"The liberation of social believers" op-ed piece

Folks,

I will begin the process of getting this published very soon, with the target being large newspapers in the southeast where I live. Feedback?


The liberation of social believers

Humans feel a strong need to be accepted by whatever group is around to do the accepting. And this need is so strong that it can, and often does, trump other needs.

In the case of sexuality, for gays and lesbians, passing as heterosexual was a matter of social survival here in the Bible Belt until recently in some communities. It still is in many others, especially small towns.

The same holds true for atheists and other non-believers. Just as there are and have been many, many “social heterosexuals,” there are many, many “social believers.”

My own awakening as an atheist was a slow process over many years. I am certain that if I had been asked when I was in my teens or twenties if I believed in god I would have said “yes.”

But the fact is that I realize now I never believed. I fooled myself because it was the socially accepted position and there were no compelling needs to reflect on or challenge this position.

In the course of ongoing sociological research, I conducted an open online survey for people who identify themselves as atheists. Of the 8,200 responses I received, more than half said their views developed over many months or, in some cases, years.

A social believer is a person who either does not acknowledge their true inner identity or belief, or intentionally suppresses it to remain accepted by their social circles, whether they be religious, racial, political … the list goes on. How many are social believers are there? We really have no way of knowing, for at least two reasons.

First, we are quite capable of lying to ourselves. Indeed, we may not know ourselves what is deep in our own minds. Such is the power of culture and the need for social acceptance, and of the mind's ability to self-deceive.

Second, even if someone is aware of and honest about his unbelief, he might still lie to survey takers just like he lies to his parents, spouse, children – even his pastor. I suspect the official numbers of believers within all faiths is heavily inflated by large numbers of people who simply fib on religious affiliation surveys.

We all do this, to an extent. We play the script that is handed to us by our social class, gender, age or race. Many of us secretly rebel against these scripts, but publically go along just for the sake of getting along.

Could it be that the very same kind of “self-lie” happens regarding a belief in god? As a sociologist I can only guess that for every 10 people who say they believe in god there are as many as 3 who are lying to themselves or others.

Just as when homosexuality began to lose some of its stigma in popular culture and many people “came out of the closet,” I predict the same will happen with non-believers. As atheism loses its stigma, more and more people will admit to themselves – and others – that they really do not believe in life after death.

If in reading this piece you saw yourself – a social believer – consider freeing yourself from the lie that you have been living. Come out of the closet.

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Comment by Chrys Stevenson on September 8, 2009 at 4:38pm
Yeah, sorry - I think the programme's filled. I haven't even been able to sneak Brother Richard on. :-(
Comment by tom arcaro on September 8, 2009 at 4:35pm
The only way that might be possible is if I could get on the program somehow, but I am in a much lower league than those heavy hitters!
Comment by Chrys Stevenson on September 8, 2009 at 4:24pm
Any chance you can get to Melbourne in March for the Rise of Atheism international convention, Tom? Dawkins, Myers, Barker, Singer and lots more will be there - oh, and me too! ;-)
Comment by tom arcaro on September 8, 2009 at 4:22pm
Thanks for all of your help and feedback. I look forward to seeing your piece when its ready for prime time. In the meantime, my regards to OZ.
Comment by Chrys Stevenson on September 8, 2009 at 3:13pm
I like it! I think the last paragraph really gives people something to think about. And, Tom, I do feel your pain, I'm working on an important piece at the moment with my own little team of atheist editors, and I think I'm at about draft five at the moment. (I'll send you a copy when it's done.)
Comment by tom arcaro on September 8, 2009 at 8:04am
A new draft based on comments and feedback. Two part op-eds just won't get published, alas.

The liberation of social believers

Humans feel a strong need to be accepted by whatever group is around to do the accepting. And this need is so strong that it can, and often does, trump other needs.

In the case of sexuality, for gays and lesbians, passing as heterosexual was a matter of social survival here in the Bible Belt until recently in some communities. It still is in many others, especially small towns.

The same holds true for atheists and other non-believers. Just as there are and have been many, many “social heterosexuals,” there are many, many “social believers.”

My own awakening as an atheist was a slow process over many years. I am certain that if I had been asked when I was in my teens or twenties if I believed in god I would have said “yes.”

But the fact is that I realize now I never believed. I fooled myself because it was the socially accepted position and there were no compelling needs to reflect on or challenge this position.

In the course of ongoing sociological research, I conducted an open online survey for people who identify themselves as atheists. Of the 8,200 responses I received, more than half said their views developed over many months or, in some cases, years.

A social believer is a person who either does not acknowledge their true inner identity or belief, or intentionally suppresses it to remain accepted by their social circles, whether they be religious, racial, political … the list goes on. How many social believers are there? We really have no way of knowing, for at least two reasons.

First, we are quite capable of lying to ourselves. Indeed, we may not know ourselves what is deep in our own minds. Such is the power of culture and the need for social acceptance, and of the mind's ability to self-deceive.

Second, even if someone is aware of and honest about his unbelief, he might still lie to survey takers just like he lies to his parents, spouse, children – even his pastor. I suspect the official numbers of believers within all faiths is heavily inflated by large numbers of people who simply fib on religious affiliation surveys.

We all do this, to an extent. We play the script that is handed to us by our social class, gender, age or race. Many of us secretly rebel against these scripts, but publically go along just for the sake of getting along.

Could it be that the very same kind of “self-lie” happens regarding a belief in god? Based on many interviews and other data, I will estimate that for every 10 people who say they believe in god there are as many as 3 who are lying to themselves or others.

Just as when homosexuality began to lose some of its stigma in popular culture and many people “came out of the closet,” I predict the same will happen with non-believers. As atheism loses its stigma, more and more people will admit to themselves – and others – that they really do not believe in life after death.

If in reading this piece you saw yourself – a social believer – consider freeing yourself from the lie that you have been living. With just a little effort you can find a great deal of support for this new chapter in your life. There is a growing, active and nurturing atheist community in the United States, and even support groups directed at former “social believers.”
Before you take any action consider the social ramifications of this change in terms of your family, your workplace and your community. For some being in the closet is a form of social survival in one, two or even all three of these parts of your life.
From social believer to “out” non-believer: only you will know for sure when to make this transition. In any case know that there are many, many others just like you facing the very same decision.
Comment by Jason Spicer on September 7, 2009 at 5:38pm
Even if you change "I can only guess" to "I can estimate", it's better to back it up with a link to supporting data or survey results. If you don't have that to hand, better to leave out the comment, IMHO. Numerical statements without support always make me question whether the author is just making things up, and if it's annoying when theists do it, it's annoying when we do it.
Comment by Chrys Stevenson on September 7, 2009 at 5:33pm
At the very least it needs a follow-up article. Can you make it a two-parter, Tom?
Comment by AcesLucky on September 7, 2009 at 5:28pm
I like it, but the last paragraph is premature. (IMHO)

The article doesn't give a compelling reason why (to come out of the closet). Is there a compelling reason to come out, especially in a small town? Is there an overriding benefit that overcompensates for the grief you're asking someone to accept (if in a bible belt or small town where there's no place to hide from persecution)?

Please explain the benefit in terms that are, if not obvious, self explanatory. The "lie" they may have been living may very well be a form of "social survival." In which case, why are you asking them to walk down the street naked?

Coming out might be addressing our needs as a non-theist community. But in what way is it addressing their need to survive in the social community in which they must make a living and get along? That one question "why" is the most important question of the article; and yet it goes unanswered.

It's a great article, and I really like it. I just don't think its finished.
Comment by Chrys Stevenson on September 7, 2009 at 5:14pm
Oh, one more thing - pushy little thing, aren't I? In this para:

"Could it be that the very same kind of “self-lie” happens regarding a belief in god? As a sociologist I can only guess that for every 10 people who say they believe in god there are as many as 3 who are lying to themselves or others."

I winced a bit at 'I can only guess'. Could you say, as a sociologist I can estimate that ....' sounds less like you just picked a number out of the air. ;-)

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