Coming Out as an Atheist (April 13, 2014)

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:19 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 13, 2014, 5:14 PM ]

          I am an atheist.  Do you realize how hard it is for me to say that, especially in South Carolina -- where the first question someone asks you when he or she meets you is, “So where do you go to church?”; where people regularly talk about God as their co-pilot and Jesus as their fishing buddy; where prayer is considered a viable solution to every problem, from ending drought to finding a parking place.

          Recently, a group of atheists in Spartanburg were excluded from volunteering at a soup kitchen.  Its executive director said she’d resign from her job before she would let atheists volunteer and be a “disservice to this community,” adding that her Christian organization that runs the soup kitchen “stands on the principles of God.” Apparently, allowing others to help the less fortunate goes against her Christian principles. So what did the Upstate Atheists do?  They raised over $2000 to give care packages to homeless people across the street from the soup kitchen.

          Recently, when Charleston atheist Herb Silverman was invited to give the invocation at a City Council meeting, several City Council members got up and walked out.  Two gave their reasons for walking out in the Charleston Post and Courier.  Wendell Gilliard said that an atheist giving an invocation is an affront to our troops because they are "fighting for our principles, based on God."  Mr. Gilliard apparently believes that our troops are involved in a holy war.  I thought we were fighting against the Taliban; I didn’t realize that we were the Taliban. The other Councilman, Robert George, said about Silverman, "He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I'm not going to be around when he does it."  Herb refrained from telling George what he really thought – that “praying to a god makes about as much sense as praying to a chicken.”  By the way, if the name Herb Silverman rings a bell, it may be because he spoke here a couple of years ago.  Herb is the person who challenged South Carolina’s law prohibiting atheists from holding public office, even serving as a notary public.

          I wonder if the City Council members who could not bear to be in the same room with an atheist giving an invocation can understand how it must feel for many non-Christians when they are continually subjected to Christian prayers at City Council and other government meetings, as well as public school graduations and ball games; when they see their tax dollars given to Christian schools in the form of vouchers and tuition tax credits; when they see “in God we trust” on our currency; when they must use the phrase “one nation under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; when they must place their hand on the Bible when testifying in court; when prisons allow Bibles as the only reading material for inmates; when courts mandate religious drug and alcohol treatment programs; when service men and woman are forced to attend religious events; and when child custody cases are decided against non-believing parents because it is assumed that non-believers make bad parents.  The First Amendment may establish the separation of church and state, but apparently not everyone has received the memo.

          No person running for public office in America would ever openly admit that he or she is an atheist.  To do so would be political suicide.  Gallop has found that 95% of Americans would vote for a woman, 94% for a Catholic, 92% for a Jew, 92% for an African American, 79% for a Mormon, and 79% for a homosexual; about half would vote for an atheist.  Publicly admitting that you are an atheist in America is about as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion hall.  I don’t have to tell people in South Carolina that being an atheist is not popular.  Being an atheist can get you denied a promotion and fired from your job.  It can get you disowned by your family and deserted by your friends.  It can get your house or car vandalized, and it can get you physically harmed.  Prejudice against atheists may be the last socially acceptable bigotry.  

          If you were expecting me to criticize Christianity, ridicule religion, or tell you why you shouldn’t believe in God in today’s sermon, you may be disappointed.  I don’t have the temperament for that.  I don’t enjoy arguments.  I know that some of you do, but I don’t.  I don’t like arguing in my personal life, and I don’t like arguing in church.  Besides, I am sure that you are already well versed in the reasons for and against belief, and I doubt that I could tell you anything you don’t already know. 

          Besides that, I have become convinced that reasons are not the only reason people choose to believe or not believe in God.  Emotion has a lot to do with that decision, particularly emotion around identity and community.  I think the chief reason people are religious is because they were raised to be religious.  If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to be Muslim; if you were born in Thailand, you are likely to be Buddhist; and if you were born in the United States, you are likely to be Christian; not because most people make a rational choice to be Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian, but because most people are raised to be that way and to reject that way often means to reject your family and culture, your identity and community.  That’s a price too high to pay for many people.  Most atheists were also raised to be religious, and I have observed that they started discovering reasons not to believe when they discovered a community of like-minded people through reading and through their personal relationships; and this new community allowed them to develop a new identity.

          So this morning I am not going to make the case for being an atheist.  Instead, I want to make the case for coming out of the closet as an atheist if you are already an atheist.  As you well know, the phrase “coming out of the closet” was first used by LGBT people, and I think it is relevant for atheists, as well, because being an atheist, like being gay, carries a stigma.  Even the symbol for atheism is a scarlet A.  People assume that if you are an atheist, you are immoral and you have no meaning or joy in your life.  Carita Barr expressed the feeling of many people when she asked me earlier this week what today’s sermon was going to be about.  I told her that the title was “Coming Out as an Atheist.” 

          She said, “I’m surprised that you’re an atheist.” 

          “Why would that surprise you?” I asked.

          “Because atheists tend to be cold and soulless,” she said.

          Hey, just because we don’t believe in the existence of souls doesn’t mean we’re soulless!

          To be theologically correct, I guess I should clarify that technically I am probably an agnostic instead of an atheist since I don’t know with 100% certainty that there is not a God, any more than a believer knows with 100% certainty that there is.  When you get down to it, I don’t know that we know anything with 100% certainty, so I suppose we are all agnostic.  If I must use a theological or philosophical label to describe myself, I prefer to say that I am a humanist.  Whereas “atheist” describes what one does not believe and whereas “agnostic” describes what one does not know, “humanist” describes what I do believe and what I do know.  What I do believe is that I am ultimately responsible for my life and that we are responsible for our world.  No one else can be me, and there are no saviors to save our world.  It’s up to you and me.  What I do know is what I can see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears.  As far as we know, there is no life beyond this life and no supernatural world beyond this world.  As far as we know, what you see is what you get.

          Humanist writer Greta Christina has just published a book entitled Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.  In preparation for writing her book, Christina read and listened to literally hundreds of “coming out atheist” stories, and there was immense variety among them.  She read stories that were hilarious, poignant, tragic, ironic, sweet, dramatic, joyful, and anticlimactic.  But one consistent theme emerged – most of the time, coming out atheist turns out okay.  It’s not that she didn’t read painful, sad, and maddening stories and some that were truly horrible.  But the horror stories were the exception, not the rule; and the painful, sad, and maddening stories mostly turned out okay over time.  She 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.  She read stories of atheists’ bosses or workmates proselytizing and praying at them – and then learning to knock it off.  There were stories of atheists’ friends being freaked out – and then getting past it.

          This jibes with the coming out stories some of you have shared with me this past week and which I share today with their permission.

          Kevin Meredith became an atheist relatively late in life, in his early 30's, and told his sister a few years later during a visit to the family home in Florida.  Says Kevin, “She immediately told my mother and one of my brothers, who was also visiting, and he confronted me with my mother and sister present.  The ‘meeting’ wasn't particularly unpleasant because, although all of my family, except me, are some version of right wing Republican, mostly bordering on wing nut, they are also at their core decent, loving people.”

          He continues:  “I didn't want to have the conversation because I knew no one's mind would be changed, but I went ahead and sat there.  Among the most memorable things my brother said was that I was a ‘socialist,’ and then we argued for a time about gun rights and homosexuality….  Also memorable, my mother blamed my atheism on the liberal arts education my parents provided.  Looking back, I wish I'd pointed out that Jesus was a socialist by some definitions.  The conversation ended, and my mother and I never discussed it again, and I maintain a strong, treasured relationship with her.  My brother and I agreed to continue the discussion over email, which forced each of us to collect our thoughts and present our best argument, but was otherwise not of much use as no one's mind was changed….  The bottom-line, however:  I remain close to everyone in my family, and religion never comes up, in person or in email.  And those two facts are probably related.”

          I can second that emotion, Kevin.  I discovered a long time ago that my family and I have a much more pleasant Thanksgiving and Christmas when we agree to disagree … in silence.

          I thought I had received a heavy dose of religion as a Southern Baptist, but my Baptist beginnings can’t compare with the religious upbringing of Dean Smith, who was raised Pentecostal.  Says Dean, “I was a Royal Ranger, the Assembly of God version of the Boy Scouts, because the Boy Scouts were too worldly.  I spoke in tongues.  I memorized Bible verses.  When I was 15, I undertook to read the King James Version of the Bible cover-to-cover.  I was baptized, and they had to dunk me twice because my hand was sticking out of the water the first time.”

          Though it was a gradual process, Dean also became an atheist later in life, primarily as a result of education.  Going back to college in his 30’s, he took courses in astronomy, logic, and intro to religion in the same semester.  Dean observes, “Not long after that, I realized I was no longer keeping a space in my head for God.  I became an atheist without being conscious of it, and I didn't mind thinking of myself as one because I knew it didn't mean I had a closed mind, just one that required more evidence to believe.”

          When I asked him what kinds of reactions he gets from others when they discover that he is atheist, he replied, “It varies.  One young lady asked me if that meant I worship the devil.  I found out from a friend who used to report to me that the reason I did poorly in a survey was that many people on my team were reluctant to approach me because of my atheism:  I got rated as 'unwelcoming' and 'difficult to approach.'  I did fine in those areas before I got 'outed' at work.  My policy is 'you ask, I'll tell'; otherwise I keep it to myself….  My father's side of the family knows, which has led to more intense proselytizing when I visit.  It's irritating enough that I take particular pains not to let my mother's side of the family in on it.  I like having some relatives who don't regard me as a 'conversion object.'”

          Dean adds, “I've never lost a friend over it, though.  Never got in a shouting match.  I wouldn't flaunt it in a small town though, or put a sign in my yard reading 'home of a proud atheist.'  I won't put anything on my car that marks me as an atheist because I would expect it to be vandalized at some point.”

          As we have learned from our LGBT brothers and sisters, you have to be selective about coming out.  If coming out as an atheist would mean risking your job, your home, your support system, your children, or your safety, you would want to think twice about it.  Everyone has different circumstances and different personalities, so we have to come out on our own time-table and in our own way.  But I suspect we can come out with more people more often than we assume.  In the hundreds of coming out stories Greta Christina read, the results were overwhelmingly positive.  She heard from exactly one person, just one person, who said they regretted having done it.

          Coming out as an atheist can be extremely powerful, even transformative, in at least two ways.  It can be transformative socially.  Another thing we have learned from our LGBT brothers and sisters is that the only way to melt the fear, ignorance, and hatred in our society is to come out and show others that LGBT people are people and that atheists are people, too.  When I was growing up, we were not even talking about homosexuality; now LGBT people are getting married, and all of us regard Ellen Degeneres as our best friend.  The remarkable pace of change in attitudes toward LGBT persons in our lifetime would not have happened unless, one by one, they started coming out of the closet to their sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, bosses and coworkers. 

          Research consistently shows that people’s bigotry against a group is diminished when they know a person in that group.  All of us in this room have experienced this.  I was brought up to be prejudiced against African Americans, but when the schools were integrated and I got to know people of color outside my segregated, uptight, all-white world, I came to the startling conclusion, “My goodness, black people are people, too!”  I was brought up to believe lies about LGBT people, but as I got to know people one-on-one, I discovered, “What do you know, gays and lesbians are people, too!”  If we atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and free thinkers want bring down the bigotry against us, we have to have the courage to come out, too.  It’s hard to come out of the closet, especially in the early stages of a society’s consciousness, but this is how a nation’s consciousness is changed – one person at a time.

          We are already seeing this nation’s consciousness changing.  The fastest growing religious group in America is, ironically, not religious.  They are the “Nones,” the religiously non-affiliated, and they comprise about 16% of Americans today.  Among 18 to 35-year-olds, that number rises to one in three.  This is the highest level of religious disaffiliation since the Pew Research Center has been taking such polls. 

          Coming out as an atheist can be transformative socially, and it can be transformative personally.  One of the most painful coming out stories I have heard was told to me by Andrea Moore.  Her coming out was actually a forced outing.  Here is her story:

          It was just after my second child was born.  I left my children with my then mother-in-law, whom we lived with at the time, so I could get some time away from the house.  When I got home, I discovered my bedroom had been taken apart.  All the books I had on different religions and anything that could be considered religious, but non-Christian, was wrapped up in a bag and tossed into the yard.  If that wasn't upsetting enough, the next day she went to my parents' home and told them about all the ‘evil’ things she found.  My parents, being fundamentalist and going to the same church as my mother-in-law, were horrified.  They said nothing to me until the next time I visited. My mother let loose and accused me of witchcraft.  She threw me and her grandchildren out of her home.”

          “The story of my 'idolatry' spread quickly through the rest of my family, and it would be five years before I would be let back into any family functions.  The really funny part is when we were able to move our stuff out of her house, I found that she had covertly attached Bible verses to the bottoms of many of my things (pictures, posters, my bed) as a ward or voodoo type of magical protection; yet I was the crazy one!”

          “After all of this with my family happened, I decided that it was only a matter of time before all of my friends found out, so I wrote a mass email to explain my real positions as an atheist.  I am a former Columbia International University student, so all of my friends were alumni as well.  They all met with me and told me we no longer had enough in common to be friends. Apparently, my faith or my appearance of faith (I had been a closeted atheist for over a year) was what our friendship had been based on.”   
         “I also was asked to resign from my two contract positions as a gymnastics instructor, which I did….  Despite the fact that I had the most training and the most experience teaching, I somehow became unable to do my job in their eyes.” 
        Andrea notes, “It was a very painful and stressful time in my life that I wouldn't wish on anyone, but I wouldn't go back to that life if you paid me.  The fear and guilt that I was constantly wracked with was almost overwhelming.  The peace I found on the other side of atheism is amazing.”

          The peace that Andrea found is the peace of being true to yourself.  It’s the peace of making your words and actions consistent with your values.  It’s making your outside match your inside.  It’s the peace of living with integrity.  I know, not from reading books or hearing from others, but from personal experience that living with authenticity is the most powerful part of coming out of the closet, whatever your closet may be.  And I did not have that experience in my life until I met a group of people called Unitarian Universalists.

          In my last sermon, I read a poem from William Ward:

          To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
          To weep is to risk appearing sentimental,
          To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self,
          To place our ideas, our dreams before the crowd is to risk their loss.
          To love is to risk not being loved in return,
          To hope is to risk despair,        

          To live is to risk dying.

          But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
          The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
          He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow,

        I suppose today’s sermon is not so much about atheism or coming out as an atheist.  It’s about the courage and peace of taking the risk to be yourself.