Ask Richard: Former Muslim Atheist Ponders Coming Out to Her Best Friend April 18, 2011

Ask Richard: Former Muslim Atheist Ponders Coming Out to Her Best Friend

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

Hi Richard,

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?


Dear Alima,

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:

  • The country in which you live.
  • Your family’s and friends’ level of religiosity.
  • Your age.
  • Your financial and physical dependence on whoever even might learn of your atheism, including your family and employer.
  • Your “toughness” and self-reliance; your ability to withstand possible isolation, disapproval, or harassment from many directions on a daily basis.
  • How discreet whomever you tell is about keeping a confidence.
  • 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.


    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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    • Cents

      Richard, I thought that was a great response. Caution is the key. It may be unsettling having to keep her atheism secret, but think how bad it would be if her whole world came apart due to an extreme reaction by the people in her life.

    • Trace

      Richard gives you very good advice. Do you live in the West? If so, does that make things (coming out) easier or harder for you?

      If you friend is a good one, as it seems she is….you should be OK. However, only you can know your own circumstances. If in doubt….be cautious.

      Good luck to you.

    • Anonymous

      For addtional support, you may be interested in this ex-Muslim forum
      and the budding sub-Reddit
      Best of luck to you!

    • again and again, i’m saddened by letters like these. in the end, all faiths agree that it is the god(s) alone who have the right to judge, not other people. good luck to this brave young woman. i hope someday you can live in a place where absolutely no one will care you’re an atheist, like it do. it’s worth moving for, when you’re older.

    • Jalyth

      Are there baby steps the LW would be comfortable with? When your friend says “bad muslim”, correct it to “cultural muslim”. That seems like it could be less upsetting than ‘nonbeliever’, which in turn is less upsetting than ‘atheist’.

      I tend to trust friends, though. Many years she’s been there for you? No reason she wouldn’t be through this, too.

      [I lost nearly all of my friends on leaving my religion, but even though I had a short period of sadness, I have better friends now. Just to put that out there, as future hope.]

    • @”Alima”,
      I came out to my father as an atheist a few years back. Culturally, we are Muslims, but neither of us practices. In fact, we are both atheists. He just hid his atheism from me all these years.
      In regards to the rest of his family, as far as they are concerned, we are just “bad Muslims” as your friends says. Even so, I went through the motions of praying at a cousin’s funeral last year when visiting family in south Lebanon, just to keep up appearances and keep people from asking embarrassing questions. It’s a small Hezbollah controlled village and word travels fast. We opted to keep the family peace and keep our hides intact instead of making a statement.
      Richard really coves all the bases and does it well, so I’d go with his advice.
      Good luck to you sister.

    • There is nothing wrong with being a “bad Muslim” in this way. You could evev be a “very bad Muslim” but still use the term “Muslim” to describe yourself. Then later in life when it is more convenient you can drop that term altogether.

    • Rollingforest

      It’s hard to tell what the friend meant when she joked about Alima being a “bad Muslim”. Was she making fun of other people’s overly strict definition of “Muslim”? Or was she trying to find a light hearted way of telling Alima that she was a bad Muslim and needed to improve? It is hard to tell.

      For me, I live in an area with lots of Conservative Protestants and have friends who would be saddened if I admitted that I was an Atheist (though I think that they would probably still be my friends although I bet that they would refuse to talk about religion with me unless it was to invite me to a religious event in an effort to reconvert me). For me, the best method is to talk to them about reasons to doubt rather than identifying myself as an Atheist. For example, I’d say “A person’s religion normally depends on where they are born. Everyone thinks that God will lead them to the right faith, but billions of people pray without all being led to the same faith. I think people should be cautious before declaring that their faith is true”. It is usually easier to convince someone to be an atheist if they don’t know that the person they are talking to is an atheist. If I’m seen as a Christian (thus part of the group) and I have these doubts, they feel it is okay for them to have them. Maybe Alima could do the same.

    • Wow. This is so much like my situation except its my parents I need to tell. I’m pretty sure they’d kick me out If I told them, though. Its sad.

    • Allytude

      This is so like my own situation- except I was a “cultural” Hindu and then the label became too much to bear.
      If you look at it what other people call you does not matter. As long as you know who you are. But at the same time the association with a religion, specially in the light of ridiculous things done or ridiculous people who claim it as their own, can b a burden. Be diplomatic in letting everyone else know what you think. Keep up the motions – there is no need to explain to other people why you are as you are. If it gets too much, just be clear, with a “no more discussions on this face”- but only if you are sure you are in a safe place.

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