Open Thread: Living Closeted

“When I found out you were an atheist, it didn’t change how I felt about you, it changed how I felt about atheism.” ~ Adam Brown, Atheism Resource/We Are Atheism

Religions do not win by playing fair.  They do not win by having better arguments.  In fact, in arguing with religious people you’ll find that it’s often like pulling teeth to get them away from trying to convince you why they don’t need reasons or from telling you what they believe instead of why they believe it.

Religions, on the macro level, win by being ideological bullies.  Hell is not the only punishment for non-belief dreamed up by the faithful.  There is a reason atheist adults fear losing their jobs should their atheism be discovered and why atheist teens are kicked out of their homes for their inability to accept ludicrous things.  Hell, atheist adults are frequently ostracized from their families for the same.  Even if the hell of the bible is non-existent, religions are spectacular at creating hells in this lifetime for those who publicly deny Jesus.

And you know the first really sad thing about this?  It’s that so many closeted atheists would believe crazy things about miracles if only they could suspend their rationality, in order to stay close to their families.

This is how religion wins – by keeping atheists silent through fear and through emotional blackmail.  The second really sad thing is that it works.

It needs to stop working.

Consider another group who has come from a position of being despised: the LGBT movement.  Look what they have accomplished.

How’d they do it?  How’d they go from a position of being reviled in the form of social penalties like physical violence for being open about their nature to a point of having the majority of public support?  They did it by realizing that they had something working against them that other social movements didn’t.  For instance, in the suffrage and civil rights movements the bigots could not help but face the people for whom they supported discrimination.  Since one cannot obscure their gender or race, the bigot couldn’t step outside without facing a woman or a black person and having to look the targets of their sectarianism in the eye.

For LGBT people, this was not the case.  They were invisible, and the owners of prejudice were doing a damn good job at keeping them that way with shame and the same threats of ostracism and social sanctions that face atheists today.

The LGBT movement fought this by making coming out a focus of their movement.  It was then that the game changed…

 

More and more gay people started coming out of the closet, and so for the first time millions of Americans were realizing that not only did they know gay people, but that they liked gay people!  And so it can be with us.

Showing those close to you what atheists look like and attaching your own face to this movement is a power to change the societal rubric with regards to atheism in a way that even Richard Dawkins cannot.  It is perhaps the single most powerful thing any of us can do in order to ensure that the next generation gets to live in the world we wish for ourselves.  To this end, projects like We Are Atheism are invaluable.

I know it’s not easy.  I know it’s gonna suck.  I know that many of you are afraid.  For your children and all the other children out there who will face growing up in the same circumstances as you, consider doing it anyway.

It’s one of the oldest and truest axioms about personal worth: it is better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you aren’t.  There is a whole movement of atheists who know your struggle.  There are atheist communities and organizations propping up all over America.  They are likely in your town right now.  The Christian idea of love is often saturated with judgment and arbitrary conditions, but the atheists in your area are full of people ready to love you in a way that truly does the concept of love justice.  We’re closer than you think.  Find us.

Comments are set up on this blog to allow anonymous commenting.  If you have a story to share or if you are closeted, here’s a chance to connect with others.  Personally, I’d love to hear your story.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Desiree

    What keeps me from being fully out as an athiest is concern that it will negatively impact my children. If it were just me I wouldn’t care, but unlike the religious types I’m not willing to allow my children to be persecuted for MY principles.

    • http://mid-west-atheist.blogspot.com/ Volizden

      Desiree,

      I have two daughters 14 and 10 both are professed atheists, though I seriously don’t believe the youngest yet know what that means. I have talked to them about ridicule they may get in school for being open about it.

      Every so often my oldest comes home with a story, the most ridiculous was another girl at school tried to “exorcise the demon” possessing my daughter. That girl received a three day suspension for inappropriate behavior.

      My oldest has told me from day one that she doesn’t mind the crazy Christians at school. She knows she has the support at home to help her out and I will tooth and claw, as JT says, fight for her right to be an open atheist in school and everywhere.

      I think you are using the idea that your kids will be hurt to justify a fear. Kids are Way stronger than most of us give credit for, we just have to make sure they have a lot of love and support for their decisions at home. A safe place for them to stand from.

      • Desiree

        Ah, but your kids are old enough to fight back and mine aren’t. My girls are 2 and 6. I am open with them about the fact that I’m not religious and I am open about the fact that I’m not religious publicly. I just generally don’t go out of my way to proclaim that I’m an atheist. I guess I would have to say I have an arm and a leg out of the closet.

  • Anne

    I have found atheists in my area and I lie and sneak to get out of the house to hang out with them (for happy hour meetups and such). Knowing that they are close by helps, but when you live with religious parents as a dependent college grad its still really tough.

    But things are looking up- I am moving out in five days to live with an atheist friend, and even a few people from my local meetup are helping me move.

    At least now, if I end up coming out by accident, or they (meaning my family, extended and nuclear) react badly, I have somewhere to retreat to, and friends to call on. Anyone else afraid of an intervention?

    • Tod

      really feel for you guys, being over in the UK where (at least amongst ex catholics/protestants. muslims not so much i guess..) it’s not so much of a fight to be an atheist, heck even our deputy prime minister and the leader of the opposition are as well.. all I can say is that you are not alone, the stats I see always seem to show that our demographic is increasing while the religious one slides.. that doesn’t help much if you’re a kid getting bullied, or if your parents are threatening you.. but things are getting better, there is hope.. you got some big guns fighting your corner like JT, Greta, PZ, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris and Dawkins (gotta stop there as the list is huge and getting bigger..) plus some really cool people who if not fighting are showing that we can be nice, successful and very very funny (looking at you Gervais!)

      tldr – I can’t help exactly..but you arn’t alone, maybe that’s enough help in itself..

  • Alix

    I came out to my parents at 15, I was so terrified of my father. My mom is pretty apathetic, she has plenty of friends who are atheist. However, my father is very “If you aren’t religious, then I hate you.” I actually told them through text-message (social anxiety ftw/l). My mom just said, “OK,” but my dad immediately began to send me harassing messages. “LOL have fun in hell” and “You’re going to die and burn.” Great Christian messages! It became his daily ritual to get me alone in the house, harass me, make me cry, then walk away laughing at me. His favorite things to say to me were, “No one will ever love you,” and try to implicate that being an atheist made me a lower species than my brother, who he treats with much more kindness.

    I was even more afraid to tell my great-grandfather, who is far more religious than my dad, even… So, I didn’t tell him. But somehow, he found out, and this year at my birthday party (We always pray at family gatherings) he looked to me and asked if I wanted him to pray, or if I wanted to go ahead and eat. And so, he didn’t pray. And he hasn’t been mean, or disappointed in me. In fact, he apparently can’t stop telling everyone he meets about how his great-granddaughter is in college on a fully scholarship. And that I can cook, now. That’s his favorite part.

    But the point of all that rambling was that… there are some people who are going to accept you, even if they are crazy religious, and some who won’t, no matter how much they practice their faith. It’s shitty that you can’t pick who to tell it to because you can’t gauge their reaction. But I can guarantee, if they’re worthy of your love, they’ll love you unconditionally. And if they don’t, then you can find people to care for you wh

    • Alix

      Sorry about the double post. :/

      • JT Eberhard

        No worries. Thank you for that story. The part about your grandfather was so touching!

  • Alix

    I came out to my parents at 15, I was so terrified of my father. My mom is pretty apathetic, she has plenty of friends who are atheist. However, my father is very “If you aren’t religious, then I hate you.” I actually told them through text-message (social anxiety ftw/l). My mom just said, “OK,” but my dad immediately began to send me harassing messages. “LOL have fun in hell” and “You’re going to die and burn.” Great Christian messages! It became his daily ritual to get me alone in the house, harass me, make me cry, then walk away laughing at me. His favorite things to say to me were, “No one will ever love you,” and try to implicate that being an atheist made me a lower species than my brother, who he treats with much more kindness.

    I was even more afraid to tell my great-grandfather, who is far more religious than my dad, even… So, I didn’t tell him. But somehow, he found out, and this year at my birthday party (We always pray at family gatherings) he looked to me and asked if I wanted him to pray, or if I wanted to go ahead and eat. And so, he didn’t pray. And he hasn’t been mean, or disappointed in me. In fact, he apparently can’t stop telling everyone he meets about how his great-granddaughter is in college on a fully scholarship. And that I can cook, now. That’s his favorite part.

    But the point of all that rambling was that… there are some people who are going to accept you, even if they are crazy religious, and some who won’t, no matter how much they practice their faith. It’s shitty that you can’t pick who to tell it to because you can’t gauge their reaction. But I can guarantee, if they’re worthy of your love, they’ll love you unconditionally. And if they don’t, then you can find people to care for you who will love you and who are worthy of your love.

  • ccaldwell314

    Unfortunately, coming out doesn’t end with letting your family know of your atheism. My family has known for a couple years now where I stand. They still tell me about their christian counseling retreats (and act as thought I should be as excited as they are), give me apologetics books for xmas, ask me what church I’m going to, etc…

    Coming out as an atheist starts with the initial bomb-drop. It continues over the course of years in (too) many cases. You keep reminding your family that you are not impressed (you are silently disgusted) by the pray the gay away seminar they attended. You respond to their inquiries about church, and let them know you still don’t have a home church, but you are attending Skepticon in the fall.

    People’s opinions don’t change overnight. Unfortunately they must be adjusted over the course of time – until bigotry has been shoved back into the ugly cave from whence it came.

  • Andrea

    I’m an atheist and I’m gay. I’m not out to family members as either except for my sister. My sister and I are really close and I knew she would be accepting. Actually, I think coming out to her as an atheist made her examine her own beliefs.

    It’s definitely been fear keeping me in the closet so far. Every single member of my family – mom, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins – are all very religious (mostly Southern Baptist) and anti-gay. So I know that if they knew these two very fundamental parts of who I am, it would completely change our relationship and possibly even cause them to reject me.

    The other factor that makes me not want to come out is that I know my atheism and homosexuality will break my mother’s heart. She’s going to think that I’m going to hell, and I know that isn’t something she would wish on me. My dad also died relatively recently, so it just feels like piling more difficult things on her, and I feel like she has enough things in her life to deal with right now.

    I know I’ll come out eventually, because I’m getting really sick and tired of hiding, but I just can’t seem to work up the nerve yet.

  • Clare

    I’m in the UK. My friends and most of my work colleagues know and it’s no big deal. I have never come out to my parents though. I stopped going to church years ago but they did the same when they were my age. I think they just hope that one day I’ll start going to church again like they did. My parents and family are very religious, one relative is an ordained priest. The relationship with my parents went though a tough patch years ago but now it’s good. On the one hand, I’d hope that they would be fine but on the other hand, I don’t want to risk loosing the relationship we have built.

  • http://mildlyamusing.thecomicseries.com/ AaronJ

    I live in Southern California, so people are pretty accepting as whole here, but I do live in a bit of a Catholic enclave. Now, my parents are both godless liberals like me so I pretty much never actually believed in God. In fact, I don’t think I ever really knew that anyone actually believed in God until around middle school (I kinda figured it was like Santa?).

    Anyway, the only real story I have happened in 10th grade when some people in class were arguing with a vegetarian about meat eating. Somehow the conversation turned to morality and I mentioned that, as an atheist, I didn’t see any moral problems with eating meat as long as the animals were treated decently. I honestly didn’t even think the atheist part would be an issue, but one of the other people, a Catholic, told me that I couldn’t have morals if I didn’t believe in God. Which I thought was hilariously ridiculous and couldn’t understand where he got that idea (I hadn’t yet started reading atheist blogs or anything at that point. How delightfully naive of me).

    I was a bit weirded out and explained that of course I have morals. He wasn’t buying it, but luckily the guy who was a vegetarian (who I think even was a theist himself) helped to argue on my behalf.

    And I think we convinced the guy that atheists can have morals. It seems like it was one of those cases where the guy just hadn’t ever really met anyone who was open about atheism. He didn’t loudly argue against us–in fact he conceded pretty quickly.

    It was just a little moment that I didn’t think much of at the time, but looking back on it I realize how being open and unambiguous about atheism is a great way to normalize it, to help people realize that we are human beings just like they are. And that most people are actually pretty reasonable and will let go of their unfounded prejudices like that.

    But of course this was in Southern California, not the Bible Belt.

  • hobbitwife

    I am a mother of 3, the oldest 8yrs. I have fumbled many times as a parent on seemingly simple, everyday issues, and repaired my mistakes only with great difficulty. My fear has been that I will mess this up too, and it has the potential for so much more damage than my mistakes about making beds every morning, or taking care of possessions, or reading regularly, eating right…

    My husband and I never talk about religion or my unbelief anymore, having agreed to disagree, because it is the only subject we can’t talk about without arguing. While he doesn’t go to church, and doesn’t subscribe to any particular doctrine, he still believes in some all-powerful benevolent force, that put him here for a purpose, and that he will meet in a perfect afterlife. His childhood experiences with religion were vague, occasional and mostly positive, while mine were all definitive, constant and negative (I and my 5 siblings were raised Mormon by an ex-Catholic father and an ex-Baptist mother).

    I am not out as an atheist to many people, and it has taken me a long time to discuss religion openly with my son, with clarity and without hostility, but he now knows that I am an atheist, and what it means. He knows too that his father, and many other people have different beliefs and what some of them are. He knows that he can ask me about it, or ask me to help him learn more about it. What gives me the most relief from my anxiety about this subject, is that I can see him thinking about it; when someone makes a comment and he wrinkles his nose and says “That doesn’t make sense.” And that is the best that I can hope for, that he will learn and think for himself, that he will continue to question until he comes to the only rational answer.

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