Coming Out Skeptical

First published at on June 19, 2009

I’m a big proponent of being out, not just about being gay, but about any personally significant trait whose revelation subverts problematic assumptions. For me, that includes being out as an atheist.

“Atheist or agnostic?” I’m often asked.

For practical purposes, I’m not sure that there’s much of a difference. Do I believe that it’s POSSIBLE that there’s a deity of some sort? Sure. I also believe that it’s possible that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) But I don’t have good evidence for either, don’t believe in either, and don’t make life decisions on the basis of the vague possibility of either.

I wasn’t always an atheist. Indeed, during college I joined a religious order and had planned to enter the priesthood. This fact surprises people, though it shouldn’t. Taking religion seriously enough to subject it to scrutiny is one common path to religious skepticism. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century,

“For it is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole have the virtue to cure, but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.”

I pretty much chewed on the pill until it dissolved.

“But how do you explain the existence of the universe?” I’m sometimes asked.

I don’t. The universe is mysterious to me. But I don’t see the point of trying to explain one mystery by invoking another.

Being out as an atheist is often more difficult than being out as a gay person. I was reminded of that last week, when I was attending a gay pride dinner event at which I was the keynote speaker. A middle-aged woman approached me in the buffet line and claimed to be one of my biggest fans. She was gushing about my DVD when the conversation turned to religion. I mentioned in passing that I’m a non-believer.

She stopped abruptly, and seemed to turn pale. “Non-believer as in…?”

“As in, I don’t believe in God.”

(Long, awkward pause, during which she stared at me with an expression one might direct toward someone who has suddenly been covered in dogshit.)

“Well,” she finally said unconvincingly, “I still like your columns.”

I can understand why some believers would be disappointed to learn that I’m an atheist. If you like someone, and if you believe that his eternal salvation depends on his accepting a certain religious perspective, then you’ll be sorry to learn that he won’t be joining you in Paradise.

But this particular encounter was striking for two reasons. First, the woman in question was Jewish—a religious tradition that, unlike Christianity, doesn’t dwell on eternal salvation and doesn’t usually proselytize. Second, it seemed that her enjoyment of my columns somehow hinged on whether or not I shared her theistic worldview—despite the fact that I seldom write about religion.

I suppose what bugs me most is the double standard. Religious believers can make the most outrageous claims (God is three persons in one? His mother on earth is a virgin? Amy Grant can sing?) and yet meet with a polite reception. But if atheists boldly state their views, they’re accused of being arrogant.

There’s nothing arrogant about acknowledging what one DOESN’T know. Even the blunt claim “There is no God,” when uttered as a sincere assessment of the evidence (or lack thereof) strikes me as humble, not arrogant. To deny God is not to place oneself above God, but rather to acknowledge the fallible human state we all share. It should go without saying, but belief in an infallible God doesn’t render one infallible, even when discussing religion.

For the record, my departure from theism had nothing to do with being wounded by organized religion. On the contrary, I had a very positive experience of the church during my coming-out process.

And please don’t tell me that I’ve been burned by our opponents’ selective use of the Bible. Our opponents are selective, sure—but so are our allies. To put it in technical theological terms, the Bible contains some crazy shit (alongside lots of beautiful stuff, too). The difference between our religious opponents and our religious allies is not that one is selective and the other not, but that they select different parts.

I remain grateful for those religious allies. Their heart is in the right place, and as a strategic matter, I think we need them. But I also think we need a healthy dose of religious skepticism.