This essay originated as a post to the Ex-Tian mailing list, a mailing for ex-Christians. A common question among ex-Christians who become atheists is whether or not to “come out” as atheists, or to pretend to be a Christian when around friends and family. This essay is my answer to that question.
Should ex-Christians who become atheists “come out of the closet”? That is, should they tell their friends, family and loved ones about their newfound atheism, or should they keep it to themselves and pretend to be Christians? I believe that coming out is far better than staying in, for the following reasons:
- Staying in the closet is an emotionally draining experience. Most of us feel bad about deliberately lying, and really bad about deliberately lying to our close friends, family and loved ones. But staying in the closet requires precisely that. This generates loads of guilt, and carrying around that kind of guilt is pretty unhealthy from an emotional point of view. Making matters worse, you have to expend a great deal of mental effort to maintain the facade, a task made even more complicated by the fact that you are attempting to fool those who know you best, and thus are the most difficult to fool.
- Staying in the closet tends to isolate you from the atheist community, and get you more involved with the Christian community than you might want to be. People naturally gravitate towards people who are like themselves. We tend to choose friends who share our interests, our values, and our beliefs. But if everybody thinks you are a Christian, then atheists will tend to stay away, while Christians will want to get closer to you. This is the exact opposite of what you want. By coming out, those around you who are atheists will be more likely to befriend you, providing you with much-needed emotional support. And in a society that is 90% Christian, we need all the emotional support we can get.
- Staying in the closet steals away time. When you pretend to be a Christian, it is inevitable that you will have to participate in Christian events such as going to church, attending prayer meetings and kinship groups, and the like. This sucks away time that you could be using for working, studying, playing or just sleeping in. Atheists know better than anybody that our time is finite, so why waste it practicing primitive superstitious rituals?
- You run the risk of being found out. If this happens, the people you are trying to fool will be far less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. If your spouse confessed to having an affair, you would be more likely to forgive your spouse than if you found out about it second-hand. By the same token, your friends and loved ones are far more likely to tolerate your atheism if you admit to it than if they happen to find your copy of “The Case Against Christianity” when you’re not around.
Try this simple thought experiment. Imagine confessing your atheism to your friends and loved ones. Picture their reactions. Make it a worst case scenario. It’s probably a scary scenario, isn’t it? But if you are found out, their reactions will be even worse than what you’ve just imagined! Not only will they be angry at you for becoming an atheist, but they’ll be angry at you for lying as well. (And unlike atheism, lying is a legitimate thing to be angry at.)
One other thing to keep in mind is that unless you only have a year or two left to live, you will be found out. Nobody can keep up that kind of facade for very long. In the long run, coming out will be significantly less straining than staying in.
- Coming out is a powerful way of promoting tolerance for atheists. Remember that your Christian friends and family have had their heads filled with stereotypes about atheists by their pastors and fellow Christians. By coming out, you can show that these stereotypes are bull. Indeed, you may be the only atheist they know, and thus the only person capable of dispelling the stereotypes. And if they ever become interested in atheism themselves, they’ll know who to turn to when it comes time to ask questions.
There are some people who stay in the closet because coming out could mean losing a job, or being kicked out of the house, or even being beaten or killed. Such people should probably stay in the closet, at least until they can get a new job, or find a home of their own, or move to a locale that isn’t socially retarded. But even these people should come out eventually, after they have arranged things so that it is safe to do so. And those who stay in solely to avoid offending friends and family would be better served by coming out now. In the short run, it will be hell, but in the long run, it’s the only way to go. The only real alternative is a lifetime of hypocrisy, self-loathing and fear.
I myself came out shortly after my deconversion. I haven’t lost a single friend because of it. I am on excellent terms with my family and in-laws, most of whom are Christians, and many of whom are fundamentalists. In fact, in the case of my parents, I’ve actually noticed their Christianity mellowing out over the last few years, and I think my atheism may have had something to do with this. (Then again, maybe they just wised up on their own.) My then-girlfriend actually thought the atheist me was a big improvement, and went on to become my wife. I’ve never lost a job or been publicly humiliated because of my atheism, and I commonly drop casual mentions of my atheism in conversations with friends and coworkers without fear of trouble. Coming out has had tremendous benefits for me, and very few disadvantages.
The American public (and pretty much everyone else, for that matter) has a long way to go, but there has nonetheless been a great deal of progress for atheists. There was a time when coming out of the closet meant social and financial ruin, and shortly before that there was a time when coming out meant being executed. We have an incredible amount of freedom compared to atheists of the past, and I think we owe it to their memory to take advantage of it.