How does anti-atheist bias impact the mental health of atheists?
This question is explored in a new collection of more than two dozen stories from American atheists, aptly titled Atheists in America. Its editor, Melanie Brewster, is Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College and cofounder of the Sexuality, Women, & Gender Project.
Below, Brewster tells me what inspired this collection, discusses her research on minority stress theory, and explains why she “wanted to be certain that this book was not another tale of the ‘upper middle class straight white man’ leaving his faith.”
Chris Stedman: What inspired this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?
Melanie Brewster: I’ve always felt like literature about atheism was incomplete—either centered on arguing against belief or about navigating one’s journey away from faith. The books that reached a mass audience rarely, if ever, looked at atheism as an identity, and they certainly did not consider identity intersectionality. I wanted to be certain that this book was not another tale of the “upper middle class straight white man” leaving his faith.
But, while important, this project wasn’t just about creating a more “diverse” portrait of atheists. It was more that I thought the available books didn’t capture the full essence of what it was like to live in the U.S. as a nonbeliever. If you are religious, those sets of beliefs really do shape and influence nearly every important facet of your life—rituals, social gatherings, commitment, what to say when someone sneezes—and we’d be remiss to ignore that fact that the very act of not believing creates an entirely unique life experience. I wanted to show that, while atheists do experience stigma, they’re also positioned to live carefully crafted and existentially honest lives.
CS: What do you hope non-atheist readers will get from this book?
MB: I think that a lot of religious folks don’t really understand why people are atheist. Beliefs that atheists are just being contrary or that they are immature or evil are more common than we’d like to think. It would be nearly impossible to read this book and still hold that view. The narratives are too diverse, the people are too warm and too open. And, I hate to admit this, but I also want this book to illustrate the amount of stigma and marginalization that atheists face from friends, coworkers, and loved ones. I hope that it is a wake-up call.
CS: Your research focuses on how stigma influences the mental health of people in marginalized groups. How does that relate to atheism?
MB: As a researcher, my main scholarly work is on minority stress theory. This essentially states that people from marginalized groups—such as people of color, LGBTQ folks, and atheists—experience disproportionate stigma and, in turn, experience extra stress linked to their identities. This stress has been shown to cause depression, self-harm behaviors, substance abuse, body image issues, and more. Almost all of this research has been conducted with either LGBTQ people or people of color or LGBTQ people of color, but not yet with atheists. My students and I are currently working on several projects that begin to situate atheist people within the minority stress framework
CS: What resources can help atheists address this?
MB: Engaging in collective action and finding support from a community of likeminded individuals is incredibly helpful in buffering the impact of marginalization. One of the ways atheists are at a disadvantage compared to other groups is that there is not necessarily a “community.” Some atheists even get angry at the idea that we’d have a community, expressing things like, “You can’t have a community based on nothing!”
This view has always struck me as bizarre, because community is everything when it comes to positive social change. We need each other: A home to vent, support, organize, raise money, rally. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but until more atheists recognize that being united under a flag of “nonbelief” can actually be a positive route to social change, I’m not hopeful that minority stress is going anywhere.
CS: This book tells the stories of atheists in interfaith relationships and families. What can we learn from their experiences?
MB: All parties involved should aim to be as open and vulnerable with each other as they can. The process of accepting someone with different or opposing views is likely not going to be smooth or easy, no matter how much mutual respect, love, or history there is. But if people can remain nondefensive and remind each other that they are coming from a place of caring, it is possible to find neutral ground.
If that doesn’t work, recognize that you may never get exactly what you want out of a person or relationship. It would be false for me to say that interfaith families can always work it out. But love is compromise. There is never going to be a person or a relationship that is 100 percent what you want. To survive in the world, you have to learn to tolerate parts of others that you disagree with or even dislike. There is nothing “abnormal” or “weird” about this process—we do it all the time.