How much does it cost to be an atheist? This particularly intriguing question has a necessarily complex answer. I’ll provide a spoiler alert up front: if you clicked this article expecting to see a hard dollar amount, or possibly a chart, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The price of being an atheist is impossible to calculate because individual costs and situations are varied and complex.
However, in doing my homework to research this article, I found several commonalities in the material I read. While there isn’t a universal dollar amount that atheists are forced to pay, there are a great number of financial, emotional, and social burdens they must bear.
Let’s start with the actual cost of being an atheist, and participating in atheist activities.
Again, please don’t expect a chart or hard dollar amount here, that’s not the point. What is the point is that atheists don’t have churches in which to meet. Unless they meet in private homes, they tend to congregate in public spaces. These gatherings are often hosted at restaurants, bars and pubs, and other places where money is spent as part of the event.
If you attend one of these events, you are going to be out more than a few dollars. At least the cost of a salad, or an appetizer, or a drink. These costs are generally quite negligible, and can be borne by most people, on an occasional basis. If you have limited means, you can still usually afford to split a pizza or an appetizer with a friend. Even if you have nothing, it’s not likely that you’ll be forced to participate in consumption on the basis of peer pressure, after all atheists should be sensitive to the pitfalls of peer pressure more than other groups.
An atheist blogger who posts on “The Friendly Atheist” (hosted on patheos.com) and goes by the name “Amanda” wrote specifically about this concern. She wrote: “there was rarely enough money at the end of the month to justify conference fees, travel expenses, food bills, and so on. Even most local groups stage meetups at restaurants and bars, and it was unicorn-rare for us to A) have the money on hand to foot a bill for both people or B) be convinced that spending our already-tight money on jalapeno poppers in order to converse with other atheists is a good investment, rather than putting it into savings in case of emergencies.”
Amanda’s point wasn’t to criticize the social gatherings, but rather just to say they do have a cost, and for some atheists at the lower end of the income scale, even those relatively minor costs can be prohibitive.
At the end of the day, the cost that Amanda and I are talking about is simply financial. We’re talking about anywhere between $5 to twenty or thirty bucks a month maybe. If you like to go large, maybe your monthly restaurant bill is a hundred bucks. But really, it’s a scalable expense, and most people can manage it.
Now if you haven’t guessed already, this isn’t the heart of my commentary. This was just the teaser.
The true cost of being an atheist can be much higher than the price of an appetizer. In fact, for some people it can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more.
On free thoughtblogs.com, a writer who goes by the name of Lilandra, discussed the challenges she faced in coming-out atheist in a conservative West Texas community. Lilandra is a teacher who realized she didn’t believe in any gods. It also helped that she was married to an outspoken local atheist. The problem of course, was that in small-town middle America where Christianity quite literally dominates both social and professional life, Lilandra faces an immediate challenge in keeping her job.
Lilandra wrote in her blog about the constant bashing of atheists by the Christian Right (which is obviously wrong). “Atheists are not very trusted in this country, and really have public relations issues,” she wrote.
“Anyways for the past six years I’ve been cautious about [because of] family concerns and concerns for my job as a teacher. Public atheist teachers like Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist, and Grappling Ignorance of YouTube, have actually had their job targeted by irate Christian parents for being out. Even a small minority of irate, irrational parents can cause a teacher trouble, because the majority of satisfied parents aren’t as vocal. Add to that an un-supportive or religiously sympathetic administrator and you have a recipe for trouble,” she added.
Lilandra also discussed the targeting that even closeted atheists may feel at the hands of Christian coworkers. In their defense,Lilandra explained that they may be entirely ignorant that they are causing discomfort for their atheist colleagues.
For people in other professions, especially those in the public eye, coming out as atheist can be as scandalous as getting slapped with a criminal conviction. Most legislators and other public figures, even those strongly suspected of being atheists, still remain silent or keep up the pretense of belief because the political and social cost of public atheism is too great. For them, it would destroy their career.
Case in point, how many presidents have self identified as atheist? Virtually none. And although atheists may claim Thomas Jefferson (who was probably a deist), among other suspects (President Obama?) no sitting president has ever come out and professed their atheism.
People working in the private sector may also face the same discrimination. Most atheists on the Internet hide behind pseudonyms and artistic images to conceal their identity. Yours truly included. This is because if their employers knew of their actual beliefs, they might quickly find themselves out of a job, or the subject of intense pressure, even harassment.
According to the 2008 survey “Coming Out as an Atheist,” people who live in “Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee (and North Dakota)” reported the most fear of social stigma and those who live in “California, Washington, New York, and New England,” reported the least.
These issues are not confined to adults. Students, particularly in states such as Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, have all fought hard battles against institutionalized religious expression in their schools. Specifically, school directed prayers and religious services, that violate the Constitutional separation between church and state. These kids have faced severe ostracization, harassment, and had even received death threats just for speaking out as atheists.
For African American atheists, the cost may be even higher. According to Alix Jules, who is the chair of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason Diversity Council in an interview with NPR in February 2012, coming out as a black atheist can cost you your entire family, even your mother.
“Especially in the African-American community because of the cultural importance of Christianity in the African-American community.” Jules told NPR host Michael Martin. “You’re typically seen as a race traitor or you’re seen as someone who just will not have any type of morality.”
“For me, I don’t have a relationship with my mother or my cousins. My extended family has turned their back on me…”
Jules added, “Well, people have been reaching out to several of us across the U.S. electronically and the common notion or common theme or question is, how do I come out to my family? I don’t know if I can do this. You know, I can doubt. I can doubt, but as soon as I use the term “atheist,” it becomes very difficult. You become an apostate. Why would you want to come out as an atheist because of the social cost?”
So the social costs of atheism can be extreme.
While atheists might be able to manage an occasional bar tab, and they might find it possible to conceal their atheism from their employers and the public, the true cost of coming-out as an atheist is the social cost, and that alone is enough to discourage hundreds of thousands if not millions of people from coming out as who they truly are.
In a survey posted on the extraordinarily credible Conservopedia, 47.6 percent of all respondents would disapprove if their child wanted to marry a member of the atheist community. “It’s right next to child molester as a designation,” according to Conservopedia. By double digits, atheist outranks all other associations, including Muslim, homosexual, Jewish, and the various other races. Caucasian was the safest bet, only 2.3 percent of parents would be upset if their child married a Caucasian. Amazing data.
It’s obvious that Lilandra has a very good point. Atheists have a public relations problem. Atheists walk amongst us, silent and afraid that their true feelings on religion and superstition will someday be exposed and they too will bear the embarrassing and awful cost of coming-out atheist. Yet atheists are all around us. From the halls of Congress, to the house next door, a silent minority of atheists live their quiet lives.
These are people who otherwise lead perfectly normal and respectable lives and are often pillars of society. The point here is, atheists are not devil worshiping, immoral deviants with an anger management problem towards God and America. Rather, they are virtuous, kind, and patriotic people who face a little too much fear and intimidation to be honest with others about how they feel.
The closeted atheist is so because she or he cannot afford to be him or herself.
And that may be the greatest cost of all.