I wrote in January about the events that led up to my untimely coming out conversation with my mother. First, my fiance’s and my “immoral” private life was leaked, which led to my family expecting us to stop and being appalled when we refused to apologize. This ended in me coming out to my mother as an atheist as a way to provide some explanation for why we didn’t play by her Lutheran rules. After talking to her and to my oldest sister, the wife of a pastor, my fiance and I safely assumed that her pastor-husband would have moral qualms, if not strict religious restrictions, from marrying together two dirty sinners such as the two of us, as had been our original plan. We informed him that we had decided to go a more secular way—getting married at our reception hall using a non-pastor officiant—to avoid this cognitive dissonance.
This sudden change of plans was very unexpected for my sister’s husband after we had previously asked him to perform the ceremony. My mom had made it plainly clear to me that having a pastor marry us, only to inform him after the wedding that we had been atheists all along, was deceptive and dishonest. And unapologetic premarital sex hadn’t added up for them if we were indeed aware of its cosmic implications for our afterlives. So parallel to the events in January, we found it only right to come out as atheists to both of them.
Living three hours away from my sister and her husband, my fiance and I drove to meet them at a restaurant halfway between us. The conversation started with them asking why we had suddenly abandoned our plans of having our pastor-in-law officiate. In their eyes, we could have met with him and agreed to alter our private behavior according to his pastorly will, and we could have gone through his marriage counseling sessions so that he would marry us. We knew, of course, that this would require lying about one aspect that would deem us unfit to be wed by a Lutheran pastor—premarital sex—but we would have to lie about what we see as a far greater disqualifier—the fact that we are both atheists. In order to clear up the confusion and assure him that we would not fulfill his requirements, we decided to let him make an informed decision instead of us making it for him.
With this being his first time to ever come out to someone as an atheist, my fiance had been extremely nervous and didn’t know what to expect or what to say (but he did a great job). When the opportunity came for us to drop this extremely surprising and unexpected bomb of apostasy on them in a family restaurant (I wish there was an easier way to tell someone you are an atheist), my fiance worked up the courage to be the one to say it. He started off, “well, we want you to be able to make an informed decision… and… well… we… we’re…” Saying it is really hard. If you’ve ever come out as atheist then you know. My first time saying it aloud to my roommates, it took me a while to get it out. But this being my fourth time coming out to someone, I knew that it’s just like ripping off a band-aid and there’s no way to make it sound nice. I picked up where he left off: “We don’t believe in God. We never have. Soo… there. Uh, surprise!”
I think I broke my sister. She froze, starting a lot of questions but never making it past “uhh… wh… when…. uh… who… since when… what…?” It’s a lot to process. After that, my fiance and I were really just there to answer questions. When my sister regained some of her composure back (almost completely forgetting about the previous topic of wedding officiating), she first wanted to know how I got to this point of unbelief. I explained what is becoming a common mantra of mine: “I never truly believed in God except when I was a really little kid. When I was in elementary school science class, I was exposed to non-religious descriptions of how the earth formed. After that, I didn’t really care about religion or church until I got to college where I started learning more about Christian belief and, not buying it for a second, started learning about what I do believe. Soon enough, I was pretty confident in my unbelief.”
Her husband raised a point that I’ve found myself pondering in the days since our discussion. He said, “So your entire worldview, and your eternal destination of heaven or hell, is all following out of your choice of college? Think about it this way: whether or not God exists doesn’t change because of where you went to college.”
I was taken aback. I do hate my college, but I’m glad it made me an atheist; otherwise I would probably be some kind of apathetic agnostic deist. But either way, I decided that his argument worked better in my favor than in his. I don’t know much about whether he was raised in a religious household, but of course I know my sister was. She is Lutheran because my mother is Lutheran because her father was Lutheran, and it goes generations back. My father was Catholic before marrying my mom, but she converted him to Lutheranism, so my sisters and I were raised Lutheran instead of Catholic.
Isn’t it convenient that Lutheran doctrine is true and superior to Catholic doctrine in their eyes? Does my sister not realize that if events had turned out any differently that she would be Catholic? Of course this can be applied so many different ways, in such questions as “if you had been born in the Middle East, you would believe in Allah,” etc., etc. I also think of the saying, “Science doesn’t care if you believe in it or not.” This also came up as my fiance tried to explain that our two worldviews should be treated equally: different interpretations of the same evidence, being the Bible and nature. Our brother-in-law pushed against my fiance’s explanation that “what is true for you isn’t necessarily true for us” in that it implies that what is true depends on the person when in fact, something is either true or it’s not. I can’t help but point out that a lot of what this pastor believes is demonstrably false, and yet it is the foundation of his whole life and vocation.
Our pastor-in-law had more questions along the lines of “so, what do you believe?” and “what do you think of what I do?” To the first question, I can’t help but respond with “about what?” My beliefs can’t be summed up in a word the way that theirs can by the word “Lutheran”. There are things that I believe regarding origins, the afterlife, free will, morality, abortion, and much more. But I wouldn’t know where to start when explaining it all. Conveniently, my apologetics paper about the worldview of secular humanism explains a lot of my beliefs pretty well, and it turned out to be a really helpful tool when coming out to people who don’t know my beliefs. Maybe it can even help some of you come out as secular humanists who don’t want to have to explain to people what that means.
One specific question that they had regarding our beliefs was that of the afterlife. My sister asked, “So all of our grandparents…” (both pairs have passed away) “…with your beliefs, where are they?” I explained that they’re in the same place they were before they were ever born, just not anywhere and not inconvenienced by it. Our brother-in-law said, “So they just don’t exist anymore?” We replied yes. He said, “That’s pretty bleak, don’t you think?” as if it were less likely to be true because it sounds hopeless at first. My fiance explained that with a view like this, we value our limited time on Earth all the more and that we live for now instead of living for death.
This talk of afterlife-implications took a predictable turn. After being reassured how positive we both are that there is no god (we are probably both around 6.9 on the Dawkins scale), my sister posed the question, “but… what if you’re wrong?” I asked her to clarify just to be sure it was going where I thought it was. She continued, “well, if atheism exists…” (my fiance and I both cringed but bit our tongues) “…and I’m a Christian, then I lose nothing. But if Christianity is true, then we go to heaven and you go to hell.” It’s an understandable question to have. At the same time, though, I absolutely love picking apart and refuting Pascal’s Wager. I find it fascinating. But when she asked that, I responded, “Wow, well, that’s kind of a big question that can start a whole theological discussion. It’s… just… ugh.”
My fiance knew that I love responding to Pascal’s Wager. He eagerly waited for me to present all of my logical arguments about it and prove why “what if you’re wrong?” is the worst question ever. But I didn’t. Just like when I came out to my mom and she posed that I try to disprove answered prayers and I could have demonstrated the entire paradox of prayer, but I chose not to. I discovered that my unimaginably non-confrontational nature takes over in in-person conversations, and all of the arguments that I love so much to study and know so much about stay locked inside my head. There is so much that my fingers will say that my lips will not.
Because of this, you could imagine what a hard time I had when the question was posed, “So, do you think that Christians are stupid… brainwashed… or just never asked any questions?” This echoed my mother’s question weeks ago of, “So do you think I’m stupid?” What am I supposed to say? “Yeah, you’re stupid and brainwashed! Love you guys!” That’s not even how I see it. They’re not stupid, but they were indoctrinated. And of course I think they are wrong. But being indoctrinated into a religion doesn’t make you stupid. And asking questions about that religion often leads people to atheism, but a lot of religious people do ask questions about it and find that Christianity is compatible with satisfactory answers for them. So I don’t know why each individual Christian believes what they do, but indoctrination and fear of questions aren’t uncommon. My response was stuttered: “I guess it might be some combination of the three?” As if it were to be some consolation, they assured us that they think we’re stupid for not believing, too. At least we are somewhat agreed on something.
In the words of my sister, us coming out as atheists answered a lot of their questions about our heathenly wedding plans, but for every question it answered, it raised three more. As with my mother, I had never planned to come out this early, because coming out is so hard. And scary. And uncertain. And vulnerable. I was reassured when my sister was actually more upset that I hadn’t come out to her when I first had doubts in elementary school or even greater doubts in college. And they confirmed how angry they would have been if we had had our pastor-in-law officiate our wedding, and have our sister be a bridesmaid at our church, only to tell them afterwards that we were atheists. As usual, however painful coming out is, it was the right thing to do; after all, now my sister made an informed decision to support us as a bridesmaid, and her husband understandably declined to officiate for us although he agreed to attend. Just because we don’t agree on questions of religion or sexual morality, we didn’t let this diminish how much we love, care for, or support one another.