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.

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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.