Coming out (as an atheist) is a journey not an event

For those raised in religious families surrounded by religious friends and relatives, coming out as an atheist is a big deal. It means risking the potential – and in many cases the likelihood – of losing friends and experiencing damaged relationships with relatives. It may even mean facing emotional manipulation and the pain of rejection. It means a complete change of identity.

Personally, I don’t see coming out as an atheist as a one time thing. For some it may be, but for me at least, it has been a journey rather than an event. I’m going to outline what I see as four steps of coming out as an atheist in my own life. If you were raised in a secular family or in a family where religion played only a minimal role, this may all seem foreign to you. If you were raised in a highly religious family, it may sound familiar.

Step 1: Coming out to yourself

First you have to come out to yourself. This isn’t always an easy thing to do – to admit that you no longer believe, that you really are one of those people, an atheist.

In many cases there is a period of denial, where you try to force yourself to believe even as somewhere inside you know you don’t. There may be a panicky feeling as you try to hold on and not let go. Letting go of belief would mean turning your life upside down, after all, it would mean everything changing.

Then there is the problem of the stigma associated with the term “atheist” in religious circles. Growing up I was taught that atheists were selfish, unkind individuals who lived meaningless lives without love. I believed atheists were hateful and mean, constantly depressed and unhappy.

One day as I was still dealing with my doubts I met and befriended a family, a couple and their two children. They radiated love and happiness and excitement about life. And then I learned that they were atheists. Atheists. This was an important moment, the moment I realized that everything I’d been taught about atheists was wrong, that atheists really could be happy and healthy and live meaningful lives.

Later, when I finally admitted to myself that I was an atheist after struggling in vain to preserve my faith, my immediate reaction was relief. The internal struggle was over. The cognitive dissonance was over. I felt free and light and finally at peace.

Step 2: Coming out to potential allies

The next step is coming out to close friends and relatives you think might be allies even if they don’t completely understand. Even this step isn’t easy, because you can never know for sure how a religious friend will respond, even those you consider more open. For many, you’re asking them to change their perceptions in order to accept you, and you’re challenging their stereotypes and biases.

Most of the religious friends I had in college had mellowed by the end, and it was to them I came out as an atheist first. There was surprise and there were questions, but there was also an acceptance – even from those who didn’t understand.

Coming out to the few relatives I thought might be potential allies was harder. The fear of rejection, the fear that maybe this would be crossing the line, was strong. I didn’t want to lose the relationships I had. The first time, though, was amazingly affirming. “Well then what do you believe in?” I was immediately asked. “Love,” I responded, fumbling for the right thing to say. “Then I guess we believe in the same thing,” was the response. And that was it.

The nice thing about this step is that it means creating allies – people who know you no longer believe but are okay with it, and supportive even if they don’t completely understand.

Step 3: Coming out in your life

Then there is actually contacting local atheist groups and living life as an atheist. This means stopping going to church, stopping pretending, and instead living life fully and genuinely. It means being real.

When I started the graduate program I am in today, I was completely open about my lack of belief. It’s not like religion comes up all the time or anything, but I didn’t hide my atheism. And there was something wonderful about that. The new friends I made, the new people I met, I did it all as me, not as someone pretending to be something else.

When I got a new doctor a year ago, I had to fill out an information form. One thing it asked was “religion.” Without hesitation or fear, without second thoughts or dissembling, I wrote “atheist.” Something as simple as that can be freeing.

Meeting other atheists, through the Secular Student Alliance and other groups, was also part of this process. It means knowing you’re not alone, knowing that others have been through similar experiences. It means knowing it’s not just you. 

Step 4: Coming out to highly religious relatives

The last step is coming out as an atheist to relatives or old family friends you know won’t be okay with your unbelief. The difficulty behind this step is that it means almost certain rejection, and it also means causing people you love a great deal of pain and likely going through a great deal of pain yourself. While the first three steps can each be empowering, this step is simply hard.

In many ways this step is like ripping off a band-aid. Sometimes it’s best to just get it over with for once and for all, and waiting around and contemplating it beforehand only makes it worse. Furthermore, some may hold that this is a step that should be taken out of principle, and if relatives want to cut them off, so be it, their loss. In some ways, I envy that resolve.

For others, though, this step is something to be put off, for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s a desire not to bring unneeded pain to aging relatives. Sometimes, especially for those with childhoods especially enmeshed with their parents, it’s a desire to grow stronger and more independent before making this step.

Some may even decide taking this step isn’t strictly necessary. There’s no rule saying you have to tell your relatives everything you think and believe, after all, and the best policy may in some cases be a moratorium on discussing things like religion or politics. When you live in a different city or even state, it can sometimes be possible to simply hide certain parts of your life, to leave things unsaid and unspoken.

Conclusion

I think it should be clear by now why I say that coming out as an atheist is a journey rather than an event. For me personally, it’s a journey that is still unfolding, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Someday it will be a journey completed.

For those raised in secular families, or families where religion played a minimal role, this entire discussion probably seems strange. It may be hard to understand the difficulties an atheist from a highly religious background may face when coming out.

I do think, though, that it’s important to emphasize that each person’s journey will be different, and that that’s a good thing. Every individual person is different, after all, and everyone’s circumstances differ as well.

Wherever you are, I wish you well on your journeys.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • ScottInOH

    Another permutation of this is when you are married to someone who is religious, you are raising your kids in the faith, and then you start to have questions. As hard as it would be to come out to my parents (and, honestly, I doubt I would do it), it would be harder to come out to my wife and kids. I don’t consider myself an atheist–probably more or a doubter or a questioner–but I don’t feel like I can share even those doubts with my family.

  • anotherone

    To Scott,

    You’re right, coming out about doubt and belief change to a spouse can be very difficult, particularly when you got married with certain assumptions about religion and how your family would function. But I also want to offer some encouragement from my own experience and say that your marriage/family isn’t necessarily doomed if you’re honest–you might come out the other end with stronger relationships.

    My spouse and I had a rocky road through some major religious/philosophical changes. What each of us believes has fundamentally changed since we got married (very young), and we have each changed in very different ways. It really shook the foundation of what our relationship was built on, or so it felt at the time. But ultimately we’ve come through it and our bond is tighter as a result. It’s based on things much stronger than religious belief, and we are very happy in our marriage.

    For us the keys have been 1) for each of us to let the other be true to him/herself (not too hard after the initial difficulty of wrapping our brains around the changes) and 2) navigating the waters of raising kids despite our different, and ever-evolving, beliefs. The second is a bit harder, but we’ve found the easiest thing is to answer questions honestly. I have no problem telling my inquisitive 8 year old that different people believe different things about religion; that I might believe x, but daddy doesn’t, and that so and so next door or across the world looks at things entirely differently. And I explain people’s perspectives as best I can, keeping value judgments to a minimum. In my opinion I’m doing my kids a favor by introducing themselves to the complexities of life rather than pretending everything is cut and dried, only for them to find out later that it’s a big, big world out there.

    (As an aside, nothing pisses me off more than the fundamentalist/evangelical talk about how marriages have to be based on faith or are doomed to failure. Newsflash, people: beliefs and faith change. Base your marriage on mutual respect and love, not on your personal faith in Jesus Christ or whatever else. The former is far more likely to get you through than the latter).

    • ScottInOH

      Thanks, anotherone. That’s a positive experience that feels a long way off to me right now, but it’s good to know it could happen eventually.

      • anotherone

        It was maybe a lot harder at the time than my previous comment lets on. And it took both of us eventually coming around to being ok not only with our own changes, but with those of the other person. Best of luck to you, Scott. This shit’s hard.

  • charlesbartley

    The community aspects of Step 3 are really, really hard for me. I miss the community of the church. I miss it every single day, and I have only stepped into a church twice in the last 10 years. For my entire childhood and young adulthood, the church was the center of my social life.

    I think back to my youth group… about 50 people. I really was only close friends with about a dozen. (4 of which are still major parts of my life). But I miss those other 38ish people. I miss having a large group where shared interests crossed over the other boundaries. Jocks, Nerds, country folk, city folk, band and choir. All of those silly groups were there. We could sit together, share stories, watch movies, play volleyball, lots of stuff. All because we understood and shared that one thing–religion.

    Most of my family are highly religious. Most of my friends are too, even many of my co-workers are. Contra dancing is the only place where I really have “secular” friends. I know that since I am in Seattle (hello Jen and others from FTBs!), I am in one of the atheistic cultural centers of the USA, but it still seems awfully lonely. I am working on that. Meetup.com, where have you been for the rest of my life :D

  • amavra

    Though I am not an atheist, it was similar for me as a pagan. I had the benefit of not really having any friends in my church, a church that separated itself from all others as the only way to heaven. So all my friends were “unbelievers” anyhow – the most devout were Mormon. I spent a lot of my questioning time talking to my friends, new and old, and it was really helpful.

    I didn’t have any close family members to talk to. I told a second cousin that I was no longer a Christian when we were both sent to the same Church camp for a summer, but she ended up not talking to me again. My mom was going through a rough spot in her life and had unpredictable eruptions at any talk of doubts or changing belief. She is now the only person in my family who is supportive – buying me god and goddess statues as gifts and things like that.

    The rest of my family either doesn’t know or pretends not to. It can be annoying, because I am a religious leader on base so it is a big part of my life right now that I feel like I can’t talk about. I suppose it must be difficult for you too, not being able to share the success of your blogging and writing – something you are proud of.

    I don’t have much closeness with my family. I have hidden many things about myself from them almost all my life and my religion isn’t even the most important of those things. I doubt that I will ever come out in an official way with the rest of them. If they show interest, build up a bit of trust, than I will talk to them freely. But I have no compunction to break it to them otherwise. I am sure it is much harder when you grew up so close, and have so many siblings you love.

    My dad frequently says incredibly negative things about atheists, and they offend me personally because I have more in common theistically with an atheist than a theist, and because my husband (and many other wonderful people) are atheist.

  • http://www.vainminutiae.blogspot.com Michelle

    Thanks so much for this! I can relate one hundred percent.

  • rookieatheist

    Another great post and one which I can easily identify with, even though my journey has been a lot different. I am also, like you, at a stage where my close family relatives are now among the only ones not to know about my atheism, though they do know that I’m not very religious.
    Thank you again for this wonderful blog.

  • lane

    Great summary. I’m somewhere in step 3 right now. I have highly religious parents, and while I don’t fear excommunication or malicious behavior, I have other fears.

    I can’t bear the idea of my mom losing sleep over the idea of me suffering eternal damnation in hell. I love my mom more than pretty much anyone else in the world, and to bring her that much pain would be nearly unbearable. I don’t want to cause her that much anguish, and I don’t want her to waste her time praying over my “soul”.

    I have a pipe dream that my atheism (and my living a compassionate, joyful lifestyle) would lead her to rethink and subsequently abandon the doctrine of hell. Sadly, I think it’s too late for that.

    Also, I really don’t know how in the world I’m supposed to actually do the coming out. Sitting my family down over a holiday (the only time I’m home) seems melodramatic. But letting them do the guesswork from seeing the books on my shelf and my facebook “likes” seems cowardly or…something.

    • rookieatheist

      lane, I know exactly how you feel (it was like you were reading my mind). Of course, that means I can’t give you any further advice, but I thought I’d write this comment to thank you for making me feel less alone.
      I fear that coming out to my mom will cause her to sink further into her militant Catholicism. She might also increase the number of days she fasts, a practice she undertakes to save help save her soul and those of her loved ones.

      • lane

        Thank YOU for saying as much. Knowing that makes me feel less alone too. :) Best of luck to you with your mom.

    • Saz

      Lane, I’m in the same boat with many people in my life! I was a very devout Christian and a leader in the church, so I don’t think I can ever come out to the people I counseled during that time, my close friends from that time, and much of my family. I love these people and care about them deeply and feel exactly the way you said – I don’t want them to waste time worrying about me and praying for my soul to be saved. I also know that every moment with them would be laced with their intent to re-convert me. I don’t know if my grandparents could survive finding out I don’t believe, as dramatic as that sounds! It’s great to hear there are others feeling the same way.

  • http://ginambakkun.blogspot.com Gina

    I feel all these things about coming out as a liberal Christian (supportive of gay rights, feminist, don’t believe the Bible is inerrant), because there are people in my life who would go batshit insane if they knew I thought being gay wasn’t a sin, or that the Bible isn’t perfect. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I was an atheist trying to come out to these people.

  • Beth

    It’s so true that such a coming-out is a process and a journey and not a finite event. I was fortunate enough to grow up in what had to have been one of the most liberal Catholic parishes ever, so I already had a very casual religious experience; plus my mother is Jewish by heritage, so I naturally had to be open-minded. Then I found out a few things about Catholicism and Judaism that I fundamentally disagreed with, so I started to part ways. That was around 2001, and I am still sorting out my beliefs and “coming out” to this day. I am not atheist, but am a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church and hold beliefs that are generally pantheist, a bit pagan, and definitely agnostic, all while appreciating Jesus as a great teacher but not a deity. I don’t know how many of my extended Catholic family members know about this and I hesitate to make it too well-known. For now, I am out to my immediate family, significant other (an agnostic), and most new people I meet for the first time since becoming a UU, as well as a couple of friends who I know can handle it. Who knows when or if anyone else will be told. In the meantime, it’s easier to just play the game when visiting Christian family and friends. Thank you very much for your post.

  • Brett Blatchley

    You have such courage Libby!

    I’ve been thinking of “coming-out” as a journey lately: “coming-out” seems like a lifelong journey for anyone who has to do it – we who “come-out” reveal something “different,” something intimate about ourselves, we are baring ourselves – taking the risk to be vulnerable, because the pain of hiding and repressing is greater still.

    As a young adult, I “came-out” to my parents as a Christian (*really*)…it was AWFUL and our relationship has not recovered much in the last thirty years…

    As a young adult, our son has “come-out” to us as atheist. It’s bittersweet, but we are proud of him that he thinks for himself. We’ve tried to make it easy for him…

    I’ve been “coming-out” more and more as a transgender person over the last years. I’ve lived openly transgendered for over three years, and now I’ve moved to “coming-out” as a transwoman. Because I will not live a life of stealth, I will forever be “coming-out” until trans people are passe…

    “Coming-out” is a journey, but it’s been easier each time, and the joy of being authentic far outweighs the rejection I’ve received.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for writing this. You don’t know how much it means. I’ve been looking at this blog and Friendly Atheist for I think a year now secretly at school. My mother is very strongly Christian and a failed ‘coming-out’ attempt terribly hurt both of us. Sometimes I feel so conflicted I just want it all to end. I am writing an entry for Raised Evangelist. Thank you all so much for making this blog.


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