This is point of inquiry from Monday, April 28, 2014.
Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m your host Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Gretta Christina, a prominent blogger at the self-titled Gretta Christina’s blog, a prolific speaker and author of the new book Coming Out Atheist How to Do It, How to Help Each Other and Why, published by Pitch Stone Press. A glance at Gretel’s TV reveals that she is a woman at home with difficult conversations. Her previous books include Why Are You Atheists So Angry? Ninety Nine Things That Piss Off the Godless and bending dirty, kinky stories about pain, power, religion, unicorns and more. Plus, she edited a book called Paying For It A Guide for Sex Workers for their Clients. So if the thought of telling your grandmother you don’t believe in God gives you butterflies in your stomach, Grétar is exactly the woman you want to guide you coming out. Atheist is your no nonsense guide to leveling with everyone in your life about your atheist. Gretta, welcome to the program.
Thank you so much for having me.
So why would somebody want to come out as an atheist?
Well, there’s lots of reasons to come out as an atheist. The primary one is that it makes your life better. Living in the closet is very difficult way to live. You know, it’s difficult to keep important secrets about who you are and how you think about the world from the people who are close to you. It can be very stressful. And there’s lots of psychological sociological research backing this up. Living in the closet is very stressful. It’s stressful if you’re an LGBT person. It’s stressful if and it’s almost any kind of closet. It’s stressful if you’re an atheist. You know, it means that if people are talking about religion in ways that you find offensive or even just don’t agree with, you can’t speak up. It means that if people say offensive or hurtful things about eight years and you can’t speak up and it means that you can’t be an authentic person in your life, you can’t have really honest, close relationships with people you care about. And so when you come out as an atheist, you know, it can be stressful and it can cause conflict. But what the research has shown and there’s right now, there’s somewhat limited research on the sociological research on ageism is kind of its in its infancy. You know, it just hasn’t been that much done. But the research that has been done shows that when atheists come out and tell people that they’re atheists, most of the time they’re happier that they did it, even if it does cause conflict, even if it does cause a rift between them and the people they care about. They’re still happier that they do it just because being closeted is really stressful. And there’s another thing about being closeted is that it means that you tend to internalize the negative messages about, you know, if there are people who are saying bad things about atheists, as we all know, people do all the time. If you don’t speak up, if you’re silent about it, you tend to internalize those messages. If you speak up and you say, hey, I’m an atheist and that’s not true, that puts those negative messages back out in the world where they belong.
They don’t belong anywhere. But the statistics say that the ranks of the godless are growing.
Would you say that that reflects an increased prevalence of people coming out?
I think it does. And I think that there’s there’s a couple of things that are that I think are happening. One is that people who already don’t believe in God are more comfortable saying. So, you know, when we see these poll numbers of nonbelievers rising, I think to some extent that reflects people who all along didn’t really believe in God, but are now more comfortable, you know, saying. So when, you know, Gallup poll calls them and and asked them also, I think people are more comfortable using the word atheist because, you know, the word is getting out there. But I also think, you know, I don’t think actually I know that this is the case, that there’s this phenomenon, which is that seeing other atheists is often part of the process of what makes people become atheist. You know, it’s not like it’s the soul thing. It’s not like, oh, I saw my best friend become an atheist. And I said, hey, I’m going to do that, too. But very often when people are starting to question religion, part of the process of questioning and eventually leaving religion is simply seeing that ageism is an option. And so when we come out as atheists, we’re also sort of helping to cultivate other people in changing their mind about religion. And we’re also making it safer for people who already are atheist to to say so themselves and to come out themselves. And it makes it easier for us to build community. It makes it easier for us to find each other and so on.
You personally have come out as a number of things in your life, both as an atheist, as feminist, as kinky as a bisexual. How would your various coming out experiences compare to each other? Do you see parallels between them?
There’s a lot of similarities between them. There’s differences as well, but certainly there’s a lot of similarities. You know, there the big similarity is that at first it can be frightening, at first can be traumatic. And then there is the reality that sometimes, you know, coming out about something that people have. Guilty or fear or just misunderstanding about know it can create, create rift and create conflict and in some extreme cases it can, you know, create a permanent rift. Can you know, you can drive people away. And yet, with that being said, I don’t think I’ve ever been sorry that I came out. I don’t think I’m not sorry they came out as bisexual. I’m not sorry I came out as kinky. I’m not sorry that I’ve come out as a retired sex worker, and I’m not sure that I’ve come out as an atheist. So so there are definitely a lot of parallels. I do think that there are some important differences and some of those differences have to do with how society sees all these different groups. You know, I, for one, found that it’s easier to come out as bisexual, to come out as atheist just because you have LGBT parity has been very active and very visible and very vocal in changing people’s minds about LGBT people for decades now. You know, we’ve been a very vocal force in the political world since the early 70s, and that’s less true for atheist amazes him is really only recently in its super duper visible vocal activist mobilized phase of the movement. And as a result, people aren’t as familiar with us. And, you know, we haven’t had the decades to do that work. And so there’s more prejudice against us. So there’s some differences there. Some of the difference, though, I think has to do with the nature of Athie ism. And by the way, this experience that I’ve had a lot of other LGBT people who are also atheists has said the same thing. You know, it’s not universal, but a lot of people have said that it’s easier for them to come out as queer than to come out as a nonbeliever. I think there’s another difference, which is that when you come out as gay, you’re not telling straight people that they’re wrong to be straight. But when you come out as an atheist, there’s no way to say I don’t believe in God without implying if you do believe in God, you’re mistaken. You know, it’s like whether, you know, it’s like whether you’re gay or straight. So it’s a subjective truth about what’s true for you. But whether you believe in God or not, that’s an opinion about what’s true or not true isn’t the objective real world. And also, when we come out as an atheist, even if we don’t get into arguments, even if we just say live and let live and you can believe what you want to believe. The reality is that we are telling the religious believers in our lives. We think you’re mistaken. And in some cases we think you’re mistaken about something that’s really important to you.
What’s wrong with people who soft-pedal their atheist or what’s the disadvantage of people who say religion isn’t for me as opposed to saying religion is false?
Well, I mean, it’s if you say religion isn’t for me, you know, certainly that’s a much more conflict, diverse way of saying it. And but there’s a couple of things that are wrong with it. One is that it’s the reality is that this isn’t a subjective opinion. You know, that it is an objective opinion about what’s really true. You know, you’re not saying, you know this. You say religion is for me. It’s like sing opera isn’t for me or broccoli, is it for me. But the question of whether God exists, it’s really not a subjective question. And, you know, I I think that if you say religion is it for me, you’re kind of soft pedaling that you’re kind of denying that core reality. Now, one of the themes that that is throughout this book, the Coming Out Atheist book, is that there’s lots of different ways to come out and there’s lots of different language that people use. And there’s what, you know, some. And I don’t actually have a problem with that. I don’t think that there’s one right way to do this. There’s not one right way to tell people that you’re an unbeliever. And if you really feel that saying I’m an atheist or I don’t believe in God is it’s an irrevocably messed up important relationships in your life. And you think that saying I’m not religious is, you know, for you a better way to convey that message and then I’ll support you in that. And also, one of the common themes in this book is that a lot of people come out by kind of softening the ground first. They do it gradually. They’ll say, oh, I’m having doubts or I don’t really go to church anymore, or religion is it for me. And then that kind of leads up to eventually saying, I don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist. I’m a nonbeliever. And that can be very effective at a lot of people for whom that’s that’s worked very well. There’s other people who prefer to just come out, you know, bluntly one time and get it over with. The one thing about the softening the ground method that I found in the thread, hundreds of coming out stories when I was researching this book and sort of some common themes came up. And one of the themes that came up as well that, well, for some people, softening the ground first and coming up gradually really works for other people. What it does is once they start grab, you know, trying to gradually come out. People start asking questions and you have to be prepared for that. So you have to be prepared if you start coming out, you know, trying to soften the ground. You have to be ready for it to collapse or you have to be ready for people to ask you blunt, direct questions and you have to know what you’re going to say.
What have you learned about family relationships from studying used coming out narratives?
Well, one of the things that really surprised me when I was doing the research for this book was how often coming out as an atheist eventually turns out fine. And that seems to be especially true with families. You know, certainly that’s not universally true. There are I read plenty of stories from people who, you know, for whom when they came out as an atheist, it met a permanent roof with their family, the not even speaking to their family or the family, but speaking to them. You know, it’s meant, you know, terrible fights. It’s meant, you know, uncomfy, you know, big uncomfortable conversations or their family keeps proselytizing to them years later. But what I found is that that’s not usually what happens. Usually it eventually comes out OK. Sometimes it’s OK right away. You know, that stuff that came out that that kind of story happens surprisingly often. You know, people thought, oh, it’s gonna be a horrible fight and tears and recriminations. And it was not that big a deal. And there were also a lot of stories where people came up to their religious families when there was tears and recriminations and fights and, you know, disappointment and guilt and so on. But then after weeks or months or years, it’s fine. And, you know, and their families loved them and their families accept them. The family support them. And, you know, sometimes religion is still something of a contentious issue and sometimes it’s not. But one of the things that I found is that for the most part, families love you and they want you in their life.
And, you know, and even if, you know, there are know, difficult, contentious issues between you, for the most part, they want to work that out. And, you know, so I would encourage people, you know, give the people who love you the benefit of the doubt and, you know, don’t assume that it’s going to be horrible and that it’s going to be horrible forever. And again, that’s not universally true. There are dysfunctional families. There are you know, there’s some really bad stories in this book, some really tragic ones. But more often than not, families are ultimately accepting and supportive and loving.
Can you tell us the story of the atheist on the roof? It’s one of my favorites from the book.
I love this story. So this is the story. One of the things that surprised me actually when I was doing the research for this book is how how many atheists came out really young, came out in high school, came out in junior high and came out even as young children. The youngest age was 86. And this is a story of from somebody who came out to his family when he was a kid and his family was very insistent that he has to keep going to church. And this is obviously going to common narrative, especially with children. Is it the parents keeping the deal that keeps forcing the pretense of religion on them, even if, you know, even though the kids, you know, doesn’t believe anymore? And so what this kid did was, you know, you went along to church, you got to to church. But then after church was over every Sunday, he went and sat on the roof for an hour. And, you know, how he felt was, you know, they can make me go to church, but they can’t make me believe. And if they’re going to make me go to church, I want to have my time alone to think what I think and to have, you know, the freedom of my own thoughts. And after this has been going on for a little while, his father climbed up on the roof with him and asked, what is this about?
You know, why are you sitting on the roof for an hour every Sunday after church? And this kid explained he said, it’s really unfair that you’re making me go to church every Sunday when I don’t believe this.
You shouldn’t be forcing me to pretend to believe something I don’t believe. And so if you’re gonna make me do this, I’m going to have my private hour to be an atheist on the roof of my house every every week. And that started a conversation that eventually got the family to say, OK, you want to go to church anymore?
This person may the atheist on the roof was also he came from a Hispanic family, right. Can you talk a little bit about the experiences of some of your other reporters, narrative writers who were part of or part of various kinds of visible minority groups who may have had issues that intersected with their atheist coming out?
Sure. And there’s a you know, one, I made a great effort when I was collecting stories for this book to get them from as diverse arrange as possible. So, you know, lots of different ages, lots of different geographical regions and lots of different races and classes and so on. And I also, you know, opened reading books about, you know, African-American atheists, you know, talking with you, African-American atheist, Hispanic atheists and so on throughout my career as a as an atheist. And certainly there are some special issues. You know, there’s some, you know, unique issues in those communities that can make coming out as an atheist more difficult. You know, especially in the African-American community, there’s a strong cultural identity of being African-American, with being religious. It’s sort of one of the ways that that many people in that culture see being black. Like, that’s that’s one of the things that it means. And so for African-American atheists, it can be more difficult to leave the religion because, you know, they feel like they’re leaving behind part of that identity. It’s gonna be harder on their family and friends. Also, a lot of the social support and practical support that people in those communities get is done through the churches. And so, you know, it’s like to things like day care and, you know, help with your rent if you’re having a hard time that month and, you know, a lot of social change and political activism get done through the churches.
And so when people in those communities leave religion, you know, they’re leaving behind a lot of social support. That being said, the reality for people, you know, who are, you know, African-American, Hispanic or other, you know, other people of color and other racial minorities is that is the same one.
It’s that that that is generally true, which is that, generally speaking, most of the time it seems to turn out OK. And, you know, those same bonds, those same bonds that make, you know, families get really upset when somebody is an apostate and leaves the church, you know, because it’s like, oh, you’re you’re abandoning us. You’re abandoned in your family identity, you’re abandoning your cultural identity and so on.
But those same really strong family bonds also make families want to work it out eventually. And, you know, they don’t want to lose their kids and they don’t want to lose their siblings. They don’t want to lose their cousins. You know, they want them in their life. And so, generally speaking. You know, again, this isn’t universal, but most of the time it turns out OK. And, you know, and families are eventually, you know, accepting and supportive or accepting and supportive enough.
You write that women sometimes have extra baggage and actually trouble detaching themselves from religion because of social pressure. How does that work?
Well, I think there’s a lot of things going on. And I’m certainly not the only one to to observe this and a veto. It’s a large topic. And and we’re certainly larger than I could really explore thoroughly in this book. But I think that there’s a lot of things going on.
One of them is that traditionally, at least, you know, in a lot of cultures and certainly in the United States, the job of being religious and of maintaining religion and perpetuating religion has traditionally been women’s work. It’s virtually been seen that this is what women do. Women go to church. Women work in the church. Unity. You know, it’s like even if it’s a male preacher, which, of course, most of the time it is the job of just kind of keeping church business going day to day is typically done by women. And of course, the job of bringing children up to be religious is largely women’s work, you know, because, you know, still in our culture, the job of child rearing is largely still done by women. And so this sort of this idea that women that that being religious equals being female and that being female equals being religious. And so when women leave religion, you know, we’re not just, you know, getting people to question, you know, their religious beliefs.
We’re getting people to question their ideas of femininity, their ideas about motherhood, their ideas about marriage and so on. And so there again, there’s kind of this extra there’s this extra twist. And, you know, it is also the case that even though religion can be incredibly sexist and incredibly misogynistic and incredibly oppressive to women, it’s also the case that religion is one of the few spheres in which women have some authority. You know, again, it’s like, you know, the job of just running the church day to day is largely women’s work, and that’s that. It’s a sphere in which women have some, you know, some influence and some power. And so it can be difficult to leave that behind, you know. That being said, you know, again, religion really sexist, really misogynistic. And, you know, it’s kind of it’s this is comical double bind, where on the one hand, people are saying, you know, the culture or message about women in religion is that, you know, on the one hand, women are you know, we’re the virtuous ones. We’re the keepers of the virtue and the gatekeepers of virtue, and we’re the ones who are the shining light. So, you know, wouldn’t the men are just animals and beasts. And, you know, if it wasn’t for women, you know, we would all just be in the gutter. And yet, on the other hand, is this message that, you know, women are harlettes and we’re seducers and we’re temptresses and we can’t, you know, be controlled. And you know that. You know what? You know, it’s like in Christianity that we’re the source of all sin in the world. So it’s just kind of this double message and that and it’s a double message that both sides of those message really hurt women. And so I think that there’s a lot of women who are seeing that. And the more I think that we get female atheists into the public eye, the more other women will see. Oh, yeah. It’s possible to be an atheist and a woman that’s the oldest religion in femaleness. Don’t ask to be tied up.
What role does organized feminism have to play in liberating women from religion?
Oh, that’s a really good question. I wish I had it that whenever I say that’s a good question. I mean, they don’t have a ready answer. The problem, which is that organized feminism, even while it traditionally has been opposing sort of conventional organized religion like Catholicism and Mormonism and so on. It often buys into the narrative of women as spiritual and, you know, it tends to buy into it in a sort of new agey way or a very progressive interface, you know, Kubi, of a version of the traditional religion.
And I would love to see, you know, feminism, traditional feminism be more challenging, not just to conventional organized religion, Catholicism and Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism and, you know, Islam and so on. But to be your critical of the whole idea of religion, because, you know, religion has been a largely toxic force for women over centuries. And, oh, you know. And I would love to see feminism take it on more.
But I think there’s such an appetite within feminism as a feminist, lifelong feminist and atheists as something that continually frustrates me. Why is there such an appetite within feminism for these kinds of new agey spiritual Crunchie kinds of doctrines?
That’s again, a really good question. I think that there is no I don’t know for sure of a speculation that I have is that there’s something similar going on in the LGBT community, which is the LGBT community is also so tends to embrace sort of new agey and very progressive. Crunchie, you know, you know, religion. And I think for LGBT people and I think it’s something similar going on with women is if you’ve been, you know, inundated your entire childhood in your entire life with this message that God hates you, it can be very comforting to be embraced by your religion. This is no God doesn’t hate you. God loves you. And I think that that’s true can be true for feminism. If you’ve been battered your whole life with this idea that, you know, we all if you’ve been brought up by a very sexist religion that’s, you know, treating you as second class simply because of your gender.
To then move to a religion that says, no, it’s like, you know, the goddess embraces your or your womanhood and and thinks that it’s awesome. That can feel very comforting. And it’s more comforting in a lot of ways to hear, you know, God, you know, it’s all crap. You know, like none of this is real and you should just reject a lot of it.
And I guess every liberation movement has to decide which of the structures of power they’re going to destroy and which ones they’re gonna take over and whether it’s capitalism or religion or.
Yeah, I don’t know. And that’s a good point. And and certainly. And I think that there’s also something else that’s going on, which is that as both the LGBT community and feminism has become more mainstream, at least in the United States, being mainstream means being religious. And so it’s sort of I think some of it is part of this attempt to position ourselves as you know, we’re just like everybody else. You know, we’re just like you see, we don’t believe we we believe in things we have no good reason to think are true, just like everybody else has got drinking.
And I also think that there’s this there’s other things going on in feminism, and it kind of drives me up a tree. But I see where it’s coming from, which is that, you know, Athie ism and science get very tied up together. You know, it’s like, you know, that’s very you know, they’re not identical, obviously, but they’re, you know, for all the reasons, they get very tied up together. And science has traditionally, you know, you know, there’s decades of science being horrible to women. And I wish that that weren’t true. And I don’t think that it has to be true. I don’t think it’s anything inherent about the scientific method that does that. It has to be sexist, obviously. But, you know, there you know, there’s traditionally been a lot of really sexist science and there’s still often is. And so as a result of that, I think that there’s a lot of women and we see this also in communities of color. And even to some extent in the LGBT community, you know, if you’ve been targeted with really lousy, sexist, racist, homophobic science for decades or centuries, there’s a tendency to sort of reflexive tendency to just reject science entirely, reject the entire idea of, you know, rationalism and the scientific method and so on. And I think people sometimes have a hard time separating out, you know, what is you know, it’s like it’s not the scientific method that’s sexist. What’s sexist is, hey, you know, all of society and that includes scientists. And that, you know, we did the answer isn’t to reject the entire idea of, you know, making up your mind based on good evidence and rational thinking and, you know, being willing to question your assumptions and so on. And, you know, test and test your conclusions and all that good stuff. That’s not sexist. What’s sexist is, you know. Done with bad assumptions and sexist assumptions and so on. And there’s also this kind of this. Tendency to embrace gender essentialism. You know, it’s like there’s a sexist idea that, you know, perpetuated that, you know, Ben are smart and intelligent and intellectual and reasonable, and women are emotional and passionate and irrational and and intuitive and so on. And, you know, this is kind of a sexist idea. But I think that there’s a lot of feminists who, rather than saying, hey, this is a sexist idea. There’s a lot of women who are really brainy and think. And there’s a lot of men who are very passionate and intuitive rather than doing that. They say, yes, women are passionate and intuitive and emotional, and that’s a good thing. We need to be embracing that and rejecting all that reason and science stuff. So I think that that’s part of part of it as well. So I get where it’s coming from. It absolutely drives me around the bend in your in your atheist coming out narratives.
Did you encounter people who told the story of coming to a museum through a more emotional or intuitive path?
Well, it’s the thing about coming out narratives. I mean, first of all, when we talk about coming out, this book isn’t so much about becoming an atheist. This book is about how to tell people that you’re an atheist. The book title is Coming out Atheist How to Do It, How to Help Each Other and Why. And it’s about, you know, the narrative. Those collecting works so much about becoming atheist. There are more about how to tell people that you’re an atheist. That being said, of all of I’ve read lots of narratives about how people became an atheist as well. And it seems that it’s often a complicated process for a lot of different aspects going into this. And there’s often an emotional component as well as an intellectual component. You know, it’s like generally speaking, it seems that sort of ultimately it’s a rational evaluation of the evidence. It’s like I just couldn’t you know, it’s like there’s no good reason to think this is true. But emotional components often play a big part of it. It’s, you know, things like, you know, being revolted by religious teachings, you know, that are morally repugnant. That’s often with that gets people starting to question religion, you know, or being revolted by hypocrisy and dishonesty and fraud among religious leaders. That’s also what gets people to start asking, why should I believe this? So it’s it’s it’s complicated. And I think that the I don’t know. I mean, it’s that that seems like that’s, you know, rationalists, you know, sometimes love to think that we are only ever thinking with you know, we’re we’re only ever basing our thinking on, you know, evidence and reason. But I think that that’s rarely true. I think that, you know, we always, at the very least, start with values and values, you know, derive from emotion.
Can you tell us the foreskins story? I think that’s a beautiful sort of example of the interplay of rationality and emotion in someone’s the evolution of a young kids.
So, yeah, this is a wonderful story in the coming out atheist book. And this is another story of somebody who was starting to question religion as a child. And he was reading the part of the Bible. And I can’t put chapter and verse on top of my head was quoting without reading the part of the Bible that talks about circumcision, that talks about, you know, the cutting off of, like, lots of foreskins and bringing them to the king. And he didn’t know what a foreskin was. You know, he read this. He was a little kid. He didn’t know the foreskin was he’s wet and asked his mother, what’s a foreskin? And she said she explained it and said, oh, but that’s disgusting. We don’t talk about it. And he said, well, that’s gross. It’s like, why did the king have to, you know, in the Bible, had to cut off everybody’s foreskin?
It’s like, why was that necessary? Why did he want to see hundreds of foreskins? That’s disgusting. And he denied that that was in the Bible. He said, that’s why you’re making up stories. You want to make up stories about the Bible. That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t say that. Do you think? Yes, it does. And he went to show her in the Bible where it said this and she wouldn’t look at the Bible and she said, go to your room.
And so it’s kind of an example of how, you know, certainly religion, you know, religious believers absolutely don’t want to look at reality even of their own religion, because it’s, you know, what do you know? It makes them question it. But I think that it’s also an example of how, you know, this emotional revulsion against this story in the Bible that really is quite abhorrent made him start to question whether religion was, you know. Plausible and and obviously led him to the conclusion that it wasn’t.
One final question for you, Greta. What can we, as the atheist community, do to make our movement as welcoming and supportive to new newcomers as we can?
Oh, well, that’s a little hard to a terribly large, vital question. I think that there’s a lot of things that we can do. I think the number one thing, if I could just say one thing that we can do to help newcomers of come out of atheists and is to build a stronger community, to build a stronger community in person and also online. I mean, I think we’ve been doing a fairly good job of that. But I think we need to to continue to do it and to do it better, because it is true that when people come out as atheists, they do often lose family, lose friends, lose work connections, or if they don’t lose them entirely, they can be strained. It can be made difficult. You know, there’s a lot of social support is done through religion, especially in more conservative parts of the world. And and so if we can build community support structures that can replace some of the support that is provided by religion, that makes it easier for people to come out.
And I think that we need to do more to build schools, communities, and we need to do more to make those communities more welcoming to a wider variety of people, you know, more welcoming to to women, to people of color, to people who are leaving religions other than Christianity, to blue collar people, to people of all different ages. So so I think that’s probably the number one thing we can do to support each other in coming out is to to build community. And it is one other thing. It’s to come out ourselves. Coming out ourselves is hugely helpful in encouraging other atheists to come out.
Thank you so much for being on the program. It’s a terrific book. My guest today has been Gretta Christina. Gretta Christina’s blog and her book, Coming Out Atheist, is published by Pitch Stone Press.
This has been a point of inquiry. You can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry. Tune in next week.