It Took a While, but She’s Finally Coming Out

This is a guest post by Lisa. [Personal information has been removed.]

I have been very, very slowly coming out of the atheist closet. It literally took me years to be honest with myself and even longer to actually say the words out loud to another person: “I don’t think I believe in God anymore.”

From there, though, it slowly began to trickle out. At first I told only my close friends, only one of whom was still a Christian herself. She cried for me. And then, after the worst emotional and intellectual torture of my life thus far, I told my family.

I knew the struggle that was ahead of me as, one by one, I told the people I loved that I was an atheist. For a Christian, the battle for a soul never ends. There will never be peace for any of these people. It will always hang over them. They will always pray for me. They will want to discuss and debate with me, never with an interest in dialogue and understanding, but with an interest in converting me. It isn’t a pleasant fate to accept, but the imperative of Christianity (and most religions) is to convert others. Despite that reality, I made the decision that I couldn’t live a lie any longer.

In those months before I came out as an atheist, I literally scoured the internet for stories, blogs, support, anything to make me feel like I wasn’t completely alone. I was raised in a very small conservative Lutheran tradition and no matter how hard I searched, I couldn’t seem to find anyone else who had been a part of this faith and left it. I still went to church every Sunday — in fact, I was the organist. And I spent every service glancing at the pews around me and thinking, Does everyone here really believe this? Am I the only one who doesn’t?

I came out to my family six months ago now, but still haven’t been open about my atheism. I don’t talk about it with anyone I don’t know well. There are a lot of old friends and extended family who, until now, had no idea. And this week I went public with some writing of mine that says in no uncertain terms that I don’t believe in God.

So that’s it, it’s out there. I would be lying if I said that I don’t have a knot in my stomach at the thought. I still live in fear of earning the hatred of people I love. I have seen that venomous “Christian love” pointed at the “baby killers” and the “heathen liberals.” I know all too well what might be in store for me.

In the midst of all this, there has been one thought driving me: I don’t want anyone else to feel alone. In a world full of all shapes and sizes, every belief and opinion, I firmly believe that we can at the very least band together in our humanness. After all, at the end of the day we’re all just people.

I started out writing today about the recent birth control debates in the news, but somehow lost track of that thread and wound up here. I’m here with my simple belief that no person should ever be alone.

Maybe it’s a shot in the dark. But maybe there’s another twenty-something Midwestern former conservative Lutheran ex-homeschooler out there. Maybe they could never quite believe it either. Maybe late at night they’re doing internet searches to find someone else who has gone through the same thing. And maybe they will find this.

For anyone who has been hesitant to be open about their atheism, let me offer you my plea. There is someone else out there who is struggling with the very thing you are. The only way we can support one another as human beings is if we come clean about who we really are and what we really think. Believe me, I know very well the consequences. Be open and honest anyway, not for the sake of debate or conflict, but for the sake of human compassion.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • jjramsey

    “I still live in fear of earning the hatred of people I love.”

    Don’t be afraid of *earning* the hatred. You may get hatred, but that doesn’t mean that you deserve it.

    • Dustin

      Well said.

  • Ursulamajor

    Beautifully written and oh so bittersweet. You are not alone. We might not all fit your exact story, but we all understand the struggle.

  • Hoytiegbh

    Love your post.  You will help a lot of people.

  • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

    Holy cow, this practically is my story — except that I haven’t told my family yet or really anyone but my wife and a few friends who I know are nonbelievers. It’s dreadfully frightening: I’m at the point of seeking counseling because I know I need to be honest with others but am scared of the repercussions. (Also, angry that I need to be afraid in the first place about this.) I fully realize that people do become open about their unbelief, but taking the first step just seems so daunting.

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      It took me awhile to tell people that I’m an atheist because I was scared as well. I was afraid family would stop loving me, friends would ignore me and life would become miserable but none of that happened.

      Granted I did have a few rounds with one of my sisters but it didn’t last. My oldest sister doesn’t know I’m an atheist nor does my father but they live far away and I feel no need to tell them I am because religion is never discussed when we talk on the phone.

      I have no problem telling anyone I’m an atheist but to be honest, it is rare that it ever comes up in conversation.

      So don’t be scared to take that leap of faith “sorry, had to say it” and show your true colors “Cindy lauper” great song.

      If your family and friends are not going to love you because you choose to not believe then they are the ones that have issues, not you.

      It took me awhile to tell people that I’m an atheist because I was scared as well. I was
      afraid family would stop loving me, friends would ignore me and life would
      become miserable but none of that happened.

      Granted I did
      have a few rounds with one of my sisters but it didn’t last. My oldest sister
      doesn’t know I’m an atheist nor does my father but they live far away and I
      feel no need to tell them I am because religion is never discussed when we talk
      on the phone.

      I have no
      problem telling anyone I’m an atheist but to be honest, it is rare that it ever
      comes up in conversation.

      So don’t be
      scared to take that leap of faith “sorry, had to say it” and show
      your true colors “Cindy lauper” great song.

      If your family
      and friends are not going to love you because you choose to not believe then
      they are the ones that have issues, not you.

      • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

        I fully agree with that final sentiment, but it’s hard when your family members really don’t act like they’re going to accept you for this one thing. That’s basically how I feel, having finally told my mother tonight (literally in the past hour). I’m mostly trying not to get angry: angry at other people for feeling like they have the right to be offended or upset that I don’t share a treasured belief, like my disagreement is an affront to them as a person; angry that I ever had to be scared in the first place; angry that my fears were not irrational but entirely founded. I hardly know how I’m going to tell my father now; I sure as hell am not ready to advertise to anyone else.

        (On a side note, did anyone go into a depression of any kind upon first abandoning belief or faith or coming out to loved ones? I’m seriously to the point of needing counseling to cope with all of the anxiety and such that is coursing through me.)

        • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

          On a second read, it sounds really desperate that I mentioned counseling twice. I swear, I’m not that far gone yet; I just forgot that I’d already mentioned it.

        • Anonymous

          Yes, yes, yes, I feel that way!  I’m probably more in the agnostic/ still-trying-to-figure-things-out camp, but I come from a very devout family. My Mom is a missionary in Africa (my father passed away years ago), my brother is a pastor, and everyone–EVERYONE–in my family is an evangelical Christian.  They all freaked out when they found out I’m dating a “non-Christian”… I have told them off my doubts but not to their fullest extent. I haven’t gone to church in a year, and that is a huge concern to them.  I have struggled with depression, sadness, and loneliness because every time I try to share about my doubts, they jump all over me as to why my doubts are silly/sinful/just a phase. Then they point to my sadness as evidence that leaving the church is destroying my life–they can’t see that they are the ones causing me to be sad and lonely. You put it so well, “angry at other people for feeling like they have the right to be offended or upset that I don’t share a treasured belief, like my disagreement is an affront to them as a person; angry that I ever had to be scared in the first place; angry that my fears were not irrational but entirely founded.”  Yes, exactly!  

          I don’t have any answer for you.  Just know that I can relate, and as the OP said, you are not alone.

        • Kevin_Of_Bangor

          Well congrats on taking a huge step and telling your mother. As Dan Savage stated, it does get better.

          I never felt deprssed myself but if you are truly feeling down please do seek help. BTW, just curious, how old are you? You don’t have to respond to that but I’m curious.

      • Anonymous

        Hey, Kevin,
        Assuming you’re really from Bangor (as in Maine), as I am, I think that one thing I’ve learned from reading many atheist blogs lately is how different the rest of the country is. We in New England are a pocket of irreligious and “live and let live” folks that would be a breath of fresh air to the troubled newly-out atheists trying to get along in the midwest or — worse — the deep south. Here in Maine, people rarely mention religion at all except a very occasional “I have a church thing to do” and who knows? Maybe it’s UU church, which tells us nothing about what the person attending “believes” re god(s).

        I feel lucky to be here where there’s little or no reason to be afraid of someone finding out I’m atheist. But I have come to realize that it’s not the same elsewhere in this supposed “Land of the Free.” And how sad is that? I mean, I always knew the south was pretty reactionary, god-wise, but never to what extent.

        • Kevin_Of_Bangor

          I do live in Bangor, Maine hence my username. I comment a lot on the Bangor Daily website so that is how my username came about.

          Don’t know if you are on Facebook but if you are you should check out “Atheist of Maine”

          • Anonymous

            Thanks, already “Friended.”

  • Shanti

    there are so many of us–atheists, non-believers, humanists…whatever we call ourselves–out here. We are so lucky to live in an age where we can connect virtually, as well as through Meetup.com groups. We are here, my friend…all shapes, all sizes, and all with a story. There are many people who will not understand you (ever), but there are many who will. I am constantly amazed that in my area, which is firmly Mormon, there is an active atheist group (with 1200 members), a Humanist group, a secular Jewish group…and on it goes. I am very happy for you because now you will feel “aligned”. It was much more disturbing for me to walk around pretending.

  • Freebird285

    I can relate to this, my family hates that im not a believer, just bringing it up gets me in trouble and they think its just a phase.

  • Aimeejoe3

    You are not alone.  Isn’t that a wonderful feeling? 

  • Livingonsteak

    Another midwestern Lutheran turned atheist! We seem to be a minority among a minority. I wasn’t homeschooled, but I did attend a Lutheran school up until college.

    I’d like to tell you it gets better, but you were right when you said the Christian’s war for your soul never ends. Chin up though, we’re growing slowly but surely.

  • GB

    Proof you aren’t alone after all: I’m a 20 year old atheist/humanist from and living in the Midwest, attending a Lutheran college, and I did home school for some time. 

    I wish you the best!

  • Aaron Hildebrandt

    I came out to my family exactly a month ago. It was rough — my mom cried on the phone, wondered out loud about how she failed as a parent, called me delusional, and implied that being an atheist was the same thing as being a murderer. But since then, so many of my friends have come forward to support me, and my own family seems to already be coming to terms with it. Now, as for my EXTENDED family, who are all incredibly conservative… well, they don’t know yet. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Or burn it. Time will tell.

    I wrote a really long post about losing my faith — I shared it with my friends and family as a way of expressing exactly how I reached this point and what it means for me. If anyone’s interested (warning, it’s long), you can read it here: http://aaronhildebrandt.com/blog/lies-my-pastor-told-me-the-conclusion

    • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

      That was an excellent read, and a comfort to this nonbeliever who is still navigating life after religion. There is so much that resonates with my own journey away from faith. Thank you so much for posting it.

    • Lisa Buchs

      Aaron,
      Thanks for sharing your post here – it’s incredibly well written.

      “When you first understand that god does not exist, the result is feeling simultaneously like you’re breathing for the first time in your life and the entire weight of the world is crushing you.”I’ve written on my own blog a great deal about this tension that you capture so well. It’s both freedom and sometimes painful honesty. Thanks again for sharing that!

  • Lisa Buchs

    Thanks all for your comments! This community is terrific.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

     Lisa, you write with courage, honesty, and a very compelling pathos. You will definitely be heard by those who need to hear your truth. Keep speaking.

    I think in time, the disapproval of theists and their disingenuous gestures of friendship with their underlying motive to “save” you will gradually become less hurtful and upsetting. If you see that the root of their tension with you is probably fear for themselves, you will feel a bit less angry in response. It will probably diminish to the level of being mildly annoying at most.

  • Neil

    While many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins are quite religious and politically conservative, for some reason it was never a very big deal in my immediate family…we all have our own opinions, but none of us bother to pretend that we actually have impossible knowledge.  Religion was just not a big deal. I loosely identified as  some kind of liberal “universal salvation” kind of christian for years, then just gradually fell out of it over my teens & early twenties.  I’ve always been a skeptic, as long as I can remember- it was bound to happen, I barely even had to try.

    I’ve never really “come out”, since there was never any pressure to conform to some ridiculous tribal belief in the first place.  My sister and parents and nephew know that I’m not religious at all, no big deal.  Pretty much all of my friends know, and I’ll debate anyone who cares to debate me.   

    All that having been said, let me be honest here.  I am a 39 year old man who has lived my whole life in California, mostly among relatively sane christians and a big mix of “whatevers”.   I was never all that brainwashed, never forced to conform, never threatened, never shamed for my beliefs.  By the time I became an honest atheist, I was too old and too self-assured for anyone to really bother trying to convert me.  I have never had to deal anything nearly as bad as the pressures that many of you here are facing…..not just facing, but resisting and overcoming.  I still catch some hell ocassionally, but nothing I can’t handle, and mostly from morons I don’t want to be around anyway.

    So believe me when I tell you- Lisa, and many of the commenters here- that I am impressed by you, inspired by you, and given hope for the future by you.  The fact that you can take so much more BS than I ever had to, and still overcome it as early, if not earlier, than I did, just tickles me pink.  You are awesome. 

  • nude0007

    Lisa, you don’t need someone exactly like your experience to be happy. We all come from many different backgrounds, but the important thing is for you to know, you have nothing to fear and you are not alone. go find ex-christians.net. a good place to start. read all you can. and ask us whatever. we are here for u. Hey, I live in Mississippi. I know of your heartaches. love2u

  • Michael Caton

    Lisa, I know for a fact that you’re not the only atheist church organist.  My best friend also is.  He’s always been, as long as I’ve known him, and he’s out to friends and family but not to church.  Make more friends and stay strong!

    • Erp

       I know one fairly conservative Catholic church whose organist for over 30 years is Jewish (and they know it).   I also know of an atheist one but as the church is quite progressive and not totally Christian it is not surprising.

    • http://twitter.com/luciferadi Adi Rule

      Wonderful post, Lisa.

      I’m an occasional church organist and soloist, and a lifelong atheist. I have lots of musician friends who have various “church gigs” regardless of their personal religious (non)beliefs. It’s consistent work and it pays, so I don’t think it’s that unusual for musicians who have a hard enough time making ends meet.

  • BLB

    Another Midwestern ex-Lutheran here. Plus, I was an organist until about a year ago.

  • Robster

    “venomous “Christian love”..what a lovely summary of whatever it is that those afflicted by christianity do.

  • Ndonnan

    Lisa is a fine example of a religious upbringing verses a christian upbringing.Religion will leave you frustrated,empty,angry,ripped off,unfullfilled,the opposite of what a relationship with God is meant to be.Churches have their fair share of people doing religion,from pew sitters,organists to ministers and priests.When someone has a real encounter with God,theres no doubt in your mind and no looking back.What the bible says is”those who seek me with all their heart will find me”,but those brought up “religious”,will usually get a belife system,and a way of life,but not the relationship with God that Jesus came to show us. So i would say to Lisa,get out of the church youve been going to,you are wasting your life, and repent,call out to God for help,and find a spirit filled church to rest in till you are spiritually healthy.Coming here to find truth and wisdom and guidence will have you beliving homosexuality is normal and killing babies is ok,and you have nothing to fear when you die,as you know,its a lie of the devil,but hes another subject for another day…

    • Walden

      *farts on post*

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      And you, Ndonnan, are a perfect example of exactly what Lisa has been trying to escape:

      They will always pray for me. They will want to discuss and debate with me, never with an interest in dialogue and understanding, but with an interest in converting me.

      You don’t know her, and you show no interest to know her as a person, only as a soul for you to save.  You don’t ask her questions that show any interest in her as a unique individual, only as a target, a goal, a challenge, a score.  No, you toss out a standard, parroted, drive-by proselytization. It might as well be printed on a tract left on her windshield in a parking lot. You are utterly, comically, and tragically oblivious to the fact that you are doing exactly what she said very clearly hurts her and DOES NOT WORK.

      Please give it a rest. Learn to be quiet and pay close attention to people when they share candidly. Respect the needs they describe, not the needs that you, in your pride, your glib self-assuredness, and your blind certainty think you know so much better than she herself.

    • 1000 Needles

      Here’s a riddle for you:

      How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?

      The answer, of course, is four. A tail is a tail, and a leg is a leg, regardless of what you want to call them. You do not get to change the definitions of words.

      The same applies to religion. You, and many other Christians lately, have been on this mission to rebrand Christianity as not a religion. Yet you do not get to decide the definition of the word “religion.”

      The fact is that you are a believer in a religion, and your religion is no more unique than the many religions that came before it, or the many religions that may, unfortunately, come after it.

    • Alice

       Ndonnan, you can attempt to redefine religion any way you want, but I think  I have to warn you that it isn’t catching on. This idea of separating a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” from religion is a transparent ploy to distance yourself from the increasingly bad reputation religion is acquiring, yet you completely contradict that by urging Lisa to repent and find a spirit-filled church (whatever that means). That, my friend, is religion. To call it something other than what it is is dishonest. You don’t want to be dishonest, do you?

  • Keulan

    I haven’t come out as an atheist to most of my family yet, because I feel no need to. My parents and sister aren’t religious as far as I can tell, and they know I’m not religious. I don’t see any point in telling my extended family members yet either, since I don’t see them often anyway. I’m open about it on Facebook and other sites on the Internet, and to most of my closest friends too. That’s good enough for me right now.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3ZYREGKDG5E7DECMA7U3Z7N3ZE Bob Down

    I’m always surprised to read stories like yours because I never had to go through the things you describe. Right from my first day in Sunday School I was telling people I didn’t believe the stories we were told and everybody just accepted it. A few people said, “You really do believe, but you are just to proud to admit it,” but that was as far as it went.

    On the bright side, your children will probably be brought up without religion, so they can look forward to a life without feeling guilty. Like me, they’ll go through their whole life, happily declaring their unbelief, and not caring in the slightest what the bigots may think of them.

    Good luck to you.

  • B. Andrew

    Also a former-Midwesterner, Lutheran educated for grade school and college, president of youth group, post-Missouri Synod Lutheran, now atheist.  I wasn’t the church organist, after eight weeks of piano lessons my parents yielded to the obvious.

    I’ve never really thought about Lutherans as being evangelical especially when compared to other Christian churches.  But I do understand the mixed emotions a Mother’s sigh about one’s lapse in faith can have.  All the best.

  • Bill

    Another atheist organist here!  :)

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Reading stories like this always makes me reflect on how lucky I was to grow up in a secular home. My parents aren’t atheists, but they never mentioned religion one way or the other. I can’t imagine all the guilt and pressure that people from religious families must feel when they decide to finally break away from their parents’ faith.

  • LifeinTraffic

    Lisa, you’re incredibly brave, and your story moved me to tears (I know that sounds hokey, but the last few weeks have been incredibly stressing around these parts, mostly due to fundamentalist religious issues, and so the topic is pretty deeply personal to me right now).

    My story is different from yours in many ways, but the fear, the anxiety, the constant stress of having to defend yourself or hide…those are so familiar. I am not fully “out” yet, at least not around here. In my home state, I was completely out, and had friends of many faiths and none. It was just never an issue. My family could care less–the only two religious people who’d have been a problem are both dead (great-grandmother who raised me as a Jehovah’s Witness for years, and a bi-polar sister who had delusions of seeing angels and a god). 

    Here, though…here it’s very different. I’m so socially isolated, so alone. Literally one person besides my common-law husband knows I’m atheist, and the threats of violence against non-fundamentalists, the–as you so appropriate put it–venomous love of Christians, is outright scary. I would lose my livelihood without  a doubt, and the long-term repercussions for my business that may leave my husband and me in a huge financial lurch (even elsewhere, thank to the internet, in which people can say completely unfounded things about your professionalism just because they don’t agree with your beliefs). (This living arrangement is temporary–we only have one year left!)

    Your story has given me a lot to think about, and your strength and bravery has given me inspiration to really think about how we could live with the ramifications of being “out,” if it’s something I am morally obligated to do.

    Thank you.

  • David Buchs

    It’s an interesting thing, this common humanness. I think it may even be more common than you suggest. That is, the problems of alienation, loneliness, guilt…these are not the possessions of ex-Christians alone. They are human possessions. And it is human religion, to be sure, which wallows in these ills. But what are human religions other than humanism taken to its end? How can you profess such faith in humanity, when humanity has been responsible for all of the great atrocities of human history? Who else are we to blame? You cannot separate religion from humanity. Perhaps if there were a god, we could blame him for plaguing us with religion, but alas, we are the creators of the pantheon. But the problem with religion is not really its antithetical relationship with atheism. No, even though religious people believe in a god, it isn’t that fact which makes them terrible people. It’s the fact that they worship themselves. Being incurvatus in se is about as bad as it gets. But that’s where we all end up in the end. Altruism on account of shared humanity is beautiful and inspiring, but eventually someone else’s humanity is going to infringe on yours. What then? What happens when humanism implodes? It’s not really a question about divine revelation at this point. I simply suggest an honest appraisal of the situation. It doesn’t look good for rallying around our shared humanness. Looks to me like a set up for a great big disappointment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.wonderboy Chris Pata

    What would Christopher Hitchens do…

    Nah, just kidding! Be honest to yourself, things have a way of coming together. Your family already knows, right? They seem to have taken it pretty well since they actually still talk to you. Stay strong in your convictions, don´t remind them that you´re an atheist all the time and before you know it they aren´t expecting you to pray at the table anymore. By accepting yourself you might be able to have a real human relationship with your family once they learn to accept you, but the first step is your responsibility if you want to move on.

    This is just an opinion gathered from my own experience.

    Thanks for sharing

  • Rainierrod

    Come on in, the water’s fine :)

    Good luck to you and I hope that the family chills out. I remember thin king exactly what you did in church, when I was 10. Luckily for me my family and community werent as religious as yours. Hang in there

  • Ndonnan

    Truth is athiest just dont get christianity,try going to a country in the middle east as a woman,or for that matter a western man,and compare religion there to what you feel you have to put up with in America.Even religious christians would look pretty nice.The reason christians carnt not tell you about Jesus is that they belive in hell as real a place as heaven. Other religions also belive in hell,but dont care if you go there as long as they dont, but as christians the foundation is love,so there is no way we will stand by and say nothing, knowing your destiny.Its like someone is going to jump of a bridge,only a coward would stand by and say nothing,its their choice you say,well bad luck,sorry to offend you,but i wont yell “go on jump,youll be fine,theres nothing there”,and no Richard its not pride its love.

  • Pearlsofsomething

    I’m a 30-something East Coaster, raised liberal Lutheran, current homeschooling parent. Those little differences between the two of us don’t make us alone. I’ve seen the same tears, same raised eyebrows, same change in posture, and heared the same shocked silences, uncomfortable stammering, and attempted arguments. You’re far from alone.


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