There are many closeted atheists out there – I was one of them. For many, leaving their religion behind is a significant endeavor; and it is also difficult to tell your religious friends and family that you don’t believe in it all anymore. Why? For many religious people, their religion is a massive part of their life – you could say that their beliefs define them. Not only that, their beliefs are the right way and the ONLY way. The consequences of people coming out about their (lack of) religious beliefs can be huge, so many people choose to stay in the religious closet.
If you’re a closet atheist/agnostic, and are tired of staying in the closet, I have some advice for you on how you might do that. It goes without saying, this advice is based on my experiences coming out, and your situation may be significantly different to mine, but I think this advice will still hold well.
1. Wait for the appropriate time.
When sharing your beliefs, context counts. Bringing the topic up out of the blue usually isn’t a good idea. Also, if the other people are busy then it’s obviously not ideal. What you want to do is, wait until the topic of religion/church comes up, and then maybe share then. If your friends/family are Christian, trust me, this opportunity will come up often! If you’re having a meal with someone, one on one, that is an ideal time I have found.
For some of you, sharing your beliefs publicly could be dangerous or have adverse consequences. In those situations, I would advise you to wait until your situation changes. It’s OK to wait. Here are some situations where I would advise you to NOT come out:
- You still live with your parents, in a conservative religious household.
- You live with religious friends, and you are the only one who isn’t religious.
- You live in a country where you could be severely punished for leaving your religion (several Muslim majority countries come to mind).
In the first two points I mentioned, you will find it much easier to share when you don’t live with them anymore, and it will definitely be easier if you’re not attending church.
Before I move on from this, I should mention that not everyone needs to know. When the time is right, you should tell most of your close friends and family, but you don’t owe anyone else an explanation. You will probably find that while you’re still involved in your religion, you will tell a few people in the process of leaving, but after that, sharing becomes optional. There are some people who will get upset about your beliefs, so it’s just not worth telling them.
OK, so you’ve found an ideal time to share, how do you actually go about it?
2. Set up the scene.
Firstly, you have to be a little blunt about your beliefs (but without being a dick about it), and make it really clear to them. As an example: they ask you why you aren’t at church anymore, you tell them that you don’t go to church anymore because you don’t believe in a God anymore. This is brief but clear. Then, tell them from the offset that this is a difficult thing for you to share, and that you’re not looking for any confrontation (eg a debate), unless you actually want to debate them… There is a chance that they may try and use this against you, by claiming that they can ‘help you out’ in some way. Don’t fall for this, hold your ground (more on this later), but still try to be nice at the same time. You’re not trying to pick fights here.
3. Be prepared to give the reasons for your beliefs.
Ah this sounds familiar, where have I seen this before? Ah 1 Peter 3:15. I don’t think that the author intended for this quote to apply to atheists though… lol. Anyways, as this point implies, you should have some ready-made reasons at hand as to why you are no longer religious. Coming out is stressful, so having a rough plan of what to say is really useful. Here are my reasons; I used these when I first started sharing with people. It is a given that people are going to ask you why, so it is useful to prepare for this by writing them down somewhere. You could just tell them you don’t want to discuss, and leave it at that, but if they are your close friends and family I would advise you to share.
4. Build up to sharing.
Some of you may find it difficult to say anything, depending on your situation. If so, this point is made for you! The idea is to practice sharing in situations where it is of little consequence, so that you get better at it and more confident. Start with Level 1, then progress to the next one when confident. Here is a good way to progress, depending on your confidence level:
Level One: Make a private blog/diary to discuss your beliefs.
Level Two: Once you have some reasons sorted, talk to non-religious friends or family about it.
Level Three: Share with more liberal minded religious people your beliefs, or with religious people who you have little connection with.
Level Four: Share with your religious friends and family.
In my case, I started a blog, then I shared with some non-Christian family members (eg my dad), and then I told non-Christian friends, and finally some of my church friends. Don’t feel that you have to rush things though, it may take several months, if not years, until you can feel completely open about sharing your beliefs.
5. Try to be as objective as possible, and only include yourself in your statements.
I get it, leaving your religion behind can be an intense emotional process, but let’s try to be rational when openly discussing things. Make statements and give reasons/examples where possible (and now I’m starting to sound like an English schoolteacher…). Don’t let emotions get the better of you. Telling them you don’t believe in Creationism because it’s full of religious motivated bullshit isn’t a great idea, even if you might be totally justified in thinking that. Also, include only yourself when you discuss your beliefs, it can be surprisingly powerful, and you’re leaving them open to believe whatever they want. What I mean by that is, make statements like: “I don’t believe in [insert religion] anymore because I found that it didn’t add up to me – their religious texts contradict each other”, as opposed to “[Insert religion] doesn’t add up and is filled with contradictions.” I am assuming that the audience here is your friends or family, you want to remain respectful when you can.
6. Hold your ground.
So you want to be respectful, and avoid confrontation where possible, but it’s inevitable it’s going to come at some point. As mentioned earlier, some people will try to take advantage of your ‘struggles’ by claiming to ‘help you out’. Of course, you know they aren’t really going to help you. Politely refuse their help and don’t waste your time. These people will also try to challenge your beliefs. Normally I don’t like to challenge other people, but if they challenge me first, then it’s fair game. Throw their statements back at them and ask them difficult questions which their religion fails to address. Of course, at any point, you can ask to call off the discussion. Endlessly debating these things is often a waste of time anyway; if your points have been made clearly, that’s all that matters.
It is likely that you will be asked some difficult questions which you don’t know the answer to – it doesn’t help in a stressful situation like this either! That’s OK, just freely admit you don’t know the answer – that is better than stumbling around trying to come up with something. It is likely that their own religion doesn’t address the problem either – despite their claims to the contrary. If you’re feeling cheeky you could point that out to them.
7. Don’t go public about it straight away.
When it comes to ‘coming out’, there are some who like to share publicly, which includes the use of social media. It would seem easier, and in theory there is nothing wrong with doing this, but it’s just not the best way. I know it’s harder, but your close friends and family deserve a conversation with you first. Hopefully then, they will have some understanding of why you believe what you believe (even if they don’t agree with it). It will also be easier for them to take in. Once the people close to you have found out, then by all means go public about it later if you wish.
So there you have it, some advice from me on how to come out to others about your beliefs. If you have some advice of your own, feel free to share in the comments.
- Ben The Liberated Atheist.