Atheists, When Is The Right Time To Come Out?

Atheists, When Is The Right Time To Come Out? October 22, 2019

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jim Jones

    ISTM there are better approaches.

    With me, for example, I can say, “Well, I went to a lot of Sunday school. When I was 11 I went to a summer school thing. We had compulsory Christian stuff at high school. And when I was 18 I saw a Billy Graham revival meeting at night with George Beverly Shea singing and Billy preaching. But I still don’t get it.” (All true, BTW).

    And then watch them struggle. After a short time, I can just repeat, “But how do you know?”

  • Georgia Sam

    When to “come out” is a very difficult question, and the answer is different for each person. I have no answers to offer, only a cautionary tale. I grew up fundamentalist Protestant. I began to lose my faith as a teenager, but I kept my doubts to myself for a long time. I married my devoutly religious high-school girlfriend, knowing (but trying hard not to know) that I wasn’t the kind of man she thought I was. It was not until the failure of that marriage (entirely my fault), accompanied by a struggle with depression, that I opened up to her about my unbelief. Forty years later, I still feel guilty about the denial, cowardice, and the emotional damage I did to my first wife and our children.

    So the moral of my story is that it’s a really bad idea to marry someone with whom you can’t talk honestly about your lack of faith. (Losing your faith after you marry is a whole different problem, of course.) Lay it all on the table, or postpone the marriage until you can. If that never happens, it’s a sad situation, but you’re in danger of piling a lot of guilt on top of the sadness if you make the mistakes I made.

  • Carstonio

    I rarely discuss religious topics outside of my family, and when the subject comes up, I tell the truth and say that I’m not religious. That always seems to lead the others to drop the subject. I don’t classify myself as either an atheist or an agnostic. My position come down to, “I have no way of knowing whether gods exist or not, and there’s no reason I should take your word for that either way.” That would apply just as much as someone trying to get me to believe that gods don’t exist as it would if they’re claiming that their god exists.

  • I hold the same position as an agnostic atheist.

  • I’m sorry you had to go through that, but I think we all appreciate you sharing.

  • Good point.

  • Jet Kin

    As someone who grew up without religion, I can’t fathom how hard this must be either. My mom has recently started going to synagogue again and nobody is shunning her for it. But then I think Jews are more tolerant of atheists because secular Jews are pretty numerous as it is.

  • It is hard to wrap your mind around when you grew up surrounded by secularism, isn’t it? I’m glad your mom is being accepted.

  • Fraser

    That would literally be the definition of atheist.

  • Connie Beane

    Unless the subject of one’s religious beliefs comes up in conversation, don’t say anything at all; if someone doesn’t ask, they’re not interested and they really don’t want you boring them about why you’re an atheist any more than they want some fundie boring them about why they love Jesus. If the subject does happen to come up in conversation, it’s probably because someone is fishing for someone to “witness” to. Be vague about your beliefs and then ask them a leading question, like “Where do you go to church?” These types love nothing so much as the sound of their own voice; they’re not actually interested in hearing about you. Just nod sagely and hang around only as long as you can stand it, then tell them that you see someone across the room that you really need to talk to for a minute, then slide away.

  • Jet Kin

    Thing is it comes up a lot in really awkward ways. People say: “I’ll pray for you” when you’re grieving, and basically I just want to tell them to bugger off with their sanctimoniousness. Or they say: “You’ll see them again in heaven” and I want to scream “No I won’t! And I get to be sad about this, without you trying to minimize my grief”. So it comes up a lot in conversation because the fundies want to tell you why you should love their jesus too. Like a lot.
    Or they want to know why I don’t think it’s ok to enforce prayer in schools or in the workplace. Because: “you know, you can just sit there quietly and wait until we’re done”.
    Once I tried to explain to a colleague why telling kids to just leave the room when there’s prayer in schools is wrong on so many levels. As a mostly secular/atheist jew who was unfortunate enough to go to a private catholic institution, I can speak to how isolating this is. Sure, as an adult, I do that sometimes. I’ve walked out of several military functions when they got to the mandatory prayer bit (and even that has had some career consequences, most notably the boss who told me I couldn’t be trusted because I don’t believe in jesus).
    But a kid? Someone who’s 12 or 13 and wants nothing more than to fit in? How are they going to just walk out of the room? Or should they be forced to sit quietly because the majority wants to force their beliefs on everyone?

  • Exactly.

  • While I agree with most of what you said, I do think it’s important in some situations to bring it up yourself. For instance, if your family has expectations of you following religious rules and traditions and you’ve lost your faith, you’re going to have to tell them at some point if you want to stop being expected at church or prayer.

  • Great points.

  • Connie Beane

    I guess I am just lucky in that years ago I got everyone accustomed to the idea that I would listen politely when I was preached at, nod without agreeing with anything, and then go ahead and do whatever I wanted to do without asking permission, expecting anyone’s approval, or explaining my reasons. Of course, financial independence is mandatory to exercise this kind of freedom.

  • Yes, you would also have to live somewhere where atheism was not punishable by law.

  • Brien

    Go to all religious sites – and on FB and Twitter- Report all sites for Fraud, Fake News, and Spam – Repeatedly!!

  • Parker12

    Why would you do such a thing?
    Your sinful ways has warped your soul and made you angry and petty.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    Not so much.

    Brien is right…although what he describes is a 69dick move.

  • Terrible Christian Movies

    I’m still in the proverbial closet. There’s too much at stake, currently. Hopefully soon I can get to that place.

  • TFCC

    “I was never religious and lived in a super secular part of the world.”

    Got it. That answers my question I asked on another article. Ty.

  • I hope you get there but do it when it’s right for you.

  • You’re right, it’s not hard to imagine. I just had never thought about it before.

  • Well, if Christians weren’t engaging in fraudulent scams and spamming everything within reach with their obnoxious preaching…

  • Not really, it’s just reporting them for what they really are.

  • Jim Jones

    If you want some fun, ask them to define ‘God’. Turns out it’s a lot harder than expected. Almost all definitions (except mine) are contradictory.

  • Carstonio

    And they won’t admit that many religions don’t even have the concept of “God.” Sometimes they’ll make the false claim that “all religions believe in God” but insist that only their religion is correct about the entity.

  • Jim Jones

    Ricky Gervais @rickygervais

    “There have been nearly 3000 Gods so far but only yours actually exists.The others are silly made up nonsense. But not yours. Yours is real.”

  • Carstonio

    While I agree, I’m also criticizing a common assumption by many atheists. A lack of belief in “God” doesn’t automatically exclude a lack of belief in other religions’ deities, and arguments against the concept of “God” don’t apply to those other beings. Any religions’ claims about any beings should be subjected to the same tough standard of scrutiny, and focusing only on “God” inadvertently leaves non-monotheistic religions protected.

  • Hi Courtney, great post, as yoozh!

    I just have a minor squabble: isn’t out there a better resource than Christina’s book? I mean, if people are already struggling to come out, why suggest they go read someone who has been so detrimental to atheists and secularism in the past few years?

    At any rate, thank you again for all the work you do.


  • WayneMan

    Shunning ones friends or family members is one of the most hideous things ever invented by religion (next to hell I suppose). I cannot imaging the emotional pain inflicted nor the sick twisted people doing it. It some cases it is informal but just as painful, while in some denominations like JW’s, LDS, and Amish it is basically mandatory.

  • Stephanus

    I don’t know. I think you can forgive yourself for not guessing the full extent of the problem. It’s really not at all like hiding your poetic side in a sports town, etc. You can integrate those two things. You can write poems about sports. Or how you hate sports. If you’re the sport person, you can sit there and flex your muscles and feel superior to the slim and delicate poet. But religion vs unbelief? You can’t integrate those. Not really. Once they find out, heaven and hell hang in the balance. Your non-belief marks you as belonging to the very Devil hisself. You become to them an existential threat. You must be re-converted, or be cast out of the city to wander in the wilderness until you’ve learned your lesson. They tell themselves the torture is good for you. Or you can fake it, get presents at Christmas, avoid arguments, and remain blissfully calm when the preferred theocrat doesn’t get elected to public office. All you have to give up is your sense of being an honest person. So no, I’m not at all surprised this isn’t obvious to people who haven’t lived through it.