A friend of mine recently joined the “Long-time Christian turned Atheist” club, thanks in small part to me and in large part to research and intellectual honesty. The majority of our coffee-talk-time was spent not harping on religions, but going through the very real, very important, logistical process of “coming out” as an atheist. Atheists often talk about the steps leading up to deconversion, or the why and how of it, but rarely about the nuts and bolts of telling the entire world, “I was wrong.”
Please note this is from the perspective of the bible belt. Many other parts of the country (and world) do not have the same situations, but in many states in the south (and isolated communities in the north), apostasy is tantamount to pedophilia in terms of loss of social currency.
Should I Tell Everyone?
This question depends entirely on where you are in your life, and more specifically, how your parents will take it. It is not uncommon to be kicked out of your house for being an atheist, and the point at which parents cherry-pick enough that their version of ‘love’ is kicking you out, you can bet they don’t really have a good enough hermenutic to care what what the bible says about it. So if you’re under 18 and have strong fundamentalist parents, the answer is, don’t come forward. Just wait.
What if you’re in college, but haven’t graduated yet? This is a more delicate situation, and anonymity can be your friend. It is much easier to come out to your close friends in college, and still remain a ‘closeted’ atheist at home. Many fundamentalist parents will cease financial support upon finding out their children are atheists, so it may be appropriate to hide your identity as an atheist until such time as you are finished with school.
This somewhat dishonest approach may be morally ambiguous, but is no worse than a parent who lies to their child about the contingency of their love and support.
If you are in a theocratic country that will kill you for apostasy, don’t come out until you move. Just don’t.
If you are in no danger, please “Come Out” as an atheist for everyone to see!
The friend who contacted me informed me that my strength and outspokenness about my own lack of faith helped inspire him to be comfortable in his new godless shoes. “Coming out,” for atheism, functions the same as for the LGBTQ movement: it destigmatizes, slaughters stereotypes wholesale, and inspires others to come out too.
There is a real problem in America with the notion that you can be moral without God. Fortunately, the tide is changing, and as a generation steeped in bigotry dies off, young adults are much more likely to vote for atheists, or to see them as moral equals. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the last dying gasps of a generation of wasted humanity and ignorance, and by stepping forward, we are helping to turn that tide.
Who Should I Tell?
So you’ve decided to come forward with your non-belief. Perhaps you have considerate or open-minded parents, or you’re financially independent. But there will certainly be backlash from someone somewhere, so how do you say “I’m an atheist” without everyone hearing “I’m a raping murdering pedophile”?
Do: Tell your sympathetic friends/significant others first
There might be a best friend or friend that you know that is sympathetic to someone who has deconverted. This could be someone open minded enough that you know they won’t attack you or ‘rat you out.’ For me, it was another atheist, followed by my girlfriend. This is where others “Coming out” is vital. Tell someone to get it out there, and telling someone who is sympathetic will give you confidence when the hard stuff happens
Do: Tell your closest friends/pastors next
For some, this might be someone very close to you, that might still be stuck in the delusion caused by religion. However, their care for you (and yours for them) means that while they might not support your decision, they will support your honesty and candidness. This is what friends do. My step in this journey was to tell my bible study, some of whom I have been a brother to for nearly half a decade (and still am, over a year after my deconversion). They do not support my conclusion, but they support me.
This is somewhere between the emotional involvement of your parents and that of sympathetic (atheist) friends. You may also want to tell one friend individually, then tell the group with them in your corner. Don’t hesitate to bring backup if you need it.
Do: Tell your parents and extended family
For some, their parents might be their closest friends, but it’s important to also tell extended family, especially since many times the adults in a younger deconvert’s life might be more emotionally tied to the situation (or think they are, anyway). This one is often the hardest step, and the advice above of not letting it turn into an argument still applies.
Parents are often the most emotionally invested in a situation, and it is vital to make the coming out be as low-emotion as possible. There are quite a few steps that might be taken to do this, that I show in the section below.
They may try to manipulate you. Don’t let them.
My own parents, especially my father, continually used emotionally charged language, and attempted to turn the situation on him. He also brought up my (deceased) grandmother and (living) grandfather, saying how disappointed they would be/hurt they would be if they found out. Try to remain calm and recognize these outbursts as someone who has been emotionally compromised. They will be back to rational human soon enough.
How do I Tell Them?
Do: Keep emotions low
This is an emotionally-charged time for everyone involved, and a few simple guidelines will help you out.
- Stay seated. Standing up tends to cause escalation of emotion
- Take breaks. If someone says something that causes an emotional compromise, step back, drink some water, then come back to the table
- Listen. Perhaps you can identify with a parent or friend who feels as though you are slipping away, will perish forever and be eternally separated from them. Perhaps not. Even if you can, those are not the emotions you’re feeling right now, so let those emotions be expressed
- Speak. Remember, this is about you, not about them. Many people (my father included) like to turn everything on its head and make it a pity party for their offense. Don’t let this happen. Explain that they are entitled to their emotions, but that this is about you being honest, not about them being hurt.
- Bring Backup. A quick lesson from the LGBTQ community is to have your sigificant other present to hold your hand. If you have a sympathetic friend, boyfriend or girlfried, it may be helpful (in some instances) to have them around. Often the addition of a peer will keep emotions down.
Don’t: Let it become an argument
Remember, coming out is about being honest and up-front, not about an argument. To minimize damage, you have to keep your emotions in check, and sometimes when faced with real emotional turmoil, friends (and family) will resort to emotional pleas and attacks. There will be ample temptation to argue, scream, yell, and fight back after enduring this emotional manipulation.
Do not indulge these attacks.
It’s okay to give some reasons when pressed, but this is not the time to have a rational discussion about one of the deepest questions any human can ask themselves. Unsympathetic friends (or family) might feel hurt or betrayed, and in their mind these feelings are justified. Don’t arrogantly put down their emotions: listen and respond.
Don’t: Allow Yourself to Be Compromised
When trying to diffuse a situation or a direct personal attack, use these phrases or ideas:
- My reasons for my beliefs are personal, but all I am asking for now is acceptance.
- I am still the same person you knew, I have only changed my beliefs in this one area. I am still your friend (son/daughter).
- Please do not attack me. I have not attacked you, nor put you down, and I ask the same courtesy in return.
- I have sought out truth and it has led me to different conclusions that I cannot honestly ignore.
Don’t: Put it up on Facebook First
This was a tremendous mistake on my part. It was dumb dumb dumb. My parents heard about my deconversion secondhand, after my entire extended family was viciating over it. I could have easily saved a lot of pain if I had explained myself first, but I didn’t.
If you plan to go public, do so after everyone who will ‘freak out’ already knows. If you already hate everyone close to you and don’t care what they think, still call them anyways.
You don’t have to fight the stereotype of an immoral atheist if you don’t want to, but if you really want to help change people’s minds, a good first step is to be strong and tell them, even if you couldn’t give two shits what they think.
Part 2: Kinds of Believers
When we deconvert, there are a range of receptions that we might find from the other side, and it is wise to know how to treat believers, once they know we don’t believe.
Part 3: Kinds of Atheists
Where do you see yourself within the bigger movement? There are different approaches, and unlike religion, there is No True