Why Atheist Outreach is So Important

There are many reasons it’s so important to have ever-expanding atheist outreach. One of the biggest is that it encourages people to come out of the closet.

Reader Melissa sent me this email that I wanted to share:

First, I came out to the evangelicals who came to my door last Easter. It was actually so scary and liberating to tell the obviously Christian strangers that I was an atheist that I had to call my husband at work and my mother and tell them that I had done it. Then I found I was telling all kinds of strangers that I was an atheist whenever it came it up conversation…

But the most important “coming out” happened to me just before Easter this year. I’m in rehearsals for a play and we were rehearsing on Good Friday. We are an eclectic bunch. And we were talking about Good Friday. What is Good Friday? Why is it called “Good Friday”? About religion in general. Making jokes about the Last Supper. And one of my castmates, a very religious Catholic gentleman about my mother’s age, asked me what religion I was. Now coming out to people you know and see regularly is a lot harder than the person in line at the grocery store so I started gently.

“I’m a nontheist.”

I know this term is confusing and I was being confusing on purpose. Because it’s hard to be alone in that and I was afraid of a possible conversion lecture. And he said, “Well, what were you raised as?” And I just said it. “I’m an atheist.” and he asked me, “You don’t believe in god, Becca?” and I simply said no.

But then the funniest thing happened. Another actor — a 78-year-old gentleman, doctor, and a man who wears a Star of David around his neck all the time — chimed in, “That’s about where I am.” An ultra conservative anti-environmental corporate lawyer in his 50s said that he didn’t like the term “atheist” but didn’t believe in a personal god. The other actress, a woman in her 50s, said she only went to church to sing in the choir and didn’t believe in god. And the director, a man in his 70s to whose house I had been to for Seder, also said he had no god beliefs. We were all atheists. Well, all except our friend. But it took one of us to say it out loud. To say it without equivocation.

That’s why blogs like yours are so important. That’s why the billboards are so important. That’s why the alliances and meetings and coalitions are all so important. Because I needed to be able to tell people who I was without feeling like I was alone. And when other people see someone able to come out they feel more able themselves and less alone.

That’s a big reason why we encourage people to come out. Not just for the liberating feeling you get, but because it encourages so many other people to follow suit.

If you haven’t come out yet, it’s not too late. Start small. Work your way up. Eventually, you can tell Facebook :)

  • Lauren

    Hell, I am allllllll over Facebook! Someone needs to balance out those disgustingly treacle-saccharine God shit that pops up on my feed from the Jesus freaks

  • http://preliatorcausa.blogspot.com/ Joé McKen

    That story is pure awesome. Kudos, Melissa!

  • Ryan

    I have long ago came out to my friends in school. I don’t think I am ready to tell my family. Although I did put one of those Darwin fish on my car and I am hoping my mother gets the hint eventually…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1191310218 Gabriel G.

    I never really officially came out, I just never hid my thoughts on religion.

    Aside from that, people don’t usually ask me what religion I follow (though this could probably be attributed to me not having really met anyone new recently that wasn’t already a friend of a friend).

    But whenever someone does ask, I get nervous, mainly because I really don’t deal well with confrontations. So in my case it can be a very nerve wrecking ordeal, especially if the person speaks with even a slightly unfriendly tone in their voice.

  • Re

    I have one foot out of the closet door. I can do what Melissa did but I can’t tell my family YET! It is definitely an important thing to spread the word. Thanks everyone!

  • http://lyvvielimelight.blogspot.com/ Julie Cowe

    Well done Melissa!

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Since I put an “Atheist” bumper sticker on my car, three of my coworkers (among the 12 I work with) have told me that they’re atheists, too. It’s amazing what a little visibility can do.

  • Lacey

    I started out saying I was “nontheist” as well. I still cringe a little when I refer to myself as “atheist,” but I’m getting better. I know a lot of atheists, and I would be less likely to be open about it if it weren’t for their encouragement!

  • Potco

    I know a guy at work who was open about it. Without him I never would have been able to even admit it to myself.

  • http://centerforinquiry.net/dc Simon

    I entirely agree. Also why we should support, maintain, and grow our offline secular communities as well. Real life community is arguably the most important of all when people come out of the closet.

  • Trace

    Perhaps Melissa doesn’t live in a very conservative town of less than 890 people? ;)

    Whatever the case, good for you Melissa!

  • Sarah

    I was hanging out with an evangelical christian friend of mine with her friends one evening. Obviously, I was the only atheist. One of the guys asked me if I what schools i went to and I told them I went to catholic school for 12 years, which is true. They pretty much thought I was Christian. There were about 15 people there, there was no way I would be able to come out of the atheist closet. I wish I could just say “actually, I am a nontheist” or whatever… one day!

  • Kamaka

    I was “raised a catholic”, but never bought it. I distinctly remember thinking “these people are playing a trick on me” at age 7. I figured out I was an atheist when I was 13 or so.

    I’m in my 50′s now. The term atheist carried so much opprobrium I seldom used it. I would just say “I’m not christian”. Further inquiry was met with “These are personal matters I don’t discuss”. Though bearers of the “good news” always got the business from me. My favorite tack with them was to ask if they had read the Qu’ran, the Mahabahrata, the Suttas, the Torah. When they answered no, I declared them unqualified to presume to educate me about religion.

    The Out Campaign worked for me. I’m out and willing to declare myself, not just an atheist, but a flaming atheist. Gods, heaven, hell, angels, devils, souls, eternal life? Preposterous!

    Hell may be one of the most stupid ideas humanity has ever invented, and I’ll say so.

    Being ‘out’ is a breath of fresh air after a lifetime of being cautious, it’s liberating, really.

  • Revyloution

    Lots of people are out and declaring themselves. At our atheist bowling night we had two new people who never really believed, but finally decided to start calling themselves atheist.

    On a side note, I was interviewed about the Boy Scouts today (im an Eagle scout), and I was able to make a plug about atheism and how Scouting discriminates against non believers. I come in about 20 minutes in, my name is Bart.

    http://www.opb.org/thinkoutloud/shows/boy-scouts/

  • http://kaleenamenke.blogspot.com Kaleena

    I’m also a half-in, half-out sort of girl. Out with all my friends and new people I meet. In with regards to my parent’s friends and my extended relatives. But I am slowly shifting to the out category for them too as they begin to friend me on facebook. :)

  • liz

    I feel comfortable telling absolutely everyone that i’m an atheist…except when it comes to my older relatives.

    I don’t hide it at all, but sometimes i worry that they just assume i’m “still” catholic. (havent really considered myself catholic since i was 7-8 like Kamaka)

    I’m currently pregnant and i have a slight fear of what will happen when baptism and going to church is brought up. But in all reality, i know that a minute after i get it out I won’t be worried about it anymore. Yet i still wait for SOMEONE ELSE to bring it up. =P

  • medussa

    I am a happily out Facebook Atheist. And Facebook Queer. And I proudly carry the label Black Sheep in my family for both categories…

  • Josha

    Wow! Was this America? When I first became an atheist I was terrified of that word. ‘Athesit’- what will people think? But thanks to blogs like this and popular atheist books I learned that there are a lot of atheists out there.

  • Bridget

    Acceptance of ALL. Everyone has to “come out” on their own terms/time. We are all worthy of self redemption.. keep that in mind.

  • http://peasantsoul.wordpress.com Garrett

    Thank you for your story Melissa.

    I just came out of the atheistic closet back in November 2009. I find that I’m either too bold or too quiet about it; I’m still learning the proper balance. Not everyone in my life knows yet, so I am very measured who I tell and don’t tell.

  • Alan McGowan

    I’ve got one better. When I lived in Lavergne TN, A teenage johova’s witness and his elderly “overseer” knocked on my door, wanting to give me a hour long speech about god’s government on earth. I had just been reading the satanic bible for a paper I was writting. I told him I would listen to his speel if he would listen to my favorate versus from the Satanic bible. He stood there with a dopey smile while i read from it. his elderly partner looked like she was about to pass out. He was still standing there after my five passages were finished and I in turn listened to his speech. I am an atheist, but I was left with the feeling that If had said that they wouldn’t have backed down. Its like all bible slappers believe agnostics, non-theists and atheists are the same thing; heathens.

  • douglas

    i am a very vocal atheist on facebook, prompting lots of active debate whenever possible. i advocate the term “rational person”, and use it when asked about my beliefs. i find “atheist” pays too much credence to theism, and it sets me up to be able to tell believers that they are not being rational. I like them being on the defensive, as opposed to my having to be. I like pz myers, richard dawkins, christopher hitchens, sam harris, and daniel dannett. ( and of course, greta christina on alternet.com and facebook)

  • Michael

    I live in a small, rural, fundamentalist town where they still say prayers at public school gatherings (that really upsets me) and where more space in the newspaper is devoted to happenings at the various churches than actual news.
    I’ve known I was an atheist most of my life but having been raised Christian I couldn’t truly admit it until I was in my twenties. Even then I was afraid to let that knowledge go beyond a close circle of friends and some family. Mostly I was afraid of putting my loved ones and myself in danger. I’ve heard and seen what the religious are willing to do and I wouldn’t see my friends and family put into jeopardy for my beliefs. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I actually said to hell with it and am now very open with everyone about it. Initially it was kind of scary to say to people, but eventually I quit caring. My first public exposure as an atheist happened when my wife, who thinks she is a Christian, outed me to her family. All of whom also think they are Christians. Considering my wife and I have been together nearly ten years, and I get along very well with her family, all that disclosure did was clarify to them why I always refused to say grace on holidays.

  • idioteque

    Sadly, the best I can muster (when pressed), is “I am non-religious” and hope to change the subject. I live in a small redneck town and I need to keep my job (my boss and all my co-workers are church-going fundies, some a bit more tolerant than others).

    The only other people that even know that I am an atheist is my immediate family, my girlfriend (also an atheist), and two out of town friends.

    Not that I want to advertise my lack of religious beliefs to anyone, but I shouldn’t have to hide it away either.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    I look forward to the day when such conversations are completely unnecessary because we assume that people don’t have belief in gods unless they say so. Then we can back away slowly from the baby eating, morally bankrupt weirdo.

    Like it is in England. ;)

  • kevon45uk

    I think it’s great that all you people feel happy about ‘coming out’ as atheists. I’m assuming this is a US thing and you are all cowed by some kind of external religious pressure. You don’t need to ‘come out’, it’s not something to be ashamed about. You don’t believe in God, a god, or any kind of deity. That seems like a perfectly natural way to think. Like hoverFrog said “I look forward to the day when such conversations are completely unnecessary because we assume that people don’t have belief in gods unless they say so”. I live in England, and to be honest, anyone ‘coming out’ here in a religious way would probably say: “You know something. I believe in God”. Then their friends would stare at them for a minute, then snort and say… “Yeah, okay. So are we ready for some more Ratchet and Clank?”

  • Steven

    If I recall correctly, I changed my facebook religious information to “none” months ago (most of my family is Protestant but only attend church sporadically). If anybody noticed they didn’t say anything.
    My wife let her mother know by exclaiming “Steve is the biggest atheist and cynic around!” during a conversation. I was a little hurt by the crack about my weight but my mother-in-law really didn’t care about my lack of belief. I even have a “friendly atheist” bracelet in my cubicle at work. It seems that here in southern Ontario it doesn’t matter much if you’re religious or not. What is really important is which hockey team you support.

  • kevon45uk

    I liked what Steven said. Can you change your name to Simon?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I’m out as an atheist to my friends and family although on my facebook page, I keep my religious status public, though downgraded to “agnostic”. Technically, as far as knowledge claims, I’m agnostic. I don’t claim any particular knowledge of God (or fairies or leprechauns for that matter). I perhaps benefit (on Facebook) from the other meaning of agnostic (not being sure or haven’t decided yet) with those that hold fundamentalist beliefs. Perhaps one day I’ll upgrade my Facebook status to atheist…

  • kevon45uk

    Don’t say anything you tool. It isn’t important. I am too drunk at the minute to help you but I will. Please believe me I will. As soon as I wake up.

  • Edwords

    I told my dog I was an atheist.

    He almost bit me.

  • http://www.twitter.com/lauruhhpalooza Lauruhhpalooza

    I made my status Facebook official a while ago. It felt good.

  • Canadiannalberta

    Everyone knows I’m an atheist – my Dad knew before I did, actually! It was so gradual I didn’t notice until my Dad and I were talking about the Catholic Church and he made a comment about me being an Atheist. My mom is in denial, though. Does that count as her not knowing?

  • Killer Bee

    I told God I don’t think he exists.
    No word back, yet.

  • trikepilot

    The same sort of event happened with my wife. She was with a group of friends and the religion subject came up. She wondered afterward if Atheist radar was involved. How could this group just have gravitated towards each other with out anyone mentioning the subject till then?

    Weird huh?

  • muggle

    Me too, hoverfrog. Me too. I am envious at how cool it is over there and the irony of it actually being freer to be yourself in the land we revolted against for the very reason of religious freedom is not lost on me.

    It never even occured to me to hide it. But I’m from NY, not the Bible Belt. And I’m 52.

    At the time I said out loud for the first time, there is no god, reaction locally was you think what you think and I’ll think what I think. To which, I’d just grin and say, cool, that’s what this country was founded on and they’d say something like damned straight and we’d drink to each other’s health or something.

    Sadly this has changed. Yes, even in NY and I move much more carefully though I’m damned if I’ll hide it if asked directly or let a praise of Jesus or undue credit going to god go unremarked. I do still say well, I’m a heathen unbeliever so I don’t think that. But I usually only bring it up if someone says something about god.

    I keep meaning to meet Mike in the local Atheist meet-up he turned me on to but I haven’t made it yet. Mostly because of my health and because my daughter my ride is always working or in school and I’m babysitting her kid. I’m still bemoaning meeting both of you at RPI.

    Sigh. I’m starved for some local heathen debauchery. The grandson’s too young though he thinks my blasphemy is funny and the daughter rolls her eyes at my outspokenness. She finally joined FB and put up for religion and politics, “My Mom is political enough for the both of us.”

    I look forward to the grandson getting old enough for lively debate and conversation. He has my personality to a tee and we are going to have some fun. We already do somewhat given the limits of his age and drive the daughter nuts with it. She just doesn’t get us and how we relate but he and I, we love it.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Obviously 9/11 changed the outlook of many New Yorkers. Is that what you mean when you say things have changed or is it something more? Eight years of Bush and “faith based initiatives” is hardly going to be ignored but is it really enough to change the way people treat one another? Are people somehow frightened to stand out in a way that is similar to the McCarthy era but without the official support.

    I’m guessing, I really don’t know and I’m probably reading too much into what you wrote but it is concerning that a minority can be oppressed like this. It is like there is an expectation of social ostracism so people just keep their mouths shut. The religious don’t have this expectation so spout their views for all to hear. That makes the atheist feel like an even smaller minority and shuts us up in our own world. I dunno.

  • Shane Hayes

    CAN ANYONE HELP ME?
    I’d like to have a photo appear beside my comments, as others do, but I can’t figure how to insert it. I have one as a file on my desktop. How do I make it appear beside my comments on this blog? If you can guide me, my email address is shanehayes@comcast.net. Thanks!

    Shane

  • ed

    Can you do anything to remove the http://www.blessedsacrament.com link and advertisement that appears at the top of your column? Did Google put it there? (There’s also a link to Ads by Goodle!)


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