Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Atheist "Coming Out" Movement

I'd seen a clip of Wolf Blitzer asking a tornado victim if she thanked the lord that she had survived and she replied,  after a pause, "Actually, I'm an atheist."

"Wow", I thought." I've never seen that on television before." But I didn't really get how significant it was until I saw this woman, Rebecca Vitsmun, talking about the experience of coming out on national television in early November.

In the first eight minutes or so of the video she gives her account of escaping from the path of the storm with her young child.  Then she talks about how she had never told her family she was an atheist and that the question from Blitzer, forced her to come out as an atheist. (I've cued the video - see previous post on how to do that - to start about where she begins talking about the Blitzer interview.)

"I realized, I'm about to do this.  He got me. I'm busted.  My mom didn't know.  My family didn't know.  My in-laws didn't know.  Nobody knew.  I've been hiding this for over a decade. I wasn't out yet.  He put me in a place where you either have to be honest with yourself, right now, or you have to lie.  I wasn't about to lie. .  . You hear me trying to get it out. . . I'm actually an atheist.  I just laughed.  There's no way he saw that coming . . ."
[This is a reasonably close, but not exact, transcript I made.]

I'd never thought about atheists having to 'come out' in the same sense that gays would.  But it makes sense, particularly if someone's in a religious family where atheists are considered the enemy. 

But it seems that the Blitzer interview hit a nerve.  On national television, instead of a  stock answer to Blitzer's perfunctory question,  Vitsmun told him the truth, "I'm actually an atheist."

My first thought was, "Did she really say that?"  My second thought was, "They didn't cut that out?"

It was a watershed television moment.    And then I started noticing this use of 'coming out' by atheists in other places.

I think something is happening here that may be significant in the United States.  We've all tried to be respectful of people's religions, but some religious groups haven't been respectful back.  Some have taken advantage of the First Amendment protections of religion and people's genuine attempts to respect others' religious beliefs, to abuse others under the guise of religion.  I think that people, more than just a few, are going to start standing up to religions that try to impose their beliefs on everyone else.

Here are some more examples of atheists connected with the term "coming out."

NBC News about atheists in the military:

"If the Fort Bragg group succeeds, it will be overseen by the Chaplain Corps. That might seem contradictory for a group defined by its lack of belief, but it means MASH's [Military Atheists and Secular Humanists] literature would be available along with Bibles and Qurans. It could raise funds on base and, its members say, they could feel more comfortable approaching chaplains for help with personal problems. Recognition would also be an official sign that not believing in God is acceptable, something members say is lacking now.
"They call it 'coming out of the atheist closet,'" Griffith said. "There are people who won't say anything to anyone outside of their own close-knit group. They don't want Grandma to find out, or whoever. People feel like they have to lie about it.'" (emphasis added)

New York Times article about clergy who stop believing:

All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.
As his wife slept, he fumbled through the darkness for his laptop. After a few quick searches with the terms “pastor” and “atheist,” he discovered that a cottage industry of atheist outreach groups had grown up in the past few years. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure Web site. .  .

Atheists, he discovered, were starting to reach out to one another not just in the urban North but also in states across the South and West, in the kinds of places­ DeWitt had spent much of his career as a traveling preacher. After a few months he took to the road again, this time as the newest of a new breed of celebrity, the atheist convert. They have their own apostles (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) and their own language, a glossary borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible and gay liberation (you always “come out” of the atheist closet).  (emphasis added)

Student Body President at Christian College:
Many students at Northwest Christian University, in Oregon, knew that their student-body president was an atheist. But when the news—and some misunderstandings—spread after Eric Fromm explained his beliefs to a classroom of freshmen, he decided to “come out” in the student newspaper.  (emphasis added)

Another article that may interest readers that I came across while writing this is a 2012 interview in the LA Times with atheist Nate Phelps one of the 13 children of Westboro Baptist Church's Fred Phelps who pickets veteran funerals and is an outspoken hater of gays. Fred Phelps is clearly one of the more extreme cases of using the First Amendment protection for religion to abuse others.


  1. In the UK, it's more common to find people being a bit concerned by someone's profession of faith in a god, than not having such belief. I have had to come to the defence of friends who are believers, in larger circles of non-theists. I wish people could just remember what it is like to be in the minority, regardless. Sigh.

    1. Good point. What it all comes down to is respect. As Steve said, more respect is coming to the religious people than is coming from them.

  2. I've been boring people for years with my, "Atheism is the New Gay". This American un-constitutional (!) non-separation of church+state is a HUGE curse and stumbling block to a rational, progressive, caring nation moving forward. The more sittng politicians that come out the better, even better, VOTE them IN.
    Count me as a "militant atheist" who would deeply resent laws made by Christianists (as reactionary in their thinking as any Taliban) if I still lived in America. This "coming out" is the best thing to happen in American since Martin Luther King galvanized the blacks and scared the bezeesus out of whites. What prominent atheist will be shot first?

  3. Ah, dearest fellow correspondent Barbara. My own scepticism took many twists and turns, settled now into an understanding of religion as story-craft. Once freed of the weight of grand design, these cultural totems are revelatory in so many ways, but not as religion -- that wrong-spirited transgression of law upon the ineffable.

    To come to this reasoning doesn't necessitate rejection of faith, however. Some have crossed the line from religious atheist (the favoured noun here in the UK is non-theist) and moved to anti-theist -- that 'militant' stripe you lay claim to.

    I'm reminded that back in the day, a member of Anchorage's public, commenting on a public forum I had spoken at in defence of this silly notion of LGBT equality, referred to me as 'one of those military gays'.

    And we quibble about words and meanings. Our real enemy is ignorance.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.