Do You Have a Moral Obligation to Come Out as an Atheist?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: Do you have a moral obligation to come out as an atheist?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

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.

  • sailor

    No one has an obligation to talk about private beliefs. In fact it might be better if there was a ban on it. No more days of prayer, no more westboro demos, no more papal pontification. The more I think about it the better I like it. Everyone is free to believe whatever crazy fantasy they want, but keep it to yourself, like masterbation.

  • Tanner B James

    Ironically you had the opportunity to start that ban by not submitting your comment.

  • anniewhoo

    I think those of us who feel confident that our atheism is not going to have any negative impact on our lives (loss of job, family contact, etc.) can help speed up the acceptance of atheists by coming out. I don’t think it’s a moral obligation though. Just because I am in a situation where I have nothing to lose by coming out does not make me more (or less) moral than someone who can’t come out.

  • A3Kr0n

    My boss is a Catholic with religious icons in his cube, and “Vote Scott Walker” + “Pro-Life” bumper stickers on his van. He also has nine children that his wife home schools. My answer is to say nothing about religion, but I wouldn’t lie if asked.
    BTW: I just got my t-shirt in the mail yesterday! It says “Actually, I’m an atheist”. Casual Friday is coming up soon!

  • SeekerLancer

    It highly depends on your social and economic situation whether you should come out as an atheist or not.

    However that’s besides the point. I have no obligation to tell anyone I’m an atheist just like I have no obligation to tell anyone what my political views are or what my favorite color is.

    Personally I believe people coming out is a good thing, but it’s not an obligation and it’s nobody’s business what your personal beliefs are.

  • Charles Raymond Miller

    Personally. I feel an obligation to come out and engage in activism, even if the cost is high. But I cannot impose that obligation on others. I can completely understand those that will weigh the costs but that slows our progress considerably.

    What I have no patience for are those keyboard commandos that play a good game on social media, demanding progress and action from those of us who are out in the real world. If you want progress, I think you have an obligation.

    By the way, I am currently under-employed because a job offer was rescinded because of my activism.

  • Charles Raymond Miller

    Cherry-picking 1st Amendment rights now, are we?

  • Tainda

    Really? Hopefully mine will come soon! I was getting worried

  • Tainda

    My beliefs, or lack thereof, are no ones business but my own! If I choose to tell someone, that’s my prerogative (I can do what I wanna do hehe) Same goes for my sexual orientation. No one at work needs to know who I’m having sex with or how.

  • tinker

    I don’t wear my atheism on my sleeve but I don’t lie. If someone asks I will tell them that I don’t believe in sky fairies. If someone asks at work I will refuse to answer though.

  • C Peterson

    I’ve liked most of these videos (when I can see them), but this one I have problems with. The argument offered doesn’t even match what is said at the beginning.

    The question was, is there a moral obligation involved? Hemant says yes, and then goes on to say no. Absolutely, if a person comes out it can help others. No dispute. But that isn’t the same as a moral obligation. If you give to charity, you do good, but nobody has a moral obligation to give to charity.

    It is damaging to give any closeted atheist even the slightest suggestion that remaining closeted might be morally objectionable. An atheist has no more moral obligation to come out than a person has a moral obligation to reveal their political party, the kind of food they eat, their sexual orientation, details of their ethnicity, or anything else of a personal nature.

  • Nate Frein

    Many gay rights activists credit the recent successes to the increasing number of “out” gays. It’s harder to “other” a class of people when they’re an integrated part of your life.

    “Outing” doesn’t mean screaming to all passersby that I’m bisexual, and it doesn’t mean screaming to all passersby that I’m an atheist. It’s about being open when asked and not being afraid to express those aspects of my life.

    This is not, to me, about making my beliefs or my sexuality part of other people’s business. It’s about the freedom to wear a wedding ring given to me by my husband. It’s about being able to invite my husband to a company function.

    It’s about not being afraid to say “no” to a prayer breakfast at work, or saying, when asked, that I don’t believe. It’s about being a respected member of society without having to actively hide my sexuality or my beliefs.

  • Nate Frein

    I don’t entirely agree. Hemant was saying “If you can do so without repercussions, then you have the moral obligation to do so, because it doesn’t hurt you and it can help any number of other people.”

    And I’m sick of equivocating sexual orientation and atheism to political affiliation or preference for food. They are not the same. Choices in those arenas are not used to “other” people to nearly the same degree.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I don’t like the idea that the word “atheist” even exists but I have come to the conclusion that I do in fact have a moral obligation to identify as one only because I think the idea that “faith” is a virtuous characteristic to hold is way too pervasive to society as a whole. Religion just gets away with too much terrible shit because there’s this idea that it has a monopoly on morality and that it’s taboo to criticize it. The only thing that it’s even good at as far as I’m concerned is social engineering. So not only do I think I have a moral obligation to identify as an atheist but I think that I have a moral obligation to blaspheme. Was it Jefferson that said something like ridicule is the greatest weapon against oppression? That.

  • C Peterson

    I listened again, and I’m still not sure what Hemant is saying. What I think he is trying to say is that there is a value to coming out in that it can help other people, and so coming out is a good thing if you can do it without harming yourself. But something being good is very different from it being a moral obligation. Even if there is no personal harm at all in coming out, it strikes me as very much in opposition to humanist principles to argue that one has a moral obligation to do so.

    I wasn’t comparing sexual orientation to anything else, I was considering a list of things that are hidden and a person might choose to keep private. Nothing to do with choice.

  • Nate Frein

    No one keeps their sexual orientation entirely private. A straight couple is not keeping their sexual orientation private in any way, shape, or form.

    This is the problem. It’s easy to see sexual orientation as “private” when you’re never called to answer for it. When you can expect to get an invite for your spouse or SO to a party. When you don’t have to be worried about giving them a kiss in front of your office building.

  • C Peterson

    Seriously? Many people choose to keep their sexual orientation private! It’s an entirely personal choice to reveal it, and who to reveal it to.

  • Nate Frein

    “Seriously” yourself. Sexual orientation is on display by default. Married? Your orientation is on display. Dating? Your orientation is on display. Bringing your SO to a party? Your orientation is on display.

    But no one bats a fucking eye if you’re straight. But if you’re gay you’re forcing it on everyone else.

    Same with beliefs. Religious? You’re open to some degree by default. Atheist? Simply trying to get the government to be neutral becomes “an attack” on other people.

  • C Peterson

    Sexual orientation is only on display if people choose to display it. Marriage isn’t forced on anybody (not legally, anyway). Obviously, a heterosexual hiding their orientation would be unusual and peculiar. But homosexuals do so, by choice, all the time. I really don’t get your point.

    It is obvious that people who hide personal details usually do so because of some perceived personal harm, real or not. That is a choice. People hide their sexual orientation. They hide their ethnicity (to a degree, of course). They hide their religious beliefs. They hide all kinds of things, and I don’t recognize any moral obligation to do otherwise.

  • freddieknows

    It’s easy for me to be outspoken about my beliefs, including atheism. I am a disabled, chronically-ill, 56 year old man, without a job or a boss; and have an attitude that anyone who doesn’t appreciate my opinion can liberally apply kisses to my wide Irish ass. In the immortal words of that great American poet, Robert Zimmerman; “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” If I were younger, raising kids, worrying about keeping a job, or selling services to clients; my opinions would be tempered.

    “You can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his back.” Unfortunately, some people need to keep their heads low to survive. I don’t find fault with them for doing that.

  • Nate Frein

    Do you even understand what the out campaign was about, and the value it had?

  • C Peterson

    Yes. And those who chose to come out are to be saluted. That does not mean that those who didn’t should be vilified, or found morally derelict.

    As I said, doing something good isn’t the same as having a moral obligation to do it.

  • baal

    As a straight married bi person, yes, I find it really easy to hide the whole bi thing and some totally gay guys have mentioned that it’s irksome to them that I can / do that (though I’m not entirely sure how to avoid the problem). I don’t (can’t) hide that I have had straight sex (PIV even!) when I introduce my kids to people though. Were I to introduce someone as my boyfriend, I would be outing my sexual orientation. To the exact same degree, I would be outing my sexual orientation if I introduced someone as my girl friend. Sure a lot of the detail is left out but it’s the same level of detail and the same foundation of evidence regardless of the sex of the person i’m introducing as a partner.

  • Urban Legend

    Of course not. Atheism says nothing about morality.

  • Nate Frein

    I disagree. A person who has the option of doing something that benefits others in their own, oppressed class, without any personal cost, and passes up that opportunity is, to some small degree, morally deficit in doing so.

  • Anna

    Well, I’m not sure we’re obligated, but for those of us who wouldn’t face any negative repercussions, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be honest. For me, it’s more that religion comes up so rarely, I almost never get a chance to come out as an atheist. I do have an FSM on my car, though, so in that sense I’m making my views known. At least to anyone who understands what the FSM means.

  • shouldbeworkin

    Perhaps it would help if you defined “personal cost.”

    I do not know if I would face any consequences from others if I revealed my atheism, however, I am a very private person and don’t believe it is the publics business to know my religious beliefs. Therefore I keep it private and consider it my right to do so.

    The personal cost to me would be my right to privacy, a right I feel pretty strongly about.

  • Nate Frein

    If the cost of helping give people the choice to be free and comfortable in their beliefs is a little twinge of personal discomfort at having to be a bit more open than you like, and you cannot make that sacrifice,

    Then yes. I think you’re being cowardly. Not majorly. Not in a way that’s worth specifically targeting. I certainly wouldn’t interrogate anyone to make sure they’re as out as they can afford to be. Nobody’s perfect, and everyone has small flaws that everyone else has to work around.

    But it’s still a flaw.

  • C Peterson

    A person who has the option of doing something that benefits others in their own, oppressed class, without any personal cost, and passes up that opportunity is, to some small degree, morally deficit in doing so.

    A perfectly acceptable personal ethical view… and one I completely disagree with.

  • nickvicious

    Interesting. I’ve always bee under the impression that more often than not, coming out doesn’t really benefit anyone unless, of course, you feel that you’re hiding who you are. You hear about so many kids who are ostracized by their family or even kicked out simply for coming out.

    Keep up the project, Hemant. Blog to vlog is tough, but it looks like you’re getting circulation & positive feedback.

  • Fred

    My time and energy is mine to expend.
    The details of my personal life are also mine to reveal or not as I choose.
    How dare you look down on me for that.

  • Nate Frein

    How dare you help contribute to the suffering of your fellows because you don’t have the spine to speak up, and then demand equal respect?

  • allein

    I’m the same way. My family doesn’t know; I don’t know what my parents assume but if they asked I would tell them the truth. I know of several non-believers at work, too; it’s not something we discuss, generally, but it’s not a secret, either. Pretty much a non-issue in my life.

  • shouldbeworkin

    I certainly support right to have those opinions, but I believe you are still wrong.

  • Nate Frein

    And I support your right to be a coward.

    But I still believe it’s cowardly.

  • closetatheist

    The main reason I began to hate religion was the sense of crushing guilt associated with the fact that I was doing things/not doing things that were forbidden/an obligation of my religion. I escaped that and am much happier and more confident in my decision making process and morals ever since. I would absolutely despise anyone who tried to saddle me with more guilt because I am not yet willing to out myself as an atheist – its a personal decision. The very thought that coming out should be an all-encompassing obligation makes me feel like I am under the thumb of some legalistic god again.

  • closetatheist

    I had to let you know that “can liberally apply kisses to my wide Irish ass.” is part of my lexicon now. And I also appreciate that you are outspoken, but are not judgmental of those of us who feel we cannot be.

  • Fred

    Most of my “fellows” are assholes, just like you.

  • Nate Frein

    Wonder if that has anything to do with your “fuck you, I got mine” attitude :D

  • Fred

    You should work at a movie theater.

  • B Laurent

    “coming out of the closet” ? really?
    Expropriating that imagery from the LGBT community is disingenuous. Sorry, but atheists are just not that persecuted a people… maybe there are some places in the remote south where it might affect a few relationships, but I find it hard to believe that people knowing you’re atheist would seriously affect your life in most places. Putting this in the same ballpark as coming out as LGBT just trivializes homophobia/transphobia.
    People who are out as LGBT get attacked, bullied and killed; people who are “out” as atheists get uninvited to Sunday brunch. It aint the same thing.

  • Amy Madsen

    Love your clips, thank you so much they let me know I’m not alone.