Long before I became a parent, when I was barely into adulthood, I began considering myself an “atheist-leaning agnostic.” I liked the term agnostic but figured if I had to get off the fence, I’d jump down on the atheist side. That was around the time President Bill Clinton unveiled his ill-fated “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the military — a policy I loathed from the start but, ironically, was quietly adopting in my own life. I didn’t ask people about their religious beliefs, and I didn’t tell people about mine. It just seemed easier this way. I knew too many believers, and I didn’t have the stomach for boat-rocking.
But, slowly, over the years, I began to find that a surprising number of the people in my friend-family circle actually shared my opinions, and those who didn’t share them weren’t particularly bothered by mine. Granted, none of us talked about religion much. There just wasn’t much to say. But one day I looked around me and realized I wasn’t in the closet anymore. I had inched out of it, bit by bit.
Recent estimates put the number of nonreligious people in the United States as high as 60 million. That’s a whopping 20 percent of the population. And our numbers are growing. But you sure wouldn’t know it given the brute strength of conservative news commentators and religious zealots, who go out of their way to falsely accuse nonbelievers of being immoral and indecent. They equate the godless with terrorists, even satanists (WTF?), and see the separation of church and state as unpatriotic.
Point is, being a nonbeliever carries a stigma. It’s part of what makes it so hard for secular parents to know how to start the talking about religoin with their kids: because, on some level, parents know that they might be placing their kids in a position to bear the stigma, too.
I cringe when I think of saddling my daughter with a stigma, even more so because I’ve had the bright idea to go ahead and share all my beliefs on a public blog. But I also cringe when I think of people feeling ashamed simply for being who they are. It happens all too often, and I’d like my daughter to know it’s not okay.
There is something poetic in the timing of all this, too. This month, after a long, hard-fought battle, the military is set to officially repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The government’s finally calling shenanigans on the shame game.
And so am I.