Coming Out of the Closet as an American Atheist: Why It’s Worth It

Coming Out of the Closet as an American Atheist


Reasons Why Coming Out As An Atheist Is Worth It

I always like to start an article with a statement of the obvious, to help the reader and writer begin on common ground. For this article, the statement is:

We still live in a very religious nation, despite all the recent poll numbers.

It wasn’t hard to come up with that, because in the United States churches outnumber schools and libraries by several orders of magnitude.

Yet Atheism is growing, which means there’s not only a decent chance that you, my lovely reader, are a non-believer yourself, but there’s also a good chance you’re relatively new to your non-belief.

You may even still attend church, while not buying into a word of the preaching. If you are a believer, there are decent odds that you are questioning and wondering what life is like on the other side. (The “other side” being Atheism in this life, no heaven or hell in the next.)

Let me help fill you in. As an “out” Atheist, I’m perhaps a little biased, but I think being out is pretty damn grand.

But even I can admit that it is good and bad to live out of the closet as a non-believer. Since I’m a cynic, we’ll begin with the bad.

For two and a half years, I worked for an organization called the Secular Student Alliance. Have you heard of the national organization Campus Crusade for Christ? These days, they’re calling themselves just “Cru.”

They organize clubs on college campuses. The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) organizes similar clubs for Atheists who aren't interested in a crusade so much as they’re interested in eating pizza with other Atheists.

I used to work for SSA as their high school organizer. All in all, it was a pretty sweet gig. As soon as I started that job, I immediately noticed a big difference between religious students and non-religious students: most of the non-religious students hadn’t told their parents about their disbelief.

I’ve never heard of a Christian student living in fear of their own family discovering their Christianity, so I began to wonder about what was stopping the Atheist students from being open with their parents. It quickly became evident that the reason was fear a most heartbreaking fear of the very people who loved them.

These students earned losing a happy relationship that seemed to hinge entirely on the lie that two millennia ago, a man rose from the dead.

In extreme cases, the students feared total ostracism. I’m sad to say that, during my time with the SSA, I frequently saw these fears become reality.

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By indulging your very humanity and freely enjoying life in all its splendor, you can be an inspiration for others to do the same.

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Can you imagine parents withholding Christmas presents from a child because the child cannot make themselves believe a man walked on water as if that belief is what made a child worthy of love rather than any of their other virtuous qualities?

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Being out does your loved ones the honor of being able to love you, not the person you’re pretending to be.

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After two and a half years working directly with high school Atheists, I’m sad to say, I can imagine it very clearly.

Take the case of Damon Fowler, a Louisiana teen who not only came out to his parents but also asked his public high school to stop issuing sectarian Christian prayers at graduation. 

While the school complied they understood they were breaking the law countless Christians in the community were merciless. In one newspaper interview, a teacher of Damon’s questioned his worth to the school.

Lifelong friends stopped speaking to him. He received death threats. One “true believer” texted Damon’s brother to tell him that he was going to put Damon’s life in danger. 

Damon was booed at his graduation rehearsal. His parents even stopped speaking to him and eventually kicked their underage son out of the house by throwing his possessions outside (where some of them were then stolen). 

To an Atheist, disbelieving in the miraculous tales of the Bible may seem to be of no more consequence than disbelieving the stories of the Koran or the fables of Aesop. 

But to believers, the prospect of either eternal paradise or eternal suffering is very, very real and very, very consequential. Pity is often the best-case scenario for when a fundamentalist neighbor learns that you’re an Atheist.

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Coming out is the best way we have to make sure the hate stops in our lifetime.

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After all, they believe that regardless of how kind, generous, and virtuous you may be in this life, you’re destined nonetheless for eternal torture in the afterlife. But it can be much worse. Our skepticism can make us seem like we are as bad as criminals. 

And it can get even worse. What if, like me, you are the type of Atheist who critiques the reasons people give for their faith—not because you are mean, but because you find it interesting and no more offensive than when a co-worker talks about how lovely a chap Jesus is

Consider, for a moment, that many Christians believe hell to be a place of such immeasurable suffering that, within a few seconds of arrival, a person will experience pain greater than the sum of all the agony in human history. 

Being someone who might separate another person from their faith, and thereby condemn them to hell, is enough to make you a villain in the eyes of an appreciable number of your American neighbors. This is why so many believers fight not merely to expose other people’s children to religion, but to keep it constantly in their faces, even in public-school classrooms. 

It’s why Jessica Ahlquist’s hometown of Cranston, Rhode Island, spent two years demanding that their school board take money—lots of money—earmarked for education and spend it instead on an unsuccessful court fight to keep religion in their public schools. 

With hell in the balance, who could blame them? These people wanted to help and they were acting rationally within the context of their beliefs. Because if they are right, it’s not life and death. 

It’s much more. It’s easy to see how a believer can view an Atheist not as a mere skeptic, but as an agent of suffering if that Atheist is telling people not to fear hell.

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People just like you are continually adding their names, in full public view, to the ranks of the religiously skeptical.

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That’s what catalyzes this behavior towards other people’s children, and it doesn’t get much better in adulthood. Most of us have been presumptuously asked where we go to church instead of being asked if we even go to church. 

I’ve known adults who’ve feared losing their jobs if they didn’t partake of lunchtime prayer circles—with their boss presiding. 

These things and more are what it can mean to be an Atheist in America, and they are ever on my mind when I talk to an Atheist about coming out of the closet. 

And the great irony is that the deepest of believers will suggest that Atheists stay in the closet out of shame as if Atheism is a flaw to hide, rather than a reason to fear the social penalties crafted by religious people. 

But this is how religion wins: through fear. It is how religion has always won. 

Why should we believe in Jesus? Because you’ll go to hell if you don’t. Be afraid! Drive along any stretch of Interstate and you’ll see plenty of signs and billboards threatening eternal punishment for disbelief. 

What you will never see is one that proclaims, “Come to our church, we have evidence!” Religions do not win by reason. They do not win by behaving honorably. They win by keeping people afraid because there are no natural consequences for disbelief in the here and now. 

The faithful need to make up for that dearth themselves. And they do. So why does someone like me, who generally doesn’t wish suffering on anybody, encourage most people to risk all this misery and come out of the closet?

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You don’t need to pretend to believe in things you don’t in order to have a community.

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Because it has to stop. The fear that keeps Atheists in the closet will suck just as much for future generations as it does for you. I grew up in a world where people were afraid to be Atheists. 

I’m still living in a world where people are afraid to be Atheists. I don’t want anybody else to grow up there. 

It’s not the world I want to hand to my kids. It’s not the world I want to hand to your kids. And despite all the slings and arrows that come with it, coming out is the best way we have to make sure it stops in our lifetime. 

As someone who argues with religious people for a living, I believe arguments are powerful. And yet my most crafty arguments are less effective than three simple words said to a loved one: “I’m an Atheist.” 

Someone who believes Atheists are pathological in the extreme might not believe that their daughter is pathological in the extreme—or their parents or their best friend. This is what the gay rights movement has been so incredibly successful with: urging LGBT people to come out of the closet. 

Because of this campaign, many Americans are realizing for the first time in their lives that not only do they know gay people but that they like and love gay people. 

So it can be with Atheists. This is how we show others that, no matter how they feel about Jesus, Atheists are loveable, good people—who are already loved. 

It’s how we force the question of the morality of a God who would condemn people—the very people whom believers themselves know to be kind and honest—to hell. 

And, as the adage goes, no price is too steep for the privilege of owning one’s self. Living without fear, free to indulge your curiosity to its fullest, is a luxury that is incompatible with the arbitrary taboos of religion. 

Without religion, you can love the consenting adult of your choice, regardless of gender and regardless of any Bronze-Age prohibition that still survives today. You can touch the person you love in the ways you imagine.

By indulging your very humanity and freely enjoying life in all its splendor, you can be an inspiration for others to do the same. Being out also does your loved ones the honor of being able to love you, not the person you’re pretending to be. 

Being honest about who you are is the only way to never make liars of your family and friends who say they love you when they don’t know who you are. To keep quoting axioms that did not originate with me, it is far better to be hated for who you are than to be loved for who you aren’t. 

Remember, the good news is that Atheism is growing fast in the United States. In virtually every city and every small town, there are secular groups waiting to welcome you. You don’t need to pretend to believe in things you don’t in order to have a community. 

You need only bring yourself, as you are, without pretension or lies. Atheism is growing so rapidly because people just like you are continually adding their names, in full public view, to the ranks of the religiously skeptical. 

As soon as enough people have the courage to wrest control of their lives from religion, we can show Christians how to be a majority that behaves kindly and compassionately. I hope you will help us get there, for there is a joy in living openly that will never be available to those who cater to the arbitrary rules of a religion.

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Living free to indulge your curiosity to its fullest is a luxury incompatible with the arbitrary taboos of religion.

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J.T. Eberhard

by J.T. Eberhard

J.T. Eberhard is the co-founder of the Skepticon conference and served as the event’s lead organizer for its first three years. His blog, What Would J.T. Do?, is at Patheos.com/Blogs/WWJTD.

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