Ask Richard: Atheist Isolating to Avoid Superstitious People March 12, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Isolating to Avoid Superstitious People

Dear Richard,

I recently “came out” as an atheist and it has been somewhat difficult on a number of fronts. Although I have been skeptical of religion for many years both as gut instinct that it was self-serving, and rational analysis that what they teach is nearly impossible, when I finally decided to officially tell people that I did not believe in a god rather than hiding behind “I’m spiritual not religious” things have gotten strange.

Almost everyone I know is either religious in the traditional sense or some adherent of New Age spiritual/universalist beliefs. Most have been OK with it on the surface, although some have seemed condescending and amused as though this is somehow a “phase.” One or two have been somewhat hostile. In deference to their feelings I purposely have not engaged in debate with them. An old high school acquaintance who is now a conservative minister has been a bit hostile and accused me of not wanting to “defend” my beliefs to him as though I were required to give an accounting of myself!

I am also gay. Surprisingly, much of the religiosity I am bumping up against is within the LGBT community where it seems people are falling all over themselves to be super-religious in response to the religious right. By actually admitting I am an atheist some of them seem to think I am playing into the hands of our enemies (I am a frequent speaker at LGBT events.)

In addition, I find myself avoiding religious people whenever possible. Part of this is that it simply has begun to trouble me how much reliance is put on these superstitions. I purposely avoid people whom I know will respond to every illness, problem, or world event with prayer or “sending energy and healing.” I studiously avoid New Age friends who babble on about 2012, energy healing, cleansing rituals, and other nonsense. These are all well meaning folks, but their beliefs just rub me raw at the moment and I often find myself responding poorly to their barrage of superstitious beliefs.

How do I integrate my atheism in a world where I am surrounded by people extolling the virtues of their personal superstition or delusion without constantly blowing my stack or being forced to debate belief and non-belief? I really don’t want to become a recluse only speaking to others who have given up these things!

Thanks for your help.
Becoming a Loner

Dear Becoming,

You didn’t mention having any atheist friends. You said you don’t want to become a recluse who only talks to non-believers, but you don’t seem to even have that outlet. Without any relief from all the people talking about their favorite invisible entities or intangible energies, of course you’re getting fed up and starting to become unsocial.

You’re suffering from overexposure to secondary woo.

Yes, you will probably always be surrounded by a majority of people who believe inane things, and they will get to you sometimes. But you can be more relaxed and tolerant while in their midst if you can detoxify from the secondary woo on a regular basis.

Socializing with rationalists could be like stepping outside of a crowded, stuffy room full of woo smokers for several minutes of fresh air. After you’ve recharged your bloodstream with oxygen, you can go back into the room and work comfortably with the others for quite a while without feeling like you’re suffocating.

So firstly, find a group of atheists and rationalists, and meet with them frequently and regularly to relax, swap stories, laugh and be encouraged. You need mental oxygen.

Secondly, begin to develop a sense of calmness and confidence within yourself. Think about how fortunate you are. You have, against high odds, freed yourself from superstitious chains that hobble the minds of most people. Yes, what they believe is nonsense to you, but think of yourself not as being better than them, just luckier. That will help you to avoid being smug or condescending, like those religious and New Age acquaintances you mentioned. The whole mentality of thinking in terms of being superior or inferior to others is a trap. If you see yourself either way, you won’t be happy being with others, and so you’ll likely start isolating.

I have to wonder if some of the hostility that you’re sensing in others is their reaction to the hostility they’re sensing in you. You can help to defuse the situation by removing your resentment.

When other people refer to their reliance on undetectable beings and powers that are outside of themselves, just notice it, and apply your rational mind to your own emotional response. Ask yourself if you really need to spend time and energy being upset about their peculiar thoughts that you don’t share. They’re doing what they have to do, and it’s just not what you have to do. If you spend no time or energy making any heavy judgmental evaluations about them, you won’t feel frustrated or angry that you have to work with them.

And it’s important for you to be able to work with them, because you have important work to do, and you can’t do it alone.

I assume that you’re working for the benefit of the entire LGBT community, not just the rational ones. In order for all of you to succeed in gaining justice and equality, you must all overlook your differences and focus on your common goals. Respond with that idea whenever any of your LGBT associates express some problem they have with your atheism. United you stand, divided you fall.

If you’re a frequent speaker at LGBT events, that means your powers of persuasion are appreciated. You can continue to use that ability to further the LGBT cause, but also, perhaps more subtly, you can further the cause of reason as well. Discreetly plant seeds of rational thinking in every one of your speeches. Keep them small and understated so they are accepted easily. Be the patient gardener instead of the frustrated rebel.

Finally, you may have to divest yourself of the more seriously negative acquaintances in your life. After you relax your own tension and resentment about others, several may gradually respond favorably, but a few might not. No matter how calm or self confident you get, there are a few folks who are simply toxic. If, after a reasonable amount of time some remain hostile, then you should quietly drift away from them. You have more important things to do with your time and talent than to waste them on futile debates or on avoiding futile debates with people who will not even consider letting go of their antagonism, or listening with open minds.

Becoming, you can treat these interactions with believers as opportunities to grow and mature within yourself, to see beyond your differences and to achieve aspirations that you and they share. Perhaps you will change your name from Becoming a Loner to Becoming a Leader.


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  • Try venting online. That’s what a lot of us do. 😛

    If you feel like you’re getting sucked into debate when you don’t want it, try saying, “I’m not interested in spoken debate. But I’m happy to recommend links or literature on the subject.” If they accept, show them how much they don’t know. Show them how much effort they will have to put in before they can have productive discussion with you. Hey, maybe I Sold My Soul on eBay would be a good recommendation.

    Hearing about anti-atheist sentiments in the LGBT community always makes me sad. I have not personally experienced this problem, but I recall Greta Christina talking about it. I would frame it as a problem of stereotypes. Stereotypes don’t just harm the people who break them, but also the people who partly fit them. Some gay men are effeminate, but they’re not trying to fulfill stereotypes, they’re just trying to be themselves. Should we ostracize those people, just because we perceive that they’re harmful to the cause? No! They have every right to be themselves, just as other gay men have every right to be very masculine, or anywhere inbetween.

    I feel like every LGBT community should be quite familiar with the issues of stereotypes. Tell them that the gay atheist is a stereotype just like the effeminate gay is a stereotype, and that it hurts both religious and non-religious queers.

  • As a fellow gaytheist, I feel I ought to chime in and say that it is extremely tough to be an out atheist in the gay movement. I wrote a post about my experience with this at Creating Change, the National Conference on LGBT Equality:

  • Aj

    If this seems sudden and new to them, they are probably right to assume it’s most likely a phase. You can’t expect people to know your inner workings, that you have been feeling this way for a long time, with thoughtful and rational consideration.

    If I was part of a community that told me I was letting them down for being rational, and not trying to placate a bunch of ignorant bigots, that would piss me off no end. Why don’t the LGBT community just pretend they’re not who they are? That’s what they’re suggesting for atheism.

    In time you just get used to all the crazy and ignorance, then you can just ignore it if you wish. When you first encounter a new type of craziness, it’s sometimes hard to swallow. People have been like this for thousands of years. I try to find the funny side to it, although that’s hard to do when it’s harming people.

  • I had no idea that the gay community had a tendency towards religiosity. I thought that they were as rational\irrational as any other group but that the negative treatment of gay people under religious dogma would turn them away from churches. Therefore I thought that gay people were actually less religious than straight people. Why would you want to be a member of a group that condemns you?

    See, you’ve succeeded in dispelling ignorance of one issue in at least one person. That is a good start. 😉

  • If there are no materialists, that is , no other people who reject all ‘spiritual’ approaches in your area and finding that solitude doesn’t suit you then you should move.

    I wish there were more options, but materialists haven’t had a good PR recruitment team since…well, ever.

    Gay christians are no different than greedy, violent, or horny christians.

  • PeeJ

    I have never understood why so many of us homeaux cleave to their churches. To me, they’re like Log Cabiners – don’t they understand that the party/church doesn’t like them? Doesn’t want them? Downright hates them?

    Eh, maybe it’s psychological masochism.

  • odc

    As another gaytheist (I’ve never heard that term; i love it), I was actually quite surprised by your letter. Among my gay friends, I would say the vast majority are atheists/non-believers. That may be some over-reflection or projection on my part to those that I haven’t had a conversation with on the topic, but several of my friends talk often of religion, and are for the most part non-believers. I do have some gay religious friends, but have never heard any of the animosity or pressure that you describe from the religious ones. Do you think maybe it’s a generation/location problem?

  • I don’t have any good advice, but I must say I was surprised to read about the prejudice against atheists in the LGBT community – i had always assumed (yeah, yeah I know!) that they were pretty tolerant.

    I think where you live may have a lot to do with it. I live in Australia and I have quite religious friends who have never discussed religion with me in the 6 years I have known them (so I have never had to tell them I’m an atheist). On the other hand I met an American woman at the school the other day. In the course of our 15 min chat she mentioned her church and God 3 or 4 times (in a ‘God’s plan for me’ sort of way, not a ‘ God, i wish it would stop raining’ sort of way I’d use). I know a sample of one is hardly statistically significant but it made me realise how difficult it would be to live with that casual level of religiosity every day without going nuts. Good luck – i hope you find at least one good atheist friend you can talk to without feeling like your head will explode from the stupidity you have to listen to all the time.

  • What Hover frog wrote about the LGBT community above is what I was trying to say in my first paragraph.

  • I know what you mean about the LGBT community. I have a cousin who is gay (I am not) and I have no problem with that or his permanent partner or any other aspect of his life, except he is very religious and has been all of his life.

    I have talked with him about it but he is one of the religious types that refuses to discuss it. I have sent him rationalist literature and asked him how he reconciles his beliefs with his life. His normal response is, “I believe what I know is right and I don’t need to hear any other argument.” In other words, STFU. He never hesitates to give me the same tired olkd theist arguments such as Pascal’s Wager (what if you’re wrong?) and the bible says it, so it must be true. He denies being brainwashed into religion as a child even though he was taken to Sunday school and church every week and sent o vacation bible school every summer, he doesn’t see that as brainwashing.

    SO basically, we just don;t discuss anything about religion any more. He knows that, if he brings up anything about the subject, I’ll jump in with statements he cannot counter. Maybe that’s the best solution for us. It might work for you, too?

  • Josha

    I’ve been in this situation and often the mere fact of me mentioning my atheism was seen as an insult. It makes you want to isolate yourself. Feeling like you must censor yourself and hide a part of yourself will wear on you. Atheism becomes a bigger issue in your life because others make it so, and they will treat you differently because of it. And that’s why you need an outlet. I drove two hours to meet with a Freethinkers group. It helped me get through my daily living situation. It helps to just be with people who will nod their heads and say, “I understand!”

    Good luck and find some fellow atheists! I bet things will get better after time passes. With some friends, certain topics are off-limits, and that’s okay. You can still maintain a diverse set of friendships.

  • Acceptance of an “out-group” is probably a two-phase process.

    Phase one is for the out-group to emulate a sufficient number of characteristics of the “in-group” (for many this is religiosity) for acceptance. Phase 2 is for the out-group to be fully accepted just as they are. The other gays are concentrating (maybe even unconsciously) on phase 1 and may resent your lack of religiosity. You are wanting to progress already to phase 2.

  • Ron in Houston

    Honestly it’s pretty damn simple. If YOU are internally upsetting yourself over what OTHERS believe then you’ve clearly got a problem.

    If you don’t want to be friends with people like that then don’t be friends with them. However, don’t then upset yourself over not having any friends.

    You’re making choices and then upsetting yourself over the very choices you just made.

    Honestly it’s like this person is boxing themselves in and then turning around and torturing themselves with the very box they just created.

  • Miko

    You can continue to use that ability to further the LGBT cause, but also, perhaps more subtly, you can further the cause of reason as well. Discreetly plant seeds of rational thinking in every one of your speeches. Keep them small and understated so they are accepted easily.

    I’m a big fan of this as a meta-strategy, but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as you suggest. If you do it this way, you eventually get to the point where people start thinking “oh, there’s the drop-in {whatever your external goal is} paragraph; I’ll just doze off for a minute until he starts talking about something I care about.” That’s okay now and then, but it can’t be your dominant strategy. Rather, you should think about what it is that the movements have in common and why it is that you are a member of both movements and then focus your “drop-in” (or better yet, the speech itself) on what that underlying value is: that way, you stay on topic so that people don’t drift and you get across the message that “believing X is a good reason to believe the things you already believe” and let them fill in “if I believe X, then it’s reasonable for me to believe Y also” for themselves. (This is why the occasional blatant drop-in is strategically useful also.) It’s a bit tricky in this case since being LGBTQ is more a biological fact than a belief, but there is probably is a reason why you’re interested in LGBT activism. I would guess that it has to do with promoting tolerance, equality, and solidarity (both in-group and out-group), which is also a fantastic reason to be involved with organized atheism.

  • An old high school acquaintance who is now a conservative minister has been a bit hostile and accused me of not wanting to “defend” my beliefs to him as though I were required to give an accounting of myself!
    -Becoming a Loner

    I have sent him rationalist literature and asked him how he reconciles his beliefs with his life. His normal response is, “I believe what I know is right and I don’t need to hear any other argument.” In other words, STFU.
    -James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    Juxtaposed! Now you see both sides.

  • Trans Sami

    “Why would you want to be a member of a group that condemns you?”

    Ask some black Mormons.

    I’d post my serious thoughts on religious gays, but it’d probably end up being a long and offensive rant. The nicest way I can put it is that I don’t think joining the group that has led literally every single anti-gay campaign in history is the way to win our equality.

  • Carlie

    Richard has suggested a lot of really good comebacks/comments to defuse escalating religious talk, especially a couple of letters ago to the person dealing with their family. You can say something like “I’d rather talk about ‘x’ right now”, or “I like to keep my personal beliefs private” or, if they’re getting obnoxious, “It’s sad that you are unable to be social with anyone who doesn’t have the exact same beliefs as you”. In other words, turn it on them – why are they trying to make you so uncomfortable? What’s in it for them to be so nosy? That doesn’t help when you’re trying to grin and bear it listening to their woo-talk, but might help deflect a little of the direct pressure.

    And then you can go home and chant along with Storm at the top of your voice.

  • An old high school acquaintance who is now a conservative minister has been a bit hostile and accused me of not wanting to “defend” my beliefs to him as though I were required to give an accounting of myself!

    And if you did give an accounting of yourself, he’s accuse you of trying to convert him. Trust me — that’s is a no-win situation, and nothing you could possibly do would be right.

    As a fellow LGBT atheist (the B in that alphabet soup), I feel your pain. I have also, as I talked about in the piece Miller linked to above (thanks!), felt more alienated from the LGBT community once I started coming out as an atheist. And I’ve found myself becoming more deeply involved with the atheist movement, and stepping back from the LGBT movement somewhat… for this exact reason. But if you’re doing political work, then Ron’s suggestion above — “just don’t be friends with them” — isn’t really an option. Not if you don’t want to abandon your commitment to the work you’re doing.

    What I’d like to encourage you to do is twofold:

    1) Get more involved in the atheist community and the atheist movement — which is overwhelmingly LGBT-positive. I have never in my life felt as supported as a queer by straight people as I have in the atheist movement. You’ll need this support.

    2) I would love to encourage you to take this on in the LGBT movement.

    We are not the only ones. Every time I come out as an atheist in the LGBT community, I get people coming out to me privately about their own non-belief. We need to do more visibility and more education about godlessness in our community, so our leaders don’t keep forgetting that the beautiful ecumenical rainbow of spiritual diversity also includes those of us who aren’t spiritual at all… and don’t keep treating us like unwanted stepchildren.

    Frame it as an inclusivity issue. The LGBT movement is very sensitive about inclusivity, and it’s a great way to play their guilt like a harp educate them.

    And yes, I do feel more connected with the atheist community now than I do with the queer community. Which is weird, since the queer community has felt like my home and family for decades. But think of it this way: Did you ever wish that you could have been part of the LGBT movement right after Stonewall, when it was first becoming visible and vocal and organized? That’s where the atheist movement is now. This is the first time I’ve ever been part of a movement right when it was getting off the ground, instead of coming decades late to the party. And it is so exciting and satisfying, I can barely contain myself.

  • Happy Misanthrope

    I’m going to toss the conventional wisdom and suggest that it is psychologically healthy to isolate yourself.

    Some people seem to have a need for “fellowship” with others but I’m not one of them. I see this as strength rather than a weakness. Rugged self-reliance means not hanging my well-being on the whims of other people, whims that may change with the wind.

    Who needs friends anyway? What are they really there for except to borrow money? Friends or no friends, either way its OK you wake up with yourself! If you have a significant other and immediate family, what’s the point in seeking out others? To spread yourself thin?

    In my experience people are generally superficial a$$holes anyway. That’s why uberfundamentalists are willing to turn their backs on their own flesh and blood over petty religious beliefs. It’s better to avoid the situation from the start. If you minimize your interaction with people, you avoid even the possibility of conflict with them. You don’t have to worry about regretting having met someone who becomes a thorn in your side later because of some trivial disagreement, or who tries to steal from you, or something like that. Having someone to chit chat with is not worth the risk.

    By avoiding social interaction whenever possible and the need for approval that inevitably comes with it, I don’t relinquish time or resources I’d rather spend on my own prerogatives. I avoid subjecting myself to others’ pressure or intimidation to give them whatever it is that they want from me (and they always want something from you!) I don’t have to perform for their entertainment to get them to like me. I don’t have to worry about comparing clothes, or whether I make as much money, or any number of things that don’t really matter to begin with.

    If you don’t want to be a victim of others’ manipulation, just stay the hell away from them. The solution is so simple and the peace of mind it creates is priceless. It’s like not answering the phone when a telemarketer calls. Poof and you forget they even called, and you can get right back to whatever you were doing without interruption. It’s quite a satisfying way to live.

  • I’d say to get a blog. I started one after I graduated college and couldn’t find any atheist friends, and it’s helped me deal with the crap I often see/hear/experience from the religious folks.

  • Happy Misanthrope

    Dear Becoming,

    Is there some other away I can get in contact with you? (Might you post on another blog?) My advice is apparently too nonconformist to avoid deletion here. Thx.

  • The toughest part of being human is having to share the planet with “others.” Is that an apt description of the way things look to you? This is not uncommon, in fact if you recognize it as part of who you are, you have come a long way toward opening up to something more than that. We share the planet as humans – all of us, green, red, purple, blue and multi – all equal – all arm in arm in the sense that we have basically the same needs and the same wants as simple as wanting to be content, fulfilled and free. The good news is we are already those things. Finding this truth under all the garbage we’ve collected growing up is the tough part. Anger is a very healthy emotion if you can address it directly. Knowing you are angry is only step one. The cause for your anger lies within you. That was the biggest surprise for me when I started taking this apart and putting it back together. Placing blame and assigning responsibility for your own life in the other person’s court devalues your own self. You are responsible for your actions – all of them. No one can make you do anything. They can coerce. bribe, physically attack, mentally abuse and try to brainwash, but the one truth I have found is that it is my choice to let that information or effort gain a foothold in my consciousness. It is not my intention to downplay the difficulty in any of these encounters, simply to point out that blaming someone else for your anger or hurt or whatever gives them power over you, which is unhelpful for you. Stepping back from confrontation, pausing to breathe in and out until you can focus on the source of your anger or whatever emotion it may be and find the kernel of truth that lies at the heart of it, stripped of judgment, prejudice and past history, gives you back the reins of control. Finding out what pushes our buttons and why is worth experiencing the discomfort fully so we can desensitize ourselves to them. It is like seeing a coiled rope in the dark and believing it to be a boa constrictor. Once we find out what it really is, we are much more able to respond appropriately. Life is tough for everyone, even the bullies. Be well.

  • I’m not sure of protocol here, but I’m the person who wrote to Richard. I would like to thank him and each of you who have responded for the wealth of information. You’ve each given me much to consider and I’m very pleased I decided to reach out.

    For those who suggest a blog, I have written a blog for many years in various incarnations. It is a great comfort and a place where I can vent my frustrations at times. You’ll find it at:

    Before Richard posted the response today the situation with the minister reared its head again. He demanded that I prove to him that evolution was 100% sound and that there was no possibility anything else could account for life on earth but “chance”. I recognized the trap and even before the sage advice here, I disengaged.

    It was the most liberating feeling I have had in ages! I told him I did not owe him explanations for what I had concluded after years of research, thought, and even struggle and furthermore, if he wished to understand evolution there were thousands of scholarly works on the subject and perhaps a library would be a good start. However, it was not my place to “prove” evolution to his satisfaction.

    I then told him, I was pleased to remain in contact with him but I would not be a notch on his evangelical belt nor his test case for evangelism 101. But the choice was his. If he wanted to reminisce about old times and share family photos and stories, I was thrilled but if he only wanted to remain in contact with me so he could show off his ministerial skills then we had nothing in common.

    We’ll see where it goes, but I spent my afternoon free to pursue what I wanted to rather than beating my head against a brick wall!

    I have also located a local Atheist meetup here in my city and hope to attend one of the upcoming meetings.

    Thanks again!

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