How anti-atheist stigma affects the mental health of American nontheists

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'Atheists in America' editor Melanie Brewster.

'Atheists in America' editor Melanie Brewster. Photo courtesy Brewster.

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'Atheists in America' editor Melanie Brewster tells RNS how anti-atheist bias impacts the mental health of atheists and explains why she wanted to be sure her new book "was not another tale of the ‘upper middle class straight white man’ leaving his faith.”

  • I appreciate a call for better understanding of atheists – and for me that means I rarely identify with or seek out atheists in part of how ugly Christianity/herd-mentality was for me. I see patterns repeated within atheist ‘communities’ that were sickening within the Christian community – so I prefer to go it alone for the most part. However – when I do meet with deconverted people within the Former Fundamentalist support group, I ALWAYS encourage them to seek professional therapist and/or mental health help outside of the community. For many survivors of Christianity, group think and group gatherings in general trigger a lot of past pain and anger… so though I’ve tried to create community for survivors, the very act of gathering with ‘like-minded’ former believers can be difficult and painful…

    So I’d be interested in knowing how deconverted atheists respond to marginalization within the atheist community versus atheists who have barely seen the inside of a church. Much of the mental health concerns that led me to form a support group for deconverted had to do with Losing community… and for me that has become a double edged sword in that I find most “community” highly suspect and uncomfortable as a result of too much Christianity.

    Thank You – Melanie and Chris – for doing this work!

  • rob

    there is only one way to be saved and that’s through faith in Jesus .
    John 3; 16-20
    Having a family member that was Jewish would be no safer for them than having one that’s Atheist.

    never give up on any one .. all ways proclaim the praises of Jesus that called US ALSO out of darkness into his wonderful light.

  • It is strange how people who maintain themselves to be the end-product of some random collisions of molecules in an empty and meaningless universe should ever concern themselves with such concepts as identity and community.

    I suggest it is because deep-down they don’t really believe in the atheistic worldview at all

  • Sanjoy Das

    I really couldn’t care less what religious freaks think about atheists, when they can’t get with one another in the first place. I don’t feel any stress that they don’t. It’s their problem.

  • Sanjoy Das

    There we go. The usual religious odium.

  • samuel Johnston

    Since when is raw, vitriolic, and unsubstantiated insult acceptable in public debate? Answer: When religionists do it.
    It matters not whether the collisions of molecules are random or determined,
    the end result is the same – life, intelligent and otherwise, of which you are apparently an example of the latter.

  • B Fuller

    Everyone is afraid. There is a terror that accompanies the risk that “I will no longer exist”. Religious people don’t admit this terror, therefore no dialogue is possible. Call each other names, or else live with it.

  • I did not lose my faith. I gained my trust.
    Faith is beliefs based on no evidence.
    Trust is beliefs based on evidence and probabilities.
    There are many atheist organizations that protest the marriage of religion and government. We believe in the separation of religion and government.
    Check it out. ACLU, FFRF, etc. There is even a support group for clergy that have abandoned their faith in favor of trust.
    I am FREE from dogma and fairy tales. It feels really good.
    Talk about mental health issues… You have to be delusional to accept the misogynistic religions created by men.

  • It’s not god, or gods that atheists object to. Whether or not a god or gods exist is not the problem. In fact it’s irrelevant. It’s religions. Religions who think they have their god’s email address.

  • ronald

    Athiests have mental health issues all right, but don’t try to blame us Christians for it! Try believing in Jesus and then maybe you won’t be nuts any more.

    Anti-athiest bias? What a joke! You have never been fed to a lion!

  • Pete

    Ronald ,you think bias cant ever exist ?, unless someones been thrown to a lion

    Were you home schooled ? by westboro baptist

  • As an atheist, I have never had any issues with feeling marginalized. I’m not the one suffering from delusion, people who believe in God/gods are. What atheists need right now, as the movement continues to grow, is to help in the fight against the push to theocratize our government. Somehow we managed to survive the Bush years with only three wars (unless you count the war against our own people by the NSA and FBI). Voters have to make sure they aren’t voting for a “stealth” Fundamentalist, someone who acts like a conservative but who actually has no intention of upholding U.S. law except insofar as it serves his or her faith. As religion creeps farther and farther into our government, so too will discrimination, hatred, inflexibility and impasse, and eventually, imprisonments and executions.

  • Herms

    Many of the points brought up here actually do apply to my experience as a recent atheist. It’s been increasingly difficult for me since I live in the south, where you basically don’t have a voice and people automatically assume you’re misguided for not conforming to the social norm. So I welcome the call for atheists to band together because individually we simply can’t counter the popular vote of the religious masses, and we’d only be aiding them in their push to marry church and state.

  • Not That Kind of Angel

    Re: Sanjoy Das:

    I was going to reply to all the religious nut jobs posting on here, till I read your post. You said it better than I could. Thanks.

  • Kim

    Or perhaps John, we’re people who, just like those in church communities, like to be around other nice people of similar disposition, despite the specifics of our origin beliefs. Um, we’re EXACTLY like you, just no silly, supernatural pretenses.

  • XaurreauX

    “I suggest it is because deep-down they don’t really believe in the atheistic worldview at all”

    I’m sure that desperate wish makes us less terrifying to you..

  • Neon Genesis

    It is strange how people who are so certain they’re right about the existence of God are so obsessed with what other people do with their private lives.

  • Ricardo

    It is just because morality was existing LONG before eligion…

  • Ricardo

    Trust me, your argument here is deeper than dawking’s or Hitchens’

  • Ricardo

    Ha, ha, being feed to a lion makes you great?

  • Dale

    Stigma? Somebody thinks ill of me because I don’t believe in fairy tails? Not my circus, not my monkeys. After 60 years of happily living and productively working amongst the hoards of believers, my mental health is just fine, and so is my 82-year-old atheist mother’s and my three adult atheist children’s. Atheism is not part of our identity, it’s just a fact.

    I don’t believe in gods any more than I believe in the man in the moon; not believing in the man in the moon is also not part of my identity. I’m all for ending discrimination of all kinds, including discrimination against atheists, but to blow atheism up into anything more than a lack of belief in gods is sort of asking for mental health problems, no?

  • Dee

    This is the stuck point that keeps the hamster wheel of exclusiveness and narcissistic self-righteousness spinning. The sad part is it isn’t even the correct translation of Jesus’ meaning. Seek and you shall find.

  • Mark

    Identity and community (and purpose) are **all we have** in a fundamentally meaningless and undirected Universe. And it is our task to create all three: whether (like the religious) we just sign onto someone else’s prescribed list, or create our own.

    I assure you: we atheists do, indeed, believe in an atheistic worldview. In fact, to me personally it is completely absurd that everyone doesn’t.

  • Mark

    That’s a low bar to get over, frankly. Dawkins and Hitchens are like have “ambassadors” with Tourette’s Syndrome.

  • Mark

    …and neither have you, Ronald. Victim complex much?

    Your gang dominates our country’s politics, tries to force its worldview onto our children, and makes war on what evidence plainly shows us is the nature of the Universe.

    You aren’t a victim–you’re an aggressor. Go practice your religion all you like–but leave me out of it. Leave me out of it in our nation’s laws, in our schools, and in our public policy debates.

  • Mark

    Uh, no, actually. Perhaps you and yours have been fortunate enough not to experience discrimination, but people have had their children taken away, have been refused parole, have been excluded from juries, have been refused employment or fired, and have been completely excluded from seeking public office in this country because they don’t believe in gods. That is a real phenomenon, and those who suffer by it are inherently stressed in a manner which can affect mental health.

    If you are a reasoning person, I suggest you consider the aphorism that “the plural of anecdote is not data”. Your experience doesn’t define THE experience of American atheists. It’s one dot on a gigantic graph, that’s all. You can’t extrapolate anything meaningful about atheists writ large from your family’s story.

  • Dale

    I understand the difference between anecdotal evidence and data derived from valid research. I didn’t say that my experience is everyone’s experience. You inferred that. I spoke in first person and not in generalities for a reason.

    Yes, people do bad things to atheists sometimes. I specifically stated that I am a proponent of ending discrimination against atheists.

    You missed my point which was to caution against incorporating atheism into one’s identity (the article talks about “looking at atheism as an identity”) because, not believing in something is hardly a deeply-held ideal worthy of being incorporated into one’s identity, and doing so puts one’s mental health at risk because in addition to the potential for societal punishment, one has also added attacks on one’s very identity.

    I am suggesting that it is mentally healthier and more sensible to view a lack of belief in something (gods in this case, or fairies or unicorns, fire-breathing dragons…) as a simple fact and not blow it up into something larger than it is and then incorporating it into one’s identity. I am not suggesting that if we do that the believing world will suddenly stop punishing us. That’s a separate issue.

  • Mark

    Fair enough, but I think that when not believing in something is a minority position, it inevitably *does* become part of one’s identity. Identity (individuality) is defined by affinities and differences–if you are the only person of your social group to subscribe to a radically different belief about the nature of the Universe than your peers, it inevitably becomes an identifier, both internally and socially.

    This doesn’t mean you have to expend effort on “trying to be” an atheist, but the fact of atheism does set a person apart from the mainstream in this country, and thus serves as one data point in identity.

  • Dale

    Absolutely, I agree–one data point of identity. And not an insignificant one either. Not to go all Zen-like here, though, but I believe that one’s mental health is likely to be better if one doesn’t attach too much to that one–or any–data point in identity.

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  • Andy

    The need for community is real, but it doesn’t necessarily mean banding together to promote atheism in the same way that believers promote their faiths. I find my community support online through the atheist forum on Topix. Since it’s free and open to anyone, believers are present as well, but the interchanges between the nonbelievers are actually enhanced by that in a weird way. I also enjoy the “company” of others who like to write and, for the most part, do it well.

    Local atheist meetings seem more haphazard. I only get to talk with one or two people, and there’s alway s a little pressure to move towards the kind of group action that repelled me when I was trying to live as a believer. Not everyone can give up “churchiness” along with faith.

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  • Today, I went to the beach with my children. I found a sea shell and
    gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and
    screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her
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  • Dawn

    I loved this article. I have never been an anti-theist, but through my experience with solving human issues I have found that the social sciences often have provided the strongest tools for dealing with self-esteem and how to better interact with my fellow humans. Although I now understand the importance of forgiveness I know that praying for it didn’t always make me feel at peace with issues, nor did it feel like praying was all I could do to make peace with myself and other people. I owe social scientists a lot of gratitude (and have a lot of gratitude) for helping me find happiness and lessening depression. I believe these two things are different journeys (thanks to the Happiness Project for me seeing that) but that is another topic. I know that without the social sciences, which need science, I may still be lost.

    My main difficulty with atheism is often this question; where is the hope? The comment about “upper middle class straight white man’ leaving his faith” rand true to me; most of my atheist friends are intelligent, upper class male (of all sexual orientations), but the primary thing they all seem to really have in common is economic self-efficacy. They don’t worry about money the way that many believers I know do. I understand this is a much bigger conversation but my question is how does an individual in poverty who feels like they are barely staying afloat find peace with the type of atheism hope I see common in anti-theist and atheist conversations. I know I am coming from my subjective experience, but I feel it is easy to have hope with economic security and/or a social network of people you can trust but what if that is all currently a difficult situation? I honestly have never found a similar level of comfort with the times when I could believe that there was something there loving me even when I felt otherwise. I am sure there is an answer to this; I just can’t find it.

    I am really interested in any constructive feedback anyone would have. Obviously my old methods of finding hope aren’t working or else I wouldn’t be falling upon blogs such as this, lol.

    Again, wonderful read and I am definitely going to look into your research, Chris. Really fascinating stuff from a really fascinating person.

  • Lokeal

    Jesus is fictional, hence you are speaking down to people who lack the delusion you have that he could have ever possibly existed.

    What about the Bible?

    Simple, it’s part of the vast bundle of evidence supporting that Jesus never existed as the gospels tend to time and time again contradict themselves regarding the life of Jesus.

    What do the historians and other various writers from that time and general location have to say about him?

    How about the originality of the Bible’s stories, can you at least rely on that?

    Yeah…. not original in your mythology either….

    Well at least Jesus is an awesome role model?

    Nope, in fact from this, being an anti-christ could be a good thing… I’d rather befriend a satanist than a Christian, Christians…