What if you had a secret that isolated you from nearly everyone you knew? What if your secret was so weighty that you couldn’t tell your own mother for fear it would tear her apart? What if you had to create a support system of complete strangers to survive?
This is what it is like for CA, a student at a conservative Christian college. She is like any other student: she studies hard, enjoys great friendships, and even participates in the marching band. But CA has a secret that separates her from the rest of the student body. There is a whole side of CA that her friends at school, and her family at home, don’t know.
CA’s secret is that, in an ocean of Christians, she is not one of them.
CA belongs to a staunchly Lutheran family. She grew up surrounded by Christian influence: her mother is the organist at their church and one of her brothers-in-law is a pastor. But around the age of eleven, in a sixth-grade science class, CA began to question some doctrines she had been taught in church and gradually she left behind kernels of her family’s beliefs. She never told anyone her doubts.
Eventually, as a young adult, CA realized that she no longer believed in God at all. This is her secret: CA is an atheist.
Being an atheist puts a solid iron wall between CA and her family, particularly her devout mother. The wall is invisible to them, but CA sees it and feels it every day. Desiring to spare her family from heartbreak, CA went on pretending to be a Christian all through her childhood. She attended church grudgingly but obediently, and eventually, she even chose a Christian college so she could continue to hide her unbelief. CA has kept her secret for so long that she has mastered the art of avoiding conversations and sidestepping questions that might uncover to the uncomfortable truth.
At college, too, CA continues to guard her secret. She finds herself surrounded on all sides by Christianity and everyone she meets assumes that she, too, is of that faith. She does not know another soul at college who is not a Christian. She feels terribly misunderstood by her peers and professors. She is required to attend a chapel program throughout the semester, where once recently a chapel speaker spoke out harshly against atheists. While a few select friends know of her unbelief, she fears the responses others might have.
Yet CA is not fully alone. Although she hides her lack of faith from nearly everyone she knows, CA has found an audience of strangers with whom she can be honest. For about a year now, CA has kept a blog to write what she can’t speak, to share her experiences of being an Atheist in secret. This is where her pseudonym comes from – CA, the Closet Atheist.
CA’s blog has accumulated over 500 followers, and these have become a great encouragement for her, an online community of support. Her followers include like-minded atheists as well as Christians who care to know more about the hearts others. Their conversations are rich, and the opportunity to share openly about her atheism is one that CA dearly cherishes.
Nevertheless, for the sake of protecting her anonymity, CA’s blog followers can’t know the details of the rest of her life, and her family and college friends can’t know about her atheism. So, she leads a double life: the two halves of herself can’t be shared with one other, with only one exception. The only person who fully knows CA is her beloved fiancé. Also an atheist, he is the only person she can talk to freely about every facet of her life. He is her greatest support and her best friend, and CA loves him deeply.
While her blog followers and her fiancé provide CA with invaluable support, she cannot help still feeling weighed down by the difficulties of being a “closet atheist.” She is constantly hiding things, like her collection of books on atheism. She can’t use websites that automatically track browsing history. When she blogs in the company of others, she holds her phone close and shields her computer screen from prying eyes. She avoids talking about Twitter and other social media accounts which are linked to her WordPress account so that her friends don’t accidentally stumble upon her full identity.
And in addition to these practical ramifications of her position, CA constantly feels misunderstood. When people don’t realize that their audience includes non-believers, they sometimes can say offensive things without even realizing it. As an example, CA was recently privy to a conversation where her friends ardently insisted that couples who are not Christians could not possibly stay together. CA, who is an atheist engaged to an atheist, was rightfully irked by such a sweeping assumption.
She also struggles with the sadness of hiding such a heavy secret from her mother. Deep down, CA knows that if her mother became aware of her atheism, she would be deeply grieved and disappointed. Yet there is always “something in you that just wants your parents to be proud of you,” CA said. She sometimes tries to find ways to make her mother happy eve n if it conflicts with her atheism. CA’s marching band played a Christian hymn this year, and when her mother was there to watch their performance, CA found herself in tears hoping her mother could be proud of her.
CA’s situation is a profoundly difficult one. Her life is fraught with secrets and fears. Yet CA’s experiences are not all bad. Her blog, especially, provides a wonderful source of meaning and joy. “My blog is my favorite thing in the whole world… It’s my whole life,” she smiled. Over the years, she has appreciated the process of self-discovery that has led her to this point. She looks ahead in hopeful anticipation to the day when she can share the truth with her mother, and finally, fully, come out of the closet.
In the meantime, she hopes that those around her will grow in kindness and awareness, realizing that not everyone believes as they do. I’m inspired by her story and her precious heart. I’m inspired by her parting words to me: “Pay attention to what you say to people,” she encouraged me gently, “be more aware of who you’re talking to.” And I will.