Tips For "Coming Out" to Friends, Family, and the World — As An Atheist


I'm not sure what my parents thought when I told them that I didn't share their faith in god.

It must have come as a shock. I had been baptized as a Catholic, received communion as a Catholic, and been confirmed as a Catholic, so they likely didn't expect their son to become a heathen. But for me, consciously embracing skepticism was cathartic. It was an acknowledgement of what I'd known for a long time — organized religion was absolutely distasteful to me.

My news was immediately met with hostility. My parents refused to accept the fact that I no longer wished to attend church with them, and did not adhere to the catechism of the Church. I explained the reasons for my position, noting that I'm simply returning to the same belief system I had as an infant (after all, every single one of us is born an atheist — no one is a Catholic until they are taught to be). Sadly, my argument fell on deaf ears. I was told I was "attacking" their beliefs simply by not adhering to them.

The disgust didn't recede. The only remaining family member who shared my philosophy was my dog, and unfortunately she isn't much of a conversationalist. I felt incredibly isolated from the people I was closest to. So the internet became a refuge. Finding others who shared my doubts about superstition was one of the most encouraging discoveries of my life, and helped me deal with the stress of the familial backlash.

And what a backlash it was. The implications (and occasional outright declarations) that I was evil, amoral, incapable of being a good person, and ultimately going to hell (this one is a particular favorite of believers) were plentiful. As former believers know, coming out is often an incredibly stressful decision. The disapproval wasn't limited to my nuclear family. Other relatives and a few friends made sure to voice their displeasure. Sadly, my experience was by no means unique (see video below). As atheists continue to grow in number, more and more skeptics will face the prospect of coming out to their family and friends. And the highest rates of atheism are found among younger generations, meaning it is quite often millennials who are faced with coming out to their parents.

(In one sense, it's somewhat ridiculous that one would have to "reveal" oneself as not believing in a particular set of dogmatic beliefs. There are thousands of deities out there, so do you assume I believe in each until I specifically reject it? And why should the rejection of one be worse than any other? My parents weren't upset that I don't believe in Zeus, Krishna, or Cthulhu. It became obvious to me that the only reason they elevated the Catholic god above the others was that their parents had passed it on to them.)

As for the "big reveal," it may seem strange to compare revealing oneself as an atheist to opening up about one's sexuality. To be sure, the hate faced by the LGBT community is inherently distinct from that faced by skeptics. Center For Inquiry President Ronald A. Lindsay sharply notes the differences.

But there are striking similarities. The repercussions of coming out are quite similar, and the damage done to my familial relationships because of who I am is quite real. And members of both groups are faced with an extremely narrow view of what is "normal." We assume someone is straight until we hear otherwise, and we similarly assume a person is a believer until they reject the label (hence the term a-theist).

Both atheists and the LGBT community face a political establishment that deprives them of rights. Seven states still have laws expressly prohibiting nontheists from holding state office, and the LGBT community is just beginning to win marriage equality. Both groups face public derision and xenophobia. And most obviously, both atheists and gays face systematic intolerance from prominent leaders of the faithful.

As I've noted previously, it's hard out there for a skeptic. But just as the LGBT movement is steadily gaining support, today's freethinkers aren't alone. Projects like The Out Campaign and Coming Out Godless encourage nonbelievers to be open, honest, and proud of who they are. Tips for coming out as an atheist are readily available, and can be extremely helpful in starting a constructive conversation. Facing down the societal and cultural dedication to religion is hard for anyone, and even more so when the discussion is made personal. Thus, the resources available to closeted skeptics are invaluable.

While I doubt I'll ever reach philosophical agreement with my family, I don't regret the decision at all. I am infinitely happier being honest about who I am. Philosophical pluralism is an inevitable result of a free society, so we need to make sure that everyone feels safe enough to voice their beliefs. Until we accept that atheists are just as deserving of basic rights and common respect, we have a lot of work to do.