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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ian Reide

    Congrats for making the leap. As has been said before, organised religions still have a major role to play in the lives of their members. I cannot think of an answer, but in some fashion atheist/humanist groups should look at duplicating this role.

  • Caiphen

    Well done and welcome to the rational world. I went to church for 16 years and I’m married to a devote Christian so I understand what you’re going through.

    When the insults come after you go public don’t take them too seriously. Life’s too short to worry about such nonsense.

  • Nes

    This is one of the major reasons that I think we need either atheist or humanist “churches.” Something to replace the social connections that churches offer. Something to funnel money towards charitable causes. Something to organize aid trips to other countries (similar to missionary work, but without the proselytizing) and other miscellaneous events. Sermons could be replaced with debates, or science lectures, or guest speakers, or whatever.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    I recently became aware of Skeptics in the pub which organises regular meets for skeptics, atheists and humanists, with talks from guest speakers etc. They operate in many major U.K cities an I think there maybe potential for some smaller provincial gatherings.
    I’m biased in favour of pubs as venues, partly because my partner runs the pub we live in, but also because in the U.K pubs have always provided the alternative focus of community to churches (it is a truism to say that if you want to find a pub in any town, look for a church spire and the pub will be next door). In fact I am currently considering hosting some kind of similar events at our place.

  • Valhar2000

    I wonder if the closeted atheists become some of the most acerbic critics of atheism, much like closeted homosexuals become some of the worst homophobes.

  • http://www.lsfdev.com James Thompson

    Ebon, have your friend check out the “Bible Geek” Dr. Price.

    He attends Episcopal services for the music. Might be another data point.

    I would imagine that many people would know of his beliefs.

  • Snoof

    This is one of the major reasons that I think we need either atheist or humanist “churches.” Something to replace the social connections that churches offer. Something to funnel money towards charitable causes. Something to organize aid trips to other countries (similar to missionary work, but without the proselytizing) and other miscellaneous events. Sermons could be replaced with debates, or science lectures, or guest speakers, or whatever.

    I both agree and disagree with you here, Nes. Yes, the social aspects of religions are often very important to their members, but I don’t think an explicit atheist/humanist church is the way to go. Social groupings function because members have an explicit commonality, and while “being an atheist” is technically something people have in common, it’s only notable currently by contrast with the strongly theistic society many people live in. It’s rather like a patch of darkness in a brightly-lit room; significant that it’s an absence, rather than a presence. As religions become smaller and less relevant, I doubt that “not being a theist” will be sufficient to hold “atheist churches” together, especially when one considers the tremendous diversity of beliefs and opinions compatible with atheism.

    Instead, I’d like to see a growth in secular clubs and societies, of the kind which already exists today. There are clubs for sports, gaming, debating, politics, collecting, activism, charity and other altruistic activities, fandom, etc. Held together by a strong commonality of their members, I think these are the organisations which could provide the same sense of community and fellowship that a church could.

  • AnonaMiss

    I wonder if the closeted atheists become some of the most acerbic critics of atheism, much like closeted homosexuals become some of the worst homophobes.

    Unfortunately it’s difficult to tell what qualifies as a closeted atheist, and what constitutes as normal bury-your-head-in-the-sand behavior. The argument comes to mind that religion is necessary for society/a moral life/what have you; could someone who pushes away their doubts using this argument (and let’s say only this argument) be considered closeted? If so, I could definitely see them being among the people with the greatest anti-atheist pushback. (And I’m sure they exist because I used to be one!)

    The thing is that this kind of person hasn’t even examined the question. As soon as factual doubts protrude, this “pragmatic” answer overrides them, and they go back to their hallelujahs. Could we really consider such a person an atheist, even a deeply closeted one?

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    I agree with Ian and Nes. The social structure of churches/mosques/temples is attractive. It gives folks who have little in common a chance to rub shoulders.

    Regarding Snoof’s suggestion that other organizations should be tapped for this purpose: I’ve been involved in a bunch of a-religious volunteer groups, but none of them seem very good at keeping members for more than a few years.

  • David D.G.

    Nes wrote:

    This is one of the major reasons that I think we need either atheist or humanist “churches.” Something to replace the social connections that churches offer. Something to funnel money towards charitable causes. Something to organize aid trips to other countries (similar to missionary work, but without the proselytizing) and other miscellaneous events. Sermons could be replaced with debates, or science lectures, or guest speakers, or whatever.

    That sounds almost like a description of a university.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Unfortunately it’s difficult to tell what qualifies as a closeted atheist, and what constitutes as normal bury-your-head-in-the-sand behavior. The argument comes to mind that religion is necessary for society/a moral life/what have you; could someone who pushes away their doubts using this argument (and let’s say only this argument) be considered closeted? If so, I could definitely see them being among the people with the greatest anti-atheist pushback.

    In Dan Dennett’s well-chosen phrasing, people like this “believe in belief”.

    There are even some people who take this attitude despite being admitted atheists themselves – Chris Mooney seems to be one – and, true to AnonaMiss’ point, they tend to be the ones who are most fervently arguing that the New Atheists should just be quiet.

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/12/introducing-one-year-skeptic.html Erika

    I agree with Snoof that what we need is an increase in secular community organizations, but I also think that Erigami’s criticism that these groups often have trouble staying together is a valid one.

    However, I think the important distinction may be professional organization verses casual, not religious verses secular. I think the reason many groups have trouble sticking together over the years is that there is no one whose is committed to keeping the organization active (e.g., like the minister in the church). Having one or two such people can help inspire commitment from the casual members in the organization (and, like with churches, there will always be some members who will not get involved).

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    An idea I had some time ago was a “lodge.” These are fairly popular here in the States. They are considered “fraternal organizations,” and many have quasi-religious origins and symbolism attached, and are fraught with rituals. It is these rituals that somehow have a bonding effect. And, among the strongest bonding rituals is, of course, the ritual of communal imbibement of alcoholic spirits.

    There are Moose lodges and Elk Lodges and Eagle Lodges, so I decided I needed an appropriate animal, one that symbolized the freethought movement. I decided to call it The Fraternal Order of the Phoenix. The Phoenix, of course, is a symbol of rebirth, and the humanist movement can be considered mankind’s struggle to rise out of the ashes of superstition and be reborn as a fully rational being. And I noticed that the classic rendering of the Phoenix looks an awful lot like an Archaeopteryx, which can be considered a symbol of Darwinism.

    I think a humanist/atheist lodge would be a good amalgamation of some of the concepts expressed here – community, ritual, bonding, social interaction, brother/sisterhood, yadda yadda yadda…

    So…who wants to join?

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    Jim
    Personally I think Daylight Atheism is a perfect virtual lodge. I frequently hang around here while imbibing alcoholic beverages, as evidenced by the quality of some of my comments.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    OK, so I assume your volunteering for the post of Grand High Exalted Supreme Poobah?

  • Katie M

    Back in October, my brother admitted to me that he was an agnostic, and begged me not to tell our parents. Dad has come to terms with my atheism, but Mom and her husband (a fundamentalist) have not. I’d like to tell Dad so my brother will have SOME support, but I’m not really sure of the potential consequences. Any advice?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Don’t pass on information that you were asked not to. If your brother doesn’t want you to “out” him, then it’s not your place to do so. I would, however, encourage him to be his own human and stand up for himself and be proud of who he is and what he does or does not believe in.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Agreed with OMGF 110%. Definitely encourage him to talk to your Dad, especially since he seems to be ok with it.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I second the suggestion that the best thing to do would definitely be to confirm with your brother that he wants to make his nonbelief known. If he does, then you could be a valuable resource for him, both in terms of offering him support and letting him know what strategies did or didn’t work with your parents.

    If he does choose to come out, I think the best way to do it might be to write a letter – jointly, if you like. It gives the recipient time to reflect, and if you’re not there in person when they read it, prevents them from interrupting you with personal attacks or misunderstandings.

  • Katie M

    Thanks for the suggestions. I think I’ll wait until he feels ready to do this. He just needs to know that I’m behind him all the way.

  • Caiphen

    ‘He just needs to know that I’m behind him all the way.’

    Katie M

    It’ll be damn hard for him if he doesn’t have any support. Since your Dad doesn’t yet know it seems like you may be needed to assume the role.

    From an atheist who knows what it’s like to be unsupported surrounded by a fundamentalist family and friends and their ignorant irrational thinking, your little brother really needs you.