Lately the idea of coming out as an atheist has really gotten under my skin. I feel like I need to be open and honest about who I am and what I believe, but to be completely honest I’m a bit terrified.
I was raised in the Church of Christ, a pretty conservative flavor of protestant Christianity. My family went to church 3 times a week every week- twice on Sunday once on Wednesday- and for a few years in junior high I also went to Monday night youth group. Around my senior year of high school, I just got tired of going. I was having some doubts about the whole thing; my budding liberal politics were in conflict with some basic church teachings. Did I believe this religion because it was true or simply because my parents believed it and said I should, too? But mostly, I just wanted to sleep in on Sundays and didn’t bother much with the big theological questions.
As soon as I moved away to college I stopped going to church. I am not a morning person and was glad for the extra sleep. I lied to my parents about it for a little while, until they caught me in the lie. They came to my college town once or twice to drag me to church. I distinctly remember my mom’s advice that I should “fake it ’til I make it” in regards to going through the motions until my faith returned. But, it didn’t stick and I only attended church when visiting my parents for a weekend, not under my own volition.
Jump to junior year of college. I was in medieval art history class and we were studying images of “the women at the tomb” – when Mary and Co. went to dress Jesus’s body after the crucifixion and burial. There were so many different representations! Different numbers of guards, angels, women, etc. So I pulled out my roommate’s bible to see which image was correct. Turns out they all were to some degree. The gospel accounts of the event all differ in pretty significant ways. I had a similar experience when doing a project about the Last Supper.
It was quite a revelation to see how contradictory the gospels were and thus started my quest to answer those questions about my faith. After all, if there was a god I’d better be on his good side, right? And if not, then why waste my time? I started reading books and blogs, talking to people about it, and eventually came to the atheistic conclusion. But for a long time I was reticent to really admit it.
Senior year of college I started dating Ben who’s been open about his atheism for as long as I’ve known him and it’s been a one way trip out of the atheist closet ever since. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised how many friends I’ve discovered hold similar views, and I’ve built up a great group of atheist/skeptic/free thinking friends with whom I am openly atheist. This semester at a Secular Student Alliance meeting was the first time I ever said “My name is Jessica, and I’m an atheist” out loud in front of people who didn’t already know that. It was scary and exciting! Granted, in a club called “Secular Student Alliance” I wasn’t likely to experience any backlash for my non-belief.
The hurdle I now face is coming out to my family. I’m a strong supporter of LGBT people being open about who they are, but I’m finding it hard to practice what I preach when it comes to exiting my own proverbial closet. About 2 years ago, my sister found me reading a copy of The God Delusion, at which point I professed my atheism to her, and the reception was less than spectacular. My sister is the most liberal of my relatives, and doesn’t attend church either, but even she found atheism to be a step too far. It was awkward at the time, but thankfully it didn’t damage our relationship in the long run. However, it did put the fear of familial judgement in my heart. If she had a little freak out, just imagine what kind of reaction my conservative, church-going parents, grand parents, etc. will have. Atheists are, after all, the least trusted group in America (although I have seen some other polls suggesting it’s the Scientologists or the Tea Party- not exactly good company to be in, regardless of who is officially least trusted.)
Last week was LGBT coming out day, which is a time some atheists take to come out as well. I considered writing a letter or calling my parents, but ultimately didn’t do it. Then over the weekend I was listening to a Dan Savage podcast (he’s an awesome sex/relationship advice columnist- go look him up!) and a caller was asking about if/when/how she should come out as lesbian to her family. Dan’s advice was that it doesn’t ever get easier. Extra years only add to the deception and feelings of hurt and misunderstanding her family is bound to feel. And anyway, she should live with integrity and be honest about who she is.
Argh! I know his answer wasn’t directed to me explicitly, but damn if it didn’t make me feel really guilty about still being in the atheist closet at almost 25 years old!
Parents are smarter than they get credit for. It seems to be the trend that parents of LGBT children have it figured out before they ever come out officially. My folks are bound to have some inclination- I don’t go to church, Mom and I are Facebook friends where I long ago gave up hiding my atheism, I’ve recently gotten worse at holding my tongue around my family (in a recent conversation with my parents/grandparents I described the book “Heaven Is For Real” as a naive child being exploited by his parents.) Hell, the internet isn’t exactly private and Mom’s probably reading this blog right now. Hi Mom!
So, it needs to be done officially. But I don’t know how. I could do it in person, but that goes against my deeply rooted conflict avoidance, or over the phone-but I tend to get flustered and blabber nonsensically when trying to explain things to people who I know don’t agree. Right now, a letter is the winning idea, but how do I even do that? “Dear Mom and Dad, Surprise!”
I don’t know. That’s where I am currently. Anybody reading this have any advice?