Ask Richard: Lonely Atheist Needs Intelligent Conversations
COLUMN By RICHARD WADE
For Humanist Network News
August 5, 2009
You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard@ca.rr.com. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of request; please be patient.
(Editor's Note: Readers, this column was first published in the July 27 blog, The Friendly Atheist. Thanks to Hemant Mehr and Richard Wade for letting us reprint this in order to give you a taste of Richard's work. It's a meaty and pertinent issue given a thoughtful and thorough response. Enjoy, and start thinking about your own questions to Ask Richard.)
Where does an atheist turn when she finds herself surrounded by people yet always alone? I live in a fairly conservative part of the country and while my friends know and accept that I’m an atheist, they view it as more of a novelty than anything — something they like to bring up when there are new people around, or if they have had a few drinks and feel like debating someone. Like it's fun to wind me up and watch me go.
I try not to take the bait, but sometimes I can’t help myself. See, no one is interested in just talking to me and learning about my opinions or beliefs. They think that I turn too aggressive (who among us doesn’t come across that way?). I am a thirty something mother of a beautiful little girl, I take good care of myself physically and lead an active lifestyle, I am a happy person, slow to anger, and while I am more liberal than most in my community, I don’t push my views on anyone else. I also don’t bring up my atheism unless someone asks (I learned that lesson very early on) and yet somehow, when the topic of religion comes up, I’m aggressive.
My desire to talk and learn and share my ideas about religion and atheism is very strong. However, since I have no one to talk with or share ideas with here, I find my only option is to turn to the Internet. It’s been wonderful and I have learned so much (thanks Hemant, PZ, and Daniel to name a few), but still, it’s a little lonely.
I wish there were a local atheist organization I could join, but the closest one is hundreds of miles away (although I’ve considered making the drive many times). I plan on going to the Atheist Convention in Burbank in October, but when I told my husband and friends about it, they laughed and kind of ribbed me like it was cute or something. I hate this.
I would appreciate any suggestions you might have. Thanks,Lonely Atheist, Wyoming
Dear Lonely Atheist,
For people with above-average levels of intelligence, intellectual loneliness can be as painful as physical loneliness. They hunger for conversations beyond mundane topics, for dialogue with others who can challenge their minds and who can understand their complex ideas. While the Internet has become a great source for nourishing that hunger, for some of those famished thinkers, blogs, instant messaging, and discussion forums just aren’t enough. They also need to sit and interact face-to-face with their cerebral compadres.
You have three wonderful qualities that are a disadvantage in the region where you live. You’re a woman, you’re smart, and you’re an atheist. To many in the local culture, a woman is automatically dismissible, a smart person is suspect, and an atheist is despicable. So a smart woman atheist is a serious triple threat to anyone with those prejudices.
When you want to express yourself about things that are important to you, your friends and husband do not take you seriously because they know that they’re no match for you if they try. So they bait you, and trivialize you into a cute form of entertainment that they don’t have to address directly, something that can’t seriously threaten their world view. I think you take the bait because your brain is desperate for some kind of exercise and expression, but you’ll probably never get what you need at that cognitive dry well.
I’ll suggest some possible solutions further on, but first be sure you’re not partially buying into the characterization of yourself as "aggressive." You may be unwittingly falling for a manipulation to encourage you to shut up. Are you actually aggressive? Do you yell, swear, or insult the person instead of simply stating your argument against their claim? Do you want to crush and humiliate them more than simply show that your viewpoint is valid? Just because you are earnest does not make you aggressive.
Religious people are accustomed to having it easy in their special status where social convention protects their beliefs from critical challenge. As a result, they’re spoiled and soft. So they will call any atheist who speaks up "aggressive" even if the atheist is very polite and merely being assertive or frank or worst of all, if she has a good argument.
They can bellow all they want about damnation, condemn others as fools or evil doers, and intrude into places they have no right to be, yet never think of themselves as aggressive, but if someone respectfully says they don’t believe all that, they recoil from such "aggression" as if physically struck. Observe women who are assertive, articulate and outspoken, and you’ll see that "aggressive" is also often unfairly applied to them, basically to shut them up. Don’t fall for either of these. Remain cool, and politely call people on their attempts to squelch you with that trick.
Now for some suggestions and I hope that the readers out there will chime in with their much more clever and knowledgeable offerings:
- First, improve on two resources that you already have: your husband and the Internet. If you haven’t yet, tell your husband clearly how important this need is to you. If he either can’t or won’t converse seriously with you about atheism and religion, then at the very least, he should not trivialize you or make fun of you, and he should not encourage your friends to do that. Even if he disagrees with your opinion, he should be respectful of you as a person, and not participate in belittling you.
Blogs and discussion boards are intellectually stimulating, but the best thing and the worst thing about them is that anybody can join in to the conversation. They are big, so you can once again feel lost in the crowd, even though this time you’re in a crowd of like-minded people. You also need a more intimate conversation.
Find a handful of online friends and create a private discussion group site, just for the few of you, to talk privately about these issues and the more personal challenges that surround these issues, such as your frustration and hurt when your friends patronize and mock you. You and your more confidential online friends will begin to trust and care about each other, and the back-and-forth you can have with them can be very nurturing and healing.
- In Wyoming, things that you need will often be far away, so you have to be self-reliant. If the closest atheist organization is too far away, start your own. You only need to find two or three other people with similar needs. Visit or contact that distant atheist group you mentioned and ask if they could help you find a few more people in your area. They may have met others who live closer to you than where they currently meet.
- Consider becoming a student. You’re busy as a wife and mother, but taking one class in a community college can help feed that mental hunger, and help you find friends who enjoy such discussions. Take a course in philosophy, logic or comparative religion. Don’t worry about focusing on the grade. Unless you are planning a career, it doesn’t matter. Actually, any subject will do. You’ll be meeting smart people. Being older than most of the students at a college has some distinct advantages, and you’ll have as much to offer them as they have to offer you. See yourself in terms of possibilities rather than impossibilities.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. You’re a rose in the wilderness; you should not be left to fade and wither. You deserve resources where you will be valued and encouraged. Demand them, find them, and create them!
(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He grew up surrounded by scientists at a major natural history museum, where his parents worked. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction, counseling more than ten thousand patients. He is now retired.
His viewpoint grows from a lifetime of skepticism, rationalism and a pragmatic attitude that life should be faced with equal measures of courage and humor. This column is not just for advising humanists or atheists. Anyone from any perspective or belief is welcome. Richard's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)