This is an excerpt from Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer by David G McAfee (Dangerous Little Books, 2012). Reprinted by permission of the author.
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This excerpt is from Chapter 7: Confrontation.
Confrontation is a natural part of any interaction involving a member of a family dissenting from the others, especially when it comes to the topic of religion or politics. But, on a more fundamental level, confrontation results from these religious discussions for one simple reason: You’re telling them that their most fundamental beliefs are wrong.
In many cases, religious beliefs are firmly held ideas that have been reinforced since a very young age. When you tell someone — even if it is a family member or close friend — that you don’t believe in their God, a defensive reaction isn’t surprising. Oftentimes, you’re telling them that everything they’ve ever known, everything their parents and their childhood idols ever told them, is wrong. For some non-believers who used to be active within a religious institution, this point is well understood. Letting go of these principles can be one of the hardest things to do, so having a loved one who previously agreed with you holding the opposite position can be jarring. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every situation needs to be handled with “kid gloves,” it simply means that one must take into account the amount of indoctrination that has often occurred in a given individual.
Even if you aren’t intending to set out persuading people to give up their religions, even if you couldn’t care less what other people believe, when you say, “I don’t believe in god(s),” it will always mean that, if they do, you believe they are wrong. This fact is one aspect that separates religious identification with other disagreements and discussions common within families. And it is about a topic that some people hold closer than all else — religion. In fact, that is one of the distinguishing features that separates “coming out” as an atheist and coming out in the traditional sense as within the LGBT community. It is not as if saying, “I’m gay,” inherently means, “Straight people are wrong to be straight.”
That’s part of why coming out as an atheist is so confrontational and one of the main reasons that many people who disbelieve choose to simply remain silent about the issue. Unfortunately, taking that route doesn’t progress tolerance toward a secular mindset or educate the believer about secularism, nor does it make it easier for future atheists to be open about their beliefs without fear of reprisal. In fact, an atheist who remains completely silent and/or complies with religious norms out of cultural familiarity may actually make coming out more difficult for others by playing into the assumption that everyone is a theist and increasingly separating people of no religion from the public view.
If there is a familial confrontation as a result of your coming out, it is important to recognize that if your position is by definition opposed to theirs, then the opposite is also true. Just because their position may be more popular (in most regions of the world, including and especially the United States), it does not make it any more reasonable or obvious — in fact, it is quite the opposite. After all… without cultural indoctrination, all of us would be atheists or, more specifically, while many may dream up their own Gods as did our ancestors, they would certainly not be “Christian” or “Jewish” or “Muslim” or any other established religion. That’s because, without the texts and churches and familial instruction, there are no independent evidences that any specific religion is true. Outside of the Bible, how would one hear of Jesus? The same goes for every established religion.Misunderstandings about atheism also contribute to the “controversial” aspects of coming out. It is not uncommon that a religious person sees your disbelief in their particular Creator as an affront to said Creator. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been accused of “hating God” for simply not believing in any deities — a rather contradictory concept if you think about it. But that does not stop some people from taking another person’s atheism as a personal attack on their ideas and their God. This type of cultural stigma is common and can generally be counteracted by education on the basics, starting with the definition of atheist…: a lack of a belief in a god or gods.
As an “out” and vocal atheist, I’ve gotten used to hearing religious objections that result from conflicts between believers and non-believers… one of the most common from Christians is the claim the “Jesus still loves you.” While there are often good intentions behind this phrase, for a non-believer, it doesn’t provide the comfort that it may for a Christian. I, for one, honestly care more about the love here on earth than the possibility of being “loved” by an unprovable and unknowable being. I’m more concerned with the love I share with my family and close friends… it is love that doesn’t come with the price of faith and rejection of their love doesn’t result in eternal damnation.
“I’ll pray for you” is another popular phrase uttered by religious people in interactions with non-believers. While some no doubt have positive intentions, this is usually seen as a condescending remark. If a believer really thinks their god will alter its divine plan to satisfy his or her requests, I like to suggest that they focus all of those prayers on the sick and the dying, and leave me out of them.
Confrontation is a natural part of the coming out experience and in many interactions. And dealing with confrontation is something that people get used to in the context of a family. It may help, however, to make it known that you aren’t seeking to change the way they think, but instead that you should have the same freedom from religion that most modern governments guarantee their citizens. The fact that, as an open atheist, you are telling believers they’re wrong does not necessarily mean that it is a bad thing. In a modern context, being able to voice your opinions and challenge those of the majority is critical. It is these challenges from non-religious people all over the world that cause believers to give a second thought to the archaic traditions that they identify with and, in many cases, also ignore. If a situation arises in which the conflict is out of control, it is always best to seek professional guidance in the form of therapy and/or counseling.
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