To be an atheist means to not believe in God. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I just saved you $15.
David G. McAfee’s Hi, I’m an Atheist!: What That Means and How to Talk About It with Others caught my eye as I was wandering my favorite bookstore a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard of the book or of McAfee, so for only $15, I gave it a try. I hoped that this pocket-sized guide might fill a gap in atheist literature on how to come out to others.
I read this book in good faith, so I was shocked to find that it was one of the worst books I have ever read. And I’ve read A Purpose-Driven Life.
Why does this book exist?
Speaking of purpose, McAfee states his goals for Hi, I’m an Atheist! a few different times. It is at once meant to “reshape the narrative [about atheists] and spread facts, all while encouraging others to be themselves,” to “[help] guide nonbelievers young and old throughout th[e] ongoing process [of coming out as an atheist],” and to “[provide] some insight into the views of those nonbelievers who are oppressed, as well as some resources to build a community with individuals who, like you, have decided that the best religion is no religion.”
At one point, McAfee reveals what I think is his true motive for writing.
When I first decided to write this book, it was because I was rejected from a graduate program for being an “atheist activist with an axe to grind.”David McAfee, Hi, I’m an Atheist!, p. 92
Towards the beginning, McAfee dedicates a chapter—six pages—to the story that he would later tell in 17 words. In 2011, a graduate admissions counselor at University of California—Santa Barbara looked him up while meeting with him and told him he wouldn’t fit into the program because of his atheist activism; namely, that he had self-published a book disproving Christianity on Amazon CreateSpace during his religious studies undergrad. He asked the department to apologize to him in a written letter, and they did.
It’s an interesting story. My friend Hemant Mehta covered it on his blog, and Herb Silverman even mentioned it in the Washington Post. Twelve years ago.
Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist—again
Why is this situation the basis of a book McAfee published in 2021?
It turns out that Hi, I’m an Atheist! is a repackaging of McAfee’s 2012 book Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer that he wrote when he was 22. Republishing something under a new name is a common practice if the original book didn’t sell well. I actually had Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist a few years ago, but I sold it back before I ever read it. The colorful cover of Hi, I’m an Atheist! duped me into buying (new and full-price) and actually reading the same book years later.
Perhaps instead of slapping a new name and cover on a decade-old book, McAfee would have seen better sales if he had written a better book to begin with. Outside of a small mandatory blurb at the bottom of the publication page, there is no indication that this book was not new to the world in 2021; it had no tenth-anniversary preface or anything. I was disappointed to learn (after reading it and writing this review) that this book was not new, since seeing a brand new atheist-coming-out book on the shelf excited me. My criticism might sound harsh for a book by a 23-year-old, but I wrote this review under the impression that McAfee just wrote this book in his thirties.
Everything in Hi, I’m an Atheist! has been said a thousand times. You can find any advice on coming out atheist that you could possibly want online. Maybe these resources weren’t available at the original book’s publication in 2012, but they certainly were before the republish in 2021.
It’s one thing for the advice not to be revolutionary, but it is simply bad. McAfee treats his own experience as if it is universal. One of the ways I know this is bad practice is because I came out as an atheist to my family and friends years ago, and his advice would have gotten me nowhere because his experience was nothing like mine.
When it comes to coming out, the simplest piece of advice I can give is, “The earlier the better.” Religious family members may be upset to hear about your departure from faith in the tradition that they practice, but time will always help those who truly love you understand and accept that their religion simply doesn’t reach the burden of proof necessary to warrant lifelong dedication—in your opinion and the opinions of countless others; after all, “time heals all wounds.” The time it often takes family members to understand this change is exactly why planning to express your doubts in religious institutions as early as you begin having them is such an important element in any transition to becoming openly nonreligious—and making sure that your doubts are not misunderstood. It is interesting to note that, from a religious perspective, doubt and skepticism of faith is often cast as “God testing you,” or “the devil tricking you,” or some variant, whereas it is much likelier that your critical-thinking skills are starting to make headway.
This is not to say that the first time you question religion you should immediately tell your family that you’re an atheist, but openly expressing doubt may help plant the seeds with more “traditional” family members for a future naturalistic revelation. What it does mean is that, if you are sure that you want to share your secularism with your family and friends, then the earlier you make the information known, the earlier they can solve their own issues with your de-conversion that stem from their own insecurities in faith-based religions and accept your choices, hopefully ensuring everyone’s happiness. Disassociation with a given religious system does not have to be a devastating familial interaction; often, as is the case within my own family, sharing your secular mentality as early as possible can help loved ones get used to the idea and prevent major impacts in the future of your relationships. In short, as long as you take a healthy approach to sharing your de-conversion, they will usually get over it—it is just a matter of time.David McAfee, Hi, I’m an Atheist!, pp. 41-42
I shared that section in full because I need you to know how long it takes McAfee to make literally any point. He could have said, “Come out early. It will give your loved ones time to process and recover so that you can heal together. Oh, and because that’s what I did.”
This book is only 132 pages long (despite the way it is portrayed on McAfee’s Facebook page), but reading it was exhausting because of the double blow that was McAfee’s shoddy advice paired with his verbose writing.
The atheist coming out formula
McAfee advises his readers to come out early because he did, and because he is on good terms with his family now.
I could have remained silent for years as so many of us do, but instead I decided to confront my family head-on. It was at age fifteen that I first told my family that I didn’t want to go to church anymore because I disagreed with the religion on a fundamental and moral level. I was honest and respectful about my opinions, but that didn’t stop them from attempting to force my participation in the church—they probably thought they were doing the right thing, trying to “save my soul.” I remember them being upset with me at first—as you might expect. But, because of my straightforward and honest attitude, and because I broached the subject rather early in life, it blew over relatively quickly. In short, they got over it. From age fifteen on, it was known to all those in my immediate family that I was a religious conscientious objector, and while some of the more closed-minded family members looked down on me for this rather bold announcement, I simply turned the other cheek. Now, I am an open atheist in my private and public lives and believe that I am truly better off for it.David McAfee, Hi, I’m an Atheist!, p. xviii
My whole body cringes as I read McAfee’s story as if he is some hero who stood up for himself against all odds in order to achieve a perfect ending. I’m happy for him that it all went great, but real life does not usually work like that. It is bold of him to tell his readers that if they do the same thing, their families will probably react the same way.
They won’t. People are messy. Coming out is not a formula. Maybe you will come out to someone, promise them that you are the same person you have always been, and have them assure you that they love you. Maybe in the following weeks and months, you think that it’s blown over, and your relationship is as strong as ever. But maybe as the years go by, you realize that they don’t treat you the same. They don’t trust you as much. They don’t talk to you as much. Unconditional love may have conditions after all.
What’s David McAfee supposed to write about then? That wouldn’t fit in his book. Coming out as a teen won’t change who people are at the fundamental level. His audience needs to know that sometimes it is not going to work out.
We are not like you
McAfee says that a difference in religious belief should not fracture a family, and he’s right. By itself, whether two people share a belief in a deity is pretty inconsequential (which is also why the interview with the progressive atheist married to the progressive Christian fell flat). But atheism tends to correlate with being feminist, antiracist, queer, and pro-abortion, while conservative Christians tend to be, well, not those things. These fundamental differences are what break relationships. (As they should. I can be friends with someone who believes in God but not with someone who does not believe in abortion rights.)
The back of the book says that “atheists are completely misunderstood, frequently thought of as Satan worshippers and anarchists.” Most atheists are not Satanists or anarchists, but many are. McAfee argues that atheists should be accepted more or less because “We’re just like you!” But some of us are weird. We’re queer, we’re neurodivergent, we’re Marxist or Satanist or abolitionist. We’re not all just like you.
McAfee is dancing with respectability politics, and you can tell from his writing. He uses as many words as he can, probably to sound smart.
Although the term atheist may have begun as a derogatory or pejorative title, the literal meaning of “without god” or “a lack of belief in god(s)” remains important for our purposes, and I will continue to use atheist and nonbeliever to refer to a nonreligious person who is skeptical in regard to a supernatural Creator. An open atheist is a person who does not hide the fact that they don’t participate in deity worship from their family, friends, and the general public. It is a common misconception that an atheist necessarily believes that the existence of a god or gods is impossible; the term simply refers to a person who doesn’t believe that is the case. In other words, an atheist might simply believe that God, as a concept, is improbable. The definition of God also becomes increasingly important here. For God in this context, we will ascribe the semi-traditional definition of a supernatural Creator and/or Governor. This description applies to the proposed deities from a wide variety of religions and cultures, and an atheist is simply somebody who doubts the existence of such a being—no more, no less.David McAfee, Hi, I’m an atheist!, p. 3
McAfee acknowledges that “an atheist is simply somebody who doubts the existence of such a being—no more, no less,” yet his definition of atheist took up almost an entire page.
Tell me something I don’t know
The book is not only repetitive and pedantic, but McAfee is usually repeating or pontificating things the reader would have known going into the book. Hi, I’m an Atheist! is meant to be read by people who are wondering whether they themselves are atheists and whether they should tell people. A brief definition of atheism coupled with a coming-out how-to would have answered their questions, but that wouldn’t have been able to fill up a book. Therefore, McAfee pads out the book with no-brainers like:
[My atheism] doesn’t tell you anything about my goals, what I value, or the moral philosophies on which I base my life. p. ix
The odds are that, if you are a closet atheist or a silent nonbeliever, your relatives or loved ones probably have a different approach to theological philosophies than you do—hence your hesitation in making your ideas public knowledge. p. 4
In some cases, the result [of indoctrination] is a nonbeliever who is surrounded by religious loved ones with whom they would like to share their thoughts and concerns, but can’t for fear of discrimination and other negative reactions. p. 10
One reason that a religious person might give for having issues with your de-conversion from religion to a more naturalistic understanding of the world is that many religions propose themselves as the one unified source of an objective morality. p. 32
For those parents who did everything in their power to ensure the realization of a pious and God-fearing child, finding out that they are nonreligious can be a shock to the system. p. 45
There are also numerous groups, pages, and communities on Facebook—as well as other major social networks. p. 67
I could go on, but I won’t. The reader knows all of these things, because these are the reasons that they sought out the book in the first place. I presume that if McAfee didn’t include all this fluff then there would be no book left. This is a red flag because, as William Zinsser says in On Writing Well,
But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.William Zinsser, On Writing Well, pp. 6-7
The “education and rank” note is a hint as to why McAfee feels the need to use so many words. I found myself proofreading McAfee’s sentences as I read: “
One reason that a religious person might give for hav ing issues with your de-conversion from religion to a more naturalistic understanding of the world is that because many religions propose themselves as the one unified source of an objective morality.” A religious person might have issues with your deconversion because many religions propose themselves as the source of morality.
A nitpicking speedrun
Beyond these overarching issues, I had so many notes on specific problems. Here is a speedrun through them.
McAfee uses words that are not words: “silenter,” “extremer,” “brutalest,” “honester,” “complexer,” and “likelier.”
Thirteen of the 15 epigraphs are by men.
McAfee says the book includes “testimonials from nonbelievers of all ages” and “provide[s] multiple perspectives” and a “wide range of viewpoints on the topic of deconversion.” I assume that these notes are left over from Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist in which he says he interviewed six people in a chapter of testimonials. In Hi, I’m an Atheist!, that chapter was replaced with a single interview.
On page 1, being an atheist is a decision. On page 106, it’s not.
He says that atheists who are “spiritual but not religious” “are afraid to say what they are, due to stigma or conditioning,” rather than because they actually are just spiritual and not religious.
He calls gay folks “homosexuals.” A lot.
He decides that “In the United States, the majority of atheists probably come from a more liberal religious background, for the simple reason that most American Christians practice a form of cultural Christianity, in that they inherit the traditions but don’t necessarily understand or care about the intricacies of the religion.” He gives no source.
He shares long passages of his first book several times. (Amazingly, Mom, Dad was not his first book.)
On page 17 he says, “Being an open atheist since a very young age, I never hid the face that I didn’t believe.” In the preface, he had said, “But out of fear of being ostracized, I remained silent and did not raise any specific concerns to my family. . . ” and explains that he came out when he was 15.
There is a chapter called “What Does it Mean to Be an Atheist?” which McAfee says will “help to destroy some of the common misconceptions associated with atheist.” The chapter is just general arguments against religion.
McAfee will do anything to avoid ending a phrase with a preposition. Some examples are: “The act of being honest with those for whom you care deeply regarding your thoughts and opinions on ‘divine’ matters should be a celebratory one,” and “. . . it is also important, however, to not carry over any disrespectful or begrudging tones from these anonymous interactions into your conversations with those you love and for whom you care.”
He assumes that we have “other family members who are more supportive or otherwise able to help mediate the interaction between yourself and your more fundamentally religious kin.”
At one point he defines “atheist” as “a lack of a belief in a god or gods.” Not atheism. Atheist.
There’s so much passive voice. Just so much.
McAfee briefly touches on “fundamentalist and rural religious communities” in which “the church provides the vast majority of social interactions in a person’s life” and everything in one’s life “is governed or sponsored by a particular church.” He strangely does not use the word “cult”—which is what these are—but he does single out “certain sects of” the Mormon church, in which “this is especially true.” There is no mention of Jehovah’s Witnesses or any other cult.
His descriptions of major atheist organizations are all copy-and-pasted from their websites’ about pages, down to saying that the FFRF is “a nonprofit, tax-exempt, educational organization under Internal Revenue Service Code 501(c)(3). All dues and contributions are deductible for income tax purposes.”
McAfee’s advice if you live in the Middle East or a place where “your life will be endangered by being vocal about your atheism,” is: “perhaps, it may be time to relocate to an area in which that danger is absent.” I’m sure that’s so helpful.
Two of the Q’s and A’s in the FAQ section are bold, and the rest are not.
He says he’s not against people being religious but he also says “[Life] should not be spent identifying with religious traditions and organized groups that, historically, have been at the root of a tremendous amount of oppression and violence.”
I know this review has gotten really into the weeds on this book, which might seem strange since all things considered, David McAfee and I are “on the same side.” But it irks me when people blatantly create things only to make money. Coming out atheist is a difficult time, and readers will be no more prepared after reading this than before. They’ll just be out 15 bucks.