4 Reasons I Love Being 'Out' as Nonreligious

ODD_Atheist_Billboard_Church_022da I have no firm opinion, really, on whether people ought to "come out" as nonreligious. To me, religion doesn't matter very much — aside from, you know, it being a constant focus of my life right now — so whether people choose to talk about it openly or not isn't a concern of mine. Sure, there are reasons to do it. There are reasons not to, as well. Everyone has a million different factors — not the least of which is their geographic location — to consider before making that call for themselves.

Not believing in God is not like being a gay, lesbian or transgender. Sharing your "status" with others is not required to live a normal, healthy life. Unless you choose to be an activist, you probably don't adopt behaviors that make you stand out as a None. You don't necessarily know or want to know where your friends fall on the religious spectrum. And even if you do, you may just prefer to remain silent — keeping your ambivalence, uncertainty or lack of belief to yourselves.

Fine, I say. Who cares?

Having said that, for me personally, being “out” has been wonderful. Here's why.

1. I enjoy shattering people’s assumptions. I don’t fit the media’s stereotype of non-believer — who does, right? — so it’s nice to be able to spread the “good word” that atheists, agnostics and other Nones are just as likely as the next guy to be engaging people, good parents and involved community members. I particularly enjoy slipping my atheism into conversation with religious people who already know and like me; it forces them to confront their own stereotypes. Always a good thing.

2. I like religious people more now. When you’re closeted, it’s way too easy to sit back and become preemptively resentful. We might feel pissed that others are “free” to share their views while we must keep ours to ourselves. We might assume that people’s reactions would be negative if ever we were to out ourselves. But when you’re out — and when you’re truly nice about it — the reactions from religious people are far more positive than negative. People may be curious. They may be confused. They may quietly disapprove. But, in my experience, religious people have been, outwardly, quite lovely about my lack of belief. (As lovely, incidentally, as I am about their belief.) They don’t insult me or shy away from me. They don’t avoid the subject (well, some do, and that’s okay!) or make snide comments. They don’t try to change me. And with every positive experience I have, I am more open and less judgmental of "religious people" as a whole.  I find that the more “out” I am, the better I feel about the people around me.

3. I'm setting an example for my child. Not believing in God is nothing to be ashamed of, but being open about our disbelief does — I believe — require a bit of finesse. We ought not just blurt it out it anger. We ought not invoke it as a weapon. We ought not talk about it excessively, just because we "can." I don't want my child to ever feel ashamed to share her beliefs with others — whatever those beliefs — but I also want to be a good role model for how to go about it without being a dick.

4. I’m opening the door for others. You wouldn’t believe how many people in our day-to-day consider themselves nonreligious; and the look of relief on their faces when they learn you aren’t religious can be priceless. It’s like the floodgates open. There’s this whole, rather fascinating aspect of your life — and theirs — that can be tapped for great conversation. By being open myself first, I’m showing others that it’s okay to make the first move. In fact, it can make friendships — and maybe life — even better.

An Interview with the Guy Who Named the 'Nones'

Barry KosminThere was a time, in the extremely recent past, when Americans with no religion were "the others." For decades, religious affiliation has fascinated researchers. Countless studies and surveys show document a painstaking analysis of each minor population shift. A switch from, say, Methodist to Baptist or Catholic to Protestant has been marked with great interest, year by year. Sure, the numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have remained relatively small next to Christians — but they, too, have been counted. Their numbers seemed to matter.

Always absent from these studies and surveys was a specific category for Americans with no religion. Those of us who didn't "belong" in an established group — for whatever reason. We were simply the "others." Too few to name, much less care about.

But that all changed in the first years of the 21st Century.

After a decade (the 90s) in which religious affiliation dropped dramatically — by several percentage points (and, yes, that was considered dramatic) — the country's top researchers realized they needed a new category.

Barry A. Kosmin was one of them. As the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and a professor at Trinity College, Kosmin had been helping to conduct the American Religion Identification Survey for nearly three decades. Once they'd evaluated data from the 1990s, Kosmin and his team were determined to name a new category.

"Nonreligious" was a possibility. So was "non-faith" and "non-affiliated."

But Kosmin rejected all of these. The "non" part bothered him. "Non-affiliated" would be like calling people "non-white," he said. "We didn't want to suggest that 'affiliated' was the norm, and every one else was an 'other.'"

"Nomenclature," he added, " is quite important in these things."

So Kosmin began calling this group the "nones," a shortened version for "none of the above" — which is what people often said when asked to name their religion. He never thought the term would stick.

"It began as a joke," he said, "but now, like many of these things, it has taken on its own life."

Indeed. Today, "nones" are everywhere. Both in a literal sense and a literary one.

"Nones" now make up an estimated 20 percent of the American population — or 60 million people. And most major research groups have given in to the verbiage, at least to some degree. (Some still prefer "unaffiliated" in their official questionnaires.) Journalists, especially, have embraced the word.

"Nones form Biggest Slice of Obama's Religious Voters," said an October headline in the Huffington Post.

"The 'nones' now form the worlds' third-largest religion' reported the Religion News Service  last month.

The list goes on and on.

That's not to say the word is without its critics. For many on the more spiritual end of the "nonreligious" spectrum, "nones" sounds too dismissive. They liken it to "nothing," and sometimes the response is: "I'm not nothing!"

Still, like Kosmin said, the word now has a life of its own. Even Gallup Poll, which published  a report today, saying that the number of people who prefer "no religion" leveled off a bit between 2011 and 2012, put "nones" in its headline.

[Special thanks to Hemant Mehta who referenced this blog on his website The Friendly Atheist.]