By Carl Scheiman
It all began a couple years ago, with the purchase of an "Out of the Closet Atheist" cap from FFRF. I wore it occasionally, but only when my wife (who is a Christian) was not with me. I got into the habit of wearing it to Sunday morning meetups with another atheist friend. My friend didn't feel comfortable with my "advertising." Neither did I. Then one summer day, wearing my cap, I went to a yard sale. The man behind the table looked up and said, "Good for you!" We had a few words together, and I went on my way, still wearing the cap.
Eventually, I became comfortable with being openly atheist, so I popped it on my head whenever I was out alone. No harm done, and all the while nonconfrontational and upbeat. (At a church sale, a woman once 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 cafe looking for me, and caught me wearing "the cap." OK, 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 the 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.
Throughout the years, there was only one negative reaction. We were visiting relatives in another state a few years ago. While I was standing in a pharmacy check-out 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. I hope his father's "lesson" backfired.
After some years, the cap was a well-worn veteran, and FFRF didn't sell it anymore. (They do now.) A local shop offered t-shirt/jacket embroidery services, including caps. It took some thought to decide on "U.S. Atheist." If anyone asked, 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?
Recently, 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 also is an atheist, right in front of his young son, and shook my hand.
Another time, the man behind the deli counter, same market, said, "By the way, I like your cap." 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 cafe, 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 woman with her husband told me, "I like that."
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 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.
I've come to think "the cap" speaks for them. So, even though it becomes a pain sometimes, I think about their feelings. 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.
Encountering so many people who understand have been special experiences. 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.
Carl Scheiman is an FFRF Lifetime Member from Maine.