Monday, 19 September 2011

Atheism and the family - the need to come out.

Sunday dinner at my folks' this evening, as my brother's visiting.  Mum sent me a message on facebook earlier recommending a video with Frank Skinner and Rowan Williams and asking "no chance of you reconsidering your policy of upsetting every religious loony on the planet?". She doesn't say much about it, but I was reprimanded earlier this year for being "a very intolerant atheist".  Nothing direct was said at dinner tonight, but I got a bit of a disapproving frown when my restraint cracked during a conversation about security for the Pope's visit last year (we got there via the illness of a friend who organised the choir for part of the tour) and I laughed and said something like "nothing says "I trust The Lord" like four inches of bulletproof glass".

Mum and I haven't discussed religion much since I was in my early teens; as far as I know she's still vaguely a believer, but I don't know how much of her dislike of my antitheism is born of her belief itself, and how much is just discomfort at my open contempt for that which has historically commanded so much unwarranted respect.  I also don't know how to take the smile with which she delivers her occasional reprimands; I have a feeling it's one of those things where you try to sound like you're joking to avoid sounding too critical but actually you're totally not joking. Basically, I'm not sure how much she objects to atheism itself, but mum definitely isn't keen on me taking the piss out of religion.

This has got me thinking about how irreligion affects the relationships people have with their families. As it happens, I don't confront my mum about the whole religion thing because I don't want to hurt her, and however flawed I consider her reasoning where faith is concerned I love and respect her tremendously. But I'm one of the lucky ones, because the fact is that if I wanted to I could say whatever the hell I liked about it all to my family and my brothers, and whether they agreed with me or not (I know one brother does, I suspect my dad does, and I don't think the other brother cares much one way or the other) they'd still love me - I don't think there's anything I could do, with respect to religion or otherwise, that could make my family turn their backs on me.  Among atheists worldwide, however, things are not so rosy.  I know people who are lucky enough to be in situations similar to mine, but I also know people who have become estranged from their families after coming out as atheists. Many of you may be familiar with the story of Damon Fowler, a teenager from Louisiana who was thrown out of home by his mother and forced out of town after his teacher outed him for privately asking that an illegal prayer be omitted from his graduation ceremony. In some parts of the world, atheists have little choice but to stay in the closet because they risk ostracism, persecution, in some cases even physical injury and death if they come out.

Clearly, this is wrong; it results from the continuing prejudice against atheists, a disgraceful form of discrimination that seems to be largely overlooked in modern society. It is this discrimination, more than anything else, that makes me feel that those of us lucky enough to be able to declare our atheism in safety ought to do it. The more people come out as atheists, and the more we're willing to talk about it, the more accepted atheism will become - eventually, I hope that atheists even in the most religious nations will be able to express themselves without fear of persecution. That time is a way off, and I wouldn't want to try and guess how long it will be before atheism is universally accepted... but I do know that we can speed the process by being open.

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