Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I come from a sort-of liberal Muslim background (liberal in the sense my mum doesn’t make us pray or makes me wear a headscarf). I’ve doubted religion ever since I was young but because I wasn’t “allowed” to leave Islam, I’ve acted every bit the good little Muslim child role and even at certain points in life, actually believed I was Muslim and introduced myself to everyone as such (even though I didn’t believe in Allah).
Recently though, I have started to really struggle against the label I’ve allowed on myself. A few of my friends probably suspect I’m starting to resist being called religious, never mind in any way Muslim except in a cultural context, but I’ve only actually come out to a handful. However, those conversations had been incidental, and to people I knew would understand or wouldn’t be surprised.
However, I’m struggling with ways to tell someone important to me – my best friend. When I first met her, I was really deluded in my ideas about religion and my own “faith”, so she’s always known me to be “Muslim”. Even when I’ve stopped taking part in Ramadan and started eating what I wanted, rather than assume I’ve dropped the faith, she jokes that I’m a “bad Muslim.” I go along with the jokes, even making a few myself, but I’m starting to be really tired of them.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but she’s been there for me for years and it feels like a massive betrayal of her friendship that I didn’t or couldn’t tell her about my atheism first. How do I go about admitting to her that I’m not a believer in religion anymore?
The overriding consideration for anyone coming out as an atheist should always be their self-interest. Their personal, psychological, social, occupational and financial well-being should be paramount. It sounds like you have not formally revealed your unbelief to your family, and you should do that only if and when your self-interest will be better served than by keeping it private from them. Any other considerations about friends, family and others should only be followed if your self-interest is not put at risk.
Because the risks can be dire.
Even families that are only “culturally” religious can suddenly become much more pious, intolerant, and demanding when confronted with an “Oh-my-God atheist” in their midst. Certainly not all families react this way, but enough to fill my email box with dreadful stories that sometimes leave me with little to suggest that is positive. They relate how otherwise non-observant Jewish, Christian and Muslim families have transformed from Jekyll to Hyde and reacted with appalling behaviors including passive-aggressive pestering, icy shunning, financial penalizing, open hostility, verbal and emotional abuse, physical abandonment, threats, and even violence.
Described this way, I know it sounds daunting and dangerous, and sometimes it’s as you say, “no big deal.” For some people, in some places, under some circumstances it is not a problem at all. But those people should never assume that it would be just as easy and safe for anyone else. Things are slowly improving here and there, but we still live in a world where atheists who out themselves run a risk to lose their friends, their families, their fortunes, and even their lives.
The consequence for being cautious when it is not necessary is much smaller than the consequence for being incautious when it is not wise. So my general advice is to be prudent, circumspect, and discreet until you’ve made a thorough assessment of the people you might tell.
The effect that outing yourself to anyone will have on you depends on several factors:
If all the factors listed above still show a “green light” toward telling your best friend, then the next consideration is how religious she herself is, and what religion if any she follows. You didn’t describe that in your letter. If you think her own religious position will cause a rift between you, then you may have to choose to continue keeping your atheism from her, even though it will limit your closeness as friends. However, it sounds like your lifestyle is going to eventually make it obvious anyway. The fact that she jokes with you about not being a devout and dutiful Muslim is an encouraging sign. It suggests that she does not have a strong judgmental reaction against that.
So if her own religious reaction is not an obstacle, then you have only the problem that you asked about, how to present this to her without her thinking that you have “betrayed” her friendship by keeping it from her. First of all, you haven’t betrayed her. You have been wisely cautious, and you have every right to be. A good friend would not want you to be reckless.
I suggest that you tell her that you held it back because she’s your best friend, rather than in spite of her being your best friend. My impression is that that is the truthful reason anyway. Explain to her that you have learned how extremely divisive religious conflicts can be, that they can destroy even the best of friendships. Tell her how grateful you are for how she’s been there for you for years, and during those years your beliefs have gradually changed. Now you’ve reached a place where you want to prevent this from limiting your closeness, and you value your friendship enough to go through whatever upset it might cause.
There is a chance that your friend has already figured out that your belief is down to zero, and she has been holding back from being frank because she doesn’t know how resolved or comfortable you are about it. So it could be a relief for both of you to get this out in the open. I wish both of you a good outcome and a continuing good friendship.