Slate (reprinting from the Financial Times) has a story on how difficult it is to be an atheist in the United States. I read the piece with the same attitude that I have regarding most pieces about how difficult it is to be atheist/agnostic in the US, which is with a mild sense of dissonance. I have been the sort of agnostic that shorthands into “atheist” for all of my thinking life, and I haven’t made any secret of my lack of faith. The negative consequences for such a lifestyle choice, so far, at least, have been pretty minimal and indeed close to non-existent. I’m not saying other agnostics and atheists have not suffered negative consequences for their lack of belief; I’m sure they have. What I’m saying is that I haven’t, and it’s mildly curious to me why I have not.
Naturally, I have theories.
The first and most obvious: I am white, male, heterosexually paired, educated and financially well-off — i.e., the advantages I have are substantial and immediately apparent in our culture, so that even if being agnostic somehow offers a disadvantage, it’s swamped out by other factors. I have privilege in ridiculous amounts and I know it.
Second, neither in my social nor in my work life is being an agnostic a penalty. I write for a living; the writing I do is consumed by a class of people (science fiction and fantasy readers) who generally are not only not scandalized by my agnosticism, but might be mildly surprised if I did have strong religious beliefs. Likewise, my social peers are currently other writers and people who tend toward professions where a lack of strong religious belief is not a problem (science and tech-related fields, with some overlap in creative professions). So again, my lack of faith is really not a penalty.
(One interesting wrinkle on this: I live in a rural, conservative community and have for more than a decade. Rural conservative communities are just the sort of place where atheists and agnostics aren’t supposed to fit in. But in eleven years living here I can’t remember it ever being an issue. I suspect one reason for this is that many of folks here are from churches which have an active policy of tolerance and an emphasis on one’s good works. I suspect that another reason is that people here know I’m a writer and just assume writers are odd ducks anyway.)
Third, as far as being agnostic goes, while I’m perfectly open about it, I’m not aggressively so, nor am I generally antagonistic toward the concept of faith. I’m perfectly happy for others to have faith, and generally speaking I don’t take offense at the display of faith around me, or stand against it so long as that expression of faith does not encroach on my own rights and prerogatives. If having faith and/or being religious gives you joy, then have it and be it; for myself, I’ll pass, thanks. I think it also helps that, from my own personal interest, I know a fair amount about a number of faiths and can speak with at least passing knowledge about them (and am often curious about the things I don’t know). People with faith assume those without it have no knowledge, interest or respect for faith. If you let them know you do, in my experience a lot of suspicion goes away.
Fourth, I’ve been lucky. I grew up without a religious background, so I didn’t have to rebel against it. My education was at schools that actively encouraged pluralism and tolerance for faith, including the absence of faith — I was on my high school’s “Faith Gang” as a representative of secular humanism, for example. I’ve gotten through life largely surrounded by tolerant people, both of faith and without it, which allowed me to develop my own views on faith without undue defensiveness or division. Not everyone has that.
Add it all up and you get an agnostic experience without ostracism or penalty, at least so far. I am led to believe that my lack of faith will keep me from being President of the United States, but inasmuch as that’s not actually a life goal for me (and Krissy wouldn’t let me anyway), this is not a huge setback. Otherwise, essentially, it’s not been a problem for me. I wish others who choose not to believe were as fortunate as I have been.