Dealing With Fear — Part 2: Coming Out as an Atheist

There are several fear issues related to coming out as an atheist.

Beyond the more personal, internal fears any person in the midst of graduating out of belief might feel – “What if God is real and sends me to Hell for doubting? If I give up believing in God and Heaven, doesn’t that mean I’ll never see my granddad again?” – there are some real-world fears worth thinking about.

Fears that would spring to mind for any new atheist or atheist-to-be involve social issues — the fear of consequences that might arise at the prospect of coming out.

At the low end are some mental-emotional consequences:

1) Will my family shun me? What will my grandmother think? What will my parents say?

Midway are some real-world social or career consequences:

2) Could I lose my job? Be passed over for promotion? Lose all the friends in my social/cultural circle?

At the extreme end are potential physical consequences:

3) Will they beat or kill me?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, two more questions come into play:

4) Given the consequences, is it worth it to me to come out? Does the benefit, in my own opinion, outweigh the cost?

Or the closely related:

5) Am I willing to conceal my feelings and beliefs, possibly indefinitely?

Taking the first three in reverse order:

3) Will they beat or kill me for becoming an atheist?

Violence against atheists, in the western world at least, seems unlikely. This is a statistical fact rather than an absolute one, however, and I doubt I’d be as outspoken in parts of Georgia or Texas as I would be in New York or California.

I’d like to be able to say that you can safely assume nothing violent will happen, but … given the murder of abortion doctors or of gay high school students, people in different but equally-hated situations, it seems unlikely but unfortunately possible. (Much more so, possibly, if you live in a conservative Islamic culture that supports honor killing.)

2) Could I lose my job? Be passed over for promotion? Lose all the friends in my social/cultural circle?

This one is less remote. Given the subjective nature of promotions and job pay – we already know that African-Americans, women and even short people can suffer automatic career disadvantages – it’s easy to imagine that an outspoken atheist could be discriminated against in certain job situations. This would be especially true if management, owners or the organization itself are overtly religious.

That probably goes double if you don’t already have the position. If you’re applying for a job as the accountant at the Sisters of Mercy Hospital, atheism is not something you’d include on your resume.

By the way: When I say “outspoken atheist” above, I’m not talking about someone who pesters the heck out of everybody around him by talking about atheism in every breath. I mean, simply, someone who makes the mild, truthful statement “I’m an atheist” or “I don’t believe in that stuff” when the other person injects religious belief into a conversation already underway.

As to social/cultural circles, if your familiar social circle is overtly religious, you will definitely no longer fit into it as an atheist. Greta Christina had an insightful recent post about a core fact of declaring oneself an atheist: We’re Telling Them They’re Wrong: Why Coming Out Atheist Is Inherently Oppositional.

1) Will my family shun me? What will my grandmother think? What will my parents say?

Your family is going to react badly in direct proportion to how devoutly religious they are. If they’re deeply religious, especially if they’re part of a close-knit faith community, they’re probably going to be VERY unhappy with you. Not only will you have rejected their faith, which directly challenges their own judgment, they’ll probably feel you’re embarrassing them in the eyes of their friends. Not to mention the part where you’re going to Hell.

I had to face tears from my Southern Baptist grandmother, who was convinced she would never see me in Heaven, a years-long unfriendly reaction from my born-again stepfather, and lasting alienation from other Deep South friends and family – some of whom grew more religious rather than less over the years.

Additionally, if your experience is anything like mine, you’re going to have to deal with a subtle, ongoing campaign to “bring you back to Jesus.” For one example, friends will place you hopefully on their email lists for round after round of forwarded religious parables, homilies, cartoons, syrupy stories and anecdotes of faith – some of which are transparent, outright lies – and it will arrive with pathetic regularity.

You will feel the stark choice has been forced on you to preserve certain friendships by saying nothing, or of losing them by asking to be taken off their mailing lists. In my case, again, one day I realized that the emails, which were from lifelong friends, never contained one word of personal greeting or friendly news, but only the impersonally forwarded religious proselytizing. I was being treated not like a close friend but like a potential customer of evangelical Christianity.

Finally, the last two, which are asked not of the people around you, but of you yourself:

4) Given the consequences, is it worth it to me to come out? Does the benefit, in my own opinion, outweigh the cost?


5) Am I willing to conceal my feelings and beliefs, possibly indefinitely?

In reference to your own personal life, only you can answer these. A big part of the answer will reflect the depth of your allegiance to your own mind and judgment. How important is it to you to stay true to your own sense of reason in the face of push-back from your family, friends, employer or wider social situation?

A little aside here: As I write this, I’m conscious of two motivations. On the one hand, there’s a general societal concern in which I want as many people as possible to come out as atheists and unbelievers, so as to 1) lighten the social loading on those who either already have come out or will in the near future, and 2) change society in saner directions.

On the other, there’s a personal concern in which I want no specific individual to suffer for coming out. In other words, it would be deeply disturbing if some young person said “Hey, I took your advice and came out as an atheist in front of my whole church!” and I heard a week later that they’d been kicked out of their home at the age of 15 or, worse, assaulted and hospitalized by a fellow parishioner.

Given that, though, here’s something I say in the Introduction to my book, Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist:

Some of what you figure out [as a freethinker] will go against the grain of your upbringing. But it seems to me you have to give your deepest allegiance to your own independent mind. Nothing less will allow you to become your own unique self, nothing less will allow you to most completely develop your own unique gifts. And nothing less will honor those who raised you – hopefully to be the best you could be – even if you eventually find yourself disagreeing with some of what they taught you.

The way things are in the world, you’re probably going to face some level of  discrimination, or certain social impacts, for announcing that you’re an atheist.

But also given the cultural battles that have already been fought and won, it’s probably not going to be anything you can’t handle.

For standing up for their rights, black people in the U.S. faced real threats of public lynching, having their homes burned by hooded thugs, and even subjected to widely approved police beatings. Gays faced beatings, raids, jail terms and even forced medical treatment to “cure” them. Women faced everything from fond dismissal to extreme physical abuse.

What most of us as atheists will probably face is small in comparison, and the amount of courage it takes to come out is likely to be substantially less than that exhibited by African-Americans, gays and women’s rights activists.

In the broader view of how society benefited from such social battles being fought and won, it’s obvious that we’re all MUCH better off today than, say, 50 years ago. The contributions of the groups involved are undeniable, and the general social expectation of inclusion is now burned into us, both by the images of past horrors and an awakened sense of our own shared humanity.

This trend of inclusion is worth encouraging. The difference is that this time the battle for rights and inclusion is our own. The social threshold before us is pervasive religiosity versus freedom of belief for us and everybody else.

My advice on coming out: Think about it. Carefully. But lean toward doing it.

Only you can gauge the consequences likely to follow in your own life. But if it’s something less than murder or physical beatings, it might be worth taking a chance on doing it.

On the near side of the decision is an obedient and self-effacing little you, the person you are as a mere artifact of your upbringing and social circle.

On the other side is the someone you will be as the result of your own judgment and self-trust, your own choices and mind, your own broader possibilities as a creative, free individual.

A new sort of you living in — depending on how many of us speak up — a growing community of such free people.