On closet atheists and the atheist “out” campaign

After I wrote my post explaining that I blog anonymously and why, and a subsequent post on the journey of coming out,I received a number of comments from atheists, agnostics, and skeptics who are not fully “out” either.

The Timid Atheist explained her reasons for not coming out as follows:

The biggest reason I don’t come out is because I’m a single mother living in a state that absolutely looks at religion as something required for children to have a happy, healthy, well-rounded home life. And I”m in the middle of a custody battle for my child. If it were to get out during this time that I’m an atheist, I know without a doubt it would be a strike against me. and I can’t risk that, not now. Perhaps that’s selfish, but truly, my daughter sees me rarely enough as it is and to make that happen even less because I don’t believe in God seems even more selfish on my part.

ScottInOH’s story was only more heartbreaking.

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.

Lane explains as follows:

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”.

And Rookie Atheist offers similar reasons:

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.

Just today I came upon a blog called Ex-Christian Mom. The bio reads as follows:

I live in suburbia… nice lawns, good schools, and lots and lots of churches. I was a sold-out Christian for ten years and I work in a Christian company.

My friends and family don’t know that I’ve become a heathen – in fact, my kids are gung-ho for Jesus so I take them to church and youth group regularly. I’m using this blog to keep myself from going bat-shit crazy all alone in this new godless (but not humorless!) land.

And so I have to wonder, how many of us are there really? How many of us are atheists, agnostics, or simply doubters and yet not fully out about our questions or lack of belief? I know what the census numbers say, but is the number of those with questions actually much larger than acknowledged?

But more than that, this makes me sad. Sad that we have to hide our unbelief and questions. Sad that we can only say anonymously on the internet what we’re really thinking. Sad that religion and our culture has created a situation in which people must lie or hide their thoughts, sometimes even from those closest to them, in order to not harm relationships or cause others pain.

It’s almost like we’re surrounded by a structure that holds those of us with religious families or religious upbringings or even simply living in highly religious communities in the closet. It’s like a hand over our mouths, a door that only swings one way, or simply an irrepressible feeling of the need to stay muffled. It’s a structure set up so that disbelief is punished and those who step out of line feel the consequences. And the weird thing is, it’s an organic structure. It’s not like there’s a pope or bishop in charge waiting to excommunicate us or force us out of the community. But it’s there nonetheless, as those of us who are entangled in it understand mroe than most.

Now I’m not saying that one’s family always has to know everything about one’s innermost life. I am not sad for those who choose to not reveal their atheism because it’s personal and they don’t want to. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sad, rather, for those of us who hold our questions and disbelief close because opening our hands and being honest would result in pain, heartache, and consequences we would rather not face.

You may or may not have heard of the Atheist Out campaign. The idea is that the more atheists come out, the less they will feel alone, and the more atheists people know the more people will see that atheists are simply people like everyone else, not some sort of scary stereotype. If we were all out, perhaps things would be easier – after all, we’d see others around us with questions and our families would know others with questions.

The Atheist Out campaign does not advocate outing anyone who does not want to come out, nor does it attempt to shame those who are not out. Everyone’s circumstances are different. For some, remaining in the closet may be the only way to maintain precious relationships with family and friends, and keeping one’s mouth shut may be an acceptable price to pay. Believe me, I know!

I just wish that, for so many of us, it didn’t have to be like this.

Busting the Mommy Myth
Anonymous Tip: In Which Gwen Loses Casey
Steve Is a Man: On Minecraft and Gender
The Modesty Rules—Not So Simple, Really
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.

  • jacqueline

    Thanks for this. I’ve recently come all the way out of the closet to my very religious family after over ten years of being half-way out – confessing my atheism to my parents while at the same time continuing to attend church to smooth things over with them and conceal my true feelings from my extended family.

    Over Christmas I finally took a stand and refused to attend church ever again. I had no idea how this would damage my relationship with my family (especially since my immediate family had known about my atheism for many years.) I’m glad that I can finally live authentically, but it’s come at a big cost. I don’t hold it against anyone who chooses not to come out – it’s heart wrenching.

    • Liz

      @Jacqueline…I am almost to the same point you are…but not quite. I have confessed to some friends, but my parents only know I have “silly questions”. It has been 8 years. I may get fed up and step all the way out soon, but like so many others have said…I don’t want to hurt or worry my parents who are very important to me….

      • jacqueline

        @ Liz – It’s so hard, isn’t it? I’m hoping that my relationship with my family will improve with time, but it’s an incredibly painful process. Best of luck if you choose to come out.

    • Gordon

      My family know I’m an atheist, but I’m still expected to read prayers at funerals. Luckily I’m not expected to go to church unless someone has died (or is getting married)

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    I’m lucky: religion is just not a big issue at the interpersonal level where I live (Ottawa, Canada). Outside my family and our CFI social circle, no one knows I’m an atheist — and I have only the vaguest notion of the affiliations and beliefs of some of my co-workers and other friends. IOW: a *secular* environment. I don’t know how I would “come out” to anyone else because religion is just *irrelevant* to almost all my social interactions. It would seem like grandstanding (and anyway, I’m a rather private person).

  • Lauren

    When I was working, I was out to everyone except my clients, to avoid losing some business. Now that I’ve retired, it’s a load off that I no longer maintain that one little pocket of evasion.

  • E.A. Blair

    I have strong ties to the NeoPagan community (of whom the best-known are probably Wiccans), and my experience is that they have far more in common with Atheists than with biblical religionists. Just to make a few points, they are reviled, considered evil and immoral, and their religion has been used against them in courts and other legal proceedings. People working in sensitive professions, such as teaching, must hide their affiliations. Schools and workplaces discriminate. Without the support of a larger local community, many choose not to be out (which, with wry humor, they call “being in the broom closet”).

    On the other hand, most NeoPagans I know are pragmatic people who do live mostly in the real world; many do not harbor a belief in literal, personal deities so much as they feel that deities are archetypes (in the Jungian sense) of human personal aspects. Some adhere to Paganism just out of a desire for or love of ritual in a less confining environment. I have a feeling that, if forced to make a choice of going to traditional, biblical and institutionalized religions or atheism, the average NeoPagan would choose the latter.

  • Kevin Alexander

    In the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes all it takes is for one little child to say that the emperor is naked for everyone to see the truth.

    If only real life were like that. In the real world someone would have beaten that impious little kid and half the crowd would nod in approval.

  • ScottInOH

    Amen again, Libby Anne (irony intended!). Your blog has been quite an oasis for me since I discovered it.

  • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com TCC

    I’m so glad this discussion is happening. I’m a recent deconvert of about a month, and I am only out to my wife, mother, and a handful of friends who are nonbelievers. Telling my mother was really painful and has calmed down, but my wife and I have had conflicts over this whole thing, which has gotten me seriously depressed. (I’m doing okay presently, just for the record. Still, if anyone has any experience with or resources related to marriage between individuals of different religious beliefs, I’d be very grateful for it.)

    I don’t dare tell other people, since I live in a very small and religious community, and I teach in a different community that is even smaller and more religious. In fact, I’m more concerned with my students and colleagues than I am with people in my own town, who I largely ignore and have no significant interactions with. It really is stressful because religion is treated as a big deal, and there’s a lot of pressure to be religious (and to be conservative as well – I live in rural downstate IL). I turned to blogging, too, and I hate not being able to use my real name at all (students often Google my name), but it’s better than the alternative.

  • amavra

    There has been a bit of comparison to pagans and atheists as far as being closeted goes. In my experience, being a pagan receives slightly better reception most of the time, though there are distinct exceptions and it is probably different in different areas. Also, I am considered a religious leader (even I have a difficult time believing it sometimes) which probably lends me a bit more respect as far as being proselytized goes. Several members of my group have reported negative comments, attitudes and feedback from coworkers but I haven’t had any (to my face anyway). We are on a military base overseas so it is a really small community, and I am sure the environment among the military members is quite different than among the “spouses” as I am.

    I personally don’t care so much if people dislike me for being pagan, as long as they don’t try to proselytize to me or my kids. I think atheists get more of that, where we get more ignored and/or shunned. Which suits me just fine.

  • CJ

    I have not been into a church since I was about 17 for any reason except weddings, funerals and, on one notable occasion, to hear one of my granddaughters sing her first ever public solo. I come from a long line of bible-thumping Southern Baptists and until recently I have kept most of my non-religious/anti-religious views from most of my friends and family due to the extreme backlash I received from even the most understanding of them. A couple of the ones who DO know constantly have “conversations” about religion in my presence as if I wasn’t there, including things like (and I paraphrase):

    Relative #1: Won’t we miss CJ when we go to heaven and she isn’t there?

    Relative #2: No, the bible says that God in his infinite wisdom will erase the memory of non-believers so we don’t suffer from the knowledge they are in hell.

    Then they both look at me with pity in their eyes like, “I guess I won’t be missing YOU!)

    As aggravating as it is, I find it laughable that they think these little jibes will somehow “convert” me. If I don’t believe in their (or any) god, why would I care that they think their petulant god, who acts like a 5-year-old with a magnifying glass over an anthill) will make them forget me?

    Seeing the sheer numbers of others who think like me has made it easier for me to be more open about my beliefs, or lack thereof.

    • jacqueline

      Wow, CJ – that’s awful. I find that kind of malice so hard to understand (and I’ve been the target of mild forms of it myself.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=611455454 boselecta

      Wow, they’re really that naked about it?

      I guess it must be difficult to resist pointing out what a douchebag you would have to be to want to be magically rendered unable to care about someone else’s suffering.

    • http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/ James K

      And I suppose punching them out is still considered gauche too.

  • James
  • http://neeroc.wordpress.com/ Neeroc

    I’m not hiding my atheism per se. My family and friends all know (or will if they ask) about my skepticism. What I do do, however, is keep it (mostly) out of my on-line life and I have created a separate blog and twitter account for those moments when I feel moved to be aggressively atheist.

  • Gordon

    Those of us who are Out should hopefully shift the borders just enough that it becomes acceptable for a few more people to come out, and then their coming out should shift the borders again.

    Hopefully the border will reach you, and these other people, soon.

  • Dalillama

    This effect is a classic example of what’s called Pluralistic Ignorance. Even in a population where the majority don’t believe/have questions, if people believe that everyone around them believes, they will act like they believe in public. This effect can even lead to people who don’t believe enforcing norms of belief on others, in order to convince the community of their own belief and avoid sanctions. Of course, this leads observers to conclude that they are alone in any doubts they may have, and leads to a vicious cycle.

    • jacqueline

      That’s really interesting. I often sat in church looking at the people around me and thinking, “There’s no way that I’m the only one who doesn’t believe this stuff.” But of course I’m afraid to say anything, and so is everyone else.

      • Gordon

        I was at a christian youth work conference this January and I remember looking about during the worship songs wondering if I was the only atheist. By the looks on people’s faces I’m guessing I was.

  • sumdum

    I feel pretty damn privileged right now. Here, in the Netherlands, religion or faith plays no role at all. Not a small role, not a marginal role, but no roll whatsoever. I read these stories, I can mentally understand, but I could never grok just what it’s like living in american society. If I lived there, perhaps I could be an out atheist as an example to others, but I’m here, an atheist among a sea of indifferent people. Nobody cares what you believe or don’t believe. And the majority don’t believe. Though many do call themself ‘spiritual’, but that’s another topic. Point is, I feel like I can’t really make a difference because there’s no difference to be made here.

    • http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/ James K

      I’m a New Zealander and I feel the same way. Religion in public is strictly pro forma and it would be considered highly inappropriate for our politicians to talk about their religious beliefs.

      In reading the stories in the comments section I can feel nothing but horror, and sympathy for those who are caught in a web of social ties they cannot escape.

    • Kittens

      Actually, I am an American and I feel the same way also. It just depends on where you live in the US – it’s a very diverse country – and how you were raised. I am agnostic, have been since I was about 8, and it’s not relevant to my life or my relationships in any way.

  • Doug

    My wife is a pentecostal, as is her family. Her father was a petacostal fire and brimstone preacher and upon his death, her sister took over as pastor at the small church she attends. I was a more conventional run of the mill Methodist when we started dating, but when we were dating, I started to attend her pentecostal church. In hindsight, I’m glad it happened. If I had stayed in the more conventional protestant congegation, I probabaly never would have started questioning my beleifs, but I found the pentecostal beliefs so strange on many levels, that it made me look at my own beliefs and ask some serious questions. In summary, none of it made sense. I stopped going to church. Over many years, I made excuses for not going, such as its boring, or I had to go to work. I did not want to tell her the truth because I knew she would seriously consider leaving. Finally, everything built to a head one Sunday morning when she was cajoling me to go to church, I spit out that I no longer believed in god. From the screaming and crying you would have thought that I had just confessed to being a serial killer.

    This was the beginning of many long arguments and “interventions” by her and her family. Interestingly she claimed that since I was an atheist, that she no longer thought I would be a good husband. I pointed out that all of her five sisters had married beleivers, and that every one of them was divorced. Two of them had abandoned their children, whom I had helped to raise, plus, of our four children, I had adopted two of them. In summary, I’m the atheist, yet I’m the only one who had lived up to the “Christian Family Values” she seemed to think I was now lacking.

    To make a long story short, it’s been five years since I’ve come out and we’re still together, happily. She has accepted that I no longer go to church, but lives under the delusion that I really still believe, but just don’t want to admit it. She thinks that I repent someday and return to church, in the meantime I’m sanctified through her. I’ve learned that logic and reason don’t work in this situation, so I still have to put up with the occasional witnessing and testimonies, but to keep peace I just smile, nod and say that’s nice.

  • left0ver1under

    “It’s almost like we’re surrounded by a structure that holds those of us with religious families or religious upbringings or even simply living in highly religious communities in the closet.”


    Is it really about atheists hiding themselves to “protect” others? Or atheists having to hide to protect themselves?

    I see no difference between the three commenters you quoted and women who are in abusive relationships. Both groups don’t get out for the same reasons: they worry about kids, they don’t know where to go, they worry about poverty and a loss of livelihood, etc.

    Unfortunately, there is no network of support for those who face potential assault and insult for speaking out or leaving such situations. I’m openly atheist because I can afford to be (physically and financially), and because I don’t have to worry about children or what relatives think.

  • carlie

    I am one of those mostly closeted atheists in religious families too, and partly for many of those reasons listed above by others. Another one: my spouse is still religious. We’ve talked just a bit about the fact that I’ve lost my faith, and come to an agreement about how we’re treating it ourselves (and sort-of agreed on what to do with the children). He hasn’t asked me to keep it quiet locally (we don’t live close to our families), but I won’t say anything because I don’t want him to be the recipient of all of the “so sorry you’re married to a backslidden heathen” pity that he’d get from the people at his church. I just refuse to do that to him. It’s hard to explain for anyone who hasn’t been steeped in fundamentalist churches, but those who have know what I’m talking about. The condescension bubble surrounding him would be palpable, and he wouldn’t be able to have any of the leadership/helping roles he has now (because if he can’t keep me in line, how could he expect to lead others?).

    • Gordon

      I think I would find it hard to see the children being taken to church once you realise it is not true. I couldn’t do it.

      • Carlie

        When I became an atheist, I was teaching in the children’s department, and so I was able to somewhat control what they were learning (soft-pedaling most of it). Once I couldn’t take it any more, there happened to also be a big blowup within the leadership of the children’s dept. that allowed me to easily take my ball and go home, saying that my kids wouldn’t be back until they were in middle school and in the class my husband directly teaches. I think it’s a good idea that they go; it’s like a vaccination where you get a little of it to protect you from the full-fledged version. If they weren’t allowed to go to church at all, then it would be a mysterious forbidden exciting thing. This way they can get bored right along with all the other kids, and don’t have the “if you knew more about God you’d be a Christian” trap to fall into. Since they’re older, they have a few years of me teaching them critical thinking skills first (I hope).

        And, they see me not going to church and know why. That’s a huge thing. When I was that age I couldn’t even imagine not believing as an option, much less one that I watched people in my family carry out. They know that it’s there, but they don’t have to believe it and they know that a lot of people don’t.

  • AnyBeth

    I, too, wonder how many people pretend at religious belief.

    I have multiple disabilities, including cognitive ones, and our parents help me a great deal. (While I understand there are other resources, I don’t have the faculties to get set up otherwise.) I’m not out to my parents due to fear of reprisal and not out to my sister because I don’t trust her to keep it from our parents.
    My sister probably isn’t Christian. The question was indirect and the answer was couched in terms that give plausible deniability. I have no idea what she believes, only what she doesn’t. I don’t know why she isn’t “out” with her beliefs or lack thereof, though I can think of plenty of possibilities (including professional life and the community). The upshot is that neither us is Christian and neither of us are “out”, not even to each other. How messed up is the situation that both of us feel such a need to hide? How many of us are hiding from each other like we two? I’ve no idea.

  • ash

    I had this conversation at the local humanist meeting about the role of groups for secularists. the problem I believe is that when you leave a church socially your isolated. there is not a connective network of secular groups. I keep it to myself because I get no benefit of coming out. It’ll make my job harder, people will (literally) hate me for it. I have a manager that told me china was the most evil godless country in the world and he hopes they burn under christian bombs.

    we need organization, groups that aren’t just ‘hang out and bash relegion.’ if nothing else, I need people I can do things with like I use to in church. say what you want about mormons, but damn can they organize.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=611455454 boselecta

      “christian bombs”

      If you want fire and brimstone done properly, you’ve got to do it yourself?

  • Rebecca M

    I am out in every way… except at work. I work for an agency and am placed in a public school system, but in a very conservative religious area. I tell people at work that I am a “liberal Buddhist,” which I interpret for them as meaning that I have a spiritual path but do not believe in reincarnation. Buddhism is by nature godless… the theology simply doesn’t include dieties. But most people at work just hear that I have a religious affiliation that emphasizes love and doing right by people and they leave me alone. They don’t have enough knowledge about it to know that it can be practiced as a philosophy rather than as a religion, and that I can and do practice it without ANY supernatural beliefs. I, sadly, encourage this misunderstanding, and I feel that I do so for the sake of my job. I want to live in a world where I can be open and still be trusted at work, but the fact is that I feel that I have to choose: Help, or be out.