Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

Compulsory Public Atheism

This is an open response to an open letter written by Wes.   You can read the full letter here.


Hi, Wes.

I think we’ve spoken or at least communicated before. However, you don’t need to establish credentials with us. If you have a disagreement with anyone on the show, you’re encouraged to write or even better, call us and air your grievances, even if you’ve only just now tuned into the show. That said, we all appreciate the support you’ve given Ask an Atheist, and we hope that it will continue.

There are two points I’d like to discuss. One of them is a personal bugbear of mine that I’ll address later. For now, let’s talk about why you think I suddenly became horribly insensitive.

I can understand your desire for a more nuanced conversation, and that’s pretty easy to explain. However, the rest of it puzzles me. Frankly, I don’t see how you get there from here.

The lack of nuance has two sources. First, there’s just the economy of time– we have 60 minutes a week, this particular part of the conversation happened in the bottom half of the show, and we have material we’d like to cover. Meanwhile, the part of the conversation I called an incitement– which it was, no doubt– is also an invitation for people to call into the show and discuss my opinions with me. I was hoping, against some odds, that the nuanced discussion you and I were hoping for would happen on the air, with a caller.

So clearly, we’re in agreement here: a nuanced discussion is called for. The disagreement is about the context under which that nuanced discussion should take place. That’s fair.

This is where it becomes unfair:

Sam then ends his claims with the statement about the real dangers to himself when he came out of the closet as an atheist, as if the dangers and losses he faced were somehow greater or more real than the gay men and women whose existence he denied.
Wes, in his open letter.

Wow, no.

I didn’t say that, I certainly don’t mean that, it wasn’t my point, and generally I don’t play Oppression Olympics with other movements. My point, as ineffectually put as it apparently was, is that my transition to public atheism made me aware of what some of the dangers in being an atheist can be, as contrasted with the people I am attempting to incite.

Instead of exercising the principle of charity the weakest interpretation of the opposing argument was given. The implication of which, was that proponents of this idea feel it should be carried out even if it would physically endanger peoples lives.

There are people in both the atheism and the LGBT movements who see closeted individuals as lesser people and as targets of disdain. They make demands that everyone should come out of the closet with little apparent regard for personal safety.

These people exist. I have met them, consistently and recently. I am specifically speaking to and about these people.

I think the compulsory nature of these demands on otherwise private citizens is short-sighted and dangerous. Furthermore, I think it suggests that the people who make these demands haven’t considered the risks that such exposure can create.

I am being charitable when I say that I don’t think they are making these considerations because it is outside of their experience. The alternative, that they’ve experienced the psychic or even physical pain but are ignoring that potential pain in others lacks a lot of empathy.

Not to get all Maslow on you, but if I have to make a choice between closeted and alive, and un-closeted and dead, I’d prefer that my friends pick the former. That is essentially what it comes down to.

And really, I’m having a lot of problems fitting in your opinion of my opinion with what I say a couple of minutes later:

…like us, the way I like to talk about it, again, taking a page from the gay rights movement: build up, don’t tear down, build courage, don’t inspire fear.Me, quoting me.

This is the heart of my point. We need to build an environment in public atheism that inspires people to be an atheist publicly, rather than via compulsion and coercion. How do we do that? The success in the LGBT movement comes not just from political action, but by building a supporting, positive community that inspires pride in personal identity.

For many, the pain and fear of losing contact with loved ones is at least partially assuaged through the invitation to be a part of a burgeoning, positive community.

How could we do any less?

About the Author: Sam Mulvey

Sam Mulvey is a producer and the technical brain behind Ask an Atheist. He is a collector of vinegar varieties, vintage computers, antique radios, and propaganda.

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Sam, I do think your assertion that people who hold this opinion have never experienced real danger or had much to loose themselves still needs to be addressed. That in and of itself is and remains plainly false. That by far was the biggest issue I hope gets spoken to. Now I agree that the political drive to call out one’s closeted brothers in the need to create political action is done at the expense of a degree of empathy. However, I have never met someone who held that it ought to be carried through in the face of a… Read more »


Also I apologize, I did try to write you direct via the contact form on the site. It kept truncating my message…


I am sorry to revisit this, but having thought on it more I have another comment to make. To say that people who hold the claim that individuals have an obligation to come out are lacking in empathy or lack traumatic experiences coming out is a false dichotomy. To expound if I may: Many closeted individuals are active participants in the gay community. They go to bars, have lovers, etc. In these cases they can be from many numerous walks of life. Some are politicians whose careers could be ruined, many are not. Many would face repercussions along a whole… Read more »


Sam, To be specific on your more claims: “I am being charitable when I say that I don’t think they are making these considerations because it is outside of their experience. The alternative, that they’ve experienced the psychic or even physical pain but are ignoring that potential pain in others lacks a lot of empathy.” Is the very false dichotomy of which I spoke to above. It presents only two possibilities, one in which people you disagree with have never experienced pain as we have described or that they lack empathy. I have outlined above the general political theory which… Read more »

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