The stigma of being an American atheist

An online version of this essay can be found at

All of my friends know I’m an atheist. Few SN&R readers probably do.

Which, at face value, isn’t surprising. Life is a lot easier for nonbelievers who keep their mouths shut in the United States, where 50 percent of the population find atheism “threatening,” seven states have laws against atheists holding office, and a 2003 American Mosaic Project survey determined they were the least desirable group for a son- or daughter-in-law to belong to.

However, I can’t say I’m afraid to admit to it. In fact, if you’re a journalist and you’re not at the very least agnostic, then I’m going to seriously question your ability to question.

But in that, I think, I’m an outlier. Most nonbelievers avoid religious discussion. They distance themselves from the term “atheist.” They quietly endure while others speak to them with the assumption that everyone present believes in the same deity. Hell, even I’ll hold my tongue when the moment calls for it.

I still remember my best friend’s wedding—a three-hour, stand-up-sit-down Catholic genuflect carried out entirely in Latin—in which I agreed to go up during Communion and receive a blessing from the priest (who, for the record, would not feed me a Jesus wafer).

At my grandma’s funeral a few years later, the priest spent more of his sermon warning my sisters and me that we were in danger of spending an eternity in hell than he did honoring my busia’s memory. That one has always impressed me: The audacity of believers to sell membership at funerals.

I was talking to my mom the other day about how, even at services for the irreligious, things always devolve into proselytization. She explained that funerals aren’t really for the departed, but for those left behind. In that case, I said, what if I opened my speech at her memorial with, “There is no God. My mother is no more. Gone.”

“What do you think I’ll care?” she said. “I’ll be dead.”

Then, I ventured, maybe that means I don’t have to abide to her wish that we play “Boom Boom, Ain’t it Great to Be Crazy?” during her viewing?

Turns out some things aren’t negotiable.