Coming Out Godless, and Not Assuming the Worst

“Coming out is the most powerful act nonbelievers can take!” “It’s personally powerful; it’s politically powerful.” “If you want to help humanism/atheism, if you want to push back against the corrosive influence of religion, if you want to make life better for yourself and other godless people—come out about your godlessness.”

People have been saying this stuff for as long as I’ve been in the organized godless movement. I’ve been saying it myself. In fact, I’ve just come out with a book—Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why—that offers specific strategies and overall guiding philosophies for coming out of the godless closet. In preparation for writing this book, I read and listened to hundreds of “coming out atheist” stories, and there was an immense variety among them; I read stories that were hilarious, poignant, tragic, ironic, sweet, dramatic, joyful, anticlimactic. (And yes, many of these stories appear in the book, told in people’s own words.) But as I started to read through the hundreds of coming out stories I’d collected, one consistent theme emerged: Most of the time, coming out atheist turns out okay.

This was a huge surprise. When I first decided to write this book and started doing the research for it, I was bracing myself for an onslaught of horror stories: stories of ruptured families, shattered marriages, broken friendships, ruined careers, disowned children. I was bracing myself to write a guide on coming out as godless in a world that’s probably going to reject you, shun you, even despise you, once it knows you’re a heathen. True, that hadn’t been my own experience, but I figured I’d just gotten lucky living in the famously progressive and largely secular San Francisco Bay Area. I was even writing a diatribe in my head—a scolding little speech I was going to include in the book, aimed at all the bigoted believers who had made life so difficult for the atheists in their lives.

But once I started reading the stories, I had to scrap that entire mental narrative and start another—a narrative of encouragement, and of reassurance. Because most of the time, when atheists tell the people in our lives that we’re atheists, it turns out okay.

Don’t get me wrong. In my research for Coming Out Atheist, I definitely read painful stories, frustrating ones, sad ones, maddening ones. I read stories of atheists coming out to their families and being met with tears and recriminations and even threats; atheists coming out at work and being proselytized to and prayed over; atheists coming out to their friends and the friendships coming to an end. There’s a lot of bigotry against atheists, and even more ignorance about us. And I definitely did read some truly horrible stories.

But the horror stories were the exception, not the rule. And the painful stories, the frustrating and sad and maddening ones, mostly turned out okay over time. I read lots of stories about atheists’ families greeting their atheism with tears and recriminations and threats—and then getting over it, years or months or even weeks later, and everyone getting along fine. I read stories of atheists’ bosses or workmates proselytizing and praying at them—and then learning to knock it off. I read stories of atheists’ friends being freaked out—and then getting past it, and the friendship becoming stronger than ever.

This surprised the hell out of me. I’ve seen the polls, and I’m sure you have, too: the polls showing that most people don’t trust atheists, wouldn’t vote for an otherwise qualified atheist candidate, and don’t want their family members to marry an atheist.

But I’ve also seen those poll numbers change. According to Gallup, in 1999 only 49 percent of people in the United States said they would vote for an atheist for president. In 2012 that number had risen to 54 percent. That’s still pathetic; it’s pathetic that we’re still just barely electable, purely because we don’t believe in any gods. And we’re still at the bottom of that list, less electable than every other group Gallup asked about. But it’s still a 5 percent increase in just thirteen years. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those thirteen years have been the years that atheists really started coming out of the closet, and making ourselves visible, in record numbers.

It can be scary to come out as an atheist. There’s a lot of bigotry against us, and coming out means facing that bigotry head-on. But when you come out, you place the responsibility for that bigotry out in the world where it belongs rather than carry the fear of it around with you inside your head. And when you come out and face that bigotry, the result is often going to be that the bigotry fades away. When you come out to people who think they hate and fear atheists, it might mean that they’ll hate and fear you—but it’s a lot more likely that they’ll change their minds about atheists. When they see that someone they care about is an atheist, they might decide, “Gee, I guess I was wrong to care about this person”—but it’s a lot more likely that they’ll decide, “Gee, I guess I was wrong about atheists.” It may take time—it often takes time—but the outcome is usually good.

You know your life better than I do. You know better than I do whether being an open atheist could seriously screw things up: whether coming out could mean risking your job, your home, your safety, or custody of your kids. If I learned anything from researching this book, it’s that coming out atheist is a wildly different experience for everyone: everyone has different circumstances and different personalities, and we all have to do it on our own timetable, and in our own way. That’s the reason I wrote the book with chapters on coming out to family, to friends, to spouses and partners, to workmates; on coming out for parents, for students, for people who are marginalized in ways other than being an atheist; on coming out in conservative communities, in progressive communities, in the U.S. military, in theocracies, on the Internet, and more. And it’s the reason I wrote it, not as a set of specific directions, but as a map of the territory, with ideas on how to pick your own route. So I’m not going to tell you to come out if it’ll ruin your life and your future. You have to make this decision for yourself.

But in the hundreds of coming out stories that I read, the results were overwhelmingly positive. I heard from exactly one person who said they regretted having done it. Even when the people in their lives reacted badly, just about every atheist I heard from said they were glad they came out. I’ve seen good research backing this up as well, showing that most atheists who have come out think it was the right decision (see Christopher R. H. Garneau,“Perceived Stigma and Stigma Management of Midwest Seculars”). And most of the time, people either don’t react badly, or they react badly and then get over it.

So don’t assume the worst of the people in your life. Don’t assume that their bigotry or ignorance is stronger than their love or respect for you. It might be, and you should be prepared for that. But most of the time, it won’t be. Not for long, anyway. If you can, if it’s reasonably safe and won’t screw up your life, then come on out.