The Importance of Outreach October 6, 2010

The Importance of Outreach

I’ve been speaking at a lot of places the past few months and it’s always nice to know that something I said connected with the audience.

Reader Katy sent me this email the other day… it meant a lot to me and she was nice enough to give me permission to share it:

Thanks so much for coming to Mobile and giving a talk!

One of the things that made the biggest impact on me was when you were talking about outreach and that many people may have never knowingly met/talked to a non-Christian here in the South. When I posted the picture I took with you after your talk, and said how great it was on my Facebook page, an old friend wrote me this timid message, “Are you an atheist?”

I sent her just a nice overview of the common myths, what I believed, and how it felt so good and liberating when I finally knew that it was okay to talk about my views without glossing them over. You know the statements, “I’m not really religious, I’m spiritual.” 🙂

We wrote back and forth, and she told me that she’s been keeping her views secret all her life because she is surrounded by very religious family members who continuously pray for her, send her religious books, and subtly (or not so subtly!) pressure her. She explained how she felt like a hypocrite. She was frustrated and had to stifle herself when she heard that some of her friends “threaten their children with the devil and believe rainbows are signs that everything will be okay.”

I gave her some advice, shared some links (yours included), and told her a great first step would to be joining her local Freethinker meetup group… for crying out loud, her group had 750 members. Well, the good news is that she has finally begun to gently broach the subject with her family, has been devouring articles and reading and posting things online, has joined some area foundations, and was just asked to be an official greeter for her local Freethinker group! She has thanked me repeatedly, and I imagine now has begun to feel that uplifting, weight-off-your-shoulders sensation when you can finally be honest and PROUD of your views. It’s a process, and her journey has just begun, but she has jumped in feet first.

I’m really proud of her. It is true, like you said, we need to be outspoken, not angry, shouting, or cynical, but just humble, real, willing, and honest. She just wrote to me, “I love you, Katy, for who you are and for opening a whole Freethinking world to me!” So, thank YOU, Hemant!

-Katy L.

Orange Beach, Alabama

That’s amazing and I can’t really take any credit. That’s all Katy. But I think it does show how important it is to be out about your atheism. Start small if you must — tell your close friends and trusted colleagues — but build from there. Leave a Facebook status that questions religion. Start challenging your religious friends on the evidence for their faith.

I think there’s some truth to the idea that if you believe you’re the only person in your circle of friends who is an atheist… you’re probably not alone. When someone else sees you coming out, they’ll be more inclined to follow suit.

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  • bigjohn756

    Tell your close friends. Good idea! I did that and now have no close friends. They all shun me like I was, well, an atheist. I’m not telling anyone else.

  • Steve

    Bigjohn, you’re better off without them!! Easy enough for me to say, I could stand up in the middle of my home city and declare I’m an atheist and it would be a case of “so what?”. I have Christian friends but they don’t proselytise, that is their own business, I certainly wouldn’t tell them to abandon their faith, that’s the beauty of living in the UK, religion or lack of it is a private thing. We have the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, both legal organisations, neither of which I am a member as there is no need.

    To be shunned because of atheism is sad, but it’s not for me to comment on the American way of living.

  • Libby

    ^ bigjohn, that sounds like a good indication that they weren’t your close friends to begin with. That’s an unfortunate realization to make, I know.

    I drifted apart from a few people after becoming more frank about my atheism, but I’m certainly not missing those “friends” who made an issue out of it. In fact some of my old relationships — even with very religious friends and family members — are quite a bit stronger now that we are aware of exactly how differently we think about the world and are able to discuss it respectfully. And the vast majority of my favorite people on this earth are fellow atheists that I’ve met and bonded more closely with since then.

  • Grimalkin

    I had a similar experience with my aunt. She lives in a very conservative/religious area of the US, while I live in one of the more secular regions of Canada. We started chatting at a family event and I mentioned some work I’ve been doing with my local atheist organization. “You don’t believe in God?” she asked, and I said that I don’t. Then she leaned in really close and whispered “neither do I.”

    She had been a distant aunt that I rarely saw, but we’re now quite close and write to each other often. She has frequently told me that it’s been very liberating to finally have someone she can talk to about her atheism. So while my (lack of) religious beliefs may have created a rift between me and some family members, it’s also allowed me to discover the “hidden wonders” of my family tree and brought me much closer to family members I might never have really connected with otherwise.

    Atheists – for goodness’s sake – come out of the religious closet! The friendships you’ll lose couldn’t have been worth much to begin with if they were so fragile, but it will also open so many opportunities for you!

  • Richard P.

    Do you mean you knew people that you got along with because you all held similar biases and now because you don’t they shun you? Is that what your saying?
    Well your better off. Now you get to pick better relationships.

    great point Hemant. I have had a few people tell me how great it is to find someone they can be honest with. Or say they’re glad to find someone who will give them a straight answer. If we all chip away at the foundation the monstrosity will eventually fall.

  • I have my 30 year high school reunion this weekend and the vast majority of them are evangelical Christians. Their Face book pages are full of Jesus this, Jesus that, and “I love Jesus so much”. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus everywhere.

    I was out as an atheist in High School (back in the 70s) and I suspect I will take up the conversation with some of them right where we left off 30 years ago. It should be interesting. Fortunately I’m not dependent on any of them socially.

    In one recent Face Book posting, someone asked the question what historical figure would you most like to meet and why. Of course people jumped in and said Jesus and Mary. I sniped in that I would like to meet Judas Iscariot to get his version of things. One of my friends send me a private message and thanked me for countering all the fundies.

  • Ally

    It is easier in some places than others to be an out atheist. When I’m in my hometown in MT I have a little sister who shares my lack of beliefs, but otherwise it is difficult to be such a minority. In Oregon, however, it’s easy to have a large exclusively atheist close group of friends. Outreach doesn’t seem so important on liberal college campuses, but it makes a difference especially in red states. Minorities need communities and those of you who speak out are heroes.

  • Grimalkin

    @Ally – Being the first one to “come out” is always hard. But once you do, it will encourage others to, and finally you will have a critical mass, making it much easier for all subsequent people.

    It’s hard and it takes a lot of courage, but the next generation of atheists is counting on you 😉

  • Cheryl

    Bravo to Katy and her friend! I grew up in the Mobile area and know exactly what she is talking about. It’s a difficult area to live in and be out as an Atheist unless you have a good support system. Obviously, they have that now.

    There was a time in that same area that being part of a religious group was grounds for ridicule. That happened to me in my high school years during the 1970’s. Yes, I was an obnoxious teenaged evangelical who privately questioned everything. Took me almost 20 years to leave it all behind. Amazing that the pendulum has swung the other way now.

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    Oddly enough (especially in Montana) most of my close friends have been atheists/agnostics their whole lives, so my apostasy wasn’t much of a big deal with them. I faced some mild curiosity from my atheist friends and almost indifference from my Christian friends.

    If only the reaction from my family would have been so mild.

    Trying to do any outreach beyond my friends and family has been like pulling teeth, though. I’ve just about given up on trying to get a freethinkers group started here, there just isn’t any interest, even from my atheist friends.

  • “But I think it does show how important it is to be out about your atheism”

    It depends – I’m not quiet about my atheism, but every time I’d (re)tweet something along the lines of what I write in my blog, some friends would get a bit upset, some would troll me. I wrote about what I believe as a note on FB, which was well received. I now write my blog anonymously so that I can freely express myself, but not fall out with friends over their superstitions. I’ll happily talk about the subject with them if it comes up, but it got tiring continuously being misunderstood because nobody would take the time to *listen* to what I was actually saying, or enquiring what I actually thought, but just assume I was one of these Gnu Atheist types that Jerry Coyne, and others (including me, so dearly want to find

  • i honestly can’t imagine having any “friend” who would expunge me from her/his life for saying i’m an atheist. my only response is “get out, dood.” where ever you live, if you can’t make any accepting friends, that means you’re in a theocracy. leave, while you still can. theocrats will be burning unbelievers at the stake in this country soon, in those locations where theocrats are strong.

  • Katy L.

    Thanks for your kind words and for printing my email. I’m enjoying reading the comments from all of you! Update: My friend has now been elected co-organizer of her Meetup group…and SO HAVE I! Whoah…


  • catsnjags


    Chuck from Mobile. Met you at Hemant’s talk. I just did a FB friend request.

    Gonna be over in OB on Saturday. Performing a secular wedding ceremony on the beach.

  • gsw

    I too am happy for Katy and her friend.
    However, I am with Steve on the ‘so what’ front.

    So I gave this some thought: What are the Americans that we Brits are not? I decided the word was “humble”.

    So, Katy, be “just humble, real, willing, and honest” and also be proud, not humble. Humility is demanded by a god, whereas pride comes with self-reliance, independence and holding your head up high.
    If people call you arrogant – so be it – let them be humble and shut up.

  • @chicago dyke It’s not that the friends will stop being friends, but its been years now, they won’t listen to my points of view, and I can’t be bothered to have the odd little storm in a tea cup, when otherwise they’re perfectly reasonable people.

  • muggle

    C’mon, people, you don’t know bigjohn’s situation and the believers can be very vicious. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Every person has to judge for themself, coming out is the ideal but carries very real world consequences. If I can experience harrassment in the capital city of New York on a State job, for Pete’s sake, I can’t say I blame anyone in a small Southern town for not coming out and I admire the courage of those who do even if their situation makes them more able to than others.

    I haven’t lost Christian friends to disbelief because, well, because I live in liberal New York where I can pick and choose Christian friends who are liberal and tolerant and open-minded. What is disheartening is the ones who kind of blew me off as I grew more and more disabled. Friends that I socialized with regularly started having excuses for not going out and doing things like we used to as I went to a cane and once the rolling walker hit, man, I really freaked them out and started being avoided. Phone calls dwindled, my voice mails were never returned. I eventually gave up. And this is believers and nonbelievers alike. I’m down to maybe two who don’t treat me like poison.

    I tried the local meetup group but either the places they met up weren’t assesible or the nights they met were when my daughter was working and I had to babysit. Then a local blogger came out on his blog and they dissed him for it big time in the group e-mail because they didn’t approve of the way he did it. I defended him and the conversation got around to a statement of Dawkins that I do and did criticize and it was like I criticized the freaking pope.

    Despite a couple who e-mailed me privately and whose names I will never mention so they don’t get on the group’s shit list, I went to drop out in disgust only to find I’d already been dropped because I guess, like the local blogger, I just wasn’t the right kind of Atheist.

    BTW, the problem they had with the local blogger is that he criticized anti-theism as being too mean-spirited and that he was afraid to call himself Atheist because of not wanting to be associated with that kind of mean-spiritedness. I dared say I agree with him on the anti-theism which I find as abhorrent as anti-Semitism or racism. There are plenty of good people who do believe in foolish things and you can’t lump them all in with the squeaky wheels that get the grease on the news.

    I suspect they also were so against him because one of his best friends is a preist and he has blogged about their friendship (which goes back to when they were little kids, for Christ’s sake) and his friend’s ordination which happened around the same time as this other mess. I think their friendship is inspiring (if their vast differences didn’t make them grow apart, it shows that we can get along despite differences in this lousy world) and am glad he blogs about it.

    But this is my experience in the Capital District region of New York and also the reaction by Atheists to an Atheist blogger in New York, for Christ’s sake, coming out as one of them and you wonder why more don’t? Yeah, right. I have reached the point where I often think I was crazy to.

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