Some thoughts on stigma; more on "Coming Out as an Atheist"

To put this in context, I am a professor of sociology by profession, so I tend to frame my understanding of the stigma related to atheism in somewhat academic terms. My intent is to deepen our conversation, but if the outcome is otherwise, please forgive.

In 1963 the sociologist Erving Goffman published a book that has become part of the canon in social psychology. This book, Stigma Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity , is a good primer for those interested in understanding how our self-concepts are created and maintained both because and despite stigmatization we may face. As for the definition of stigma, Goffman tells us that it is "... an attribute that is deeply discrediting." Those that are stigmatized are "... reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one." Further, "... sometimes it is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap" and that in extreme cases, a stigmatized person is "... bad, dangerous, or weak."

In the chapter entitled "Information Control and Personal Identity" he talks of the dilemma of coming out: "To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where." I have few doubts that most of the atheists reading this post have at one point asked those exact questions of themselves, all of us laboring to manage our identity in such a way as to maximize our self esteem and to minimize interpersonal conflicts, especially with those whom we care about a great deal.

Which attributes are and are not stigmatized in any community certainly vary over time. For example, being divorced -especially for a woman- was something of which to be ashamed in many social circles in the United States back in the 40's and 50's. That, thankfully, has changed: the attribute "divorced" has been destigmatized over time. Many stigmatized attributes have, as our culture has become more (for lack of a better world) cosmopolitan are now viewed more liberally, less judgmentally. Indeed, many of the social liberation struggles in our American past -the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement- have involved concentrated efforts to challenge the public perception of blacks, feminists, gays, etc. In other words, these movements were, in part, focused on destigmatizing each group.

And that is where we are now, we being the emerging atheist community. We are in the midst of campaigns to encourage the general population to see atheists in a new light, as "normal" people who have chosen to not believe in a god. That, indeed is the goal of my research: to add to the conversation about the atheist community in a positive way, and to describe who we are and how we are affected by the stigma that atheism has in our culture.

A final thought before I sign off. You are on this site, Atheist Nexus, because it is a "community of nontheists." You can post comments, blog and otherwise participate in this community without fear that you will be seen as "bad, dangerous or weak." You do not feel the social stigma of atheism when you are here, and that is why the numbers on this site grow every day, and Brother Richard's hope that there will be 10,000 members by the "birthday" of his cyberhome for nontheists will no doubt be realized.

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Comment by tom arcaro on June 3, 2009 at 4:56am
PLeasure is all mine, thanks.
Comment by unholyroller on June 2, 2009 at 8:38pm
Jamie...the key is to live as good a life as you can. That way, no one can say atheists aren't moral, caring, socially conscienscious people. As for being afraid of hell.....kinda hard to be afraid of something you don't believe in. Confidence will come. Just be who you are. Those who stay with you are your true friends. The don't need them. Hang in there, kiddo. You'll be just fine. Michael, Goz, Tom...and pleased to make your aquaintance!
Comment by Goz on June 2, 2009 at 12:08pm
For me debating or arguing with religious folk is just boring..We are not going to change each other,so why bother...I also live in the bible belt,but have a small group of friends,some who are xtain,who like me for who I am.
I'm also on the same page with unhollyroller and Michael...Aand yes,I've noticed a few people here whom I prefer not to interact with due to their stance on some things,but I do this on all forums.
I've barely got started here.
Comment by tom arcaro on June 2, 2009 at 7:55am
Indeed, there are members of any community who are ready to "rip others apart for the smallest differences of thought". One main lesson I have learned in studying people who identify themselves as atheists is that they are FAR from a monolithic, "of one mind" group. There is immense diversity within this community, to be sure, and I feel that we have to celebrate that and encourage those from outside our community to see atheists for what they are: a complex, rich and highly diverse set of folks.

As to living life "fearlessly", I admire Michael's position. Take a look at my next blog post for amplification of this idea.
Comment by unholyroller on June 1, 2009 at 11:18pm
"To thine own self be true." I live in the heart of bible belt fundamentalism. I've never made my atheism a secret. It's not the first thing out of my mouth when I meet someone, but the inevitable question "What church do you go to?" is always answered by "I don't". The people who know and like me anyway are my friends. As for those who don't accept my free thinking ways....they aren't my friends and I can't be bothered by their silly-ass opinions and superstitions. I believe there are two ways to live your life. You can stop doing things you're ashamed of, or, you can stop being ashamed of the things that you do. I much prefer the latter. I've reached an age where I just can't be bothered, and my self esteem does not depend on the opinion of anyone...period.

As for feeling safe and acctepted on this site....there are plenty here who are only too willing to rip others apart for the smallest differences of thought. Again....couldn't possibly care less. My friends are my friends. The rest can go jump. Thanks for allowing a grouchy old woman to rant.



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