When I first came out as an atheist online, it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I still remember how my heart pounded, how I kept the post in my drafts folder for days, trying to decide if I should publish or not. How I asked my then-husband repeatedly if he was okay with me outing us. How I worried about all the people who would be upset, about all the doors that would slam in my face.
I ended up posting it in spite of my fears, with shaking hands but an enormous sense of relief. The truth was out. I could finally be honest. Now for the reaction.
Not What I Expected
Surprisingly, the reaction was more positive than I ever could have hoped. A few people unfriended me on Facebook. A few people stopped talking to me. But the overwhelming majority of people offered me either words of encouragement, words of solidarity, or words of love. Some people offered their own faith and prayers, which I appreciated. Some people confided that my story resonated with them deeply and mirrored their own feelings and experiences.
I thought maybe coming out as an atheist wasn’t nearly as terrible as everyone said it would be. After all, very few doors actually slammed in my face, which was far cry from what I’d braced myself for. Those who did were never close enough friends to begin with.
As time wears on, I’ve begun noticing a nuance that I didn’t recognize from the outset. I soon noticed that certain people seemed to shy away from me, put up their guard. They hadn’t shut me out, but they made some distance. This was to be expected, I suppose. I imagined many people around here knew nothing of atheists beyond the loud, outspoken, and frankly not very nice anti-theistic types. They probably had reason enough to be concerned, a little fearful, a little unsure of how I was to change. I noticed people who didn’t shut the door in my face had at least taken a step back. A curious step, perhaps, or maybe a suspicious one. There was a distance there that hadn’t been there before.
A screen door.
I realized that, like one who didn’t want to give a salesperson too much encouragement, people were standing behind their screen doors to talk to me. They weren’t shutting me out completely, but I was no longer invited in. There was an unbreakable politeness and a general kindness, but the warmth had cooled. At first, I passed it off as my imagination, but it wasn’t just that. People I thought would surely always accept me for who I am began backing towards the house and behind their screen doors to make sure I didn’t get past the threshold.
I guess keeping the screen door closed to me is less cruel than slamming the front door entirely, but it’s only slightly less hurtful. As months roll into years, the relationships that are forever maintained with a screen door between us become stilted, distrustful, walled off, detached, like trying to maintain a relationship through a prison window. It keeps me on the defensive, paranoid, constantly over-analyzing. Is this really happening? Do they really feel this way? Was that me they were referring to when they said that?
I have been lucky to have a number of friends – every version of Christian even, from evangelical to liberal to Mormon – keep their doors wide open. People who can look at who I am and still believe that I’m the same trustworthy, good person I’ve always tried my best to be. I doubt every atheist in the Bible Belt is so fortunate. I’m also lucky to know who not to bother with anymore – the door slammers. Good riddance to them. That kind of rejection simply makes my life easier.
But the screen doors? What do I do about those?
I wonder if all those years in which I was the Christian if I too was standing behind screen doors with my non-believing friends. I certainly hope not. But I also recognize that so many of the friends and family members who now stand behind the screen door to talk to me probably do not even realize they are doing it. It’s quite likely that I did the same thing.
It’s hurtful though. It’s hurtful to know that the essence of who I am has never changed, yet the perception of me by those who knew me the best has. Suddenly, I’m no longer seen as the same kind, understanding, thoughtful person I used to be; I’m viewed with caution, reservation, even disapproval now. My actual intentions or thoughts are now suspect. Every thing I say or do is viewed through the blurred filter of the screen door.
It ends up going both ways too. The people in my life who I once trusted so explicitly are now also blurred to me by the screen. I look at them now with caution and distrust, because that’s what walls and borders and fences and screen doors do. They remove us from the intimacy that enables and nurtures loving, trusting relationships. They “other” us, they create an “us and them.” Motives are assumed. Negatively seeps around. Words are selected and then eliminated altogether.
Ultimately, the screen door is a self-protective mechanism. We fear what we do not know. Or maybe we fear what we think we know. We fear our own emotions as much as we fear the situation. When I think of the screen doors that block me from the people I love the most – my family in particular – I can see the pain on the other side too. I see my mother crying when she imagines me going to hell. I see my father wondering what he ever did wrong while raising me. I see my brother clutching his children just a little tighter in case I somehow spread my disbelief to them. There is a need to protect themselves from their own worries and agonies, and that screen door between us makes it easier to cope with.
But it tears down understanding. It suffocates communication. Worst of all, it mildews love.
What is the solution though? I can’t ever fully go back into that house, and they can’t really join me outside either. We can’t realistically just leave the door wide open, so how do we fix the problem of screen doors without letting in all the mosquitoes and letting out the cat?
We meet on the porch.
Meet Me on the Porch
My ex-mother-in-law is a perfect example of how two people with opposing beliefs can still sit on the porch swing together, sipping iced tea and holding hands. I know it kills her that her son and I are not believers anymore – not even married anymore for that matter. I know her heart aches for her grandchildren, and I imagine the number of tears she has shed is uncountable. But she’s never hidden from us inside the house behind a screen door, keeping us out, waving to me from a distance. She has stepped outside, feeling a little out of her comfort zone, to meet me on the porch.
And I too have had to step out of my comfort zone to join her there. It’s not comfortable for me to face the pain my unbelief and the end of my marriage causes her, but I do not want to walk away or avoid her. I would rather walk up those steps and join her on the porch, both of us feeling a little unsure of what to say but allowing love to fill the silences.
That’s where I hope I once put myself as a believer with unbelieving friends. They weren’t in my church buildings or on my mission trips, and I wasn’t exactly where they were, either. But we met in middle. I wanted them in my church, perhaps, and they would’ve loved for me to live free and easy with them. But we chose to meet somewhere in between, on neutral ground, because the friendship was what mattered most to us.
If Christians—or any other type of believers—hide behind their screen doors (or closed doors), they will never touch the lives they long to touch, and they will miss out on relationships with amazing people. If non-believers stay off the property of believers, wanting nothing to do with them, they will miss the love and friendship of some wonderful, beautiful people. There is discomfort on both sides, and there is sometimes misunderstanding or miscommunication. But if we can join each other on the porch, we can learn to speak one another’s languages and start to understand. There can be love freely given and freely received.
For me, it’s uncomfortable sometimes to feel like someone’s mission project. I am confident in what I believe (and don’t believe); I don’t want to preached at, “reached out to,” or for pete’s sake “loved on.” Sometimes, taking those steps up onto the porch is daunting. However, unless I try, I’ll never know whether what’s waiting for me is simply a religious agenda to “save” me or a genuinely loving acceptance of me exactly as I am.
For you, it’s uncomfortable to feel judged or ridiculed for your beliefs. Stepping out from behind the door might make you vulnerable to scorn or rejection. It might make you vulnerable to your own pain and worry for our souls. No one wants to be mocked or attacked, and it feels better to be safe rather than sorry. However, unless we join each other on the porch, you will never know whether what’s waiting for you is an atheist agenda or a genuinely loving acceptance of you exactly as you are.
I am tired of trying to talk through a screen door. I need you to step outside and hold my hand. Sit a spell. We can stir the ice in our glasses in silence if we need to. But please come sit on the porch with me. And when I’ve been the one to back down the steps and distance myself away from you, I need to find the courage to step back onto the porch and invite you back out.
I need to open myself back up too, even if it means rejection and disapproval. Let’s meet in the middle. Let’s rock together in the slightly humid air on a slightly stiff swing and allow the cool evening breeze of understanding and love that makes sitting on that porch together worth all the uneasiness that such a fundamental divide stirs within the both of us. We might just find we still have more in common than we remembered.
[Image Source: Adobe]
Editor’s Note: It should be noted that not all relationships need to be improved or restored. Some family relationships are positively toxic and emotionally abusive, either overtly or passive-aggressively. Some porches don’t need to be visited because they will only lead to you being hurt. You should never willingly put yourself into a situation in which you know you will be mistreated. That helps no one.
Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children, her husband Neil, and far too many cats. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced, and remarried young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.