Here is the backstory on the op-ed I had published in the Greensboro News and Record on Sunday (!) June 28th (see my earlier blog post).
I pitched the op-ed to many more prominent, national papers before it landed in Greensboro. In my mind I rationalized pitching it to "major" outlets because that would get more and more diverse readership. The NY Times passed. USA Today passed. the LA Times passed. The Chicago Tribute passed. The Washington Post passed. The Charlotte Observer passed. And so finally the News and Record bit. But many of my neighbors subscribe to this paper and I knew some would read the piece. Here's the sad fact: my real reason for pitching to the more nationally known papers is that I was afraid of the "blowback" I might get from my community and even at work. Yeah, I know, pretty weak for an activist, but there you go. I have a family here that, yes, I wanted to protect from the reaction, but in my heart I must admit that I was a wimp because of my fears about how it would impact me.
In my field of sociology we call this "impression management", and this is where the individual hides or presents dimensions of her/himself as appropriate to the goal of maintaining a positive self identity. I look at people and imagine what they see when they see me -in this case an atheist- and then I imagine how they evaluate what they see when they see me. My self image is the accumulation of all of the various evaluations of others. In introduction to sociology class we call this the "looking glass self". Certainly more inner directed people care less about how others think of them, but in reality we all want to be seen by those around us in a positive light. I feared that since this is indeed the Bible Belt that the social repercussions of this very public "coming out" would be significant.
I was wrong.
There were 14 people that responded to my article in the "Comments" section under the article on line. By my reading nine were very supportive and only four were negative (one response was neutral). The supportive comments thanked me for the article, extended many of my arguments, and generally said "Thanks." Here's one response from a Tom R:
"Thank you, Mr. Arcaro, for an outstanding representation of the situation in which we atheists find ourselves. You avoided directly criticizing theists, which should aid in a rational discussion of this subject. A respectful appeal to theists to consider why an atheist holds this worldview is the best way to be accepted in society.
To comment further, it is unrealistic to expect to "convert" theists to atheism using rational approaches if their views have not been formed through such. I think all we can do is present the basis for our worldview. Those, like myself, who were strong theists but were "converted" to atheism have done so only after deciding to "wipe the slate clean", investigate the subject objectively and be willing to accept the truth no matter where this process ends."
A person identifying herself (?) as "risskia" responded to the impact of coming out in the workplace with the following, underlining one of my main points
"I was one of those ousted people. One of my coworkers "found out" that I'm atheist, told my supervisor, and WHOOPS, 6 months later I'm unemployed.
Fortunately I was able to prove my case and at least have unemployment to lean on."
I did get a reaction from a close religious neighbor who pointed out that it is the duty of believers to help save those who have not yet found the lord, and that their reaction to atheists is not so much a judgement as a reaching out. We dropped the conversation before it really matured not because it wasn't productive and respectful but because we both only had a few minutes.
Reactions at work so far have been muted, but here in academia summer is generally slow in any case.
All in all the experience of publishing this op-ed has energized me and made me realize even more clearly that there is much to be done to destigmatize atheism in the United States.