Musings on My Other Closet and Atheists in America, by Melanie E. Brewster

Atheists in America

“The suspicion that my atheism was “wrong” was only validated by pressure to keep my views a secret. Reflecting back, I don’t think that my mother’s explicit directions to remain closeted were intended to make me feel that I was broken or deviant; her response was just a reflection of broader cultural attitudes about atheism.” — Melanie E. Brewster

This week our featured book is Atheists in America, edited by Melanie E. Brewster. Today, we are happy to present a post by Melanie Brewster, in which she describes her experiences as an atheist growing up in the South.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Atheists in America! Note: For readers in the Northeast, there will be a book release party for Atheists in America on June 25th at the Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan from 7pm-10pm. Authors from across the country will be flying in to read their works. Open to the public. Email Melanie Brewster for more details.

Musings on My Other Closet and Atheists in America
Melanie E. Brewster

Surrounded by the smell of cheddar biscuits, dark wood, and stylized portraits of marine life, I officially “came out” as bisexual to my parents at a Red Lobster while home on spring break during my freshman year at the University of Florida. My father, who had often joined me in ogling celebrity women, knowingly shrugged, whereas my mother became tightlipped, teary, and whiter than the shrimp scampi on the dish in front of her. Her response, a refrain with which I was all too familiar, was “don’t tell Nanny.”

We did not openly discuss my sexual orientation again for over a decade.

Though painful and distancing, “don’t tell Nanny” served as a signifier for all things taboo in my family. Nanny, my kindhearted, very Methodist grandmother served as a beacon of virtue, unsullied by the less savory truths about her grandchildren.

As I picked at my food, slouched in the blue pleather booth and no longer enjoying my crabcakes, I yearned for a time when parts of my identity would not be excised from the whole. “Don’t tell Nanny” was a phrase that I’d heard repeatedly since childhood in direct response to my stubborn nonbelief in a god, gods, or anything supernatural.

Despite her best efforts to indoctrinate me into religion – vacation bible study, youth group, prayers before bed – my mother’s proselytizing never took root. Driving home from church on Sunday mornings regularly yielded tense fights, in which I questioned, critiqued, and belittled what was expressed in the sermon. Unlike many atheist individuals, who were engaged in a religious or spiritual life prior to deconverting from their beliefs, I did not “leave faith” – faith never found me. As a child, I remember wondering what it would feel like to believe that a god was watching over you. I imagined that the presence of a ubiquitous guardian would be both awkward (e.g., does god even watch you in the bathroom?!) and comforting, and I often questioned if there was something wrong with me for not being able to believe. The suspicion that my atheism was “wrong” was only validated by pressure to keep my views a secret. Reflecting back, I don’t think that my mother’s explicit directions to remain closeted were intended to make me feel that I was broken or deviant; her response was just a reflection of broader cultural attitudes about atheism.

Growing up atheist, I was hyper-attuned to all negative societal views about nonbelievers. In recent years, academics who study the experiences of marginalized groups have positioned this tendency as an expression of minority stress. Simply put, minority stress theory states that people from marginalized groups grow to expect that they will experience stigmatization and this expectation is a major stressor. For example, LGBTQ youth are chronically vigilant for cues in their environment that others are either safe (allies of sexual minority and transgender people) or unsafe (may enact prejudice or violence against them). In scanning for these cues as a young nonbeliever, I grew familiar with several different manifestations of anti-atheist attitudes including: (1) atheists are evil and lack a moral compass, (2) atheists are immature and deliberately contrary, (3) atheists are angry at god, and (4) atheists deliberately bring shame to their loved ones. These cues appeared so often, that I learned being “out” as atheist was generally not safe or acceptable.

Not surprisingly, a few recent studies have begun to back up my own experiences of prejudice growing up, finding that atheists do indeed experience discrimination and attitudes towards nonbelievers are notably unaffirming, even when compared to negative attitudes towards other marginalized groups (for a review, see Brewster et al., 2014). And even last week, Pew Research Center released a study reporting that nearly half of Americans would be unhappy if their family member married an atheist, and for families who are politically conservative, 73% would be unhappy. I’m in the middle of data collection with my graduate students for a large-scale project about discrimination against atheists in hopes of adding more scholarly evidence to the pot.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to attitudes toward nonbelievers, location matters. Abroad, nations vary from overwhelmingly secular and apathetic about religion, to having enforced bans on nonbelief.

I spent the vast majority of my life in the south. The real, capital S, South, where people display confederate flags in front of their homes, hang casted metal bull testicles from the backs of their trucks, and throw around the phrase “the War of Northern Oppression” without smirking ironically. In graduate school, though I openly studied LGBTQ issues, I was dissuaded from pursuing research on atheism. I found this to be incredibly ironic – one closet door open, another one closed. Upon signing my contract to become an assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, I finally proclaimed “no more hiding!” and dove into writing and editing Atheists in America.

Now, when I tell colleagues and friends in New York City about my program of research, their reaction is often a blank stare or, my favorite, a bemused “discrimination against atheists?! That happens?” For some people, their religious belief or nonbelief is a nonissue – it may private or personal, but is not something that must be kept private (or else). However, for the vast majority of people in the U.S., “coming out” as atheist to friends and family remains a challenging feat. As captured by the diverse array of stories in Atheists in America, nonbelief intersects with other dimensions of identity, particularly race and culture.

As Sikivu Hutchison recently expressed, for many people of color, connection to religion is about more than belief – religion provides a community, familial, and sometimes even financial, support. To openly turn away from faith may have serious interpersonal repercussions for nonbelievers within these communities. Coupled with the fact that most atheist groups are populated by middle to upper-middle class white men, options for support in “coming out” may appear bleak.

This bleakness is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to present different narratives of what atheism is and looks like in the U.S. There is not one well-worn, established path to living openly as a nonbeliever but there are different tangled, messy, and often beautiful routes that one may take on the road to being good without a god. My path was, and continues to be, a messy one, but in writing Atheists in America I have at least learned that I’m not alone on this journey.

And, as a quick aside, I should add that my mother (the former proselytizer) has since come out as atheist herself. Unsurprisingly, she did not tell Nanny.

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