I Am One Lucky Atheist: On Location and Belief

I am a graduate student in a humanities field, living in a progressive college town. Because of this, not believing in God doesn’t cause me any trouble at all in my day to day life. No one cares. No really, no one cares. The people I interact with on a day-to-day basis are atheist, agnostic, “spiritual,” or, less commonly, some form of progressive Christian.

There are the mothers of Sally’s daycare friends that I’ve gotten to know: One is lapsed Catholic who is now agnostic, another is a woman who also attends my local UU congregation, and a third attends an LGBTQ-friendly, atheist-friendly United Methodist church (which apparently, here, is a thing). There are the other graduate students in my department: A lifelong atheist, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, an evangelical Christian who believes in gender equality and spends her time hanging out with atheists. And on it goes.

In fact, it’s such that when religion comes up, I’m actually surprised if I learn the person I’m talking to is religious. Spiritual, sure, but religious? Odds are they’re not. And if they are, they’re almost certain to be progressive Christians who aren’t going to give you trouble for not believing. I’m on a local mom’s group on facebook, and a recent request for suggestions in how to deal with children and religious relatives brought a thread of helpful advice, and not a single condemnation. And besides, religion doesn’t usually come up anyway. I don’t know what my adviser believes about God, or most of my colleagues at work. I know they’re politically progressive, but religion isn’t something people just bring up.

So when I read blogs by atheists who feel discriminated against in their daily lives, well, it sounds rather foreign. Once in a while, once in a long while, I’ll get a small taste of what they’re talking about. For example, I was talking to another mom during the class Sally takes at the Y, and for some reason religion came up. I don’t even remember how. I let on that I don’t believe in God, and her demeanor suddenly changed. She suddenly acted like there was something wrong with me. It was weird, because that’s something I’m so unused to encountering. So while I understand what atheists in places like the Bible belt are talking about, it’s something I almost never actually experience myself.

Now I suppose you’re wondering. But Libby, you’re thinking, didn’t you grow up an evangelical Christian? What about your family, and your friends from when you were evangelical? Thing is, I don’t live near any of them. Further, the only members of my family that I’m out as an atheist too are the few that have walked my same path. The others still assume I’m Christian, though a progressive (read: heretical) form of Christian, and we pretty much have our own little don’t ask, don’t tell policy. As for the people I grew up with, I lost contact with them when my entire background exploded in my face while I was in college. I was changing, and I knew they wouldn’t be understanding. It was just easier, given that it was at a transitional time in my life anyway, and living away from home at college, to let it all go. So I did.

But what I find interesting here is just how profoundly exactly where you live and what circles you float in influences the experience of an atheist living in the United States. Most of the atheists I encounter here don’t really give a second thought to their atheism—because they don’t have to. There’s no shared sense of being discriminated against to bond over. There’s simply lack of belief, and a lack of belief that really doesn’t impact one’s daily life. Surrounded by other academics and the hippie types that flock to progressive college downs like this, someone who doesn’t believe in God doesn’t stand out. In fact, it’s rather the other way around.

How about you? What do your experiences have to add to this conversation?

I Have Never Seen a Supernatural Entity Create a Universe
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism
What Makes a Person an "Atheist" Parent?
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.

  • Mafrin

    I find much the same thing. I live in Australia, which is a more secular country on the whole. My being an atheist has never raised any eyebrows. (Well, apart from the nuns at the private catholic school I attended when very young :P)

    • Monika

      Yay Australia! I concur our country is pretty relaxed.

      I’m an atheist raised by an atheist and an agnostic and my circle is pretty secular. In fact my best friend calls me the “most religious person she knows” both because she knows I wouldn’t call atheism a religion and because I am the only person she knows who goes to religious events (atheist meet ups, talks, debates and that kind of thing).

  • Beutelratti

    I can’t talk for American atheists, however living in Western Europe, this is what I consider mostly “normal” or what living as an atheist here looks like (minus the evangelical background).

    You don’t get strange looks for saying you don’t believe in a god, you get strange looks for saying “I accepted Jesus Christ as my saviour”. Being overly religious is considered strange and sometimes even seen with a bit of “That loony, haha”-mentality.

    What bugs me is that although we’re claiming to be a secular society we often don’t question the ways in which the church has “infiltrated” our daily lives. There are lots of people who still have both the civil and the church wedding even though religion doesn’t play any part in their everyday lives and they never visit the church on other occasions. It’s somehow seen as part of the culture to get married in a church and baptise your children.

    I fear that we take our secular lives for granted and are turning a blind eye to how the church still meddles with politics.
    We are far too content and far too indifferent to things like religious classes in public schools and the church tax.
    Sometimes I think that not having many prominent outspoken fundamentalists in the country (that does not mean I’m not happy there are so few) also means that there are going to be less people taking offense with church dogma and religion in general. Like I said, we are somewhat content and don’t think too much about what the church does do and doesn’t do.

  • Gail

    My experience is much the same. Where I grew up in the southern US, I almost never discussed religion except with some other like-minded people my age, because it was always the assumption that someone was Christian and anyone who wasn’t got judged. But now, I am working on a humanities masters degree in the UK, and the default is to assume that nobody is particularly religious. Sure, some people are technically Church of England, but they’re usually very progressive about it. I can only think of one person I know here who is very religious, a Catholic from Eastern Europe.

  • http://sylvia-rachel.livejournal.com sylvia_rachel

    I live in Toronto, which I have heard described as the most multicultural city in the world. Not sure if that’s true, but it’s pretty multicultural!

    I am Jewish and spend most of my time with people who mostly aren’t (work colleagues, choir colleagues, about half of my daughter’s friends’ parents). For that reason, I end up talking with co-workers about religion — not my beliefs, but Jewish religious customs — a lot more than is normal here. But even so, talking about religion is not a common occurrence for me, and the only time anyone ever asks me about my *beliefs* it’s that lady who stands outside the subway station in my old neighbourhood sometimes, handing out tracts and asking every passerby earnestly if they know Jesus as their personal saviour, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses who occasionally hang around bus stops looking for people to target. Talking about religion in social settings is just not a thing here (except, presumably, with really close friends, if you’re both into that sort of thing). I happen to know that one of my coworkers is Catholic, because she brings in leftover cookies when there’s a baptism or First Communion in her (large, Italian) extended family. I happen to know another one is some kind of Evangelical because of the post-secondary institution he listed on his resume when he applied three or four years ago — the question has literally never come up between us since, although we have talked about a wide variety of other non-work-related things over the years. I’m not sure talking to your co-workers about your religious beliefs or asking about theirs is actually any kind of violation of anything, legally speaking, but I am pretty sure that in the places I’ve worked, at least, it’s one of those things you Just Don’t Do, like comparing pay stubs or sharing the details of your sex life. Religious practices are fair game, especially if they involve leftover treats you can bring to the office ;), but nobody wants to hear about whether or not you believe in G-d.

    • Little Magpie

      Shout out to a fellow Torontonian, sylvia! :)

      • http://sylvia-rachel.livejournal.com sylvia_rachel

        Hey there :D

    • sarahbee

      Agreed. The biggest difference I notice between living in Toronto and living in Austin is that in Toronto, personal religious beliefs never came up in casual conversation between strangers. Here, it comes up A LOT, although most of the time it’s in the form of assuming we’re all profoundly Christian here so I’ll just go ahead and say some deeply problematic thing like we all agree on it (note: this happens on lots of topics besides religion, like the current presidential administration, or gun ownership, or race relations). So far, nobody who isn’t already a close friend has asked me directly what I believe. This makes “passing” a cinch, but it also leads to screamingly awkward situations like a children’s birthday party where I once spent a grueling hour listening to someone tell me about her pregnancy crisis center volunteer experiences while our kids were playing together, and she never asked if I agreed that abortion is a sin against God (actual quote) because of course we all do. Lol, Texas.
      In my opinion, the Canadian way is more polite, because it doesn’t require religious agreement from other people to accept them. The Texas way is more friendly, because it assumes religious agreement, which is an inclusive assumption (did I mention I am white, which makes a huge difference). But when a Texan encounters a non-Christian this approach can pretty much completely break down, because they don’t know much about other religions and they are pretty sure the nonreligious are just dripping with evil. Obviously, Austin is much more tolerant than the rest of Texas, so I’m sure most people I know would still like me if they knew my beliefs. On the other hand, people are unpredictable, and so many of them here are armed. ;-)
      Personally, I prefer my conversational spaces to be free of religious expectation — but like I said, I am not from here.

  • J-Rex

    It’s a big deal to some people in my family, but we’re pretty non-confrontational, so I mostly just get a negative feeling from some people, not much more than that. I live in a pretty liberal area. Most older people are still religious, but they understand that it can be an awkward topic to bring up. Most young people here have left their churches and don’t really know what they believe yet, so they’re usually not too judging.
    It’s not that bad for me, especially compared to other parts of the country, but I do try to avoid saying the A word…

  • http://brokendaughters.wordpress.com Lisa

    Living in a place where pretty much nobody is religious, you don’t really get any attention for being an atheist. Sure, the smaller villages in the south are typically catholic (and very much so), but that’s considered an “old people thing”. If you are below, say, 50, nobody will think twice about that person saying he or she doesn’t believe in a God at all.
    Generally, I have experienced that many people consider extreme Christianity a mental illness. I have also experienced that many people, when they first encounter me and my background, simply don’t believe me. They don’t mean any harm by that, they are simply missing the concept and experience. They simply cannot imagine that there a Christians in a ‘civilized’ nation could possibly take the bible literally. I often hear “You’re making that up, nobody is that crazy!”. Extreme religious Christianity is so far away from the general reality here that it sounds like a myth to people. Stories about fundamentalist christians and actual dragons are on one level for them – stories of something that can’t really exist.
    I ended up showing my friends some episodes of 19 Kids and counting – they needed some convincing that these were not actors in a fictional show, but that people really do live these beliefs.

  • Malitia

    My country (I’m East-European, from a post-communist country) is… well… pretty dechurched (I wouldn’t say atheistic as there is the cultural Christianity thing) so we don’t really talk about religion and it’s pretty easy to go by as an Atheist or in my case Neo-Pagan (I think it’s harder as neo-pagan as it’s easier to run into someone, who is ready to ridicule the “stupid new ager”).
    But (and this is a BUT that troubles me) recently (since 10-15 years or so) there is a resurgence of right wing political ideas and with them also “religion”* and by this I mean traditional Christian denominations (Catholicism mostly) so this may not last long… I so hope my fears are unfounded.

    * It also increased a lot of other unsavory things like anti-feminist, anti-abortion, anti-Semitic sentiments, discrimination against the Roma, revisionist thinking etc..

    • Gail

      This is really interesting to me. Like I said above, the one religious friend I have is Catholic and from Poland. I think he sees his Catholicism as a kind of rebellion against communist ideas. He does have some anti-feminist and anti-abortion views, though, so what you said about the resurgence of religion is interesting. My other progressive friends and I regularly discuss politics and feminism and religion and such with him, so I hope maybe one of these days it will rub off on him.

      • Malitia

        I’m from Hungary as far as I know Poland was always more religious than us. Could stem from the fact that they had harder times under communist rule* than we. We together with East-Germany were the “poster countries” which here basically meant no hard-line communism after the failed uprising** of ’56.
        Our current government is highly “conservative” (somehow not conservative enough to not rewrite our constitution with a slight exaggeration weekly, just because they can). Nationalistic, Christian, “We are at war” rhetoric, anti-feminism*** etc.. Could be worse, we have an openly anti-semitic, anti-Roma, anti-immigrant, anti-capitalist(!), anti-EU etc. far right party with a substantial voter-base. :/

        * Not as bad as Romania though, they still had a dictator (also a hard-line abortion ban) the time the Berlin wall fell.
        ** Which is still a highly debated issue and I won’t be the one to decide if it qualified as a revolution.
        *** There was a small scandal some months ago because in the debate of an anti-domestic violence bill one of our “beloved” politicians claimed that stay-at-home / married women don’t get abused and so basically women should just “go back to the kitchen”.

  • Miranda

    I live in the Bible Belt. I routinely have people tell me that I’m going to hell, or that I’m the spawn of the Devil, or that I worship Satan, as well as many other lovely epithets. They don’t seem to find the Flying Spaghetti Monster magnet on my car humorous. Oh well.
    It really does feel pretty alone down here. It’s exhausting being witnessed to or told that “it’s a phase” or some other rubbish. I grew up Christian–I know the lines, I don’t need to be told them all again! Somehow people think that because I’m an atheist that I’m suddenly less intelligent or less trustworthy or, as usual, “mad at god.” It’s exasperating, and the Facebook statuses aren’t any better!

    • http://stuckinthered.blogspot.com Evelina

      I’m in the Bible belt too and yeah, it’s pretty much like that. Not everybody is so overt, but then I don’t routinely bring up my lack of religiosity. Mostly people just assume that I’m a Christian (partly because I “seem so normal”).

      • Generally Speaking

        Former bible-belter here – my favorite is the assumption I’m a christian because I’m nice.

  • http://puddinsilovemylife.blogspot.com/ Tonya Richard

    I live in South Louisiana and my entire social group is evangelical Christian. Some lean a little progressive, but most of them are the anti Obama, gays will burn in hell, don’t take away my guns type. I am only out to my husband, 3 oldest children, my best girlfriend and my mother. My husband and two oldest sons are now also atheists and my 16 year old daughter is extremely progressive, if not entirely ready to give up on the idea of God yet. My younger children know that something is different, we don’t go to church anymore, but I havn’t actually told them anything. It is so hard to know the right thing to do and it makes it more difficult because we would very much be discriminated against if most people knew. It is very hard to be surrounded by people who believe so completely differently than you, yet you have to lay low and keep your mouth shut. If it were just me, I would be loud and proud LOL However, I have my children to think about, I don’t want them treated differently just because their mother is an atheist. And I guarantee you, they would be treated differently. People are already getting suspicious because we were heavily involved in our church for over 20 years and I don’t know what I will say if asked outright. I stress about this everyday, and I will say it completely sucks. I wish I lived somewhere not so radically Christian and conservative.

    • ScottInOH

      I share some of these sentiments. I think I would act differently if I were on my own, but I am married and have children, and until fairly recently I was pretty content with my progressive Catholicism. My family and my wife’s are all very openly Christian (most, but not all, Catholic), and many of them are quite conservative. My kids are in Catholic schools. I think it would cause a major earthquake if I started expressing my doubts out loud.

      As an aside, I want to note that I can identify with Christians who say they get singled out for criticism, too. If you’re not in a Christian homeschool environment, there are plenty of people who are going to make fun of you for going to church, being in youth group, abstaining until marriage, and so on. Christians aren’t making that stuff up. Just because most of the country professes to be some version of Christian doesn’t mean they have much respect for personal Christian behavior. Now, gay-bashing and slut-shaming, that’s something they can get behind…

  • Rachel

    I definitely feel this! I grew up in the suburbs of NJ. Until I was 12 or so, most of the people I interacted with were Jewish, but very few were extremely religious: in fact, my (Conservative) family had a habit of avoiding people who were either super-religious or super-lax. When I started attending public school, my best friend was an atheist, and while several friends attended church (or not), very few would ever talk about religion. My being Jewish was either a source of jokes or curiosity, but belief in G-d never came up. College was the same way: people were more likely to be teased about believing in G-d than they were to be teased about being an atheist, and I actually heard one of my professors call people who believed the world was created in six days “crazy”. Having been raised to believe that yes, G-d created the world in six days, but those six days just happened to correspond with the 4 billion or so years before humans evolved, and there’s no contradiction there — are we so small and petty as to believe that the Creator of the Universe is bound by our conception of 24-hour days? How self-centered of us to think that way!

  • Stony

    I live in the Bible Belt but have worked for a couple of multi-national corporations where diversity and inclusiveness are watchwords. My coworkers are Euro and middle-eastern, Asian and Indian. This makes the folks that include Jesusy slogans on their emails or say “have a blessed day” stand out, so it regulates itself somewhat. Religion doesn’t come up, because we’re at work. And if it does come up, hey, I’m working heah.

    My family, or rather, my in-laws, are a different story. My in-laws were E/C Christians until recently when they got active in our church, and there are no zealots like converts. Their knowledge of the Bible and Christianity is zilch compared to mine, yet they want to “save” me and my poor heathen child (apparently with Joel Osteen books and Kirk Cameron films). I don’t want him to grow up under the same utter “you’re a sinner” “don’t think about the opposite sex” “you’re unworthy” bullshit that I did, so we only rarely go to church. This causes issues in the family but nowhere else.

    It would be different if we were still in the area where I grew up, where everyone everyone everyone was some form of Baptist and I was ostracized for being Presbyterian.

  • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

    I grew up in suburban Toronto, and being an evangelical made *me* the weird one in high school and university. Not that everyone was atheist, but the “typical” religiosity was milquetoast Anglican, United Church, or Catholic, and frank unbelief was not a big deal.

    I’ve spent my career (>30 years) in the high-tech sector in Ottawa, and I can count the number of work-place conversations I’ve had about religion on one hand. No one knows I’m an atheist — and OTOH I know the religious affiliations of about three (out of dozens) of my co-workers, and even that indirectly and imprecisely (I can guess at a few more based on ethnic origin, but that’s not a reliable indicator of current belief and practice). Basically, it just never comes up. I live in a *secular* social milieu.

    Partly, I think it’s Canadian Politeness thing not to discuss possible sensitive subjects. Even our Prime Minister — a known evangelical — makes fewer public God-references than more religiously-moderate American politicians do. (Which doesn’t stop him doing whatever damage he can behind the scenes).

    • Christine

      I think that (in Southern Ontario at least, I suspect that, for example, Alberta is different) it’s slightly more socially acceptable to express unbelief than belief. But I agree that neither one is generally considered polite, unless you’re with close friends. (This is different from visible symbols like hijab or a turban – those are generally considered normal).

      • http://sylvia-rachel.livejournal.com sylvia_rachel

        I grew up in Alberta; it’s not polite there, either (although it’s certainly true, particularly outside the big cities, that more people are more involved in some kind of church life).

      • Christine

        Sorry to malign. Given a lot of the stereotypes (which is most of what I’ve encountered) I was reluctant to make assupmtions.

  • http://bethclarkson.com Beth

    I let on that I don’t believe in God, and her demeanor suddenly changed. She suddenly acted like there was something wrong with me.

    I live in Kansas, which is a very religious and conservative part of the US, but the only times I every got that sort of reaction was when I used to try attending functions for homeschoolers. I would describe what you’re talking about as the other mother abruptly realizing that your child is not a suitable playmate for their child. I used to get that sort of reaction when asked what church we attended and responding that we didn’t.

    Later, I gave up on attending any functions of the only homeschooling group in our area. Shortly after that, they converted to an explicitly Christian homeschooling group because they didn’t have any non-Christians attending. No kidding!

  • Rebecca

    It is, oh, so lonely being an atheist down here in Georgia. I literally don’t even know one other atheist in the state! If it weren’t for my online fellow freethinking friends I think I’d curl up an die or take some other drastic measure of escaping the evangelicals down here. If I have to hear that clearly I’m mad at God or that deep inside I know there’s a God one more time, I think I’ll go insane. It’s so emotionally exhausting. Leaving Christianity was the best decision I ever made and I LOVE being an atheist but sometimes I’d give anything for someone just to be on my side and make me feel validated.

    • Watry

      We exist, I promise! I’ll understand if you’d rather not answer, but what area are you in?

      • Rebecca

        So exciting! I live an hour south of Macon. I’d love to chat if you’d like – my email address is rnewman910@gmail.com

  • alr

    I live in an extremely conservative area. My little town of 4500 has somewhere around 15 churches. But there are only two groups of people I encounter who want to talk about my religion or anyone else’s religion: militant atheists and evangelicals. Everyone else could care less who goes to church, doesn’t go to church or goes out boating or snow boarding on Sunday. If people (atheist or fundagelical) feel that discriminated against, could it be that they are the ones bringing it up?

    • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

      …because expressing one’s opinion openly is *completely* sufficient grounds for discrimination and harassment. If you can’t go along with the crowd, just STFU about it, OK?

      • alr

        That was not my point at all. For crying out loud, I used to work for the fricking ADL. I know more about issues of discrimination that you probably ever thought about knowing. BUT as many other posters indicated, belief or lack of belief is rarely acknowledged in casual or business situations in most parts of the country. If I sub teach for or with agnostic or Hindu or Catholic or Jewish or Buddhist or sun worshipping people, I don’t know about it because that is never the subject at hand. That begs the question I asked, who is bringing it up? Family issues are different, but Libby Anne did not post about issues with family.

    • BabyRaptor

      I don’t have to “bring it up” to see that Atheists are discriminated against. I can just read the news and hear how we’re talking about. Or listen to the radio and hear the lies and slander used to milk the faithful of a few more dollars.

      Or, as was frequently the case when I first moved to where I live now (I’m the only Atheist in Arkansas, it seems) people asked me. It was one of the first things I was asked, actually. And then there was the time that my car got vandalized because I had an Obama bumper sticker, so people just *assumed* I was a godless piece of trash.

      None of those are me bringing it up.

      Check your privilege, buddy. You’re making a donkey’s rear of yourself.

      • alr

        Libby Anne did not post about general attitudes in media. She posted about the mommas on the playground. Others posted about people in their workplaces. Very different things than the media. In my experience, religious preferences are not discussed in those settings as a general part of casual conversation. If you are announcing that you are a tree worshiper or Greek Orthodox or whatever in casual conversation at work, I’m wondering why you deem it necessary to discuss. And it is not my “privilege” as I feel absolutely no need to discuss my personal religious beliefs in casual conversations. In close relationships that is different, but the post was not about that either.

      • Cylon

        Dude, just quit digging. This post was about Libby’s personal experience and how she is lucky that her experience is easier than many others. Other people have different experiences, and all you seem to want to do is blame the victim. Just because the people you’re around have the social etiquette not to bring up religion doesn’t mean that everybody is so lucky. BabyRaptor gave explicit examples of discrimination in his personal life (not just media representation) and he never brought up religion himself, and still you keep going on about how you never bring up religion and so you’re safe. Well, bully for you. Not everyone gets the same results you do, even when they do the exact same things.

        (BabyRaptor, apologies if you are a woman. I just hate using he/she and the like).

  • Ed

    I’m in a little Mill town in Maine where 70% of the population is a mix of Catholic, Baptist, or Evangelical types. I have had bumper stickers torn from my vehicle, threatening notes left on my windshield, and slurs spray painted on my driveway because I professed my Atheism publicly in a local paper.
    It amuses me though, that many of the teachers who work in the local schools, and teach the children of the people who have done this to me, are professed agnostics or non church goers. It’s only the Atheists that get attacked, like we worship Satan and sacrifice cats or something. Stupid people in a little town that don’t know the meaning of the word and have no desire to step outside of their comfort zone and learn.
    My children tell me to “Just shut up, Dad.” but isn’t this America with freedom of religion? Shouldn’t that mean freedom FROM religion too???

  • LL

    I live in Conservative Town, of Conservative County, U.S.A. There are over 17 churches, and the town’s population is close to 2500. My children are afraid to tell anyone they have read Harry Potter. Before my kids were old enough to read J.K. Rowling, a neighbor mother told me to never let them read those books because they teach children witchcraft. No children in our neighborhood attend public school (there are at least 20 kids in our general area). I have been told that our county has one of the highest homeschooling rates in the area (something like 35%). When people find out we don’t belong to a church, they immediately tell us they will be praying for us. One home school mom here says that homeschooling a daughter ends when she can read the bible (the rest of a daughter’s education consists of household duties of course). Not only do people inquire about your religion/church, they often start by asking how many children you have. The quiverfull movement is so strong, and the only acceptable reason for stopping having children of your own is if you have started to adopt children. Births and adoptions are so common in our county I started joking about people having “hip trophies”, similar to men who want a “trophy wife”. I know that is really mean, but I am generally exhausted by the culture here (and see way, way too much child neglect). My children were reading a social studies book that said “Most families have one or two children, but some married couples do not have children.” My son said, “when was this book written? we are the only family I know with less than 5 kids.” That told me it was time to expand our horizons.

  • Angela

    It was only a brief mention but the fact that you are only “out” to a few members of your family struck a chord with me. Even though I live in a pretty conservative community I don’t really have much of a problem with my atheist/agnostic views because it doesn’t usually come up and I try to steer fairly clear of the hyper-conservative set. But my family is a different matter. I have a sister who I can confide in and my parents have surmised quite a bit on their own but it seems that I’m always walking a fine line between being disingenuous or deliberately antagonistic. I wondered if you’d consider some posts on coming “out” to family.

  • Michael Busch

    Being a physical scientist in the US, atheist/agnostic/vaguely spiritual/only culturally religious are what I encounter the most at work (“culturally religious” includes culturally-Christian, -Jewish, -Buddhist, -Hindu, and -Taoist, at a minimum). Since many of my friends are scientists/engineers/programmers, the mix there is similar. Most of the time, religion doesn’t come up and when it does it’s usually in a by-the-way-here-are-leftover-Christmas-cookies fashion. It’s actually a little strange to encounter a zealous fundamentalist of any religion – I once had a bizarre encounter where I learned that one of my neighbors at the time, a biochemistry student, was a young-Earth creationist.

    When it comes to my family, I have been accused of being “narrow-minded” for rejecting ideas that aren’t supported by evidence. But my side of the family is a mismash of atheists/agnostics, vaguely-spiritual, and Catholics of the disagree-with-half-the-things-the-hierarchy-says variety and my wife’s side of the family is nominally mainline Protestant but haven’t gone to any church regularly for years. So it hasn’t been that much of a problem.

    And given some of the other stories here, I become more conscious of the privileged position I occupy.

  • Kmlai

    I attend a private, urban liberal arts university, where religion isn’t generally viewed as particularly important. I have many atheist, spiritual, Catholic (of all degrees of practicing and lapsed), Christian, Muslim, (etc etc etc) friends and acquaintances, and we are all too busy trying to stay afloat in our coursework to get past the “huh, guess we’ll agree to disagree” stage of sharing religious beliefs. Having someone of a different faith is sometimes even considered to be a boon, and I’ve had some really good and nonjudgmental conversations about gods with a Christian friend of mine as we looked at galaxy pictures from Hubble together.

    My home life, in a suburb of the same city, is very different. I come from a large and observant Irish Catholic family that attends Mass every Sunday bar none, and sighs and prays for any family members who do not choose to marry within the Church. My parents and sister are heavily involved in “my” church’s youth group, and my father attended seminary school before dropping out. During high school, I taught religious education, was a weekly instrumentalist at church, and acted as a leader of the church youth group: for several years as an agnostic atheist. I still receive emails on occasion praising me for my commitment to the church community and inviting me back for various events. I don’t see any way out of it, as it has been intimated to me on the few occasions that I have expressed doubts about Catholicism that if I were to leave the faith, I would be severely judged by my parents and would be a enormous source of grief and embarrassment to the entire extended family.

    Casually heathen at school, tensely devout at home.

    • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

      Some friends of ours are, respectively, from a Polish-Canadian and Hispanic-American family, and therefore both ancestrally Catholic. They’ve both caught grief from their families for being out atheists, more so the Polish side (hers). It’s unclear how much of it is about theology, rather than a cover for ethnic identity.

      Having mentioned them, I might as well flog their blog: http://www.aniasworkinprogress.com/

      • Kmlai

        Thanks for the recommendation!

  • http://heresyintheheartland.blogspot.com Jeri

    I’m in Kansas, too. When I started to “come out”, my Christian friends didn’t answer my calls about playdates anymore. My 3rd-grader has been harassed by his public school classmates for not attending a church or believing in God. When I try to hang out with neighbor women, I get invited to church, hear about whose son is a Catholic priest, or am told they’ll pray for me. Some days it feels like the whole city is Christian.

  • James

    It’s interesting how big a role location plays in all of this. As a scientist, religion isn’t a big professional issue — Expect for frustration with the American public for anti-evolutionism and the equally bizarre anti-climate changers.
    Personally, it’s more difficult. My parents are religious, as are the bulk of my friends from the past decade. I did a seminary degree and transitioned from evangelical to progressive to agnostic/atheist, but I’m still not “out” to more than a very select few.
    All in all, university towns and research labs aren’t bad places to be. But it doesn’t get rid of the awkwardness of family, or of close Christian friends who remain ignorant (if slightly suspicious) of your de-conversion.

  • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com Lara

    You are so lucky! I’m jealous. Almost EVERYONE I know is still conservative Christian. Most days I’m still a progressive Christian and still I’m going to therapy and blogging to try to figure out how to “come-out” to all my friends. Some of these people I’ve been friends with my whole life, I don’t want to drop out of their lives. They are still beautiful people and we have other things in common to share, I just happen to not believe things that they believe are “essentials” to Christianity. Honestly it causes me a lot of anxiety and stress.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    As child I had some problems but mostly people here don’t care about religion much, most are lapsed or bad catholics but you can find plenty of atheists, agnostics, spirituals and apatheists (many of these last ones). In the town I live, there’s a ton of reverence towards the virgin and saints and in the hospital where it’s mostly old pretty religious people in a delicate time in their times, you find a lot of that and they tell you lots of their local ones and how they’ve prayed or put a candle to that one or the other and about Holy Week (here it’s very important, they say it’s the prettiest in the world). But all that it’s in a nice way, we don’t have heavy proselytisers (except the Mormons who come form the US) or heavy discrimination so most people don’t give it much though and the people who you hear criticising religion are almost always Catholics.

    Although there are some things that need changing, I only became an outspoken atheist because of the stuff happening in other places of the world.

  • Jasmyn

    I grew up in Texas. As a teenager, I was definitely the outsider for being an atheist. Some of my friends weren’t religious, but they didn’t identify with the naughty A word. As an adult, I have no religious friends from my childhood. Even friends that were formerly religious aren’t anymore. I never talked about it or tried to argue with anyone. Some of the friends that attempted to convert me have apologized for being arrogant jerks, and they now identify as atheists.
    Since I’ve moved to North Carolina, I got involved with local atheist groups and I actually don’t know any believers other than some of my co-workers (a few of them have told me they were atheists, or made remarks about prayer being powerless, but they’re not open about these ideas). Every friend I’ve made away from work is an atheist. It’s very nice because military towns seem to be pretty religious. I have a great group of godless peers, so discrimination isn’t something I deal with normally. People have called my husband an asshole for wearing a MASH Ft Bragg shirt and they’ve been uncomfortable when a large group of us sit down to eat in our shirts, but nothing more than that.

  • Rosie

    Moving from Kansas to Seattle was a revelation: nobody cared about religion, it never came up, people in general just treat each other like other people. Moving from the Seattle area back to Kansas nearly a decade later was another revelation: suddenly everyone assumes I’m Christian unless I tell them otherwise (especially since I live near my family here, and they all are). People routinely say to me, “he’s a Christian” to mean “he’s a good person”, leaving me to wonder if they’ll decide I’m a puppy-kicker if they find out I’m not. There are Christian symbols in many places of business. Organic farmers cite “Bible-believing Christian” among their “credentials”. I have a circle of close friends here who are mostly non-Christians of various stripes, but we sort of have the feel of a community under siege. And I have all my PNW friends on Facebook, which is nice although not as nice as seeing them in person.

  • Little Magpie

    To respond to sylvia_rachel and Eamon Knight (and the other Canadians) – I agree that in a general, society-in-general kind of way, we are much more tolerant of unbelief (or other than mainstream belief), but, depending on your immediate social situation / circle of acquaintances, your results may vary.
    - we had a fellow working in our office who was a Bible-thumping Pentecostal type. Also developmentally delayed, and frankly he tended to parrot what the pastors were spewing that week; I constantly had to listen to him ranting – loudly – about immigrants (really? Go back to England, then), how our city was horrible and full of sin (please, by all means, move out of the city), Halloween is devil-worshipping, and the stuff you’d expect about gays. While that certainly wasn’t the tone of the rest of the office staff, I wasn’t always able to tune his BS out and would get upset and angry. (because, well, I’m politically progressive, bisexual, used to identify as Wiccan though I would know say I’m agnostic, and *love my city*, dammit!)
    - this one time I was chatting with one of our patients. The husband/father of that family is a parking enforcement cop, and we were joking about whether that might ever make things socially awkward for the kids, (you know, people they meet and are getting to know being put off by the fact that the dad is one of those parking ticket guys we all love to hate) and I brought up how this one time, I’d been “chatting up” this girl at university, and how that completely went flat when we realized that my dad was one of her profs (awkward!). So, the lady I was telling this story to didn’t say anything to me, but I found out later that she was shocked and offended – by the fact of my bisexuality? In retrospect, I realize I shouldn’t have been discussing it, but NOT to avoid her response, just because in general, boundaries, appropriateness etc. (The reason for her shock and being appalled being due to the dictates of her religion)
    - and of course there are people who will have issues with their families over religion. (Luckily I’m not one of them!)

    • http://sylvia-rachel.livejournal.com sylvia_rachel

      I’ve seen this kind of thing happen from time to time here, too. Definitely depends on context. I do think it’s less widespread than in many parts of the US, though. When I was growing up in Calgary 30-odd years ago, in a neighbourhood far from the “Jewish” parts of town (which is to say, those neighbourhoods where there might be more than one house on the block without Christmas lights ;)), I was generally the only Jewish kid in any given group of kids I knew; I did spend a lot of time explaining what that meant, but it was very rare for anyone to tell me I was going to hell or anything like that. The explanations were about differences in practice and culture, not differences in belief, for the most part.

      We have a guy in our neighbourhood — elderly and, I strongly suspect, suffering from dementia — who will often rant at people on the bus or at bus stops about how they need to repent etc. The reactions are very Torontonian: everyone pretends they aren’t hearing it. I feel bad for him, but not bad enough to actually engage …

  • Tyro

    I also live in WA; I’m even better off, living ~ 15 minutes E of Seattle (Juanita neighborhood of Kirkland). In person I’m insulated from religious bullshit, but I make sure to keep up with struggles of atheists elsewhere via the Internet.

  • Kristen

    More Kansans read this blog than I would have expected! I’m also from Kansas and it’s quite Christian, but my area at least, people tend to keep their religions to themselves. So they assume that everybody is a Christian unless they specify otherwise, but mostly don’t talk about religion except among friends.

    My social group (high school and college friends, other teachers) tend to be pretty open-minded. My friends all know my beliefs, and they are a mix of agnostic/apatheistic and liberal Christians. I do keep my atheism to myself at work, but not because I’m worried about widespread condemnation. It’s more because, as a teacher, one particularly vicious parent or coworker can really affect my career. I would be comfortable telling most of the faculty and wouldn’t expect any serious problems, but I don’t because I want to control access to that information and the more people who have it, the harder that is.

  • Kristen

    More Kansans read this blog than I would have expected! I’m also from Kansas and it’s quite Christian, but my area at least, people tend to keep their religion to themselves. So they assume that everybody is a Christian unless they specify otherwise, but mostly don’t talk about religion except among friends.

    My social group (high school and college friends, other teachers) tend to be pretty open-minded. My friends all know my beliefs, and they are a mix of agnostic/apatheistic and liberal Christians. I do keep my atheism to myself at work, but not because I’m worried about widespread condemnation. It’s more because, as a teacher, one particularly vicious parent or coworker can really affect my career. I would be comfortable telling most of the faculty and wouldn’t expect any serious problems, but I don’t because I want to control access to that information and the more people who have it, the harder that is.

  • Mogg

    Living as I do in Melbourne, Australia, growing up and living until my early thirties as a dedicated Christian made me very much the odd one out in almost all situations, including in my own extended family. In my high school of over a thousand students, the Christian group was about 5 students, although there were a few more who I knew of who were Christian enough to go to church regularly. Melbourne also competes with Toronto for the title of World’s Most Multicultural City, so in pretty much any job or public place you will have to deal with people of obviously or presumably different faith – in one job I had my immediate colleagues included an Afghan refugee who was culturally but not observant Muslim, a Hindu, an Atheist Jew, an ex-lay preacher of the Anglican Church turned hippy/spiritual, a couple of secular Aussies, and me, the rather unhappy member of a semi-cultic fundamentalist church. That’s pretty normal here; a Christian of any stripe, even a moderate, who regularly goes to church is a bit weird and daggy but a variety of faiths in wider society is considered solely the business of the individual/s concerned. So becoming an atheist was socially becoming more normal in many ways.

    As I was going through the deconversion process I had one person to whom I expressed my thoughts tell me not to claim I was an atheist because it was so very closed-minded, a comment which still boggles me – if I don’t believe in God or gods, and I don’t believe in mysterious spiritual forces or New Agey vibes or the power of the universe or karma, well, what else am I but an atheist? It’s not like I had to take a vow to become one or anything. In this way I found firsthand that being an outspoken or convinced atheist is sortof considered to be as impolite as being a pushy religionist: letting everyone have their own thoughts without imposing them on anyone else is the social norm, so taking a position on religion which says that others’ beliefs are incorrect and actually saying so is not that common.

    The biggest problem I have is with immediate family and those friends I had in the church. I am not officially “out” to my family except to my wonderful little sister, who left the church well before I did, although it’s not really a secret either, and if asked I would certainly claim the title Athiest. I find it easiest to just do what I do and not get into discussions about it with my parents, because that way lies conflict and unpleasantness at the very least, and potentially official shunning if the church find out and decide to put pressure on them. Yes, it’s quite possible, and has been done to others who left that church in the past. My relationship with the members of my family who are still in the church vary from okay-but-don’t-talk-about-anything-important to strained, and I have almost nothing to do with anyone who was once my friend in my family’s church, even those who once were my good friends. Some of them asre still on my online social networks, for some reason, but even there they don’t interact, although I do interact with some friends and even the pastor from the Anglican church I went to when I left my family’s church. Melbourne is big enough that I rarely bump into anyone from those days, and I have to admit it’s much easier on me emotionally that way, even though I’m very much at ease with my life now and have moved on successfully and happily.

    • Mogg

      Argh, spelling! AthEIst.

  • Sophie

    I’ve only ever had real problems with my family when it comes to my religious beliefs, and some of the staff at the Catholic secondary school I attended. With my family, my Catholic grandparents were hurt when I chose not to get confirmed as a teenager and I know that they’d like it better if I was married to my partner rather than just living together. I’ve had some real attitude from my maternal aunt and her husband about my religious beliefs, they are both very devout Catholics and very judgemental about any lifestyle but theirs. At school it was usually comments about why was I at the school if I didn’t believe or that they didn’t have to let me stay at the school and so on. That was usually in response to my criticism of our entirely Catholic focus in Religious Education and the fact it was a compulsory GCSE. Also regarding our terrible sex education.

    I have been teased by some of my atheist friends because I believe in God although do not subscribe to any religion. Sometimes it’s been more than teasing, and has been cruel and had implications that I was stupid or clinging to an imaginary friend. In those cases I would usually stop being friendly with those people, friendship has to be based on respect and those people obviously did not respect me. I get that a lot of people have valid reasons for lashing out at certain religious beliefs, but those are not beliefs I hold and it only takes a few minutes to work that out if you take the time to ask me.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about my beliefs by someone I didn’t know, except the religious types who knock on doors. And even then they are usually really polite about it. Maybe it’s because of living in the UK, whilst officially we have a state religion it’s not really a big deal. And on the whole we aren’t really a religious bunch, I think a lot of people will fill out the religion they were born into on forms although they don’t practice. I know there was a big Internet campaign in 2001 to get people to fill Jedi Knight out as their religion on the census. I think a lot of people did too!

  • Ihatelies

    I live in a part of the world that differs from most posts here. I am an Arab Jordanian. Both parents are religious Muslims dad being Jordanian and mom being Syrian. Husband Palestinian Muslim. In almost every conversation with anyone it’s about the Islamic religion and how a good Muslim should be. If anyone would choose to renounce worst case they could be punished with apostasy which is a death penalty if not by the government then by the community. That would be the worst case but best case all civil rights lost if proven that a person renounces. Like for example, a husband could divorce his wife for this reason and take the kids and she will have no rights such as inheritance. All society looks down at this person and he/she demonized….

  • stinger

    I have lived in Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and Tennessee. In all of those places, upon meeting someone, quite literally the first question I’m asked (after the initial exchange of names and “I just moved in down the block” or “I’m a new teacher at the school”) is, “What church do you go to?” By nearly everyone I meet, in checkout lines, fellow teachers, neighbors, friends of new friends — everyone. “What church do you go to?” It is the standard assumption that you go SOMEWHERE. And it’s certainly not me injecting it into the conversation, as I don’t go to any church.