Ask Richard: I Came Out as Gay, But I’m Afraid to Come Out as an Atheist October 28, 2010

Ask Richard: I Came Out as Gay, But I’m Afraid to Come Out as an Atheist

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

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.


Dear Scott,

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.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • C’mon out Scott. The air is nicer when we have nothing to hide. Plus coming out makes it easier for someone else to come out. Like Karma, I guess. lol

    If they complain, just show them where the Bible says to kill anyone who has gay sex. Ask them if they really want to enforce religion, knowing things like that.

    Then tell them it doesn’t matter. They can attempt to force religion on you, but you’re an adult on your own, so you can defend against that, legally. You can also enlist help from other godless adults, if necessary.

    If that doesn’t work, do what I did to my family: I gave them the bird. Then I found a great many BETTER people in the world, who are actually honest people. :o)

  • If family and friends don’t love and respect you if you’re honest and open about this, then what would you have really lost anyway?

  • I came out in the other order, and I think I got worse reactions for being queer than for being atheist. And yet, it was so much easier the second time around, because the experience and confidence from the first time carried over.

  • kyrosion

    I came out to my parents as an atheist shortly after my 18th birthday, and while things were hellish for a little while, they’ve gotten better. I’m now nearly 21, and while my younger sister (and my mother, occasionally) still calls me up every once and a while to tell me to join a youth group, go to confession, and attend mass, my dad and younger brother at least have come to terms with it, and respect my beliefs (or lack thereof).

    I’m still working on coming out of the other closet to my family.

    You can do it, Scott. It’s hard to stand up for your beliefs sometimes, but it’s harder to keep living a lie.

  • I would agree that it is best to come out but I would caution on how you come out. Just don’t say you are an atheist because that term means different things to different people. They may react negatively because they are reacting against a negative stereotype associated with that term that doesn’t even apply to you. It might be better to come out as an agnostic and then slowly over time educate them on what the terms really mean and work up to atheism.

    Also, Richard gave some good advice about not being held hostage (and immobilized) by your own fear.

  • I may be naive, but if they’re liberal Methodists, I can’t imagine they would have that bad of a reaction. How do they feel about members of other religions? Do they have friends who are Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, etc? In my limited experience, liberal Protestants don’t generally tend to think that people with different beliefs are hellbound. The ones I’ve met seem to eschew condemnation in favor of “all paths lead to God” and “all good people go to heaven” warm fuzzies. If the concept of salvation is not a big deal to them, and they’d be fine with you being a Buddhist (for example), being an atheist shouldn’t be any more of a problem. Which is not to say that they might not be disappointed that you’re breaking with the family religion, but they’re most likely not going to have the extreme reaction that a fundamentalist family would.

  • The sooner you come out as an agnostic or atheist, the sooner you can start reaping the rewards. Yes, I said ‘rewards’. There is nothing so liberating, so exhilarating, so life-affirming, as being open and honest with yourself and grabbing your place in the cosmos with both hands. If you’re worried about your friends and family not liking it, well, don’t! There are plenty of us out here who are willing to accept you for who and what you are, but first things first. You’ve first got to accept yourself, because only then can the rest of us find you.

  • Neon Genesis

    I’m a gay atheist and I’m still in the closet to my parents who are fundamentalists but I recently came out to my sister who is a liberal Christian who doesn’t believe in hell. I did it in the reverse as I came out as an atheist to my sister first. For me, being open about my lack of religion was easier than being open about my sexuality. It was just something about talking about sex with your family that was kind of awkward to me. In both instances, my sister was accepting and supportive of me when she found out I was gay and an atheist. I think one thing that helped me to come out to her is that I already knew what her views were on the subject. Even when I was in the closet, I had discussed religion and politics with her and I already knew from our discussions that she supported gay rights and that she didn’t have anything against atheists.

    Perhaps before coming out, it might be helpful to ask them what they think about atheists to get an idea about what they think of them. Even if you still wouldn’t know how they would react to you being an atheist, you would at least have a better idea of what they think of atheists as a whole which may make it easier to decide on whether or not to come out. This is just my opinion from my own personal experience in coming out to a liberal Christian.

  • I went through the same process but in reverse order–I came out as an atheist first, then as a lesbian. All I can say is just do it. If you ultimately lose any friends over it (as I did) they weren’t worth keeping in the first place.

  • Kamaka

    I may be naive, but if they’re liberal Methodists, I can’t imagine they would have that bad of a reaction.

    I don’t know much about the Methodists, but I do have this anecdote.

    I was visiting my brother, who lives far from me. He told me he had to go take care of something at the church. “The church? What?”, I asked. He said “Oh, they know I’m an atheist, they just don’t care. They’re Methodists.”

  • Ever since I told my parents that I’m an atheist, we’ve talked more about religion than we ever did when I was a believer. Funny how it’s only when I don’t buy it that they think it’s important that I should. But it’s been entirely cordial, really, and they’re very liberal folks.

  • JulietEcho

    Reverse order for me too (although I was coming out as poly, not gay), and atheism was way easier, despite how religious my parents are. I find it really odd that they reacted less to my atheism (which in their minds means I’m going to a literal Hell for a literal eternity) than to the news that my husband and boyfriend and I have been in a happy relationship for four years (which shouldn’t get me any extra Hell, right? I was already going to Hell for my atheism… right?).

    Anyway, people are weird, and some people have different buttons. Richard gives spot-on advice, and I hope things go well for you.

  • Kamaka

    (which shouldn’t get me any extra Hell, right? I was already going to Hell for my atheism… right?).

    I think the temperature gets turned up.

  • JoeBuddha

    I mostly lurk here, as I’m an atheist but also a Buddhist, but I’d like to also offer my support and congratulations. The first step is always scary, but you know that already. The most awesome thing about coming clean, however, is you’ll have the privilege of knowing who your real friends are. That’s something that a lot of people would envy. Good luck!

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