Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m a 25 year old gay male atheist. I’ve been an atheist for quite a while despite being raised as a church attending Christian. I grew up in a mostly liberal Methodist church where my family (myself included) is very active and involved. While living with my family, I always felt it was the path of least resistance to just “go with the flow” and not tell them of my atheism or my desire to leave the church since I didn’t want to cause a dispute. Recently though, I’ve moved out of my parents house and started living on my own. I want to be honest with them about who I am, but just don’t seem to have the guts to do it.
Coming out as gay in my late teens/early twenties was a hard experience for me, and even though everyone in my family and circle of friends was very accepting, it was stressful and not an experience I want to repeat. Coming out as an atheist will be a life-changing event for me, and although my family isn’t religious outside the church, (I think they do it for the social aspects rather than the religious ones) I fear that they will react negatively. I also might lose friends in the process since most of my close friends are church goers.
Since I’ve moved out of my parents house I’ve decreased my involvement in the church, and I attend a service probably about once a month. My friends and family have started to take notice of this and I have to keep coming up with excuses to fend off their polite inquiries.
I suppose my question is: How the hell do I do this? I don’t want to lose my friends or family, but I don’t want to live a lie either (the cliché of having my cake and eating it too comes to mind). Your thoughts on my situation will be greatly appreciated even if you just tell me to stop being a coward and suck it up and do it already.
It sounds like you’re ready.
Calling yourself a coward doesn’t help you to move forward. It just burdens you with more shame and self-recrimination. It can actually keep you stuck in living a lie, because self-shaming fosters despair. You have fear about this. Acknowledge that without the harsh value judgment, and then look at the source of your fear.
You speak of how stressful the experience of coming out as gay was, but my impression is that most of that stress was from your own internal anxiety rather than from their response. They seem to have handled it well. It turned out that everyone in your family and circle of friends was very accepting.
Although there are definite differences between the two issues, I think this may give you a good insight into how your family and friends will react to your atheism.
Look into yourself, and find the very scary scenario that buzzes around in your head, creating that anxiety. Ask yourself as if you were some other very rational person, this question: Based on your experiences of your family and friends, how likely is the worst possible outcome, the horror story; how likely is the best possible outcome, the fairy tale; and how likely is something in the middle, life goes on on planet Earth? Probably you’ll realize that the chances of those situations will fall along a bell curve, and the most likely result will be in the middle: Probably some tension, maybe some friction, but not enough to ruin your life or shatter your family.
A few of your family or friends might react in a more negative way than they did to your being gay. That and atheism push different buttons in some people. But you can take some steps to soothe their reaction:
As I’ve often said about these “coming out” presentations, always begin and end with “I love you.”
If you reward desirable behavior from the past, you are more likely to get similar behavior in the present. Begin by thanking them for how well they accepted you when you came out as gay. Tell them that that speaks highly of their character and their self confidence. Mentioning self confidence plants a seed to counter what I think is the root of most people’s difficulty with accepting atheists: their faith is fragile, and they feel insecure just being near a sane, intelligent and decent person who isn’t convinced of their beliefs. By subliminally reassuring them that you just being yourself does not put their faith in jeopardy, hopefully they will feel less threatened when you reveal your lack of faith.
Remember that there is often a huge difference between the reaction you’ll get from “I don’t really believe in God or gods,” and the reaction you’ll get from “I’m an atheist.” Describe your views first before using that label which has so many silly and false connotations stuck on it. Once you finally use the “a” word, make it clear that it only means that you don’t have a belief in gods, nothing more. State clearly that you have no intention to try to undermine their beliefs in any way. At that point, you might also add that you’ll appreciate them returning the favor by not trying to proselytize you.
There is a chance that some of your friends may break off their friendship, and others may gradually drift away, perhaps because you don’t have much else in common. Those who remain will be the ones worth having. They love you for you, rather than for how you fit their narrow criteria. A few true friends are worth far more than a boatload of conditional friends. Continue to keep your door open to all your family and friends, continue to treat them respectfully and lovingly, and if any of them have a problem with you about this, they may eventually come around.
Living on your own now greatly reduces the pressure to hide your lack of belief. Many younger people who still depend on their parents and family for food and shelter, or for school tuition run the risk of being cut off not just interpersonally, but financially as well if they come out about their atheism.
Scott, this is your time to finally be free of your fear; free of pretending, putting on a show, and keeping secrets; free to fully be yourself, with no shame and no apologies for who you are. You said that coming out as an atheist will be a life-changing event. Life-enhancing, I think. I wish you and your family and friends much happiness.