Note: Although I think this may be applicable to several religious traditions, I primarily focus here on leaving Christianity in predominantly religious parts of the United States, as that is the experience I can best speak to.
If you don’t believe in God anymore, should you tell people?
It’s a good question. A couple years ago, when I first “came out of the closet” as an atheist, I would have said that yes, you should absolutely make it public. Since then, however, I’ve talked to many people in situations less amenable to that response. I’ve also noticed consequences in myself and in people close to me after my deconversion that I didn’t fully anticipate and, together, these experiences have convinced me that the decision to come out as an atheist is much more complicated than I originally thought.
Perhaps clouding my vision, at first, was the fact that Christianity looked so obviously unbelievable to me by the time I left that I thought I should be able to easily convince my more rationally-minded friends to leave it. Had I taken the time to realize that there was so much more anchoring belief in most Christians than mere logical reasoning, I think I might have approached things a bit differently; I’m honestly not sure.
Although I think I would have still “come out” in some way or another, it would have helped to have been a bit more aware, in advance, of what to expect. So, in that spirit, I’ll pass on to you three major items to consider before going public as an atheist. If you’re an atheist, this information is also meant to help your religious friends who may be looking for a way to leave the faith — ultimately it’s not just about logic, but also about the security of having a strong, knowledge-based exit strategy. If you want to add to this list, feel free to do so in the comments.
1. Will you be able to handle the way people will emotionally, physically, and/or economically react?
I definitely do not recommend that a child living under a strongly religious parents’s roof come out as an atheist. If they want to, they can, of course — but in those situations, it’s hard to predict how the parent will react. Same deal if you’re a pastor of a church or a spouse with kids who is dependent on your very religious spouse’s income, or in a situation in which a very religious person has any significant amount of power in your life (if you’re a pastor of the church, there is some help for you in making the transition at The Clergy Project). And that power need not merely be monetary or physical; if someone holds a strong emotional grip on your life (for example, if the religious person is someone you naturally respect who could make you feel dangerously guilty at will), you should probably be careful, as well, for the sake of your own mental health — because if you come out and stick to your guns, there is a chance that very religious people might use any means at their disposal — emotional, physical, economic — to get you to return to Christianity and make your life a living hell if you don’t. It seems advisable to prepare for that possibility in advance.
I also wish I had realized that being an atheist will, very likely, profoundly hurt the very religious people in your life who care about you. The coercive measures they take may not be because they are trying to destroy you, but because they deeply care about you and think that you will spend eternity in hell if they can’t get you to come back. There is no guarantee that you will be able to get them to change their minds and thus ease their pain. So consider that, too. If you come out as an atheist expecting that the hate people feel for you will make the separation easier, think again; many of the people people closest to you may be abusive to you not to intentionally hurt you, but because they deeply care about you and are afraid of losing you as a fellow Christian and/or afraid that you’ll burn in hell.
2. Will your post-coming-out support system be adequate?
When I left Christianity, I hardly had any atheist or agnostic friends. I quickly found that building up a support group that I could help and that could help me was extremely important. Fortunately, I had the time and resources available to build up this needed support group fairly soon after my deconversion. At the same time, before my initial break with Christianity I had tremendously underestimated the importance of the social aspect of Christianity — in many ways, Churches have an enormous social advantage over atheism, at least in most parts of the United States (especially in the Bible Belt I was in). In church, you normally have a group of consistently meeting people who have several beliefs and ideologies in common — and, at least here in the Bible Belt, if you don’t like your church you can go to the one right across the street, so to speak. Atheism is much more difficult — the communities are smaller (if they are there at all in your area), and atheists tend to be very independently minded. So if you want to find clones of your ideological preferences near your location, you are likely to be disappointed, unless you live in a community with a higher than usual atheist population in the United States.
One option you have is a new Secular Hotline Project. They don’t try to deconvert you, and they won’t give you religious advice; they’ll try to help you where you’re at. The people on the phone are volunteering their time; they really care.
Recovering From Religion, the non-profit organization that operates the hotline, also offers information on secular therapists you can turn to. In addition, there are several local in-person groups — you can find them either through Meetup.com or by contacting Recovering From Religion here.
Another place to find people is through virtual communities. Strategically joining groups on Facebook can give you a support system — you can just type out your problem and vent, and they are often willing to give helpful (as well as not-so-helpful — hey, it’s the Internet) advice. Occasionally, you’ll find trolls — block them or, if there’s a lot of them, leave the group. Find what works for you — and it’s a good idea to set up this online support group before you decide to come out. Another remedy is to find people in your area by typing in “freethinkers,” “atheists,” “secular,” or “agnostic” into Meetup.com or by doing a Google search for atheist groups. If you’re one of the few atheists or agnostics who want a Sunday experience, you may still be able to find that at a Universalist church or, perhaps, even a Freethought congregation, depending on where you are — again, do a Google search to find out. But in any case, it’s a good idea to have some kind of support group in place before you leave, and although it may take a bit more effort than finding a local church, it is bound to be worth it.
3. Are you going to be able to handle any withdrawal symptoms?
If you were a very serious Christian, it’s likely that you went to church at least 2-3 times a week. You may have had a hope of heaven and a fear of hell drummed deep into your psyche — and right after you leave Christianity decisively, that orientation may make make you apprehensive about death. You may have had long prayer sessions and depended heavily on what you thought was God — and upon leaving Christianity, you may find you need a replacement, like meditation or something, to take up the space God once took up. You may have been used to “Jesus” taking away the “guilt” of all your “sin” — and upon leaving, you may find yourself trapped in guilt and having trouble finding different strategies to deal with it. Etc., etc., etc. These withdrawal symptoms will likely diminish over time (sometimes months, or even years), and if you weren’t that serious or “devout,” they may not be an issue — but if you have been leaning on the content of Christianity for several years, be prepared for them. And be prepared, as well, for Christians to take advantage of them to convince you that you really do believe, and for lifelong atheists or people who were formerly only lightly religious to not really understand what you’re going through. Looking up a nearby (or even a far) Recovery From Religion meeting or calling up the Secular Hotline (linked in the previous point) can help you realize you’re not alone. Even now, before you come out as an atheist, you may want to go to one to see, in person, the struggles these individuals are facing.
Those three items, I think, are very important to consider before you leave. I’m not going to lie to you and say making the choice to come out as an atheist is all going to be sunshine and rainbows, because a lot of it is likely to be difficult. Unlike many pulpit preachers claim, identifying as an atheist in a religious area when you have a religious past does not constitute a “free for all” worry-free recess — you’re making a statement. Although atheism is defined as merely a lack of belief in God or gods, the word itself has the “a” right before “theism” — it sounds like a rather assertive stance against theism. Regardless of how you protest, by identifying with that word you will likely be seen in many religious arenas as making an anti-theistic statement that sets you directly against theism, which can cause some obvious difficulties — it is often much, much easier simply to become a more liberal theist in US culture, as doing so has less side effects, and you can often keep your friends, family, traditions, and so on.
But “easier” doesn’t mean “more preferable.” Because there are, for starters, three really solid reasons for coming out as an atheist:
1. It’s a ready excuse to avoid doing religious things you don’t want to do, and to do nonreligious things you do want to do.
Honesty is often see as a virtue, but it’s also very convenient. If you don’t want to go to church anymore, most people understand if you say you’re an atheist or agnostic; if you say you’re a Christian, you might have to sit through church to keep up the charade. You also might have to pray at family dinners, give advice using the Bible, say “thank you” when people pray for you, fake prayers for sick people you don’t really feel, fake attitudes towards atheists that seem hypocritical, have discussions about scripture that support principles you want to reject, and so on. And you’ll always have to cover your tracks if you want to go to an atheist meetup, or you want to join an Atheist FB group, or hang out with your atheist friends, or if you want to do anything else that has you running the risk of being found out. Coming out as an atheist can make it a lot easier for you to turn down religious activities, and for people to understand (regardless of how they feel about it) why. It also frees you to openly live life as an atheist, which may become easier with time. Pretending takes a lot of time and work in the one life you have, and it may also build up additional resentment in you from having to go through motions you feel are counterproductive.
2. You don’t have to doubt your relationships.
If you’re in the closet as an atheist, you may always have to doubt what people are going to think of you if you are honest with them. Shame is often constructed by fears of how people would think of you if they knew the “real you,” so you may struggle a lot with feeling debilitating amounts of shame — and think the culprit is your atheism, when it’s really insecurity over whether your friends would still be your friends if they knew the “real you.” When I came out as an atheist, I found out there were still Christians who were determined to make things work, even if it meant, eventually, that they had to accept the fact that I am an outspoken atheist. This doesn’t happen in everybody’s experience, and I’m not guaranteeing it will happen to you, but a surprising number of friends and family wanted to make things work, although many distanced themselves from me, and although all the relationships had to change profoundly over time (as I was pretty deeply entrenched in Christianity). I also made new friends, and found it truly beautiful that I didn’t have to hide the fact that I agreed with their atheism. Finally I knew that the relationships I had with both religious and non-religious people were relationships people shared with me because of who I was, as opposed to who I was pretending to be, and that gave me a surprising amount of security even in my most difficult early moments as an ex-Christian.
3. You will usually be freer to discuss your atheism with people around you, perhaps helping them and being helped in the process.
If you identify publicly as an atheist, you can help other atheists more easily and conveniently. Also, although you don’t have to be angry at Christianity (or the religious tradition you’re leaving), if you are (and I think, as an atheist angry at Christianity’s lies myself, you have every reason to be), it helps to have a productive outlet for that anger, and having a productive outlet for that anger is easier when privacy is less of a concern. You can use its motivation to helps not just yourself, but others — atheists and religious people — who are struggling with doubts, need someone else who understands, and/or are simply interested in another person’s perspective. You’ll also be contributing to the effort to take away the negative stigma of atheism — the more atheists religious people know and see, the more less defensible caricatures of us can become. Finally, as an atheist you may find yourself on a journey of exploring many questions — atheism is a step in gaining knowledge, not a final destination. You still have to make political, moral, psychological, and social decisions. Coming out as an atheist can further free you to explore and discuss secular theories that may help you make informed decisions on these aspects of life.
Of course, ultimately it’s up to you and your particular situation. But those are a few tips I wish someone had given me in the beginning. I talk very strongly against religion, encouraging people to leave (as I think they should), but when the rubber meets the road and you’re considering action, it helps to have an honest, sober view of what may be coming — it certainly would have helped me, and so I’m passing it on to you.
Hopefully that helps, and feel free to comment below if you have questions, additional advice, or need/can provide additional resources.
P.S. I have a Patreon, if you want to help me do what I do.