9/18/2016 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Carl S ~
A bit of background: First of all, the experiences I report take place for the most part in my own state. My wife and I are retired, but we gave up far traveling some time ago. (However, as the license plates every summer here will attest, the other states come to us.) Secondly, I'm not a confrontational person, but I haven't shied away from protesting injustices done to my fellow humans. Thirdly, I admire Rosa Parks.
It all began years ago, with the purchase of an "out of the closet atheist" cap from FFRF. I wore it occasionally, but only when my wife (she's a Christian) was not with me. I got into the habit of wearing it on Sunday morning meet-ups with another atheist friend while my wife attended church. My friend didn't feel comfortable with my "advertising." Neither did I. Then, one summer day, while my wife was in the hospital recovering, she suggested I go to some of the local yard sales. I strode into one of them, and the man behind the table looked up at me and said, "Good for you!" We had a few words together, and I went on my way, wearing it to yet more yard sales. No more comments, but counter to expectations, no negative ones either. Interesting.
Eventually, I became comfortable with being openly atheist, so I popped it on whenever I was out alone, no harm done, all the while non-confrontational and upbeat. (Once, at a church sale, a woman asked me, "Do you wear that to every church sale?" I responded, "I wear it everywhere.") My policy became, "Don't speak unless you're spoken to." This has proven very workable.
One Sunday, instead of driving my wife to church and picking her up afterwards, the situation was reversed. She came to the café looking for me, and caught me wearing "the cap." Okay, deep breath. She already knew I was an atheist; that she accepted years ago. No words were said about it, but if I remember correctly, I thought, "Ah well, it's too late now," and we walked off together, me with cap on. We continued going out like that. Since then, I've kept it in the car, so wherever we go I put it on automatically when exiting. We've had some interesting encounters.
Through the years, there was only one negative reaction. We were visiting our relatives in another state, about 4 or 5 years ago. While I was standing in a pharmacy checkout line, a young man pointed at me and told his son I was evil. I didn't say a word, but wondered what this boy thought of avoiding an ordinary, bland, and smiling guy like me. He wouldn't be able to say he "never met an atheist." I'm hope his father's "lesson" backfired.
After some years, the cap was a well-worn veteran, and FFRF didn't sell it any more. (They do now.) A local shop offered tee shirt /jacket embroidery services, including caps. It took some thought to decide on "U. S. Atheist." If anyone asked why U.S.?, I could always say it's because I'm a veteran. I detest the attitude that only Christian soldiers are patriots. How many making that claim actually served their country anyhow? Oh yes, the letters: white on blue. I pinned on a caricature button of Bugs Bunny much later; it lightens things up.
Last week, when we were leaving the local McDonald's, a woman walked over to say, "I like your hat." That reaction has been going on for years now. I always say, "Thank you." Some months before this, same place, the girl student behind the counter, ditto. A middle aged man at the supermarket made a beeline over to say he too is an atheist, right in front of his young son (one up), and shook my hand. Another time, the man behind the deli counter, same market, handed me my sliced meat, saying, "By the way, I like your cap." (My friend says my wife must be getting used to hearing those words, since they're so often uttered in her presence.) And then there were the two senior ladies volunteering behind the counter at the library. When I walked in, one called out, "Come and look at this!" It's nice to help make someone's day. At the café, people come up to tell me they're glad to see those words; judging by their demeanor, they're intellectuals who are passing through, who I don't expect to see again. I'd told my friend about these encounters before, and then he finally saw for himself. This morning we stood in line at the cafe', and an ear-to-ear smiling middle aged woman with her husband told me, "I like that." (Later on, in an aside, she mentioned her father was a freethinker who liked to debate.)
The majority of times though, the comments come not from intellectuals, but, to my surprise, blue collar and service workers, Lincoln's "common man," and women, of all ages. This may seem odd because atheists normally appeal to Reason rather than to emotions, to the intellect rather than the nitty-gritty of the practical, everyday life, and to cold and not warm science, to make their points. But, thinking back on the rational and questioning influences in my own life which led me to atheism, I notice that most of them originated with my fellow blue collar, practical thinking co-workers, long before I discovered Bertrand Russell, Dawkins, et al.
What college educated person would have suspected a machinist could be knowledgeable about Zoroastrianism? A co-worker introduced me to "The True Believer," by Eric Hoffer, a philosopher and dock worker himself. And who would have known a man with dirty hands would propose the question to a Jehovah’s Witness who said "everything has a purpose," with: "So what's the purpose of a seventeen-year locust?" (They're the Mark Twains and Tom Paines of our day.)
Who would have known a man with dirty hands would propose the question to a Jehovah’s Witness who said "everything has a purpose," with: "So what's the purpose of a seventeen-year locust?" (They're the Mark Twains and Tom Paines of our day.)I've come to think "the cap" speaks for them, if they don't feel free to, or can't. So, even though it becomes a pain sometimes, I think about their feelings. This is encouragement. I think also of those others, the many who suffer and die defending what I so (flagrantly) aver. They are paying with their loss of safety, paying with their imprisonment and even their lives - and why? For merely pointing out the emperor has no clothes. They are, tragically, ignored by our worldwide media. In a way, I speak for them too. It's too bad if anyone is annoyed by this. As I explained to a good Christian friend who said his church members were "uncomfortable" with my cap, " I'm just being myself, and everyone has a right to be himself, as long as no one is harmed." There are way more important things in life than comfort.
There are problems with every encounter: I'm hearing impaired, and despite all the propaganda of hearing instrument manufacturers, they don't work well in crowded settings. It's too easy to misunderstand and thereby give a "wrong" response to questions one misunderstands. Plus, the words of encouragement usually come when I’m needed for other tasks. No time for discussions. These are also the reasons I prefer to write. Encountering so many people who understand and say so has been special. My ultimate hope is to someday live in a world where a cap like mine is not commented on at all, but universally accepted. I want a world desired by every freedom-loving human being, where someone is neither praised nor damned for wearing a cap that says "atheist," a world where freedom of speech is the first freedom honored in every country. Until then, the cap stays.