'Atheists in America' editor Melanie Brewster.

‘Atheists in America’ editor Melanie Brewster. Photo courtesy Brewster.

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.

33 Comments

  1. I appreciate a call for better understanding of atheists – and for me that means I rarely identify with or seek out atheists in part of how ugly Christianity/herd-mentality was for me. I see patterns repeated within atheist ‘communities’ that were sickening within the Christian community – so I prefer to go it alone for the most part. However – when I do meet with deconverted people within the Former Fundamentalist support group, I ALWAYS encourage them to seek professional therapist and/or mental health help outside of the community. For many survivors of Christianity, group think and group gatherings in general trigger a lot of past pain and anger… so though I’ve tried to create community for survivors, the very act of gathering with ‘like-minded’ former believers can be difficult and painful…

    So I’d be interested in knowing how deconverted atheists respond to marginalization within the atheist community versus atheists who have barely seen the inside of a church. Much of the mental health concerns that led me to form a support group for deconverted had to do with Losing community… and for me that has become a double edged sword in that I find most “community” highly suspect and uncomfortable as a result of too much Christianity.

    Thank You – Melanie and Chris – for doing this work!

  2. there is only one way to be saved and that’s through faith in Jesus .
    John 3; 16-20
    Having a family member that was Jewish would be no safer for them than having one that’s Atheist.

    never give up on any one .. all ways proclaim the praises of Jesus that called US ALSO out of darkness into his wonderful light.

    learnaboutjesus.com

  3. It is strange how people who maintain themselves to be the end-product of some random collisions of molecules in an empty and meaningless universe should ever concern themselves with such concepts as identity and community.

    I suggest it is because deep-down they don’t really believe in the atheistic worldview at all

    • samuel Johnston

      John,
      Since when is raw, vitriolic, and unsubstantiated insult acceptable in public debate? Answer: When religionists do it.
      It matters not whether the collisions of molecules are random or determined,
      the end result is the same – life, intelligent and otherwise, of which you are apparently an example of the latter.

    • Or perhaps John, we’re people who, just like those in church communities, like to be around other nice people of similar disposition, despite the specifics of our origin beliefs. Um, we’re EXACTLY like you, just no silly, supernatural pretenses.

    • “I suggest it is because deep-down they don’t really believe in the atheistic worldview at all”

      I’m sure that desperate wish makes us less terrifying to you..

    • It is strange how people who are so certain they’re right about the existence of God are so obsessed with what other people do with their private lives.

    • Identity and community (and purpose) are **all we have** in a fundamentally meaningless and undirected Universe. And it is our task to create all three: whether (like the religious) we just sign onto someone else’s prescribed list, or create our own.

      I assure you: we atheists do, indeed, believe in an atheistic worldview. In fact, to me personally it is completely absurd that everyone doesn’t.

  4. I really couldn’t care less what religious freaks think about atheists, when they can’t get with one another in the first place. I don’t feel any stress that they don’t. It’s their problem.

    • Not That Kind of Angel

      Re: Sanjoy Das:

      I was going to reply to all the religious nut jobs posting on here, till I read your post. You said it better than I could. Thanks.

  5. Everyone is afraid. There is a terror that accompanies the risk that “I will no longer exist”. Religious people don’t admit this terror, therefore no dialogue is possible. Call each other names, or else live with it.

  6. I did not lose my faith. I gained my trust.
    Faith is beliefs based on no evidence.
    Trust is beliefs based on evidence and probabilities.
    There are many atheist organizations that protest the marriage of religion and government. We believe in the separation of religion and government.
    Check it out. ACLU, FFRF, etc. There is even a support group for clergy that have abandoned their faith in favor of trust.
    I am FREE from dogma and fairy tales. It feels really good.
    Talk about mental health issues… You have to be delusional to accept the misogynistic religions created by men.

  7. Athiests have mental health issues all right, but don’t try to blame us Christians for it! Try believing in Jesus and then maybe you won’t be nuts any more.

    Anti-athiest bias? What a joke! You have never been fed to a lion!

    • …and neither have you, Ronald. Victim complex much?

      Your gang dominates our country’s politics, tries to force its worldview onto our children, and makes war on what evidence plainly shows us is the nature of the Universe.

      You aren’t a victim–you’re an aggressor. Go practice your religion all you like–but leave me out of it. Leave me out of it in our nation’s laws, in our schools, and in our public policy debates.

  8. As an atheist, I have never had any issues with feeling marginalized. I’m not the one suffering from delusion, people who believe in God/gods are. What atheists need right now, as the movement continues to grow, is to help in the fight against the push to theocratize our government. Somehow we managed to survive the Bush years with only three wars (unless you count the war against our own people by the NSA and FBI). Voters have to make sure they aren’t voting for a “stealth” Fundamentalist, someone who acts like a conservative but who actually has no intention of upholding U.S. law except insofar as it serves his or her faith. As religion creeps farther and farther into our government, so too will discrimination, hatred, inflexibility and impasse, and eventually, imprisonments and executions.

  9. Many of the points brought up here actually do apply to my experience as a recent atheist. It’s been increasingly difficult for me since I live in the south, where you basically don’t have a voice and people automatically assume you’re misguided for not conforming to the social norm. So I welcome the call for atheists to band together because individually we simply can’t counter the popular vote of the religious masses, and we’d only be aiding them in their push to marry church and state.

  10. Stigma? Somebody thinks ill of me because I don’t believe in fairy tails? Not my circus, not my monkeys. After 60 years of happily living and productively working amongst the hoards of believers, my mental health is just fine, and so is my 82-year-old atheist mother’s and my three adult atheist children’s. Atheism is not part of our identity, it’s just a fact.

    I don’t believe in gods any more than I believe in the man in the moon; not believing in the man in the moon is also not part of my identity. I’m all for ending discrimination of all kinds, including discrimination against atheists, but to blow atheism up into anything more than a lack of belief in gods is sort of asking for mental health problems, no?

    • Uh, no, actually. Perhaps you and yours have been fortunate enough not to experience discrimination, but people have had their children taken away, have been refused parole, have been excluded from juries, have been refused employment or fired, and have been completely excluded from seeking public office in this country because they don’t believe in gods. That is a real phenomenon, and those who suffer by it are inherently stressed in a manner which can affect mental health.

      If you are a reasoning person, I suggest you consider the aphorism that “the plural of anecdote is not data”. Your experience doesn’t define THE experience of American atheists. It’s one dot on a gigantic graph, that’s all. You can’t extrapolate anything meaningful about atheists writ large from your family’s story.

      • I understand the difference between anecdotal evidence and data derived from valid research. I didn’t say that my experience is everyone’s experience. You inferred that. I spoke in first person and not in generalities for a reason.

        Yes, people do bad things to atheists sometimes. I specifically stated that I am a proponent of ending discrimination against atheists.

        You missed my point which was to caution against incorporating atheism into one’s identity (the article talks about “looking at atheism as an identity”) because, not believing in something is hardly a deeply-held ideal worthy of being incorporated into one’s identity, and doing so puts one’s mental health at risk because in addition to the potential for societal punishment, one has also added attacks on one’s very identity.

        I am suggesting that it is mentally healthier and more sensible to view a lack of belief in something (gods in this case, or fairies or unicorns, fire-breathing dragons…) as a simple fact and not blow it up into something larger than it is and then incorporating it into one’s identity. I am not suggesting that if we do that the believing world will suddenly stop punishing us. That’s a separate issue.

        • Fair enough, but I think that when not believing in something is a minority position, it inevitably *does* become part of one’s identity. Identity (individuality) is defined by affinities and differences–if you are the only person of your social group to subscribe to a radically different belief about the nature of the Universe than your peers, it inevitably becomes an identifier, both internally and socially.

          This doesn’t mean you have to expend effort on “trying to be” an atheist, but the fact of atheism does set a person apart from the mainstream in this country, and thus serves as one data point in identity.

  11. Absolutely, I agree–one data point of identity. And not an insignificant one either. Not to go all Zen-like here, though, but I believe that one’s mental health is likely to be better if one doesn’t attach too much to that one–or any–data point in identity.

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  13. The need for community is real, but it doesn’t necessarily mean banding together to promote atheism in the same way that believers promote their faiths. I find my community support online through the atheist forum on Topix. Since it’s free and open to anyone, believers are present as well, but the interchanges between the nonbelievers are actually enhanced by that in a weird way. I also enjoy the “company” of others who like to write and, for the most part, do it well.

    Local atheist meetings seem more haphazard. I only get to talk with one or two people, and there’s alway s a little pressure to move towards the kind of group action that repelled me when I was trying to live as a believer. Not everyone can give up “churchiness” along with faith.

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    gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and
    screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her
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