Is it really cool to be an atheist?

Today I saw that one of my new Facebook friends shared a status update like this:

I’ve been an atheist since long before it was cool to be an atheist.

He had 30 likes for that share. That’s a lot of likes. But is it really cool to be an atheist?

It might be worth noting that this is a black African man. I have a few black atheist friends, but they are rare. I mean like, really rare, so rare that he should be commended for being a free-thinker. That statement might appear condescending or even racist if you don’t know how it is here, so I will clarify…

In this country, nearly everyone you meet is a theist. And most black people are Christians. I don’t understand how that works exactly – you know, the religion of the slave masters and all, but that’s the way it is. American atheists often have this (typically American) narrow-minded view of Christianity as an “American” religion, which I find really funny. It’s a Middle Eastern religion, and although I don’t know the details, I’m fairly sure it spread to Africa in the old colonial days at around the same time it crossed into America. (So Christianity has been here at least a couple of hundred years. But don’t take my word for it… No fact checking has gone into this post. It was all off the top of my head. Look it up rather anyway, since I dropped history as a subject in school when I was 14 years old, in favour of focusing on physics, biology, maths, and accounting. In retrospect, accounting was a mistake. History would’ve been the better choice.)

But the point is, most black Africans are highly religious, and Christian. I’ve only ever met one black African atheist face to face, and it happened to be a woman at an addiction treatment centre, who was the only person to agree with me when I spoke out against religion in a meeting there. (She was only just out of active addiction and I couldn’t help pitying her, because being thrust into recovery culture as an atheist with a drug problem, knowing nothing about the woo and religion in recovery culture, normally doesn’t go well.) Anyway, in a circle of about thirty random people, only her and I were atheists. One or two other people laughed at my criticism of theism, but that’s more because it was funny… It was something like “I can’t sit here and agree that accepting a demi-god that was born of a virgin 2000 years ago, is the only way to stay away from drugs. I can’t pretend to believe that 2000 years ago this person walked on water and turned water to wine. I can’t sit here and let you talk about praying to him and being deluded enough into seeing signs of your god actually reciprocating, without speaking up and telling you how crazy that sounds.” The statement upset and offended the people who were talking about prayer, got me one or two laughs, and got the other atheist in the room excited, but it also got me into a lot of trouble with the “therapist”. After that I learned to shut up, or else say what they wanted to hear.

So to be black here and an atheist is extremely rare, and unlike those idiot conservative Christian Americans who cry about being persecuted, it’s fair to say that black atheists here really are persecuted, and often have to keep their atheism secret. So my friend really should be commended for being a free-thinker and being open about his unbelief, despite growing up in a culture suffocated by religion and having a family that likely has members who call him a demon for his nonconformist views.

While it may be true that societies with higher levels of education are more secular than those with lower levels (like South Africa), over here nearly everybody I know, regardless of education or maybe in spite of being educated, is religious. I worked with one other atheist, about two years ago. Of my old school friends and acquaintances to whom I am connected on Facebook, three are atheists – one of them not openly so. All the rest are religious.

In spite of the fact that nearly all great free-thinkers and scientists are atheists, I live in a country where, as an atheist, I am very much an outsider, and most people do not realize that in other parts of the world, the more educated people tend to be free from religion.

Most of my atheist friends are people I know online only, virtual friends that I have never met. (Atheist groups do have meetings in bars occasionally, I think, but I don’t go to bars.) There are one or two of them I’d like to meet, but I have more important things to do (regarding my son over weekends and in other free time) so I never get around to doing anything about it. (Some hyperbole may be there… I am really asocial and lazy too.)

This brings me back to the question: Is it cool to be an atheist? I think it is. It’s cool to be different, especially when being different is correct. It is better to live your one and only life being aware that it is your one and only life than it is to ignore this life and focus on the hereafter (which isn’t real), better to base your beliefs on evidence and reality. On the other hand, we must be careful to know the difference between it being cool that we are right, and the perception we have of ourselves. I can’t help wondering if my friend’s share has 30 likes because he befriended a bunch of people in atheist groups, people he has never met in real life. I don’t think the public perception of atheism is that it is cool, and it would be a mistake to see ourselves through a filter of our own creation (as theists often do). I am wary of social media, as it presents me with a filtered view as the feeds are tailored to my likes and interests, presenting a picture that could lead to a perception of reality as distorted and unrealistic as that of theists, if I don’t pay attention.

But on the whole, the feeling of being an atheist is cool. It feels great to wake up out of the delusion of belief in gods. Another friend of mine, the one who isn’t open about his atheism, summed it up in a way that I hadn’t considered, but a way that describes how it feels to break free of the chains of religious indoctrination: “Being an atheist is like being Neo, after taking the red pill and waking up from the Matrix.” It really is.

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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