It seems backward. Believers are always telling atheists that we need religion for morality; that we have to believe because without religion, people would have no reason not to murder and steal and lie. And yet, all too often, they ask us to lie. When atheists come out of the closet and tell the people in our lives that we don't believe in God, all too often the reaction is to try to shove us back in.
In some cases, they simply want us to keep our mouths shut: when the topic of religion comes up, they want us to tell the lie of omission. But much of the time, they actually ask us to lie outright. They ask us to lie to other family members. They ask us to attend church or other religious services. They sometimes even ask us to perform important religious rituals, like funerals or confirmations, where we're not just lying to the people around us, but to the god they supposedly believe in.
Why would they do this?
When I was doing research for my new guidebook, “ Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why,” I was shocked at how often this happens. I read over 400 "coming out atheist" stories to write this book, and in the stories I read, this theme came up again and again and again.
You see it a lot with parents and children. When kids and teenagers tell their parents that they're atheists, parents often respond by insisting that their kids keep up a religious charade. Alexander came out as atheist to his family in fourth grade, and was met with hostility and confusion — and quickly went back into the closet. "True to form," he says on his Scribbles and Rants blog, "my parents dropped the matter as long as I went through the motions and didn't bring it up myself."
Parents don't just pressure their atheist kids to keep up the facade, either. They often force them into it. On the Coming Out Godless Project website, Emmanuel Donate says when he was a teenager and came out as atheist to his family, a Latino family who took their Catholicism seriously, they forced him to go to church with them. And Lexie tells of the enormous fight she had with her mother over whether she would go to church. "I did go to church that next morning," she says, "albeit yelling, screaming and basically being dragged out of the door (picture a teenager and mother behaving basically like a young mum and tantruming toddler)."
This doesn't just mean making kids sit through church, either. Stories of kids and teenagers being forced to go through confirmations and other important religious rituals are ridiculously common. Helena says she was pressured to be confirmed into her Lutheran church — even though she knew she was an atheist and had tried to make that as clear as she could. And she isn't alone. Lauren, who came out as atheist to her Lutheran family and church at age 12, told both her mother and her pastor that she didn't want to be confirmed. When she told her pastor, "I can't get up there and say stuff I don't believe," he replied, "Please stop disrupting class with your questions. This is a special time in everyone's life — don't ruin it."
The upshot was that she was forced to go through with the ceremony, and to lie, in public, about her atheism. Now, here's the thing: Confirmation is one of the most serious rituals in religion. It's the ritual in which children accept adult responsibility for their purported soul, and declare their adult commitment to their religion. The whole point is that they're finally making a free choice about participating in religion, instead of just going along with their family. Yet parents and clergy still pressure kids into this ritual, or even force them into it. Even when they know it's a lie.
But this isn't just a parent/kid dynamic. It happens with adults as well. It happens between spouses; in the workplace; in adult families and communities; between parents and adult children. When Rosie and her husband first started dating, she made sure he was aware of her atheism — and yet, she says, "When our first child was baptized, I felt suckered into participating." When Judy Komorita's mother died, her Christian evangelical boss "gathered me up with the bookkeeper into a prayer circle. I knew it was stupid (and wrong), and I was shaking with grief. But with his and her arms around me, he said something like 'Lord, even though Judy doesn't believe in you, I know you will take care of her and help her."
When LD's father died, "[the] priest requested we all do readings and I was open to it, if I could read something poetic from Psalms, maybe." Instead, she says, "I was handed John 3:16. ['For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.']" This happened even though her family and friends knew about her atheism. And in her famous performance piece Letting Go of God, actor and comedian Julia Sweeney says that her mom's response to her atheism was, "This doesn't mean that you've stopped going to church, does it?"
And pressure to pray in the U.S. military abounds. Including official orders to pray. On the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers website, you'll see these stories again and again. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Francy Legault says, "In boot camp, we were learning commands — right face, march, all that and one command is 'let us pray' and we were told it didn't matter what we believed, when we heard that command, we had to bow our heads. So prayer is a command."
Army Sergeant John Gill says, "My first glimpse of Army belief pushing came when I was standing on a parade field as a brand new private, refusing to bow my head for the chaplain's prayer. My platoon sergeant told me afterward that even if I didn't believe in God, I should bow my head out of respect for those around me."
Air Force Staff Sergeant Johnathan Napier says, "I also remember going through basic training and being given the option of 'going to church' or 'cleaning.' That's not a real option." And Army Master Sergeant Michael Hammond says, "Being 'strongly encouraged' as a leader to attend yet another prayer breakfast has pushed me past the point of tolerance." In fact, it's common for atheists in the U.S. Military to be pressured to not list "atheist" on their dog tags — or even have their explicit requests about this refused.
If believers were sincerely concerned about atheists' immortal souls, I'd understand why they might argue with us, show us their concerns and fears, even try with all their might to convince us that we're wrong. But why would they ask us to lie? Why would they ask us to pretend to be religious? And why would they ask us to lie, not only in small ways to our friends and families and communities, but in important rituals to the god they believe in?
I've been thinking about these stories for a long time. Ever since I started working on my guide, this phenomenon has troubled me. It's troubled me morally — it's such a messed-up thing to do. And it's troubled me intellectually. It's such backward, self-contradictory behavior. Why would people do it?
I think a few factors play into this. As I wrote in the book: “For many families, being religious is less about spiritual beliefs, and more about family identity. More than anything else, going to religious services is a family togetherness activity, or even a family duty. As Sally M. says, who was brought up Catholic but has been an atheist since childhood, says, "The whole family has always treated church like a chore, so they probably assumed I was claiming atheism to get out of wasting my Sunday. If my mother had to drag herself and the rest of my siblings out of bed, there was no way I was getting out of it." And some believers may think that participating in religious rituals will somehow draw atheists back into belief.
But I think there's something else going on here, something more powerful than either of these.
They don't want to hear that the emperor has no clothes.
And if too many people start saying that the emperor has no clothes, they'll have a harder time convincing themselves that he does.
Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. It's a bad idea, and can’t stand up on its own. But it can, and does, perpetuate itself through social consent. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life. It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion — or pretending to believe in religion — a necessity to function and indeed survive. It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are hard-wired to believe what they're told.
Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. But the simple act of coming out as an atheist denies it this consent. Even if atheists never debate believers or try to persuade them out of their beliefs; even if all we ever do is say out loud, "Actually, I'm an atheist," we're still denying our consent. And that throws a monkey wrench into religion's engine.
There's a reason that rates of atheism have been going up as use of the Internet goes up. (According to the MIT Technology Review, the dramatic drop in religious affiliation in the U.S. since 1990 is closely mirrored by the increase in Internet use — and while correlation certainly doesn't prove causation, this analysis factors out pretty much every other possible causation.) The Internet has created a massive worldwide forum for atheists to argue about religion, to give evidence against religion, to ask for evidence and arguments supporting religion and point out how ridiculously weak they are. But the Internet has also created a massive, worldwide forum for atheists to simply, you know, exist.
In my research for “Coming Out Atheist,” I read numerous stories of atheists who had stayed religious for years — simply because everyone around them was religious, and they never considered the possibility that someone could be non-religious. But this is becoming less and less common. It's getting harder and harder to keep atheism a secret. If you're a teenager in a tiny town in the Bible Belt, you can now find out about atheists. You can talk with atheists. You can argue with atheists. You can learn what atheists think and why they think it. And you can simply learn that atheists exist, and are basically good people who love life and find great meaning in it. And that, just by itself, just by denying consent to your religion, stands a good chance of putting a serious dent in it.
What's more, this denial of consent has a snowball effect. As more atheists come out of the closet, more people will question religion and eventually leave it. And as they leave religion and come out about their atheism, another wave of people will question and abandon religion ... and so on, and so on, and so on.
It's easy to ignore one person saying that the emperor has no clothes. It's a lot harder to ignore 10 people saying it — and it's harder still to ignore a hundred, or a thousand.
So if you want to ignore the emperor's nakedness, it's not enough to just ignore it. You have to get other people to shut up about it. If you want religion to keep perpetuating itself, you have to get people to go along with it. You have to get people to fake it.
You have to get people to lie.
And that's what explains this weird phenomenon, this phenomenon of religious believers telling atheists, openly and explicitly, to lie about our atheism. This phenomenon is Exhibit A in just how essential social consent is to keeping religion propped up. It shows just how shaky the foundations of religion are — when people openly state that they would rather have us pretend to believe than be honest. It shows just how shaky believers' hold on religion is, when they tell us that we need religion to be moral, but then ask us, openly and explicitly and without any apparent shame, to lie.