The Fear of Coming Out as Atheist

If you’ve read any of my blog posts about my life before, then you’ll know that one of my greatest struggles is my fear of coming out to the world as an atheist. Through writing and talking to my readers, I’ve somewhat made a plan for coming out, and I know a little about what to do, who I can tell, and who I should wait to tell. If you want more of a backstory on that, I recommend taking a look at Why I Can’t Come Out and How to Tell Your Friends That You’re an Atheist.

In my post on telling my friends that I’m an atheist, I mentioned a friend that I was dying to tell. I had planned on a day when I would come out to her, but on that day, I ended up being sick and staying in bed. Five months later, I finally told her. In that post, I said that, if I’m ready, the best way to come out to someone is when it comes up in conversation and becomes a relevant piece of information, but doing it that way isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’ve found myself avoiding any situation in which it would come up. For example, if someone asks me if I went to church today, I would say “no” and stop there.

One of the main reasons I wanted to tell this friend that I’m an atheist was because of this blog; she’s a writer and would probably be shocked to see that I am one, too. She’s a Christian, but I knew that she knows other atheists and that she wouldn’t try to convert me. I decided that it was time to tell her when she invited me to a group prayer, which made for a good opportunity for me to tell her why I declined to attend. The conversation went exactly how I expected it to:

Me: “So…. [awkward pause because coming out makes me extremely uncomfortable and weird] I’m….. an atheist…… and I have a blog where I write all about it!!”

Friend: “You’re….a writer!!??!?!??!”

Me: very appreciative of the topic changing from atheism to blogging because I don’t like to talk about it

As I predicted, my friend was really accepting of the fact that I was an atheist; in fact, she had already guessed it after I declined going to the group prayer. But her acceptance didn’t change how much I dislike coming out. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t really make a difference who I’m telling, from my roommates, to my classmates, to my friends. Even after my first post almost a year ago, when I tried getting myself used to saying “I am an atheist,” to be honest, I’m still not comfortable saying it to people. I think this is because it immediately creates a wall, which may or may not be entirely in my head, between me and the person who I’m telling in which they’re a part of my school’s Christian majority and I am not. Suddenly I’m part of a minority, who people accept but still disagree with, and who is pitied for having to live as a poor atheist in a Christian college, who won’t fit in the same way again after announcing that she’s different than everyone else.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was at band camp with one of my best friends. Although it was a public high school, my friend, and presumably most of the student body, was Christian. An alumnae who neither of us had met before came back to visit our section leader, and she mentioned that she had converted to Wicca, which is a very harmonious and peaceful religion (if it may be called that), which, if I remember correctly, she said believed that there are spirit guides in nature and in the trees, etc.

At the time, I believe I identified as agnostic; I didn’t believe in God, but I was entirely in the closet. As far as everyone, including my friend, knew, I was a Christian.

As soon as this poor girl told us that she was a Wiccan, my Christian friend lost it on her. She was so, so angry that someone could reject God, not believe in Christianity, believe in such silly things as tree spirits, and not submit to Jesus Christ as their lord and master for all eternity. I watched in terror.

I don’t remember the rest of their argument, but afterwards, my friend asked me how in the world, as a true Christian, this girl announcing that she’s a Wiccan didn’t infuriate me. I was shocked. Were all Christians supposed to show this kind of outrage when encountering those of other beliefs? I was so confused, as I was someone who lazily identified as a Christian because she had to but didn’t believe in God. Atheists were filthy and bad, but I was one, and for reasons like this, I wouldn’t admit it to myself until five years later.

I think that encounters such as this one with my friend and different talks that I’ve had with my mother have instilled in me a fear of coming out that is there no matter who it is that I’m telling. Being an atheist shouldn’t be a big deal, but it causes me to believe that my friends will perceive me in a different way, whether they do or not.


Read more:
I Am an Atheist

41 Replies to “The Fear of Coming Out as Atheist”

  1. I fear coming out (at work) because I might not have a job anymore. In my part of the country, Christianity is kind of a big deal. “What church do you go to?” is usually asked before “What’s your name?”

    (I’m saving up to move somewhere more tolerant, eventually.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Since I live in a more “tolerant” area of the U.S., I would be interested in knowing what would happen if you answered the question about church with … “I don’t.” Would you immediately be black-balled? Would you be asked for your reasons? Would you be the target for instant evangelism?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nan, in my case, they know I don’t go to church, but they assume I’m just “exploring my options”. I didn’t tell them this, they just assume it, because it’s inconceivable to them that someone would not only skip church but also be convinced that God isn’t real. It means I get regular church recommendations. (“You’d love our new pastor! He’s so energized!”) I fear that if they knew I have never believed in God, I would suddenly have fewer career opportunities (promotion, travel, training, etc.) — not necessarily intentional, perhaps, but I would certainly be seen as some kind of creature; an outsider.

        For example, if I hung up an atheist poster in my cubicle (the way everyone else hangs up crosses, inspirational quotes from the Bible, etc.), I assume I’d immediately receive a talking-to about how it makes people “uncomfortable”, etc.

        Honestly, I’d rather not rock the boat.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Hope the boat can be big enough to include what you do believe about truth, good and love. A problem with the label of atheist is that it does not tell what you do believe in . Who or what is the god you do not believe in?

          Early Christians were called atheists because they did not believe in the Roman gods. Today in places where Christians are a majority, would you say the key rejection is of Jesus’ resurrection?

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          1. “Who or what is the god you do not believe in?”

            All gods I’ve heard of. The only possibilities that make the remotest amount of sense: (1) a deist-type god who set the Big Bang in motion but then moved on to other pursuits, or (2) a capricious god who does not act in our best interests.

            “…would you say the key rejection is of Jesus’ resurrection?”

            No. My key rejection of the Christian god (YHWH/Jesus) is of its very existence. I suspect that if the God of the Bible could be proven to exist, I would still choose not to worship such an evil thing.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Seems like we’re way off-topic now, Chris. We were talking about the fear of “coming out” as an atheist. I don’t see how your blog is related. I don’t see how “DNA music” is related either. I’m not trying to be rude, but I didn’t come here to talk about DNA or poetry. Thanks in advance for understanding.

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            2. The related issue is what words you use to identify your beliefs. Coming out as an “atheist “ does not tell what you believe in and tends to focus on rejecting the beliefs of others. For example, you could use the label seeker for seeking truth, love and meaning in the sciences, arts and human relationships. My blog lyrically explores logic, science and expressions of what is G__d.

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            3. “The related issue is what words you use to identify your beliefs.”

              But the topic is “coming out as an atheist”, which isn’t about my beliefs. “Atheist” wouldn’t even be a word if religion didn’t hold so much sway in human society. Just like there’s no word for people who don’t believe in Santa Claus or unicorns. Because Santa Claus beliefs and/or unicorn beliefs aren’t writing laws or pressuring other people.

              “For example, you could use the label seeker…”

              If that’s what we were talking about, then sure. But “seeker” is already what my coworkers think I am, and I’ve let them think it because it smooths out many conflicts. “Coming out as an atheist” would be the opposite of letting them think I’m a “seeker”.

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  2. DON’T come out to anyone right now. Not for a long time. You really have no idea how your family will react. To most people, “atheist” is the same as “satanist, communist, nazi, etc” You will have to endlessly defend yourself, over and over and over, to people who will NEVER try to listen or understand.

    Your atheism might come out when it’s time to plan your wedding to your atheist fiance, unless you elope. It certainly will when you have kids, and your family wants him baptized. But by then you will be older, not financially tied to your family, and with more maturity be better able to cope with whatever your family throws at you. And it might be best to use a word other than “atheist”, like “humanist”.

    While you are now at school, or visiting your family at home, and have to go to church, just pretend you’re in a play reading dialogue and singing songs, lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s basically my plan. I don’t want to come out until after my wedding, which will probably be in a year or so, and I think I can fake it enough for planning for that. My mom knows I’m not super into church as much as my older sisters, and I wouldn’t mind having some hymns and bible verses involved in the wedding, as I don’t mind hymns, and it can be a last big “Christian” thing for me to do. Plus, I feel like the wedding itself is just a ceremony that you have to get to, but the marriage itself is more important, so if it’s Christian, just not too much, so that my family enjoys it, that’s okay with me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh no! I should have read this blog first! Now I can see why you are so afraid to ‘come out’. You poor thing! As ironic as this may sound and as stupid as you will find this comment, ‘Have you prayed about it? I challenge you to write God a note asking him to help you find a way to tell all your loved-ones and friends that you do not believe in him. Yes I sound like a complete fool telling you to do this, but have some fun with it. It will at least help you with your atheist anxiety. Talking to someone you don’t believe in about how they can help you confess how you feel about them is nuts and fun at the same time. But your Christian friend should not have been angry at the Wicca girl. Jesus would not have done that at all. God too, although sad for your Wicca friend, is not looking down as mad as a wasp. He has compassion on her (and the fool Dawkins) and wants to show her who the real Jesus is. But it is plain to see that in your experiences you have not met the real Jesus in anybody. I’m not surprised this is such a stress for you. But you need to be yourself and let people know who you really are. Wandering around pretending to be a Christian when you are not, is not helping you. Has your angry Christian friend read this blog yet?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While others should respect your freedom of belief, saying you are a non-believer does not say what you believe. And the label of atheist often is viewed as saying you know there is no God even if intended to say you do not believe in God. Either way it begs the question of what is the God you do not believe in.

    How else could you describe how your beliefs? Seeker? Universalist? I have used the term eternal humanist as focusing on the human condition here and now while recognizing that forms of life persist after death and seeking to understand our indetities.

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  5. Thanks for this honest and thoughtful post, and thanks to the many commentators for your good ideas. I’ve shared some comments at theistsandatheists.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/coming-out-as-religiously-unconventional/
    — Rev. Roger Schriner

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I understand why you are afraid, but you shouldn’t be. No one should have to live their life unable to be themselves. You don’t live in North Korea! You shouldn’t have to justify your beliefs, and if anyone expects you to, or takes against you, ask them whether they believe in freedom of belief. Ask them whether they think someone should be free to believe in Christianity if they live in a Muslim community, or Judaism if they are in a Hindu community. Being an atheist is no different to that. Ask them if they consider themselves to be a Fascist, because if they don’t respect your right to freedom of belief, that is undoubtedly what they are!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi, I was like this. I grew up in Southern Ireland and my mother is still a very devote Catholic.
    I tried to speak with her about it but she told me I was wrong. For a while I was thinking how I would tell people. Then after awhile of mulling this over, I came to the conclusion who needs to know?. If they ask, I will tell them but I do not need to announce it. I didn’t announce it, but over time it came out here and there. To this day I still have issues with my mother, but to the majority of people who are religious, I try to put out the concept that we have a common interest -to have a more loving, peaceful world.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. i think you’ve nailed it. In most instances, it’s a lot easier and kinder to just go on as you have been, without announcements and such, and let people come to their own perception of who and what you are.
      As you say, if someone asks, tell ’em, and go on from there. Most folks really don’t much care. And if they do, I figure that’s their problem.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Coming out is a tough thing and the ripples last a very long time. Those we are closest to tend to get hurt the most and fight back the most.

    5 years later my wife and I still struggle over my not only being proudly atheist, but daring to engage and challenge Christians. It’s interpreted as me hating the church and the threat to our marriage is genuine. Remember that I’m not in the bible belt, I’m in liberal England with no fundies in sight.

    I get the fear, it’s justified because it hurts people and hurt people shout and hurt back.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m glad you came out to someone. When I was questioning things as a freshman in highschool, I didn’t want any of my friends to know about it, either. This was also in a public school, and yet I assumed most people there were Christian’s of some sort, though their character didn’t at all show it. So I can understand the fear, and I hope you can overcome it, if not all at once, someday.

    Also, thankfully, there are those of us who don’t act like your best friend in highschool. Personally, if I knew you IRL, I would want to know how you really think and feel. I don’t want you to be afraid to live as yourself and not as a dancer in a masquerade. I wish I could be with you, and there for you. Regardless, I wish you well as you conqueror this fear.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My first thought on coming out to your family is “There’s no rush”. Once you say this, it can’t be unsaid. And if you are financially dependent on them, I think it’s a good idea not to tell them until you are supporting yourself.

    My second thought is that once you are ready to tell them, it’s OK not to tell them everything all at once. For many de-converts, including me, it took a while to discard belief, and then another long time to get comfortable enough with that to call myself an atheist. If you just drop this whole thing on your folks, that’s expecting them to be able to deal with your change all at once. If there’s any way to let them in on your journey a little at a time, with time in between to see that you have not become an evil person, that might help ease them into it.

    I’ve also heard advice that it’s good to have an ally within your family before spilling the beans. If you have an uncle or cousin, or some other relation or close family friend that you trust and that you know is non-religious, or at least more open minded, it might not be a bad idea to have some quiet talks with them first, so you have a supporter when you finally do have the talk with your parents.

    (I may have said some of this stuff to you before, I can’t remember. Ah, well, that comes with getting old!)

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Acceptance must be a generational thing. I’m a gen Xer and I’ve not been received too well. When I’ve come out to Christians my age (or to baby boomers, friends and family) I’m treated as though I’ve betrayed them. They immediately become angry with me. The first person I came out atheist to was a dear friend. She’s a Messianic Jew from NYC with a gay dad and friends of every faith imaginable and of no faith at all. She was furious with me and I’ve not heard from her since then (four years ago). I would say I lost all of my Christian friends. However, the truth is, I didn’t have many Christian friends to begin with the decades I was a devout one myself. I never found them that kind or sincere. Again, maybe it’s a generational thing. The only Christian I’m close to is one of my many sisters. Even she believes I deconverted at 39 because of our severely neglectful and abusive religious parents. She mentioned it briefly in a phone call and I didn’t acknowledge it. It wasn’t true and it kind of hurt. If anything, I stayed a Christian as long as I did because of the abusers I had from church and at home. I was striving to hold onto Jesus in spite of horribly disgusting people and events.

    Best wishes to you, CA. I’m incredibly happy that your outing went well with your close Christian friend. I hope it stays “well”. Sometimes people seem okay with you at first then things change. I hope you continue having experiences like this with her as well as others, regardless of their faith.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I understand that fear when you know the people you want to tell believe in God so strongly. I was once one of those people for a few years. I was extremely vulnerable when I joined church and it became my life line. I think now I believed it because I needed it to be true, but at the time you couldn’t have convinced me God wasn’t real. I would have pitied anyone that didn’t believe, and I was taught that those that strayed and left were always the ones at fault, sinners, rebelling, in need of help. And somehow it was so convincing because it was said almost in a loving way if that makes any sense at all! I’ve just read that back and I’d like to punch my former self, ha!

    So no it’s not as simple as love being enough as is the natural thought, because we’re not talking about compromising over what movie to watch at the weekend.. It’s a complete clash of belief systems that literally drives how we all live our lives, what’s important to us, what we value, what we protect, what we strive for.

    I believe 2+2=4, if I found out one of my sons thought 2+2=36 I’d correct them, because I think basic math is fairly important and I’d feel obligated to educate them. I could not knowingly let them go about their business thinking 2+2 was 36 and embarrass themselves and possibly make avoidable mistakes 😳. A simplistic comparison but you get my point?! 😬

    Since leaving church and the idea of God altogether I’ve had mixed reactions. The ones you’d hope for, where love is enough (and actually their belief in God was enough where they didn’t think this was something they could control anyway so they’ll just keep praying for me and God will do his thing), to reactions of anger, offence and rejection that has lead to complete relationship breakdown.

    I hope your mum will react in the way you need whenever that day comes, if it ever does. I hope friends do not treat you differently, pity you or distance themselves. All you can do is what is right for you each day. You will know the day when you have to say something, if that day ever comes. Right now it seems as much as it leaves you with conflict to stay in the closet, the cost of that is one you are willing to pay. But all relationships come with costs and compromise, we all do it every day, it’s just not always as obvious as it is for situations like this.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Perhaps anyone who gets upset and righteous with someone announcing their atheism might be the same reason people get upset with those announcing they’re gay or anything else. It’s not because YOU’RE atheist it’s because it challenges THEIR own belief and they were all comfy and secure in their belief and now you’ve resigned from the club. Yikes!!

    Liked by 6 people

  14. I have never come out as an atheist, and I won’t.

    Yes, I am non-religious. And I have not kept that a secret. Many people know that I am not religious. Some of them even call me an atheist, and I am not bothered by that.

    But I won’t publicly declare myself as fitting the A-word. Because I am never sure whether the A-word isn’t just an alternative spelling of “Asshole”. Some (but not all) of the people who declare themselves to be atheists do so in a way that makes them look like assholes.

    So I shall remain non-religious. But I am also not anti-theist. I can respect a person for who they are, and their theism should not detract from that. As Rodney King famously said, “Why can’t we all just get along.”

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think what you think and why you think it are much more important than what label you choose to assign to yourself. I cautioned my daughters (both atheists) that it’s OK if they choose not to use the “A-word” and just say things like “I’m not religious” instead. Especially when they were kids, so many of the other kids had been drilled with “atheists are bad people” that it was often easier to avoid that label because of all the misconceptions that went with it.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree with Ubi. My personal circumstances rarely include discussions on religion (outside of blogs), but if the topic does come up, I tend to use the term “non-believer.” Whether we agree or not, Christians have been taught that “atheist” is a bad word (almost as bad as a “cuss” word! 😉 ). So in order to avoid dissension or hurt feelings, it’s may be better (under certain circumstances) to come up with an alternate term. JMO

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I agree with Ubi, as to labels. You are not what you believe, any more than you are the movie you saw last week or the kinds of books you read. You are an amalgam of all the things in your life. So are your friends, family, acquaintances, and it might be time to start leaving off the labels (at least mentally)for yourself and your friends.
        Think of yourself as ‘you’ and your friends as who they are, in toto, not what they believe.
        Labels can define, but they can also force people into unwelcome boxes that they neither deserve or want.

        Liked by 2 people

  15. I’m looking at this from a totally different angle, since I never felt the need to ‘come out’ to anyone, for any reason. Then again, I wasnt surrounded by a Christian college and very vigorous friends who actually attend such things as prayer meetings and bible studies.

    That has to make a difference.

    One thing stands out, and I think it obtains, even here. Someone told me, more than once, that if they are truly your friends, they will be anyway, no matter the circumstances. And if they aren’t, then you are well rid of them. And that counts in this sort of thing too. Your true friends won’t care. The rest, don’t matter.
    And anyone who values their religion above their friends probably has other problems as well.

    Liked by 8 people

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