Recently I was asked by a former student, who is now a graduate of Harvard University in the field of evolutionary biology, if I would write an article for The Harvard Humanist Community Project, a fine new organization supporting rationalists, humanists, skeptics, atheists, and agnostics in the Harvard community. (You should check out their website, which has a great many interesting links.) To say I was honored by her request is an understatement; the following was my contribution.
I am a high school teacher in a small, rural village in upstate New York. I’ve lived here for twenty years, and know pretty much everyone around here.
I am also an atheist.
It was some years after I moved here, from the safe anonymity of the big city, before I felt comfortable admitting my beliefs (or lack thereof). In fact, I actually attended the local Methodist church for a time, mostly on the prompting of my (now ex) wife, who felt that it was important to raise children in the social, ethical, and cultural setting that a church could offer. Contrast that with now, two decades later, when virtually everyone who knows me knows that I am an atheist.
Despite what a geometry teacher would tell you, getting from point A to point B seldom progresses in a straight line. I did not have a sudden “coming out,” where I went to the center of the village and made some kind of public proclamation of disbelief. It started out because, as a teacher of biology, I yearly face the daunting task of addressing students’ preconceived notions about evolution, and inevitably someone asks, “What religion do you belong to, Mr. Bonnet?” Even the phrasing of the question seems not to admit “None” as an answer; there is a tacit assumption of religiosity in this country, even in the relatively liberal part of it where I live, that makes a denial of faith seem almost like admitting to being some sort of pervert.
At first, I just dodged the question. “Why is that relevant?” was my standard response, mostly because few 10th graders had the wherewithal to come up with an answer to that question on the fly. The fact is, of course, it is relevant, just as the religions of the presidential candidates are relevant, however much we’d like to pretend as a nation that it isn’t true. And honestly, the deflection of the question was disingenuous, and left me with a sense of unease, a feeling that I had lost a teachable moment, not to mention left students with the impression that I was afraid to answer.
About twelve years ago, following a divorce, and perhaps feeling I had less to lose in the public eye after the very visible collapse of my marriage, I started answering the question by saying, “I’m an atheist. However, religion is outside the scope of this course – I’d be happy to discuss it with you another time, if you’d like.” This seemed to satisfy the majority of students, who (to be honest) probably had figured it out anyway. But it opened the door for the minority who were bound to see that as throwing down the gauntlet.
I’ve had letters written to me urging me to “confront my disbelief” and accept Jesus as my personal savior. I’ve been mailed piles of religious promotional materials. I’ve had a former student, once a skeptical rationalist but now a born-again, take it as his personal mission to save my soul. I’ve had parents who have asked the administration to place their children in the other biology teacher’s class, because she is “less hostile toward people with opposing views.” I even had, on one spectacularly frightening occasion, a man show up at my door and tell me that I was headed to hell because I “mislead young minds,” and he would be the one who would send me there, if need be. (I told the man to get the hell off my property, and called the police – and, fortunately, never saw or heard from him again.)
All of this has, on the one hand, made me more militant – my general reaction being, “I’ll be damned if I’ll be bullied.” On the other, it’s made me wonder why atheism is viewed with such hostility. It’s not like the majority of us are saying you can’t believe in god if you want to – by and large, atheists are a pretty live-and-let-live bunch. It more seems to be that people are bothered by someone calmly and rationally looking at all of the religious choices out there, and simply smiling and saying, “No thanks. I don’t want any of them, thank you.” It offends a lot of religious people, I think, because it implies that even given the smorgasbord of dishes, we atheists would prefer to forgo dinner completely.
In a well-publicized survey, it was found that when asked if Americans would vote for a person who was an atheist, a smaller percentage responded “yes” than did for almost any other stigmatized group. Muslims, homosexuals, even convicted felons garnered more “yes” votes than atheists did. When these results appeared in the press, I made a fairly aghast comment about it on Facebook, and a woman who was one of my high school classmates responded, “I agree! I wouldn’t vote for an atheist! How can you have any ethics or morals if you don’t believe in God?”
Well that, to quote Tolkien, needed a week’s answer or else none. Sensing a losing battle, I elected the latter, all of which goes to illustrate that I’m not as self-confident as I could be. It has been, and continues to be, a process of growth – toward, I hope, a position of respecting others while simultaneously never allowing myself to be browbeaten into silence again.
Toward that end, a little over two years ago I started a blog called Skeptophilia, intended to explore the rationalist’s view of life, with a bit of humor frequently thrown in. What at first began as a way for me to express myself in a public forum has grown to have a significant regular following – I am currently zooming toward 50,000 lifetime hits. More important to me personally is that I have a number of current and former students who are regular readers, and have contributed topics on many occasions. This gives me hope – that given exposure to rational, skeptical views, people will respond positively.
And also toward that end, I am here, at the invitation of another former student of mine. I hope to continue to contribute to the cause of humanism in whatever way I can. I may never be a Hitchens or a Dawkins, making headlines and fighting the big battles, but if I can in some small way add my voice to those championing the rationalist viewpoint, I will have succeeded.