Ask Mommy: What’s The Harm In Faking Theism? 

Ask Mommy: What’s The Harm In Faking Theism?  September 20, 2018

A couple nights ago, a really nice in-the-closet atheist sent me an email talking about why he remains in the closet. He asked me many questions, but one, in particular, stood out because I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it here:

What’s the harm in pretending to be a believer? Why does anyone have to know I don’t share their beliefs?

After my complete shock that there is at least one person out there who sees zero issue with not outwardly being true to yourself, I thought,

Well, now, wait a minute… remember nuance?

Of course, there are situations in which it is probably best to keep your apostasy to yourself. They include:

  • Situations in which you face violence for not being a member of the accepted religion of your community.
  • When you face potential death as a result of your atheism.
  • When your family could be physically threatened because you don’t believe in god.
  • When you could lose your home, job, family or freedom because you’re godless.
  • When you could face criminal charges for your atheism.
  • If you are not financially independent and the person or people you rely on for a roof over your head and food on the table could kick you out if they found out you are an atheist.


Despite the danger, some brave people in these situations still come out and are honest with the world around them about their apostasy. I appreciate these people and I admire their courage, but I would never encourage anyone facing these risks to come out.

If you don’t face any of these possible consequences, though, there are plenty of reasons why faking belief is a bad thing:

1. Faking belief suggests that you think the religious faith of others is more important than truth; that’s it’s more important than your freedom to be yourself. Other people’s feelings about god hold more value than your own. As an atheist, you know this is the only life we get. Why waste it being something you’re not for people who can’t accept you for you?

2. In 13 countries people can be put to death legally for being an atheist. Not only are you pissing on your own rights to be godless by hiding it, but you’re perpetuating the idea that atheism should be kept in the shadows; that it’s something to fear. You’re contributing to the culture that has enabled some countries to set death as a punishment for apostasy.

3. In over 40 countries, atheists can be jailed for nonbelief. In these countries, atheists really have very little choice but to keep their godlessness to themselves. These people would die to be in your shoes, living in a free country where you are granted the right, in our constitutions and our charters, to be free of gods. How do you explain to people who face criminal charges for atheism that you’re free to be an out and open atheist with no legal repercussions, but you choose not to because someone’s feelings about Jeeby might get hurt?

4. The more of us out and open atheists there are, the less shock value “atheist” will hold with religious people. As the word comes up more and more in conversation, and more and more people identify openly with it, fewer people are going to care. It’s called normalization and it’s worked for other things before atheism. Most recently, it worked for the LGBT community. At one point in time, it was a shock to find out someone you knew was gay. The more people came out and admitted they were homosexual, though, the less of a shock it was. Now, we all know at least a handful of people who are gay and it’s no big deal in most places. There is still much work to be done, but this is where we want atheism to be. With both the LGBT community and atheism, we want it to be so common, so mundane, that no one thinks twice about it. No one dies for it; no one gets locked up for it; no one loses family over it. Your voice can add to the momentum currently taking us there, or your silence can detract. You choose.

5. Over half a dozen outspoken atheists have been murdered in the past couple of years – these people have been in the risky situations listed above, faced them head on and said, “Screw it. I may die for it, but I can’t not be who I am.”. These activists are heroes who knew the risks they faced and did what you are afraid to do despite the fact you face much less risk for doing it.

6. Discrimination against atheists still happens in the west, whether you want to believe it or not. Here’s a woefully incomplete list of instances of discrimination against atheists I threw together a while back. It’s much easier to discriminate against small minorities than it is against a growing population – the more of us these forces of discrimination realize there are, the fewer instances of discrimination there will be. You are a number in our favour but not if you’re in the closet.

7. There are young people struggling with doubt in the religion they were brought up to believe. There are young people who are facing depression and isolation and loneliness thinking they must keep their doubts to themselves. There are young people who struggle with their doubts because they think doubting god will make them immoral or angry or a terrible person. You have the opportunity to be a role model for someone who desperately needs to see that being an atheist is something to be proud of; that atheists can be very happy people; that atheists can be just as charitable and kind. You could change someone’s life just by saying, “Yep. I’m an atheist and I’m happy and life is still awesome.”

8. You are denying yourself the exhilaration felt by many an ex-theist when they decided it was time to out themselves as the godless heathen they were. Nothing really quite compares to the freedom to openly be one’s self.

9. You’re potentially denying the world one more example of a happy and secure atheist with a good moral framework, compassion, purpose and meaning. You could be one more chip out of the negative connotations associated with atheism, doing your part to better our image and destroy the stereotypes.

10. It makes you a liar, plain and simple.

So, I guess my question is, if you’re not facing any serious and life-threatening risks, why would you fake belief? What do you gain from it that outweighs what you and the rest of the world would benefit from you being honest? What possible justification is there? I mean, I can only really think of one: sparing the fragile feelings of those with a god belief.

The thing is, there’s no way I could ever consider purposefully slowing the pace of progress for a few hurt feelings. How can you?

Can you think of reasons for or against faking belief that maybe I have not thought of? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Jim Jones

    I walk past JWs when shopping but it takes little effort to ignore them. Same with the flyers on my doorstep.

  • Clancy

    I’m a cradle atheist, and I have attended church most Sundays for 25 years. I originally started because my 5-year-old daughter wanted to start going to church, and I wanted to keep an eye on how that went. As the years went by, I went because my wife asked me to, and I put it in the same category as accompanying one’s spouse to a sporting event or concert that one isn’t interested in. The rules I set were these: I sing the hymns and recite the prayers, but I will not join the church, recite the affirmation of faith, or take communion. I am polite; I am the guest after all, but if someone asks me my beliefs directly, I will tell the truth. My daughter went to seminary and became a pastor, and I’ve retired and moved near her, so we attend her church now, which for me is kind of like watching your kid’s soccer game. It’s a small church, so we have been dragooned into the choir. Twenty years ago I started playing handbells , and I’ve started a handbell choir at her church. A couple years ago, she outed me as an atheist in a sermon, so I have no need to pretend. I participate in what I want to, and decline what I don’t.

  • Illithid

    I’ve definitely lost one job, and possibly a second, due to my atheism. The first was at 26, with a wife and 3-month-old baby to support. The second one, years later, caused a bankruptcy. Yet I’m in good shape now, 13 years in my current job with employers who don’t seem to care at all about anyone’s religion. Out of around twenty people at my level or above, there’s several Christians, two Muslims, one kinda Zen guy, and at least one other atheist. And a solid majority about whose beliefs I haven’t the faintest idea (probably some flavor of.Christian… it’s Texas, Jake). I’ve had serious discussions about religion with one evangelical Christian who outranks me, and we still get along fine. So it worked out.

  • I don’t fake theism, but I am not completely out to family members (immediate family excluded – they are atheists too). My brother is a fervently devout Christian, and while he knows I am “liberal”, I don’t think he considers me an atheist, and I haven’t used the term with him. He won’t even let us being up homosexuality in front of his kids; I doubt he would allow a discussion about the possibility that there’s no God in front of them. My fear is that he will cut ties with us if we are open atheists – he has cut ties with other family members for less.

    I was surprised by the reaction of one of my friends when I told her I am an atheist. She was brought up culturally Jewish and now is exploring Buddhist ideas. She is “spiritual but not religious” and her response when I told her I was atheist was, “even I am not ready to go that far”. But I think she was mostly just surprised because she knows I was brought up hard core evangelical fundamentalist Christian and was progressive Christian for many years.

    A lot of millennials at work claim no religion, though not all claim atheism. Most don’t- they just say they don’t know but don’t need religion and don’t want to take their kids to religious services or religious education. Their kids are growing up without religion. I suspect that the decline in religious participation will continue, yet the hard core adherents will become increasingly hard core faced with the threat of minority status. And who knows, there may be a resurgence of religion in the future – the pendulum swings back and forth….

  • MadScientist1023

    As a gay man who’s had to live in the closet for a while out of necessity, I can’t help but cringe at #10. The bald-faced lack of empathy makes it painfully clear that Godless Mom has never been in a situation where losing family, friends, home, financial support, etc, has been a reasonable fear. You’d be surprised how little active lying is needed to stay in the closet about something like that. The weight of people’s assumptions is usually strong enough the occasional smiling and nodding is all it really takes to stay there.

    Instead, I would ask how much effort this closet atheist is spending on relationships with people who don’t actually know who he is. Everyone he is in the closet to has a very flawed idea of who he is as an individual. Granted, how accurate my point is depends somewhat on what denomination he’s trying to pass as and how much effort he needs to put into faking it. If he’s trying to pass as, say, Evangelical Christians who love to talk about how much they love Jesus and doing Jesus-y things, everyone who knows the closet atheist has a deeply flawed understanding of who they are. They probably think closet atheist is quite the man of faith himself, and that’s going to affect how they interact with him quite a bit. If he’s just trying to pass as a C&E Christian and the people around him only pay lip service to their religion, then my point is somewhat less relevant.

    Still, in either case, he’s keeping the people around him constantly at arm’s length. He’s not letting the people who he presumably should be closest to see who he really is. I’ve been there before, and it’s a really lonely place to be. If this is really something important to him, he should be able to share it with someone other than anonymous strangers on the internet.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Have I ever told you how much I love your story? Because I do.

  • TinnyWhistler

    “You’d be surprised how little active lying is needed to stay in the closet about something like that.”
    Dodge and weave. Well placed awkward laughter is *amazingly* useful.

  • Clancy

    Thanks! I originally started commenting over at RtD almost four years ago because I was drawn in by the UYC series. Rev Clancy could not be more different from the fundagelicals often under discussion, and she despises them almost as much as we do.

  • Riven

    Wow….. you kinda destroyed your “nuance” preface by ending with #10, “It makes you a liar, plain and simple.” Thanks. That’s helpful.

    Black and white, either/or arguments is what Christians do. I run from this as an atheist, and that includes when other atheists make the question to “out”or “not to out” yourself into a subtle shaming message for those of us who choose not to.

    Life is anything but “plain and simple.” Here are a few other “nuances” for you, as to why people stay in:

    1. Not destroying your elderly parent’s world. In other words, making love a priority, not your own comfort/freedom.
    2. You already lost your entire social support network when you walked away from belief, and you don’t want to lose your family too.
    3. Having a spouse who still believes, and choosing to support then. Again, sacrificing my comfort/freedom for love and support of someone else.

    Reading/hearing messages like, “you can’t be a proper atheist” because hard core atheists don’t tolerate anything less than being out to the world is exactly like the messages we received in church: You can’t be a proper Christian unless you do X, Y or Z.

    People like me, who don’t want to blow up their entire world, after already blowing up a major part of it (with just processing loss of belief, and loss of all friendships) turns your entire world upside down. You have to relearn how to be in the world, and how to make friends outside of church. You have to process intense betrayal. You don’t want to have to also get crapped on from those who are “on our side” (atheists) as “your not doing it right.” It’s just more of the same crap we had to deal with inside religion, i.e., “You’re wrong if you don’t do it this way.”

    This post really, really upsets me. I’m pretty new at being someone that doesn’t believe, and it feels like every forum or online resource I go to has people like you, telling me I’m a coward for not being totally out.

  • Thank you for this. I paid lip service for years to make my parents and husband happy. They are all gone now. My brother is still alive, and I love him to pieces. He’s a good, vicious catholic and never misses Sunday mass. Good for him. He lives about 1000 miles away, so we don’t see each other very often. When we do, there’s an unspoken agreement to keep religion and politics out of conversation. He sees my Facebook posts, so I keep my atheism on the DL, only commenting on others’ posts and saving the more hardcore atheist stuff for Twitter. The political stuff, well, I guess he’s just learned to live with an activist Democratic sister. He knows that I’m not religious, but I think “the A word” would hurt him, and I just can’t do that.

  • Elizabeth A. Root

    I know a number of people who say that they are atheists. Oddly, it bothers some of them that I was usually very open about it, and bothered that I consider that sufficient reason not to attend services on my own.

    I think maybe it is because their ancestral religion is still part of their identity, and they can’t stand that that’s not true for me. One tried for more than thirty years to get me to attend church. Another is always trying to convince me to agree that the religion she was raised in is better than the religion I was raised in. She was lecturing me on their moral superiority when I snapped, listed their scandals and the doctrines neither she nor I believe in, and said that I would not take moral advice from them.

    Unfortunately, she has increased her efforts to convince me. I usually let people talk, but this has gone too far. I’m going to have to get firm with her.

  • Clancy

    I’m betting you meant “virtuous” and not “vicious”. DYAC!

  • No, I meant vicious, but either word will do, I guess. 🙂

  • Chris

    I couldn’t take part in the way you do, Clancy… at one time, I wouldn’t even go into the church for a wedding. I felt it wrong, and ill mannered of me to somehow intrude on someone else’s heartfelt beliefs. I didn’t feel I belonged there. Instead, I’d wait outside ’till the happy couple appeared so I could shoot some photos.

    Nowadays I’ll go inside and sit quietly in the pews alongside my friends, taking no part in any prayers or hymns… I’m there for the couple: to witness and celebrate, but not to worship. The plus side is I get to look at all the gorgeous, if sometimes creepy, artworks and architecture and the colourful robes (most churches here were built long before the USA even existed so they are beautiful… and old, as befits places where something as archaic as religion is performed.). Some of the music is breathtakingly beautiful too, in (to me) an abstract kind of way.

    All my friends know I’m a life long atheist… many if not most of them are too, but some of those who marry like the ‘show’ of a church ceremony and the beautiful buildings and interiors. Many vicars know this, but the money from a wedding comes in handy for the upkeep of these ancient buldings, so they’ll happily put on the show for a few quid.

    I’ve never had to ‘fake it’… right from when I first learned that there was a word for my lack of belief (at around nine or ten years old at a Church of England primary school) I openly declared myself an atheist. It’s not an issue in the UK. No one cares what your religious beliefs are, as long as you don’t preach them to others… or even mention them.

  • Clancy

    To be fair, I would prefer to do what you do, but as soon as my daughter said she wanted to go there every week, my fate was sealed. You don’t miss the school band recital because you don’t like music.

  • Markus R

    Your article provokes much thought. I was stricken by the comment “be true to yourself,” and led to wonder how that works in a post-modern society that denies absolute truth, espouses subjective reality, and is increasingly taught to be politically correct.

    People stay in closets for many reasons, be it the classic example of being gay or the example of an atheist, or even a person who funds that their political views are contrary to their own social system or place of employment.

    This truly points to a larger problem than theism vs atheism, liberal versus conservative, or heterosexual vs homosexual. We taut diversity but the truth is that we are hypocrites.

    The best place to witness this in on the campus of American universities, where the tradition of academic freedom is all but gone. There is no open dialogue—you must limit your comments to the standard set of accepted views.

    My own thoughts are that this is then end result of neo-Marxism and social Marxism, and post-modern nihilism. We have created a society that is busy building closets where any dissenting viewpoint must remain.

  • Wan Kun Sandy

    – “Not destroying your elderly parent’s world. In other words, making love a priority, not your own comfort/freedom.”

    This. In my case, when my parents baptized me, they took the baptismal vow”to guide and keep the children in the faith” seriously, and thus if they find out that they have failed at that (by me not being a Christian anymore), they will feel guilty for having failed to keep the vow and it will add stress to them. This still happens even though technically they have succeeded in keeping their baptismal vow since I have been confirmed (that’s the actual goal of baptismal vow, parents are expected to indoctrinate their children so that the children are ready to be confirmed at church and become full members).
    So, if I opted to come out as a non-Christian, it will sadden my family and putting additional stress for them, and it doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not going to put my family to stress and grief just because of mere freedom/comfort problem.


    I love my family and friends, but I would never deny a major part of who I am to appease them. Nor would I expect them to do the same for me. To do so makes the very concepts of family and friendship hypocrisy and cant. That is the kind of love that is obviously conditional, and the kind of love some of us would rather do without. In any case, can anyone seriously deny that the world has benefited greatly from courageous atheists, LGBT people and others that do and did have the courage to come out of the closet?

  • I won’t come out to my brother because I know it will hurt him deeply. He would still love me, but would be hurt. Our parents are gone, our sister is gone, he is unmarried and has no children. I suspect that he knows on some level. He certainly knows that I’m not religious and don’t go to church, but I won’t be all in-your-face about being an atheist. We live 1000 miles apart, so it’s not as difficult as you might think.

  • Illithid

    I’ve often read criticisms of post-modernism that claim it’s a denial of objective reality. I’ve never seen anyone actually espouse that view. My time on a college campus was some decades ago, but I’m in regular contact with college students, and it’s my impression that there is quite a diversity of religious and political expression.

    I’ve also seen criticisms of “political correctness” that indicate it’s about supressing expression, whereas it seems to me that it’s really about basic politeness and respect for others. And rather than building closets, in my experience our society has freed people to be themselves more fully than ever. It’s true that being publicly hateful towards others can have social consequences. It’s just becoming less acceptable to be a jerk.

  • Markus R

    What is a jerk? Is it the young man in Indiana expelled from a class on Christianity for expressing the vote that transgenders are biologicall unnatural a jerk? He was responding to the professor’s request for opinions after viewing a transgender person being interviewed. No opinions are acceptable unless they comply with dogma

  • Illithid

    If that happened as you describe, I’d say that was an overreaction. Do you have a reference for this incident?

  • Markus R

    Glad to provide a link. I was incorrect as to the location. It was at Indiana Univ in PA.

  • Illithid

    Okay, I’ve found the incident in question. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened. The professor’s letter said the student wouldn’t stop talking out of turn and being disruptive. The student has been readmitted to the class, with a member of the administration sitting in to witness subsequent interaction.

    I’m not saying that transgressions never occur. I’m just not convinced that it’s a general rule.

  • Chris

    If your five year old had said she wanted to go to a porn movie, hang around a drinking den, or smoke … or your son visit strip clubs, watch violent videos, or take part in Ku Klux Klan rituals, you would have (at the least) dissuaded them, wouldn’t you?
    I know people who’ve been barred by parents from getting a motorcycle… either for the dirt as a kid, or to get to school when legally old enough to get a licence. Or from playing violent or anti socially themed video games, for fear of what damage it could do. Were those parents any different from what you’d have been if you’d said “No”?
    At that impressionable age, religion can be as dangerous as tobacco, alcohol, firearms, drugs, or racist indoctrination… all of which are either illegal or age limited… as should religion be in an ideal world (There’s a lot of truth in the old Jesuit boast of ‘Give me the child etc.).

  • Clancy

    I expected it to be a “phase”, and there were years in high school and college when she attended very little. As a pastor in a progressive denomination, she’s science-believing, LGBT-affirming, feminist, and universalist. She seems to be happy, successful, and earning a living wage. I really can’t complain.

  • Riven

    Yes. I just wish the author of the post had taken into consideration that people who deconstruct out of faith are all at various stages of coming to terms with it. Sometime we’ve lost so much we’re reeling. Sometimes we need time to understand our own experience before blasting it out to the world. Sometimes….. we just love our parents and don’t want to hurt them. Evidently, those are all invalid reasons according to HER.

  • Riven

    Thanks! Sometimes we make sacrifices for others. This doesn’t make us liars, it makes us compassionate. I’m “out” in various parts of my life, but I don’t need to destroy my parents to be a “proper atheist.” There’s no such thing. We are who we are, we make the best decisions we can, at the time, for the reasons that are important to us. Period. [[[Hugs!!]]]

  • Chris

    Fair enough, I suppose… as long as she’s happy and doesn’t force it on others.

    You (and your daughter) might find this amusing, from the late great Dave Allen.

  • Clancy

    She’s a universalist; there is no motivation to force it on others. I explained my position 25 years ago, and she has never tried to convince me otherwise.

  • Melody

    ^^This. My parents do believe in a literal hell and I don’t want them to think their daughter is headed that way. They have had enough problems in their lives as it is, I’m not adding to that. If anything I am too protective of them, I know that, but that has been the case ever since my mom has been ill when I was a kid. They are not that strong mentally and this would be a huge blow to them.