Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Should unsuccessful atheists stay in the closet?
Assuming that an atheist is unsuccessful in life, should that person refrain from being outspoken about his/her atheism?
I’ve recently heard multiple prominent atheists say that one way to improve the way in which theists view atheists is for the atheist to live a happy, successful life and point out to the theist that you’re doing it as an atheist.
If that is a good approach, and I agree that it is, then what should the less than successful, unhappy, depressed atheist do? Should he keep his atheism to himself?
I’m assuming that by “successful” you mainly mean financially successful. There are of course other ways that people might define a successful life, using family, happiness, status, position, influence, or many other criteria. It is a good goal to live a happy and successful life, whatever that might mean, but I think attaching that to the purpose of representing atheists well is a mistake, and I don’t think it works.
I think if atheists improve their reputation, it’s by their personal conduct.
The two main negative views that theists most often have toward atheists are 1) they think atheists are incorrect or foolish to not believe in gods, and 2) they think atheists are immoral. Let’s try this idea about impressing with success in the other direction, and look at theists who have material success:
Does the Giorgio Armani suit on a Christian make you wonder if there’s something valid in his beliefs about God, Jesus, and the creation of the Earth? If you see a Muslim step out of a brand new Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren, do you start reading the Koran looking for your chance for prosperity? If a Wiccan inherits her grandmother’s mansion and wins the lottery, do you start thinking she must have some special ability to change events? If a Jew has a great deal of status and influence over many people, does that suggest to you that his deity is real?
And what about their morality? Does their wealth or social position clearly prove that they are highly principled, moral, and ethical people with good character?
If material success by itself doesn’t convince an atheist that a theist’s beliefs and morals must be sound, then it probably won’t convince a theist the same thing about atheists. Prejudice is emotionally, not rationally based. If someone dislikes atheists, they might dislike rich atheists even more, and then turn around and have more contempt for poor atheists just because they’re poor. You’re not going to be able to gain their respect by being successful.
Question this idea about outing oneself for the good of the public image of atheists in general. People have heard me say this before, and they’ll probably hear me say it again: I don’t think anyone owes their outing to anyone else, or to any common cause. If coming out is in your own best self interest, if the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, then do it. Then if that happens to contribute to the overall acceptance and normalization of atheism, great, but it should be for your benefit first.
For instance, you ask what a less than successful, unhappy, depressed atheist should do. He should do whatever improves his financial situation, whatever increases his happiness, and whatever will relieve his depression, such as exercise, a better diet, and possibly counseling.
His decision to come out as an atheist depends on the particulars of his situation. If it will spoil his chances for getting a job or a promotion, or it will cost him the love of his family and friends, that’s not going to improve his success or happiness, and it certainly won’t help with his depression.
On the other hand, some atheists’ overall well being might improve when they come out. Perhaps their job is unaffected, maybe they have less stress from not having to lie or pretend, and hopefully they enjoy more honest and satisfying relationships. It all depends on each individual’s situation.
The point is that your economic or other material standing should not be a reason for or against coming out. Make that decision according to your own self interests.
If you choose to come out and you want to help improve the overall public image of atheists, you do not need to be rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful. It’s about your conduct. Simply be kind, fair, honest, and allow people their freedom. Treat people respectfully even if you don’t respect their beliefs. If you’re a happy person, that will come from inside of you. Happy or somber, be genuine. Don’t fake anything just to make an impression on others.
The whole point of leaving behind unfounded beliefs is to get away from falsehoods, façades, fantasy and fakery. If your circumstances allow you to be open about your atheism, be neither proud nor ashamed of your level of “success,” high or low. Just enjoy being able to be real.