The Importance of “Coming Out”

Opening remarks from the 2013 Carolinas Secular Conference

Studies have shown that nonbelievers are the demographic most discriminated against above all others. Surveys have shown that fewer people would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist presidential candidate than would vote for a female, Muslim, African-American, or homosexual. Other studies have shown more respondents say that they would not want their child to marry an atheist, and that atheists as a group did not share their “vision of American society.” A study a few years ago had nonbelievers ranking with rapists as the least trusted demographic.

Even though the Boy Scouts have recently relaxed some of their restrictions regarding having gay members, they still don’t allow nonbelievers. Eight states (including both NC and SC) have exclusionary language towards nonbelievers holding public office included in their Bill of Rights, Declaration of Rights, official oath of office, or in the body of their constitutions.

In 2009, Cecil Bothwell, a duly elected councilperson in Asheville, N.C, had his right to hold office challenged because of the N.C. Constitution’s religious restriction against anyone that doesn’t believe in a monotheistic God. The restriction ranks at the top of the list, right above treason. The first George Bush supposedly said that he didn’t think “that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots,” and that “This is one nation under God.”

The inspiring words “one nation indivisible” is the way the original Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892. It defined the nation as a melting pot to which people from all backgrounds and beliefs could contribute. No American was excluded in that statement. These words were both secular and inclusive.

When the phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge in 1954, it made the words surrounding them into a lie. It was a direct and deliberate insult to all Americans who do not believe in a monotheistic God and to all Americans who believe in the founding ideals of this country not to establish religion.

The Pledge became religious and exclusive.

Two years later, in 1956, Congress passed an act to adopt a new national motto, this motto would supersede our former de facto national motto, the motto that our founders had given us, the motto that had served this nation well for over 150 years. Instead of the secular and all-inclusive “E Pluribus Unum” — Latin for “Out of Many, One” – our new national motto became the religious and exclusive “In God We Trust,” which again excludes anyone that doesn’t believe in a monotheistic God.

We are made to feel like second class citizens in our own country, and we are not represented as a percentage of our population in government.

It appears that being an atheist is the last demographic most people feel they can openly disparage without fear of social repercussions.

We face both official and social discrimination. There are many of you here in groups who know people who are afraid to come out. Some fear that it will adversely affect their jobs or businesses, or that they might be disowned by their friends or families. When some do stand up and come out for one reason or another, they sometimes face bullying, bigotry, and even death threats. Some people here know this from personal experience.

The official and social discrimination and intimidation–that keeps many in the closet–keeps us marginalized and underrepresented. It makes it easier for those who try to promote the mythology that this nation was founded on so-called “Judeo-Christian principles” and for them to erode the separation between church and state in many areas. It makes it easier for theocrats to push for the establishment of religion (as some of our state representatives attempted to do in the last session). It makes it easier for those who want to push intelligent design in school science classes, for those who want to keep our children from learning the facts about birth control, and for those who actually want to bring church services into our public schools. It makes it easier for those who want to control a woman’s reproductive system, for those who want to discriminate about who can marry who, and even for those who don’t want to do anything about climate change (after all, Jesus is a-comin’ soon).

Almost every conflict in the world can be divided along religious lines. Even when religion isn’t the main reason for the conflict, it is always a exacerbating factor. People throughout the world are suffering and dying every day–directly or indirectly–because of religious extremists, and the moderates who provide them with the protective shell or the fertile ground for extremism to grow. It is the root cause of many of the problems we have, from suicide hijackers expecting to be rewarded with virgins for crashing planes into buildings, to children dying of AIDS in Africa because of policies in programs that avoid teaching about birth control contraceptives.

There are even some who look forward to the so-called “End Times” and would like to make it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They expect humanity to ultimately FAIL. I see these people as the biggest threat to the future of humanity, and I personally don’t want anyone who believes in “End Times” in control of my future.

I respect the freedom of conscience of every individual to believe or not believe whatever they like, so I don’t want to fight these people on a battlefield. I want to eventually win out in the marketplace of ideas. I don’t want humanity to fail. I would like to see humanity SUCCEED, to evolve and progress into the indefinite future. I have hope for the future of humanity, or else I wouldn’t be here before you today.

Some in the secular community are so intimidated by religion in society that they don’t expect to see much change. They think it’s always been this way, so it always will be. But I submit that things ARE changing, and that there is something new in this world that’s never been a part of it before that is making the difference. The X factor in the equation today is the internet. For the first time in the history of humanity, religion will have to fight it out in the marketplace of ideas like it’s never had to do before.

The number of those professing no religion is the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. and the world, while overall religious belief has declined as a percentage of the population. If you look back on the rise of the nonreligious, it seems to coincide with the rise of the internet. It seems that even despite the fact that the religious are outbreeding us, we are gaining ground.

According to an ARIS survey, “Based on their stated beliefs rather than their religious identification” in 2008, roughly 12% of Americans are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unknowable or unsure), and another 12% are deistic (a higher power but no personal God). And our demographic has only gone up since then with almost 1/3 of the youngest generation surveyed now saying they are not religious. Polling from the Pew Research Center found the number of “nones” among all Americans grew from about 15% in 2007 to just under 20% in 2012. Nonreligious Americans now outnumber Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons combined.

Yet many of these other groups have great political clout, while we have almost none at all. None of these other groups feel they need to stay in the closet about what they believe, or have any problem sharing their worldview with others.

A 2005 study of religiosity, secularism and societal health in different countries found that more secular societies functioned better in comparison with more religious societies, with lower teen pregnancy rates, lower abortion rates, lower STD infection rates, lower juvenile and early adult mortality rates, and lower homicide rates. In 2009, a study of religiosity and teen birth rate in the United States found that teenage birth rates are higher in more religious states, even after controlling for differences in income and rates of abortion. Other studies have found that the highest divorce rates are to be found in the Bible Belt, that rates among conservative Christians are the highest, and “The 10 Southern states with some of the highest divorce rates were Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.” There are even fewer nonbelievers in prison as a percentage of their population than any other demographic. So there are practical reasons to try to challenge the prevailing situation.

We have seen some very positive changes in the attitude people have towards the LGBTQ community recently, with over a dozen states now recognizing same-sex marriages. That community has come a long way towards gaining respect and their civil rights in my lifetime. The nontheist community can learn a lot from their efforts over the years. Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn that we might apply toward ours, which has also been confirmed by studies, is that “coming out” will have the greatest effect in bringing about change. When people find out they personally know someone who is a nonbeliever, they are less likely to hold bigoted opinions about them. We need to let people know that we are their friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members. And we should be as free as anyone else to express our views openly.

I’ve now provided you with some of the many reasons I am out and why I think it is important for as many others to come out as possible. I understand that there are many practical reasons that many will not be able to come out, but I’d like to encourage as many to do so as can, and I’d like to encourage as many others to become active in this movement (to whatever degree possible), even if they can’t come out. The more people who can come out, the easier it will be for others to do so, and so on, until there is no longer any reason for anyone to remain in the closet.

I think it’s important to come out to bring about a better society and a better world. I think it’s important to come out for the future of humanity. And I think it’s important to come out for yourself and others. If you can come out, please do.

Regardless of if you can come out or not, please get involved to whatever extent you can. Be a part of the civil rights movement of our time. “We must be the change we hope to see in the world.”