, he died of cancer. This is the price I had to pay for my freedom to live as the person I really am. It is a terrible price, but a price I have never regretted paying. It is by being openly gay that I have found my connection to humanity, that I have found love, that I have found meaning in my life and reason for living.

    I’m ashamed to say that on the other hand I still have a few relatives who don’t know I’m an atheist. They know I don’t go to church, they know I don’t pray, but they’ve deluded themselves that I’m somehow quietly religious in my own way, and to my shame I’ve allowed this delusion to persist. In recently reading the words of Dawkins and Hitchens and watching videos of them, I have felt inspired by their tremendous dignity, and in the case of Dawkins particularly, his obvious deep love of his family. They have reminded me that I can be proudly and loudly atheist while still being a part of my community. I’ve also been increasingly bothered by some of the more severe religiosity I’ve been hearing from my family.

    I’ve decided that the time has come that I should tell them outright that I am an atheist, and I am pondering the time, place, and manner to do so that will cause the least hurt feelings. I no longer consider it an option to remain in the closet about this. It’s too important for the future of our species to begin the fight for secular reason, so that religion won’t destroy the world.

  • SarahH

    Thanks for all the insights, Tom. Best of luck coming out to your family as an atheist. For me, coming out as an atheist (to a fundamentalist Christian family) turned out to be very easy, but other revelations have been much harder. It’s hard to know how people will react until you just go ahead and tell them.

    I think it was Daniel Florien at Unreasonable Faith who recently posted some great advice on coming out as an atheist (Hemant linked to it last week), and you might want to check it out if you haven’t already seen it.

  • I kept my atheism from my adoptive family. I just told my adoptive brother about it several months ago, and his only response was, “I’m not surprised”. But I’m estranged from my adoptive family. I have not been in contact with them since 1995 except for my adoptive brother. They are devout Catholics. Since my last contact with my adoptive brother he removed me as a friend from Facebook without a word, so I get the feeling that there will be no further contact with any of them.

    My birth family on the other hand I came out to them as an atheist from the start. They don’t really care tho. They are Christians but non-practicing. The only time anyone in my birth family sees the inside of a church it’s for a wedding or a funeral.

    I was outed as an atheist to my Christian girlfriend’s parents by her ex-husband. During their separation he was spying on her computer use, even went as far as installing spy software on it and he found an atheist blog I used to keep and reported it to my girlfriend’s parents who now think I’m a home-wrecking atheist creep and they want nothing to do with me.

  • CybrgnX

    I admit that when my Mom was alive I did not go public with my athiesium. After her death I found out that the other members of my family either didn’t care or went into denial and said ‘i was going thru a THING’ and would OK again.
    But who says it is wrong to lie? There is only one SIN in the world and that is to hurt others, to protect yourself from undo physical or emotional harassment you do what YOU judge as needed.

  • Brooks

    I find the notion of treating my family like an object of study to be abhorrent and patronizing. I can certainly understand why people want to keep some part of themselves private, and I don’t argue about religion with my family, but I do still respect and love them.

    When I made that analogy (I’m Neon Genesis on the forums), I was writing from my own experience with my family, as I personally find my parents to be abhorrent. Both my parents are homophobic closed minded fundies who act like the U.S. is Iran and only “true” Christians should have rights. I’m also gay which complicates things even more. After the time where I tried seeing a psychiatric at my parents’ church to change my sexuality before I finally deconverted to atheism, I don’t consider it my duty to come out to them, especially after the abusive way my father has always treated my mother and after my mother expressed her homophobic views. I’m unable to come out to them as I don’t have the ability to live on my own without any support yet, but I don’t consider it to be any of their business as to what gender I love or what my thoughts on religion are, as I don’t consider my parents to be my family. I have mentioned to my sister that I don’t believe in hell or the inerrancy of the bible and she took it fine, but she’s the only liberal Christian in my family. I still haven’t come out to her as gay or atheist yet as I’m afraid to for some reason and I also don’t think of it as any of their business. As far as it concerns me, my family had the chance to get to know me since I was born and they’ve wasted the opportunity.

  • Anonymous

    But who says it is wrong to lie?

    to protect yourself from undo physical or emotional harassment you do what YOU judge as needed.


    The way I like to think of it is: imagine you’re an anthropologist in the jungle that’s researching the natives and you have to assimilate with their culture because you might upset the natives if they find out who you really are.

    Does this work if “their culture” is not your immediate family but American culture itself (which is even less likely to be forgiving of differences)? Is it OK to stay in the closet so as not to upset the native WASPs?

  • CatBallou

    Brooks, your situation is certainly different from mine. I’m truly sorry that you don’t have a sympathetic and loving family, and I hope that you’ll be able to make your own family from your friends and loved ones when you’re able to live on your own. I hope the support of the blogging community is at least a little bit of comfort!

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