Dealing With Fear — Part 2: Coming Out as an Atheist

There are several fear issues related to coming out as an atheist.

Beyond the more personal, internal fears any person in the midst of graduating out of belief might feel – “What if God is real and sends me to Hell for doubting? If I give up believing in God and Heaven, doesn’t that mean I’ll never see my granddad again?” – there are some real-world fears worth thinking about.

Fears that would spring to mind for any new atheist or atheist-to-be involve social issues — the fear of consequences that might arise at the prospect of coming out.

At the low end are some mental-emotional consequences:

1) Will my family shun me? What will my grandmother think? What will my parents say?

Midway are some real-world social or career consequences:

2) Could I lose my job? Be passed over for promotion? Lose all the friends in my social/cultural circle?

At the extreme end are potential physical consequences:

3) Will they beat or kill me?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, two more questions come into play:

4) Given the consequences, is it worth it to me to come out? Does the benefit, in my own opinion, outweigh the cost?

Or the closely related:

5) Am I willing to conceal my feelings and beliefs, possibly indefinitely?

Taking the first three in reverse order:

3) Will they beat or kill me for becoming an atheist?

Violence against atheists, in the western world at least, seems unlikely. This is a statistical fact rather than an absolute one, however, and I doubt I’d be as outspoken in parts of Georgia or Texas as I would be in New York or California.

I’d like to be able to say that you can safely assume nothing violent will happen, but … given the murder of abortion doctors or of gay high school students, people in different but equally-hated situations, it seems unlikely but unfortunately possible. (Much more so, possibly, if you live in a conservative Islamic culture that supports honor killing.)

2) Could I lose my job? Be passed over for promotion? Lose all the friends in my social/cultural circle?

This one is less remote. Given the subjective nature of promotions and job pay – we already know that African-Americans, women and even short people can suffer automatic career disadvantages – it’s easy to imagine that an outspoken atheist could be discriminated against in certain job situations. This would be especially true if management, owners or the organization itself are overtly religious.

That probably goes double if you don’t already have the position. If you’re applying for a job as the accountant at the Sisters of Mercy Hospital, atheism is not something you’d include on your resume.

By the way: When I say “outspoken atheist” above, I’m not talking about someone who pesters the heck out of everybody around him by talking about atheism in every breath. I mean, simply, someone who makes the mild, truthful statement “I’m an atheist” or “I don’t believe in that stuff” when the other person injects religious belief into a conversation already underway.

As to social/cultural circles, if your familiar social circle is overtly religious, you will definitely no longer fit into it as an atheist. Greta Christina had an insightful recent post about a core fact of declaring oneself an atheist: We’re Telling Them They’re Wrong: Why Coming Out Atheist Is Inherently Oppositional.

1) Will my family shun me? What will my grandmother think? What will my parents say?

Your family is going to react badly in direct proportion to how devoutly religious they are. If they’re deeply religious, especially if they’re part of a close-knit faith community, they’re probably going to be VERY unhappy with you. Not only will you have rejected their faith, which directly challenges their own judgment, they’ll probably feel you’re embarrassing them in the eyes of their friends. Not to mention the part where you’re going to Hell.

I had to face tears from my Southern Baptist grandmother, who was convinced she would never see me in Heaven, a years-long unfriendly reaction from my born-again stepfather, and lasting alienation from other Deep South friends and family – some of whom grew more religious rather than less over the years.

Additionally, if your experience is anything like mine, you’re going to have to deal with a subtle, ongoing campaign to “bring you back to Jesus.” For one example, friends will place you hopefully on their email lists for round after round of forwarded religious parables, homilies, cartoons, syrupy stories and anecdotes of faith – some of which are transparent, outright lies – and it will arrive with pathetic regularity.

You will feel the stark choice has been forced on you to preserve certain friendships by saying nothing, or of losing them by asking to be taken off their mailing lists. In my case, again, one day I realized that the emails, which were from lifelong friends, never contained one word of personal greeting or friendly news, but only the impersonally forwarded religious proselytizing. I was being treated not like a close friend but like a potential customer of evangelical Christianity.

Finally, the last two, which are asked not of the people around you, but of you yourself:

4) Given the consequences, is it worth it to me to come out? Does the benefit, in my own opinion, outweigh the cost?

And

5) Am I willing to conceal my feelings and beliefs, possibly indefinitely?

In reference to your own personal life, only you can answer these. A big part of the answer will reflect the depth of your allegiance to your own mind and judgment. How important is it to you to stay true to your own sense of reason in the face of push-back from your family, friends, employer or wider social situation?

A little aside here: As I write this, I’m conscious of two motivations. On the one hand, there’s a general societal concern in which I want as many people as possible to come out as atheists and unbelievers, so as to 1) lighten the social loading on those who either already have come out or will in the near future, and 2) change society in saner directions.

On the other, there’s a personal concern in which I want no specific individual to suffer for coming out. In other words, it would be deeply disturbing if some young person said “Hey, I took your advice and came out as an atheist in front of my whole church!” and I heard a week later that they’d been kicked out of their home at the age of 15 or, worse, assaulted and hospitalized by a fellow parishioner.

Given that, though, here’s something I say in the Introduction to my book, Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist:

Some of what you figure out [as a freethinker] will go against the grain of your upbringing. But it seems to me you have to give your deepest allegiance to your own independent mind. Nothing less will allow you to become your own unique self, nothing less will allow you to most completely develop your own unique gifts. And nothing less will honor those who raised you – hopefully to be the best you could be – even if you eventually find yourself disagreeing with some of what they taught you.

The way things are in the world, you’re probably going to face some level of  discrimination, or certain social impacts, for announcing that you’re an atheist.

But also given the cultural battles that have already been fought and won, it’s probably not going to be anything you can’t handle.

For standing up for their rights, black people in the U.S. faced real threats of public lynching, having their homes burned by hooded thugs, and even subjected to widely approved police beatings. Gays faced beatings, raids, jail terms and even forced medical treatment to “cure” them. Women faced everything from fond dismissal to extreme physical abuse.

What most of us as atheists will probably face is small in comparison, and the amount of courage it takes to come out is likely to be substantially less than that exhibited by African-Americans, gays and women’s rights activists.

In the broader view of how society benefited from such social battles being fought and won, it’s obvious that we’re all MUCH better off today than, say, 50 years ago. The contributions of the groups involved are undeniable, and the general social expectation of inclusion is now burned into us, both by the images of past horrors and an awakened sense of our own shared humanity.

This trend of inclusion is worth encouraging. The difference is that this time the battle for rights and inclusion is our own. The social threshold before us is pervasive religiosity versus freedom of belief for us and everybody else.

My advice on coming out: Think about it. Carefully. But lean toward doing it.

Only you can gauge the consequences likely to follow in your own life. But if it’s something less than murder or physical beatings, it might be worth taking a chance on doing it.

On the near side of the decision is an obedient and self-effacing little you, the person you are as a mere artifact of your upbringing and social circle.

On the other side is the someone you will be as the result of your own judgment and self-trust, your own choices and mind, your own broader possibilities as a creative, free individual.

A new sort of you living in — depending on how many of us speak up — a growing community of such free people.

  • niftyatheist

    I was waiting for this post! Thanks, Hank. Well said!

  • Brad

    I don’t know exactly where this would fit in on your impact scale:

    2.5) What if my devoutly evangelical wife takes my church’s teaching about being “unequally yoked” seriously? Will she abandon the marriage and take the kids if I come out as an atheist?

    Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? – 2 Corinthians 6:14

    I think I know her pretty well ;), so I don’t really believe that she would, but this is still a very real fear that I have concerning coming out.

    • alanuk

      And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 1 Corinthians 7:13

      But read the preceding verse for the let-out clause.

  • Brad

    I don’t know exactly where this would fit in on your impact scale:

    2.5) What if my devoutly evangelical wife takes my church’s teaching about being “unequally yoked” seriously? Will she abandon the marriage and take the kids if I come out as an atheist?

    Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? – 2 Corinthians 6:14

    I think I know her pretty well ;), so I don’t really believe that she would, but this is still a very real fear that I have concerning coming out.

    • alanuk

      And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 1 Corinthians 7:13

      But read the preceding verse for the let-out clause.

      • Brad

        That’s a pretty good verse, I’ll have to remember that one!

  • 8-bit

    Moreso than being afraid of responses to me, I’m more concerned about responses toward my kids (grade-school aged). I can envision it (my being open) adversely affecting them, as parents become afraid to let their kids play with mine, etc.
    As a scout leader (I detest BSA policies, but none of that shows at our local cub scout level) I would be ineligible for my position, and it would draw lots of attention to my son (who would also be ineligible).
    I don’t want my beliefs to impact them, but know it would, even though most of the people we know are only nominally religious.

  • 8-bit

    Moreso than being afraid of responses to me, I’m more concerned about responses toward my kids (grade-school aged). I can envision it (my being open) adversely affecting them, as parents become afraid to let their kids play with mine, etc.
    As a scout leader (I detest BSA policies, but none of that shows at our local cub scout level) I would be ineligible for my position, and it would draw lots of attention to my son (who would also be ineligible).
    I don’t want my beliefs to impact them, but know it would, even though most of the people we know are only nominally religious.

  • SamG

    Hi,

    I substitute teach in a small, rather conservative town. I’ve told students on a couple of occasions (when they gave me a glurge story to read and today when they asked me when Jesus’s birthday actually was). I told them many theologians disagree on the answers and that they didn’t want my opinion. They said ‘why’ and I told them that I didn’t believe.

    If those kids go home (and some might) and say ‘my teacher today said Jesus never existed’. I could truly be out of a job. Since I am basically there without a contract, they can stop calling me for any reason. I’ve also been less than diplomatic with some of the kids and wrote on a social site that I handed out referrals (no names). So, I’m skating on thin ice as it is, and I’ll never truly know why.

    At least I don’t fear physical attacks.

    Sam G

  • anthonyallen

    I had to deal with 2.5 Not so long ago. My (now ex) partner and I had a discussion about religion in the car on the way home one day. It began when I told her how appalled I was at some mid-western state’s continual rejection of evolution, and even basic science. The religions discussion ensued, and though I won’t get into details, suffice it to say that the details are all too familiar to most of us.

    She asked me point-blank: “Are you saying that the Bible is a lie?” I answered thusly, “Insofar as any work of fiction is a lie, yes.”

    She responded by pulling me over and kicking me out of the car (our home was about 12km from where we were, at the time). Later, she “forbade” me to speak of my atheism to her children. Since they are not my own, I was required to respect her wishes, but I did tell her that if they asked, I would not lie to them.

    Nor will I lie to any child.

    -A-

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    Not to (once again) seem like I’m taking over this for other reasons, but this is still the kind of thoughts I have to have over so many different things not just my atheism. I haven’t officially stated flat-out to my family “yes I am an atheist” but I’m sure they know. It was a trial to get them to know about my bisexuality, and now I have to deal with this transgenderism.

    It’s not just atheism that’s an issue when it comes to religious fundamentalists, but also the very structure of being for people like myself. I’m scared to even go talk to a therapist about the issue because I know that doing so will possibly eventually lead to my having to tell my parents that I feel like I was born into the wrong body.

    I fear, above all else, that I’ll lose the good relationship I have with them. It’s strained as it is, but we still talk a lot. I don’t feel like they’re so upset about my not being around for some holidays now than they used to, though. I’m mostly worried that if I come out as TG that they’ll shun me.

    Religious fundamentalism is a horrible thing when it can destroy relationships for no reason other than an ingrained dislike of things that go against the religion…

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    Not to (once again) seem like I’m taking over this for other reasons, but this is still the kind of thoughts I have to have over so many different things not just my atheism. I haven’t officially stated flat-out to my family “yes I am an atheist” but I’m sure they know. It was a trial to get them to know about my bisexuality, and now I have to deal with this transgenderism.

    It’s not just atheism that’s an issue when it comes to religious fundamentalists, but also the very structure of being for people like myself. I’m scared to even go talk to a therapist about the issue because I know that doing so will possibly eventually lead to my having to tell my parents that I feel like I was born into the wrong body.

    I fear, above all else, that I’ll lose the good relationship I have with them. It’s strained as it is, but we still talk a lot. I don’t feel like they’re so upset about my not being around for some holidays now than they used to, though. I’m mostly worried that if I come out as TG that they’ll shun me.

    Religious fundamentalism is a horrible thing when it can destroy relationships for no reason other than an ingrained dislike of things that go against the religion…

  • docsarvis

    Great timing on this post, Hank. I’m a middle age returning college student and am enrolled in an ethical analysis class. The class requires we write a series of essays discussing a personal ethical dilemma from three different philosophical views. My professor approved my topic of whether I should place an atheist banner on my website.

    My family and friends know I’m an atheist, so that isn’t a problem. I’ve been an atheist since I walked out of an evangelical seminary 35 years ago. My family accepts me and respects my lack of belief, although they don’t understand how I can believe there is no supernatural deity watching over us.

    The dilemma is placing a banner on my website may make it more difficult for me to find a job when I graduate, and (more importantly) when my nieces and nephews look at my website they will probably ask their parents questions that make them uncomfortable. My family will no longer be able to ignore my atheism.

    I plan to place the banner on my website when I redesign it. Your essay gave me some good ideas of what to discus in my papers for class. Thank you.

  • Dave D

    I’ve just discovered your blog (via Pharyngula), Hank, and I’m really enjoying it! As a gay man who finally came out at the age of 30, I think I can speak to this subject a little (maybe only a little). I can at least tell those readers who don’t think it’s worth the hassle that the hassle almost certainly isn’t as bad as they’re imagining, and the relief of living honestly is worth whatever negative reactions they encounter.

    That’s not to say that there will be no negative reactions, but being honest with oneself does seem to give a little extra shot of iron in the spine to deal with them. As a bonus, I’ve found that after coming out gay, I no longer give half a rip what people think about my being an atheist. Your mileage may vary, of course, but honesty seems to spread throughout a life in the same way the lies we weave tend to tangle us up entirely.


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