From the Mailbag: Atheists in the Closet

As much effort as we freethinkers put into making atheism a viable and socially accepted option, it’s important to remember that it’s still a difficult feat to extricate oneself from religion when one’s family and social life are bound up with church attendance. Consider this e-mail I received a few days ago, whose author’s personal information I’ve omitted:

I just wanted to say thanks for your sites, which I’ve been reading for about a year now. I’m a 49 year old former Salvation Army minister from the UK, who was a devout Christian for most of my life. Not a fundamentalist, happy with evolution, a 15 billion year old universe and a bible that was not inerrant, but still a Christian.

I had a bout of mental illness a couple of years ago, and after coming through it started to question some of the religious feelings I’d had and the ‘inner certainty’ that God was speaking to me. The religious awe that had convinced me of the existence of God just seemed to be the other side of the depressive state I had been in, and the voice of God nothing different to the delusions that had told me to commit suicide.

Once I started to question things, the compartmentalisation that had enabled me to retain my faith began to collapse. The questioning led me to your Ebon Musings, and both the essays you have written yourself and the links and references to other authors have helped immensely in developing my new view of the world.

I guess I’m not what you’d call a fully fledged atheist in that although I no longer believe in a God, Christ or any other religious doctrine I still go to church most Sundays, mainly for the social interaction. It’s hard to give everything up when all your friends are there, your social life is there, your kids are involved etc. Maybe one day I’ll feel able to give it all up, but not just yet.

In the meantime I’ll content myself with authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stengler etc, and of course your own Daylight Atheism. That, and knowing that after nearly 50 years I’ve finally worked things out.

I wrote back to this person to find out whether the other members of his church knew his beliefs had changed, and this was his reply:

I’ve been (and still am in many cases) a fairly active member; I used to take meetings and open air services (although I’ve now stopped doing those, ostensibly due to the effects of my breakdown a couple of years ago), but I still wear the uniform, play in the band and take part in other church events and appear to be a ‘good soldier’. No-one knows of my change in beliefs except my wife; to come out and say publicly that I no longer believe in god would mean that I’d have to put off the uniform, stop playing (which I love) and wouldn’t be able to take part in some events. I’d still be able to go to the meetings with my friends, but it wouldn’t be the same.

The core of my difficulties is probably simply that extracting myself from a belief system that I’ve held for over 40 years was never going to be easy, given the family and social implications that would involve. I’m moved a fair distance in the last couple of years, and maybe I need a few more before I can finally move away completely.

Of all the strings that religion places upon its adherents, social connections can be the most difficult to break. Of course, a church has every incentive to make their followers’ entire lives revolve around its events – it increases their obligation and raises the costs of backing out. I think this person is probably wise to bide his time and keep his deconversion a secret until he’s ready to announce it on his own terms.

But we out-of-the-closet atheists should keep stories like this one in mind. How many secret atheists are there among the church ranks – or even among the clergy – people who would be open about their atheism if they could, but feel constrained by circumstance to stay silent and go along with the crowd? It seems entirely plausible to me that there are as many closeted atheists as there are open ones, and possibly even more.

The more we do to establish atheism as a positive and accepted alternative to religion, though public advocacy and political activism, the easier we make it for people such as these to come out. We stand to benefit from a positive feedback spiral, a snowballing effect, if we can be successful in our activism. Keep that in mind the next time some pious accommodationist demands we stop voicing our opinions, and think of what that would mean for the people who still don’t feel able to fully express themselves.

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