How to Come Out As an Atheist

Patrick Mitchell has written a lengthy guide to coming out as an atheist on his website Coffee Shop Atheist. The first part deals with actually coming out, the second focuses on how various kinds of believers will react to your deconversion, and the third (upcoming) will talk about the different kinds of atheists.

Regarding coming out of the closet, I thought this suggestion, in particular, was a good one:

Don’t: Put it up on Facebook First

This was a tremendous mistake on my part. It was dumb dumb dumb. My parents heard about my deconversion secondhand, after my entire extended family was viciating over it. I could have easily saved a lot of pain if I had explained myself first, but I didn’t.

If you plan to go public, do so after everyone who will ‘freak out’ already knows. If you already hate everyone close to you and don’t care what they think, still call them anyways.

You don’t have to fight the stereotype of an immoral atheist if you don’t want to, but if you really want to help change people’s minds, a good first step is to be strong and tell them, even if you couldn’t give two shits what they think.

Anyone else have a “Do” or “Don’t” to add to Patrick’s list?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Garren

    Don’t say “atheist.” Say that you don’t believe there is a God anymore.

    What atheism means is more relevant than dealing with the extra prejudice attached to that term.

  • Guest

    Easy.  “I’m an atheist.”  Not “I’m an atheist because I’m so darn intellectually and morally superior to all those religious freaks and morons who are a bunch of bigots and hypocrites who happen to be the reason there is evil in the world and show why all religion needs to be wiped off the planet someday if humanity is going to evolve the way I know it should.”  The first way will probably do much better. 

  • Johnathan Fullman

    Do: Read apologetic literature provided by close friends and family. 1) It helps grow the philosophical (ie. critical thinking) side you never knew you had. 2) It helps you develop responses to common questions you might get. 3) It gives you something to talk about with your friends and family so that you can at least see each other’s point of view.

  • Johnathan Fullman

    At least… until it becomes redundant.

  • Gus Snarp

    Huh. I guess it just never seemed all that important to me, so in a way, my Don’t would be Don’t come out as an atheist. If you’ve got a devoutly religious family, particularly one you’re still living with or very close to, then you’re probably going to have to have some kind of coming out. My family and I don’t really talk about religion, and they’re mostly nominally Christian, they don’t spend a lot of time in church or make much of the whole thing. So basically, I just live my life. I don’t go to church, and if the subject comes up, mainly if someone asks, I’ll say I don’t believe in god. If it comes up in a way that the word atheist makes sense, I’ll say I’m an atheist. Sometimes, depending who I’m with and what we’re talking about, I’ll be more likely to bring it up myself. But I don’t have people I feel the need to announce my atheism to. And that bit at the end:

    You don’t have to fight the stereotype of an immoral atheist if you don’t want to, but if you really want to help change people’s minds, a good first step is to be strong and tell them, even if you couldn’t give two shits what they think.

    Just barely makes sense to me if I’m thinking of a young person with a fraught parental relationship, but it makes no sense to me from the perspective of an adult. I have no moral obligation to go around calling up everyone I know or am related to who might have a vague interest in the matter and tell them I’m an atheist, and it just seems silly to do so.

  • Brian C Posey

    Don’t “come out” like your confessing to some kind of crime.

    Say who you are plainly, confidently and with no signs of doubt.

  • Sven

    “Atheist” is a scary-sounding term.  I’ve found that people are much less judgmental if you tell them you’re “not religious”.  It’s the same thing, but people react differently.  

  • Paul Iannacone

    While I agree that “Atheist” sounds scary,  I don’t think “non religious” works quite the same.  I have been “non religious” since high school (early ’90s), but I have only been an “atheist” for about 3 years.  They are 2 very different things to me.

    When I came out to my conservative Catholic brother, I told him I was a “non-believer.”  I think that was easier to say, and easier for him to digest. 

  • MegaZeusThor

    “Do: Tell your pastors” — Haha! I’ve never had a pastor to tell.

    On a side note, while “Coming Out” is a fine way of putting it, I’m sure there are others. It’s really just not hiding (or denying) what you believe about the nature of gods if it comes up. Someone else said, you don’t come out once – it’s a constant thing.

    I suppose it depends where you live, but I treat it like being open about the types of film genres I like. It doesn’t come up much, but I’m happy say that I like, say, Sci-fi.

  • 3lemenope

    People hold the opinions they do because they believe those opinions to be the correct ones; this, pointedly, is true of everyone. This necessarily means that the person believes that those who hold conflicting opinions on those issues are wrong about those opinions. Your caricature aside, the attitude you describe is fairly universal, and so I don’t understand why you’re all bent out of shape by the notion that people you disagree with think that they’re right and you’re wrong, unless the very idea of other people disagreeing with you out loud bothers you. 

  • Ian Reide

    I prefer the second, but that is me.

  • Ian Reide

    I believe that you should prepare for the possibility that your relationship with your family will fundamentally change. Or to put it another way, if your family are a serious bunch of bible bashers then they may decide to cut you off as soon as you reveal your atheism. Therefore, it will be easier if you first minimise your relationship with your family. 
    This may sound harsh, but a religious family will react. They will perceive your atheism as a slap in their face, suggesting that they are a bad family with bad parents, who let you slip into bad ways rather than successfully raise you into being a “good” xian person. To defend themselves they will vilify you. 
    I also feel that coming out has nothing to gain by being slow or gradual. However it occurs once your family know they will react. Perhaps facebook is the best way? Get it out with quickly. That way your family can vent quickly at one time rather than dragging it out over weeks or months.
    Obviously, your age and dependence on your parents plays a major role in this. If you are 30 and financially independent then fewer issues, if 13 and not then you are looking at difficult problems. Best wishes to anyone in this situation.

  • Glasofruix

    I’m kind of horrified when i read your comments here about “coming out” as an atheist. To me it’s inconceivable that a family could turn violent (in any way) towards a child just for the expression of something so insignificant and ridiculous such as a religious faith or a lack of one.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    My tip would be: Test the waters first.
    If you are hesitant about “coming out”, you can always “Test the waters” by bringing up some religious topic and seeing how people react. Maybe you mention, “Wow, in the news today Christians televangelist Pat Robertson said that hurricanes in New Orleans are God’s punishment against gays. I don’t really believe there is a god that does that kind of thing.” See how they react. If they respond with “Yeah, it all sounds pretty crazy, you MAY have an ally. If the respond with “Oh course God wants to kill the gays, and you better pray he does or He’ll remove His protection from over our country” then you KNOW that this person is on Team Crazy and will need more diplomacy when it comes time to “come out” to them as an atheist.

  • Joseph

    My experience is very similar to Gus’.  I guess the two of us should consider ourselves fortunate that we didn’t have the kind of families who would ostracize us, mock us, pity us, pray for our souls, etc.  I think a lot of other people are not so lucky….

  • Joseph

     …except that it’s not “insignificant” or “ridiculous” to them… just to those of us who don’t believe in fairy tales. 

  • Ptburnham

    I don’t agree. I don’t think that’s how gay people have gone about being more accepted. This is why I tend to dislike people referring to themselves as what I would call soft terms (humanist, secularist or the worst of all, the common use of the word agnostic). 

    None of these words actually describe belief in a God or gods. Saying you’re an atheist is important. The more people that personally know someone with a vilified label the better it is for the group as a whole.Now there is something to be said about the words that follow, “I’m an atheist.” That however is another topic.

  • HughInAz

    It may be inconceivable to you, but sadly it’s all too common.

  • GDad

    My own bias is to keep everything off Facebook at all times, in all ways, but I understand that other people have different opinions.

    In any case, DO make sure you have a support system that can offer support if your family ends up reducing or cutting off contact with you, or perhaps even going to the extreme of behaving in an actively harassing or  threatening way.

  • ReadsInTrees

    Yeah, usually I just start with “I’m not very religious” when I have NO idea what the reaction will be. Gradually, as I get to know the person, it goes to “I’m not religious at all” to “I’m a non-believer” to “I’m an atheist”. All truths, with varying degrees of “softness” for the audience. Some people just don’t comprehend the whole atheist thing right away (“What’s to stop you from eating babies??”) so I feel it’s better for them to get to know me FIRST as a good person, and THEN as an atheist.

  • The Other Weirdo

     You underestimate how much religious faith means to so many people around the world, not just  Christians in the US, and what a family member’s loss of faith can mean to the rest of the family. Never assume that because something is “insignificant and ridiculous” to you, it is likewise “insignificant and ridiculous” to others.

  • Doug Philips

    Don’t forget, “coming out” is a continuous process. Most religious people automatically assume that I’m religious and I’m shocked at how often I find myself explaining that I’m not. Once you’re “out” to your inner circle, you’ll still have some work to do. My tips: Be confident, matter-of-fact, and upbeat about your atheism…however you frame it. I often say that I’m an Atheist to people, but sometimes I simply say that I’m not religious if I’m talking to someone that I really like and I feel like being sensitive…but I always add that “I used to be religious,” into the conversation just to make sure they know my irreligious state stems from an active choice versus a lack of exposure. This also gives them the choice to inquire as to what caused me to become nonreligious. Then if I feel like it, I’ll get into it. I usually, for brevity, say (like I’m letting them in on a secret and with a sly grin) something like this: “I finally read the Bible …  and you know what … I was shocked at what was in it.”

  • Gus Snarp

    Yeah, no doubt folks like us are pretty lucky on this front.

  • brianmacker

    When you say “I’m an atheist” they fill in the rest. You’re arrogant for even coming to the realization.

  • brianmacker

    Never heard of a rap on the knuckles by a nun or priest?