Over the years, I have received a lot of emails and messages from other closeted atheists asking for advice. Most of these messages have been from atheists in high school, wondering what to do in regards to having this secret among Christian friends, parents, and church members. Thanks to a tweet from Godless Iowan, I decided that compiling my advice together could hopefully prove helpful for at least one of my younger readers.
My response to the tweet mirrors my caveat to any teen readers looking for advice: everyone’s situation is different, so there’s not one blanket solution that works for everyone. If you do need help with a specific situation, don’t hesitate to contact me. I didn’t struggle with coming out as atheist until I was in college (about to turn 20), but here are seven tips that can hopefully help closeted teen atheists come out or cope with being closeted.
1. Weigh your options. If you feel like you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, compartmentalize all of your options, complete with pro-con lists. This would commonly be used for people that don’t know if they should come out to their friends or family for fear of losing them. Before making any choices, I suggest listing out what would happen if you do come out now, and what would happen if you don’t; often, even third or fourth options will emerge as well.
2. Wait. If you’re financially dependent on your parents, which could mean living with them while attending middle or high school, or relying on them for college tuition, it is probably best to wait until you’re on your own. I had a lot of my own issues with this, because waiting until I had moved out was eating me up inside, and as I came out to my mom several months ago and am still living at home for a couple more weeks, you can see that it didn’t end up working for me anyways. Even if you hate church, and you want to be able to be your true self, if there’s any chance that being your true self could end you up on the streets, it’s probably not a good idea.
3. Make the wait bearable. When I was still attending church, even while writing for this blog, I found a couple ways to make the wait less miserable. During every bible study and sermon, I would take “sermon notes” on the absolutely wild things that were said by the pastor or vicar. It served almost as a log of how many crazy things I could hear in a single morning. After reading through it just now, the whole thing is pretty funny. Of course, I also shared a couple of them, so you could enjoy them, too.
4. Test the waters. Oftentimes, even if you are waiting to tell your parents until you’re older, you might be dying to know how they would respond if they found out you’re an atheist. If you don’t want to completely come out, try telling them that you learned that one of your classmates is an atheist. See how they react to that and go from there.
5. Drop hints. You can also partially come out in such a way that, when and if the day does come, your atheism is less of a surprise. If there’s something in particular that really troubles you, air your concerns; you might even get your Christian friends thinking about something they may not have considered before. It could be as simple as “I’m having some trouble taking the Noah’s Ark story literally,” or you could incorporate the hypothetical person from #4 and explain that this person wanted your take on a response to the problem of evil, and you’d like to know their thoughts, too.
6. Be sneaky. I know this doesn’t sound like good advice, but hear me out. I spent years of my life living like Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls, and I want to share some of my wisdom with you.
Judging from the name of my blog, you can probably tell that I didn’t wait until I was out of the closet before I started making myself a part of the online atheist community. I think the easiest way is to have an anonymous atheist blog, Twitter account, or Reddit account, but people have managed to make atheist YouTube videos without exposing their identities as well. I also started collecting and reading atheist books from inside the closet; I made sure to purchase hardcover books and swap out the covers from other books so no one would know I was reading The God Delusion. My family bought all of their books from Amazon, so I started buying books from Thriftbooks (which is cheaper anyways).
7. Don’t take it personally. If the wrong person does end up finding out that you’re an atheist before they were meant to, they might not react well. They might tell you you’re going to hell, or you’re doing something wrong, or that you’re hateful of their religion. But I mean it—it’s not you, it’s them. Almost every time I have come out to someone, I’ve found that they become very defensive, and that they see your atheism as an attack on their faith. It seems to me that especially if this person has never (knowingly) met an atheist, they’re not at all comfortable knowing that someone could live a perfectly happy life without their god. It makes them second-guess themselves, and they will take out this doubt on you. And I know how much easier it is to read what I’m telling you than it is to put it into practice and not take things to heart, but it’s the truth. You can be the bigger person no matter what people think of you.