Dear Dr. Cohen:
This note is to express my appreciation for your book, What Would Aristotle Do? Your book has empowered me to deal with some important issues in my life. It has also awakened me to the possibility of a new lifestyle, namely, living philosophically. I am now at work in turning that promise into reality. I was also prompted to think that, perhaps, you would help with a particularly sensitive and tricky issue that has been a touchstone for my happiness over past years. I am an Afro-Caribbean, Trinidadian to be specific, whose wife is of the same cultural and national background. The challenge here is that, on the one hand, I consider myself a lifelong atheist and she, on the other hand, identifies strongly as a Christian. Having formerly been a Marxist, with the end of the Cold War my Marxism receded. My atheism was then revealed, foregrounded, and figured prominently in my quest for intellectual grounding in the Post-Cold War era. In moving to the Mid-West to attend graduate school, and having been a victim of proselytizing, I learned that religion is too important to ignore. I would have wanted to disregard religion, but that was a luxury that I did not have then, and do not now. We live in Indianapolis and atheism is the most important part of my intellectual life. I am concerned about developing strategies to develop the art of living my atheism within predominantly religious, particularly Christian social environments.
My longstanding “coming out” is real but perhaps truncated. My wife and sons have always known that I am an atheist, and my library on atheism is in open view in our home. Among the members of my family of birth and more distant relatives, some may not and most do not know of my atheism. But then, we are not very close emotionally or geographically anyway. In general, I have enjoyed the liberty that males have, unlike females, to be secular. The concept of atheism in particular, however, even if known and furthermore understood, would be blasphemous in both the culture of my upbringing and, among African-Americans, where I live part of my life. In daily life, I tend not to lie about or hide my positions on theism and religion. However, I mention my atheism only when cornered and have no other choice but to be untruthful. Also, in an attempt to escape judgment, I tend to avoid people who assertively foreground their religiosity. The stereotype of African-Americans is such that those who declare their Christianity likely assume that they would find a receptive listening ear in me. This is not unfounded. It is nonetheless frustrating because I do not see any possibilities for common ground on this issue with religious theists. Ideally, I would prefer not to discuss religious theism with the faithful at all. If I had my druthers about it, my friendships with them would be based on non-religious common interests. I would refuse to engage religion unless they insist and I am satisfied that they are sufficiently interested in approaching the issue in a genuine spirit of open-mindedness and mutual inquiry. This is almost never the case, with Christians at least. This is not to say that I am particularly interested in religion. I have amassed some knowledge of religions in the course of my readings on atheism. However, I have not been keen on developing comprehensive knowledge of any religion. Indeed, such information was not the basis of my atheism, which occurred to me as a brute fact. I evolved, at an early age, from non-theism into atheism. Fortunately, there was such dysfunction in my birth family that I felt free, nay compelled, to quietly accept this realization and adapt to its implications. Who would think that an unstable family background could precipitate any benefits? Nevertheless, this free rebellious spirit, for better and worse, remains one of my signature and lifelong characteristics. With all this in mind, the following represents the general tenor of my concerns as well as some specific ones. Do I mention my atheism only when the imperative presents itself and I have no choice, or consciously create opportunities to do so? How do I mention my atheism, and discuss it if need be, with religious theists, Christians in particular? In general, how do I carry my atheism in everyday life?
My wife and I have a loving but difficult relationship of 27 years. We have been married for twenty-five of those years and have two wonderful children, both boys. This issue has been the major fault-line in our relationship and has been the source of much conflict, particularly since we moved from New York City in 1993. In my view, the major issue has not been belief or lack thereof, but the socialization around it. I never thought that I needed or wanted “atheist friends,” which is to say, acquaintances based solely or primarily on atheism. Accordingly, I have been reluctant to put in the time to establish and maintain such personal alliances. Indeed, I was more likely to seek Marxist alliances back then than atheist ones now. More recently, though I have maintained memberships in atheist organizations and support that practice, I have still been reluctant to come out any further or to seek atheist friends. In the Mid-West, however, my wife has continuously had supportive groups of friends with whom the fundamental interest and organizing issue was Christianity. In contrast, I paradoxically developed resentment, perhaps, about not having similar support and friendships. Reflecting on the negative effects that my wife’s Christian group friends have had on me, if I had any atheist friends, I would be concerned about bringing them into her life. Importantly, I would not want her to believe that in acquiring atheist friends I am reacting in a knee-jerk and angry fashion to the discomfort of my immersion in a sea of Christianity. Also, I am apprehensive that it may seem like I am copying her modus operandi, which I would in fact be doing. I fear putting even more distance between her and I, and setting the stage for even more conflict. It would feel like I am betraying, maybe even victimizing my wife. In Indianapolis it is difficult for us to make mutual friends, and we have none to speak of.
Negotiating race, nation, (a)theism, and (ir)religiousity, particularly in the context of my marriage, has been challenging and stressful. So far, I have not been able to manage the situation to my satisfaction. I am not afraid of conflict. In fact, I sometimes even relish it. However, I do not want to unduly upset my wife. On the one hand, I believe that this situation could, if not handled properly, threaten my marriage. Especially now that we are about to become empty-nesters, I do not want my marriage to fatally suffer over this issue. On the other hand, it is possible that my wife, behind her seeming angst, may be quietly admiring what she interprets as my courage. In any case, I can think of no other issue that is so fraught with misunderstanding, misinterpretation, often willful, and mistrust. Even my former life as a Marxist was not nearly so difficult. The sustained acrimony and ongoing negativity that this issue precipitates in social relationships is a concern, and I am reluctant to pollute my life in this way. Also, my emotions about this issue are often at odds with how I rationally want to represent myself to the religious, Christians in particular. Nonetheless, the current situation is not what I would prefer and is getting in the way of the full expression of my personality. I want to surpass mere surviving and coping to wearing my atheism like a work of art within environments peopled overwhelmingly with religious theists, particularly Christians. I realize that this could have life-long and far-reaching benefits. It could also be exhilarating and exciting and open up a world of worthwhile opportunities and people. Hopefully, I could share these with my wife as well. Any advice or resources that you could give or suggest, including therapy, philosophical counseling, articles, and books would be much appreciated. If I do not receive correspondence from you soon, I will prompt the beginning of dialogue with an email message. I hope this is OK with you. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Dennis Celian James.
Thank you for your candid letter. The problem you raise is a deep and pervasive one that is not often broached in the media. The plights of some minority groups such as that of being gay in a predominantly heterosexual world are now receiving significant coverage. It is far less known, or discussed, what it’s like to be a black atheist in a predominantly Christian culture. I applaud you for so eloquently raising these challenges.
According to a 2008 Pew survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe that God exists, as compared with 71 percent of the total population; and less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists (as believing that God does not exist) as compared with 1.6 percent of the total population. So it is understandable how much pressure there is for you to conform, especially given the strong rejection of atheism in your birth culture as well as by African Americans.
Your main question or problem, as I understand it, is whether you should live openly in your daily life as an atheist or, instead, to hide it from everyone, except your immediate family and a few extended family members. So far, you have chosen the latter “truncated” route; but, as I will suggest, this is largely a result of decision by indecision. While your question is a serious and potentially life altering one, you are making this decision more difficult because you have constructed for yourself a dilemma that keeps you riveted to its unsavory horns—damned if you do and damned if you don’t. So you effectively have decided not to decide. The goal then is to formulate your reasoning, expose the falsehoods in it, and make a proactive, rational choice. This approach is what I call Logic-Based philosophical counseling; and I sincerely hope it gives you the help you so earnestly seek.
From what I can glean from your letter, the following appears to be the dilemma thinking that is keeping you from coming to terms with your problem. It is what I believe you are telling yourself that keeps you from making a rational decision:
1. If I seek out support and friendship from other atheists then I will feel like I am betraying or victimizing my wife.
2. On the other hand, if I do not seek out such support then I will feel resentment about not having support and friendships similar to that of my wife.
3. I can either seek out such support and friendships from other atheists or not do so.
4. Therefore, no matter what I do I will suffer a negative consequence. Either I will feel as though I betrayed or victimized my wife, or I will feel resentment about not having similar support and friendships.
Notice that this reasoning has three premises (1 through 3) and a conclusion (4). If you accept all three premises then you are stuck with the conclusion. And that is what you seem to have done. You have painted yourself into a corner, leaving yourself ruminating about the unsavory horns of your dilemma, feeling as though your plight is hopelessly irresolvable.
Fortunately, the dilemma you have created for yourself does not appear to be a true one because the first two premises (1 and 2) are both false. Your job will therefore be to give up this self-defeating reasoning and to make a choice for yourself that is not based on decision by indecision.
So let’s start by looking at your first premise. Are you really betraying your wife if you seek out support and friendship from other atheists?
Betrayal implies doing something that is unfaithful or disloyal; but your wife does not have a right to expect you to associate only with Christians. This would be as unacceptable as an expectation that she associate only with atheists. So you would not betray her by having friends who are atheists.
Nor would you be victimizing your wife. To victimize someone implies unjust or wrongful treatment. But why would you be doing something to your wife that was wrong if you made friends with other atheists? She does not have a right to insist on your not building such friendships. If she did, then you would have a similar right to insist that she not have Christian friends.
Notice too that, even if your wife did not like or prefer that you have atheist friends it would still not mean that she was being victimized or betrayed. If this were true, then it would be morally incumbent on all of us to always do what others wanted or preferred us to do, which would portend a world of blind conformity where none of us would have the autonomy or freedom to be ourselves.
Now, regarding premise two, consider your feelings of resentment. Resentment involves a belief that someone has done something wrong to you. However, in what way has your wife done anything wrong to you by having Christian friends? Indeed, she has a right to have Christian friends just as you have a right to have atheist ones. She has chosen to exercise this right whereas, so far, you have not. So, she has not done you any wrong and your feelings of resentment are irrational (since they are based on a false belief). This is not to deny that you have such feelings or to deny their importance. It is only to say that they are irrational and should be overcome rather than appeased.
So your dilemma appears to be a false one because its first two premises are false. You would not be betraying your wife or victimizing her if you sought out atheist friends; and it is irrational to resent your wife’s having Christian friends since no one (but yourself) is stopping you from having similar support and friendships.
In the end, you must choose either to build atheist friendships or not to build them. In not choosing you are also making a choice, albeit one that gets you nowhere. As Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed, “you are condemned to be free.”
Understandably, making choices always carries risks. Thus, you may still ask, “Even if it were irrational, what if my wife did resent my making atheist friends? After all, my atheism has been a longstanding contention in our relationship. And what if this had the potential to destroy or seriously harm our relationship?”
True, there is such a negative possibility. But there is also the possibility that the change could improve your relationship.
You made this profoundly insightful statement:
“On the other hand, it is possible that my wife, behind her seeming angst, may be quietly admiring what she interprets as my courage.”
Perhaps she will indeed come to admire you for your genuineness and authenticity. Moreover, you should ask yourself whether it would be better to build (or rebuild) your relationship on this more rational basis than to maintain the relationship as it presently is.
This opportunity for constructive change is only possible if you realize that you do have a genuine choice. However, you sometimes seem reticent to fully accept this choice. You explained,
In daily life, I tend not to lie about or hide my positions on theism and religion. However, I mention my atheism only when cornered and have no other choice but to be untruthful. Also, in an attempt to escape judgment, I tend to avoid people who assertively foreground their religiosity (emphasis added).
However, as Sartre would again remind us, people always have a choice. And indeed you do have a choice. You can always tell the truth rather than lie about your atheism, whether or not you are “cornered.”
As for the consequences, we are into probabilities in this space-time world of ours, not certainties. No one can guarantee that “coming out” will improve your relationship with your wife or make it worse. Probabilities are relative to evidence and you know your wife better than anyone else. Moreover, cultural mindsets are not easily penetrated and can be oppressive.
Nevertheless, you say that atheism is “the most important part of your intellectual life,” so in hiding your atheism are you not betraying yourself, not your wife? Following your moral lights, rather than living in “bad faith” (as the existentialists would say), does indeed take courage. There is risk, but change requires risk. Risking change can be liberating, however.
Your wife already knows you are an atheist; so do your children; and from what you say, they love you very much. In cultivating atheist friends, do you really think they would cease to feel the same about you? Mightn’t they instead, as you yourself suggest, feel proud of this man who has the courage not to betray who he is?
All best wishes in pursuing your new, philosophical lifestyle.