Listen, I know sometimes I sound like I was a naive airhead for most of my life and this post isn’t going to help you get past that. Kiddos, I honestly had no idea people had to “come out” as an atheist at all. I was never religious and lived in a super secular part of the world. It just never dawned on me that anyone else was having an experience so drastically different from mine. I guess it wasn’t until I travelled to more religious parts of the world that I started to see how stifling religion could be. But that was only tiny little peeks here and there.
It took me starting this blog to truly understand that so many of you hide your lack of belief. And then y’all started asking me how you know when it’s time to come out. Dudes, I was as lost as you were. I recognize the privilege I grew up in. As such, I didn’t feel comfortable – at all – talking about the best time to tell your family and friends you’re all heathens.
But yas just kept asking. FFS, you ask almost daily. You email me and tell me the heartbreaking reasons why you’ve been keeping your secret. I’ve worried about you and waited to hear back from you and wondered if you were doing okay. So many of you have asked me if I could tell you when the best time to come out is.
The answer to every email I get like this is always the same. It never strays. It amounts to,
“No. I’m sorry. I cannot.”
But let me explain.
I’m not dismissing you. I see you are struggling, and I want more than anything to help you out. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that I can’t do it responsibly. I can’t give you advice on what to do in your situation because I’m not in it. I can’t see every angle, every possibility. I can’t feel your feelings or feel the emotions of your loved ones. I don’t have any way to assess how dangerous it might be for you or your kids or your loved ones if you came out as an atheist. Not beyond what you tell me in a short email, anyway. So, it would be extremely irresponsible of me to offer you any suggestions outside of the advice that you’ve got to sort this out yourself.
What I can do, however, is give you things to think about as you decide for yourself. Here are some questions to ponder before you leap out of the closet to a roomful of groans.
Are you safe?
If you’re in a country where atheism is punishable by death, then you are not safe. I don’t care how understanding your family is. All it takes is for one person who doesn’t agree with them to catch a whiff of your godlessness, and you’re done for. You need to seriously assess your own safety and the safety of your children, especially if you’re going to tell everyone you’re an atheist. There are organizations like Atheist Alliance International who are doing their best to help out atheists in trouble. Reach out for help with getting out first before you come out as an atheist. Please. The world needs you.
What are the possible repercussions?
Do you still live with your parents? Are they paying your tuition? Are they still responsible for feeding and clothing and housing you? Is there a possibility that any of that could come to an end if they find out you’re an atheist? If it’s a possibility, you must ask yourself if you can care for yourself. Do you need your family right now, or can you make it on your own without too much struggle? It may be difficult but worth it to wait until you’re out on your own and self-sufficient before you tell your family if you think they might take their support away.
How will this affect your kids?
More times than I’d like to recall, I’ve read about an atheist parent losing rights to their children because they were unlucky enough to get a judge who felt church was an integral part of good parenting. Will you lose access to your kids if you tell everyone you’re an atheist? Will the fact that you’re an atheist make your spouse, parents or in-law ramp up their indoctrination efforts when it comes to your little ones?
Are you depressed or suicidal because you can’t be yourself?
If this is the case, and you are a more significant risk to yourself if you remain in the closet, find at least one person to confide in. I would urge you, if you can afford it, to see a mental health professional and be honest with them about it first. They can help you with your depression, maybe even get you some medication that will help the suicidal thoughts, and they can be a safe space to be your true self. If you can’t afford it, a trusted friend might be the answer or just come join us on Twitter, where you can remain anonymous but make loads of friends being exactly who you are.
Are you at risk of being shunned?
The stories of people who are shunned by their families are often the hardest stories I have to read. To know that your family are still out there but will have nothing to do with you is straight-up traumatic. The family who you were once close with and who you still love more than anything on earth refusing to acknowledge your existence is a significant cause of religious trauma syndrome. Recently, I helped Dr Marlene Winell do an AMA on Reddit r/ExJW, and she was asked this question:
I struggle with wanting to reach out and contact family and friends I had when a JW even though I know it’s futile. I will occasionally send a picture of my family and an update on my life if only to let them know that I am happy even though I’m not a JW. I’ve never received a response. I occasionally get angry with myself for even wanting to reach out to the people who continue to hurt me by shunning me. Is reaching out occasionally healthy for me? It’s hard to determine because of my complicated feelings.
This question completely broke my heart. Dr Winell’s answer made it even more apparent how sad this is:
Reaching out is fine if you have your expectations in line. You probably get some satisfaction of your own by sharing, and you have some integrity, in my opinion, for keeping up your side of these relationships. You can feel good about that as you understand all the reasons why the others don’t respond, and you never know, someday you may hear from someone.
I can’t fathom it, knowing that someone you love and who claims to love you back is out there, ignoring your repeated contact. If this is a real possibility for you, consider if this life is something you can cope with.
There are so many other things you should take into consideration, and it would take me weeks to think of and list them all. The point here is that I can’t tell you what’s best for you without fully understanding your situation. You have to weigh the pros and cons, the dangers and the sense of freedom you might feel afterwards. You have to consider the effect it might have on your children, either good or bad.
However, if you are safe to do so, or you can come out of the repercussions relatively unscathed, it’s my opinion that you should come out as an atheist. First, because it’s better for your own mental health to be able to be who you are, openly, without shame. Second, the more of us there are open about who we are, being decent, contributing members to society, the easier all of this will be for the next generation. If increasing numbers of us are unashamed to be openly atheist, it is more likely the next generation of kids will grow up as I did. Utterly oblivious to the fact that some atheists had to “come out” of the proverbial closet.
If you need more help deciding, or help with how do actually do it, this book by Greta Christina is helpful.
What circumstances do you think people need to consider before coming out as an atheist? Let me know in the comments.
I’m writing a book addressing the many reasons believers distrust atheists. I’m around 40,000 words in! If you want to help me get it done, you can support me by donating here or becoming a patron here.
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay