Saturday, October 22, 2011

Make New Friends, But Keep The Old...

I was raised in a liberal christian family.  One of the things I credit with leading me away from religion is that my best friend from childhood, we'll call him "S", was not a christian:  He was a muslim.  Like most Americans back then (1980s) I knew it was a different religion, but I didn't know much more than that.  With muslim and jewish friends, and about a dozen different flavors of christianity in town, some of my first skeptical thoughts about religion were along the lines of "Well, they can't all be right."

At this year's Texas Freethought Convention (co-sponsored by Atheist Alliance of America...though if you hear the AAA's president talk it's the other way around) I made a new friend who was also raised muslim, let's call her "I."  Through the miracle of "the internets" these two friends of mine, old and new, have "met" through me on Facebook.  That interaction led to a recent IM comment from "S".
"So I'm like super intrigued by your ex-Muslim atheist friend, "I". She's really the only one I've ever known to come out and openly express her views. YOU GO GURL!!"
I started off thinking I'd give him a quick reply about how I met "I" at this year's TFC and what I've seen so far...and I just kept going.  So since I wrote a bunch (and haven't posted much to the blog lately) I figured I'd share some of what I wrote back to "S" with you all.  Here's what I wrote: 

Hiya "S". Yeah, "I" is really out and proud. I met her a couple weeks ago at the Texas Freethought Convention (co-sponsored by Atheist Alliance of America). After the conference (or maybe because of the conference) she was inadvertently outed to her mom, family, and others. Her mother, and others online, have not been kind to her lately.  I'm really proud at how she's stuck to her convictions. I've seen her stand up to haters on public facebook conversations and, unflinchingly, criticize islam and religion in general.

Compare that to another Texas muslim woman (whose name escapes me at the moment) I met at last year's Texas Freethought Convention who I took a picture of with skeptical musician and podcaster George Hrab. After I snapped the shot she asked me what I was planning on doing with the picture.  I said that I might post it to facebook or something like that, thinking she'd want a copy. She told me she was not "out" to anyone, in any way, and knew it could be harmful to her if the wrong people saw the pic. I promised not to do anything with it and gave her my card if she wanted a personal copy or anything. Having grown up in a liberal north-eastern U.S. christian family, this kind of fear is unimaginable to me.

Not that this is unique to muslims. There are a LOT of christians who are just as afraid to 'come out' for fear of losing their family, friends, marriages, jobs, and even their lives. I know that I've been lucky not to have to face that fear. I'm able to be "out" as and atheist with impunity. I can be that example of a guy who's a non-believer, but isn't angry, defensive, or pushy about it because I haven't had to. But we also need atheists like "I" who are comfortable enough in their non-belief to be able to push back when they are in tough situations like it sounds that she's in. Our 'movement' needs both the "friendly" and the "firebrand" atheists in order to fit all situations and show that we're as varied as any other sub-culture. "I" is a awesome, friendly person.

People ask me "What the hell (ha, ha) do atheists do at conventions or meetups? Just sit around saying 'There is no god' over and over?" Sigh. No. It's great to see presentations and Q & A's with authors, intellectuals, activists, and personalities, but meeting and networking with new people gives you insight into others' situations, new ideas, and a renewed energy to stand up for what you believe. I learn just as much from the chatting with a 20-something neurobiology grad student as I do from a elder-statesman author or an executive of a national secular organization.  It's great to meet a woman like "I" who can teach me something new about the human experience. there's dancing and karaoke.


  1. I had to laugh out loud about the "dancing and karaoke" part.

    Gerg, thank you for thinking so well of me. Honestly, it has been hard being "outed" about being an atheist. I know it's hard for so many out there. I'm not sure if it is harder in Islam, I think it very well would be. My siblings don't talk to me. My mother thinks "god doesn't want me anyways", and I struggle to really find my place in my own home.

    I've been lonely for years. At TFC/AAA I did not even imagine that I would feel such warmth from the speakers and the attendees, but I wasn't lonely that three day weekend.

    Atheist conventions aren't congregations that we display rituals or pray to a new god in our speakers or whatever. We're just reasonable, intellectual, thinking people. That's all we are. We are so different from our fellow freethinkers. We all have different worldviews, but we are alike in one important thing - we believe in no supernatural deities. We believe in science, reason, and evidence. We are rational thinkers. If god is proven to exist, we will be the first to accept it because we accept anything based on proven evidence. However,we all know that god doesn't exist. We aren't a group that is formed to hate other people. We are humanists and the most tolerant people you can find. We accept people that are straight or gay. We accept both black and white. We accept those leaving of all religions. And atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers that we call friends all adhere to different worldviews. Without religion, we are still moral individuals; in fact, religion says it teaches morals, but does it really? For my personal belief in non-belief, if I lived in the Middle East I would be killed. It is mandatory, and the worst offence someone from a Muslim family could commit, more so than adultery where you are stoned to death. I know the writings of religion are full of hate and labeling. We know that anyone that is an "other", or outside their group faces harshness and this feeling of "otherness" leads many to hate crimes, including murder.

    I apologize for rambling and I think I made this comment longer than yours. Thanks for thinking I'm awesome and friendly. I really loved meeting you all, and I know that we will be lifetime friends. Cheers!

  2. What a great blog post and great comment. Gerg, your story about how you were raised made me envious, as I was raised by very conservative, fundamentalist Christian parents. I have not come out as an atheist to them for probably all kinds of pathological reasons (besides they are in their 80s, don’t have a computer, and it’s easy enough to avoid the subject since I rarely see them). I do sympathize with what Iman is going through, but like you, I also have not experienced much backlash by coming out as an atheist among friends and coworkers, and though I might harbor a tiny fear of losing my job over it, I’ve never felt my life was in danger or anything like that.

    I like your “friendly” and “firebrand” characterization of atheists and you’re right, we need both kinds. I teeter between moderate versions of each depending on how much caffeine I’m on during any given situation.

    My now ex-husband couldn’t understand my need to be around atheists and thought exactly what you said, “it’s all the same thing…someone gets up to talk and says, ‘there is no god and this is why’ and then someone else gets up and says, ‘there is no god and this is why.’” You explained beautifully the reasons why I need to attend the conventions.

    Iman, I’m glad you were not lonely for those three days and I hope you made plenty of friends to keep you from being lonely ever again. If that comment is you “rambling” then I think you should ramble much more often!