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How Did People Help You Come Out Atheist — And How Did You Help Others?

I need your stories, and your advice!

I’ve already gathered lots of coming-out stories for my new book — a how-to guide about coming out atheist, “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to tell me your stories! All of it is hugely useful and illuminating, and all of it is going in the book — even if I don’t quote you directly.

But there’s a particular kind of information/ story that I’m finding myself in need of. An entire section of my book is devoted, not to how we ourselves can come out, but to how we can help each other come out. So I want to ask you all a new question:

How (if at all) did other people help you come out atheist/ agnostic/ humanist/ skeptic/ freethinker/ other sort of non-believer? And how (if at all) have you helped others come out?

IMPORTANT NOTE: By “coming out atheist,” I do not mean “deciding/ realizing/ accepting that you don’t believe in any gods.” I mean, very specifically, “telling other people that you don’t believe in any gods.” I’m fascinated by stories of how we’ve helped each other realize that there are no gods — but that’s not what this book is about. This book is about being more open about our non-belief.

If anyone else helped you come out as an atheist — who did it, and how? Was it a friend, a family member, a colleague or fellow student? Was it a community — in the flesh, or online? Was it a writer, a videoblogger, a podcaster, a community leader, or someone else you never met but whose ideas or example you found helpful? Was there something specific that they said or did that helped you? Did they give you useful advice, practical assistance, a sympathetic ear, a supportive community, something else? Was it them simply being an out atheist that helped you?

And if you have ever helped someone else come out as an atheist — who did you help, and how? Was it a friend, a family member, a colleague or fellow student? Was it a community — in the flesh, or online? Was there something specific that you said or did that helped them? Did you give useful advice, practical assistance, a sympathetic ear, a supportive community, something else? Was it simply being an out atheist that they said helped them?

Related question: Was there anything that someone else did to try to help you come out atheist — or that you did to try to help someone else — that wasn’t actually helpful, and/or that actually made things more difficult?

And if the answer is “No” — nobody has ever helped you or tried to help you in your process of coming out atheist, and/or you’ve never helped or tried to help anyone else — and you think your answer and the particulars of it are instructive or interesting, please share that as well.

If you have more than one story, please feel free to tell me as many as you like.

It’d be helpful to tell me some details about your story or stories: where you and the other person/ people lived, or any other demographics — yours and/or theirs — that you think might be relevant (age, race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, economic class, type of workplace if it’s a workplace story, etc.)

Also — if I quote you in the book, what name do you want me to use? Real full name, your real first name, your online handle, or a made-up name? (If you don’t specify, I’ll assume you want your online handle used if you reply in comments, and a made-up name if you reply in email.)

You can reply in the comments here — or, if you prefer more privacy, you can email me, at gcgreta (at) doubtfulpalace (dot) com. If you email me, please put the words “Coming Out” in the subject line.

BTW, if you read through the comments here and think, “Oh, so-and-so’s story is really similar to mine, I don’t need to tell mine” — please, please, please, don’t think that. I want to hear every story that people want to tell. In fact, if certain kinds of stories come up over and over again, that will be very useful for me to know.

Thanks so much! Your time starts… now!

Comments

  1. yankychk says

    My story isn’t an exciting or interesting one, but here you go! I never had a moment where I came out as an atheist but most of my friends and family discovered my atheism via Facebook posts and comments. I was raised Presbyterian but started questioning the validity of it in high school and I used to keep my doubts to myself because I didn’t want to offend anyone or make them uncomfortable. When I completely let go of my religion and identified an atheist, I didn’t make a big announcement, because again, I didn’t want to offend anyone or cause discomfort. Eventually I decided that’s who I am, and if others are offended or uncomfortable, that’s their problem and not mine. I’m now pretty vocal about it and don’t try to hide it or downplay it, and it’s been extremely liberating being able to be me :) I think for me, realizing that other people out there had the same questions I did, really helped me. Hitchens, Dawkins and online presences like Seth Andrews and Matt Dillahunty also contributed to my journey to reality – I didn’t feel so alone in my questioning, and it’s awesome knowing there are so many other people that are going through the same things.

  2. briansawilddowner says

    I grew up near Houston, Texas. Hardly the most friendly part of the country for non-believers, although I never personally experienced any sort of discrimination because of it. Just some mild irritation at the religiosity around me. I’d identified as an atheist since I was in elementary school but had only mentioned that to friends, never my family. Some time around 2005 I read Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. Since I didn’t have many friends at the time, I’d talk to my mom about the stuff I was reading. Not quite ready to out myself yet I’d talk about it in a way that made it seem that I was just referring to fundamentalists rather than all religions. But that book made me realize that I really enjoyed reading nonfiction, and began ordering more and more atheist books and DVDs. I couldn’t hide them and didn’t particularly want to. Eventually my mom just asked me if I believed in God at all any more and I told her ‘no’. Not long after that I discovered the Houston Atheist Meetup group, and started attending. I made a lot of great friends through it.

    For reasons I’m not quite sure of, my mom started telling her brother, sisters, and parents about my being an atheist. So quite a few of them their response was “so are we.” Everyone had just been too afraid to talk about it, so it was something no one really knew about each other. My grandmother even talked to me and told me that she’d been having a lot of doubts about it as well!

    While my mom had always been the more religious of my parents, she never seemed quite satisfied with any of the churches we went to. We were regularly trying out new ones, but nothing seemed to be quite what she wanted. Part of that had to do with me having a sister with down syndrome. We mostly just attended the Sunday school classes and skipped the services, so we wanted one with a Sunday school class that would allow my sister to join. We were regularly told that “no one had been moved to help” yet. Or some such nonsense. It was still a bit surprising when a few months after I told my mom I didn’t believe in God, she’d stopped believing as well and even attended some of the Houston Atheist meetups. I guess Dawkins was right when he said some people don’t realize they can pick ‘none of the above.’

    I then decided I should translate my new found love of learning in to an official education and went off to school to become a librarian. After moving to Denton, Texas I immediately searched for what nonreligious groups there were in the area. There was a Meetup group as well as a student group on campus. Both of which I ended up becoming the head of. I remember someone attending one of the student group meetings and saying that they never really thought about it until they saw our group on campus and thought ‘oh, I guess I am an atheist.’ I know a few other people who started identifying as atheist while I knew them. That never came from me arguing with them or showing them why their reasons for believing were bad, it just came from me being honest about who I was and being visible.

  3. grumpyoldfart says

    Before I say anything else, I’ll mention that I live in Australia where religion/atheism is not as important as it seems to be in the USA.

    —–

    I went to Sunday School from age four to age twelve but I was never a believer and always an atheist (long before I had even heard the word “atheist”). On the way home after Sunday School, I would explain to the other kids why I thought the stories we had just heard were probably bullshit.

    I never introduce myself as an unbeliever, but if anyone mentions religion in any conversation I will always point out that I am an atheist. I’ve been doing that for more than sixty years and never been subject to hostility. A lot of people have looked a little surprised when I tell them, but that’s usually as far as it goes.

    I have never sat down and read the bible from cover to cover, but I am very familiar with it and I can easily hold my own against any theist. My favorite technique is to politely listen while they ramble on and wait until they quote a verse for which I have the contradictory verse stored in my memory. Then I casually point out the contradiction and let the theist try explain it away. A few incidents like that and they usually decide not to mention the subject again.

    In all my sixty-seven years, however, I have never convinced a Christian to become an atheist. I was good friends with a deist who was starting to be convinced by my arguments against a “generic” god and he spent several months reading Internet articles about atheists and atheism – but eventually he decided to stick with deism.

    —–

    How (if at all) did other people help you come out atheist/ agnostic/ humanist/ skeptic/ freethinker/ other sort of non-believer?
    Nobody helped. I simply never ever believed. Even as a four year old I would spend most of the Sunday School lesson peering into the teacher’s eyes and trying to figure out, “Does she really believe this rubbish, or do adults just tell lies to kids for the fun of it?” I came to the conclusion that she really did believe it, and wondered how on earth an adult could be so dumb (but I never had the courage to say it to her face).

    And how (if at all) have you helped others come out?
    I don’t think I ever did. Probably because in Australia nobody really cares whether you believe or not (some do, but not many).

  4. grumpyoldfart says

    Adding to comment #3

    I should point out that while I never believed in god, I did believe in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy – but I had some pretty solid evidence for their existence. All those presents and all all those coins under my pillow; where else could they have come from?

  5. doublereed says

    I never really converted. I never believed much at all.

    But I didn’t really come out until my then-girlfriend point-blank asked me about God. She was Christian, I was Jewish. So she asked me what I believe and I said something to the effect of “I think the whole idea of God is silly.” She said something to the effect of “Well I don’t think it’s silly,” and all I could think about was how not smooth I was. lol

  6. badgersdaughter says

    I have a what-not-to-do story. One time, long before I was consciously questioning my faith, when I was in my early 30s, I went into an atheist chat room. I had been an admirer of Ayn Rand since I was a teenager, and the chat was an Objectivist room. I had the idea of trying to answer some questions I had about how Christianity was regarded in Objectivism and whether some synthesis could or could not possibly be achieved. I had an open mind and really wanted to know, and if the chat had treated me kindly and told me where my reasoning was wrong, I think I would have understood. But I didn’t last ten minutes in the chat before my innocent question, “What do you think of people who honestly believe they have faith” was judged not-so-innocent and I was banned. I was upset and thought “atheists are assholes” for a few years after that.

    Later, when I became an atheist and even an atheist chat room moderator, I remembered that experience and I tried to give even trolls the benefit of the doubt. Long experience on the Internet has taught me the extent to which trolls are sometimes that way because they are defensive. I have been instrumental in the deconversion of at least three people I know about, two adults who were already questioning, one seminary student who warmed up to me once he realized I was trying to take him seriously and give him credit for being a thinking man, and one fiery fundamentalist teenager whose original intent was to spread the gospel to the heathen (and who had a hard time in her deconversion because she was dependent on her church for a lot of basic needs). The teenager calls me her “atheist mom” and I’m very proud of her for her huge courage and her ability to navigate the “closet” barriers in her family and her society.

    I think that you can’t trust someone to deconvert, and you can’t trust them to have the courage to stick with their rationality, if you don’t trust their ability to be reasonable and their integrity even before they ask the questions that lead them to the truth. I like to tell people, “We don’t get anything for “making people atheists”. Even if you become an atheist, and then go back to your original religion or on to a different religion, you have the right to think about what the truth is and to make decisions for yourself. Don’t follow any group that says you don’t have that right.”

    If you should quote me, please quote me as “Speedwell”. Thanks.

  7. gbjames says

    My story is not particularly interesting, I’m afraid. I’ve pretty much always been an atheist. The first time I remember ever saying it out loud was, I think, at a family dinner of some sort. I was maybe 50 at the time. I remember my father being distressed that I would say such a thing. He was perfectly comfortable with the idea that his kids might be agnostic, but not an atheist!!!! It struck me as odd because I never though of him as a believer, being an anthropologist who only ever went to church when I was young and my parents made a half-hearted attempt to get me indoctrinated.

    When Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith was released I read it and was impressed by what seemed at the time to be enormous courage. That, and the other books by “The Four Horsemen” convinced me to not only be “out” but to be vocal, wear a red “A”, join FFRF, and so forth. There are few people who know me who aren’t aware of where I stand on this subject. This was a continuing source of difficulty between me and my mom (a woo-ish, Vedanta new-age-Hindu person) until her death last month at the age of 95.

  8. antialiasis says

    I don’t know if this is quite the kind of thing you’re looking for for this book, but although I never really believed in God, I sort of convinced myself I did as a kid because everyone else seemed to, and later switched to identifying as “agnostic leaning towards atheist” when discussions about religion on the Internet had introduced the terms to me, because agnosticism felt more ‘reasonable’ by some golden-mean fallacy. I started calling myself an atheist when a person I respected explained that what I was describing as “agnostic leaning towards atheist” was exactly the same thing she meant when she called herself an atheist.

    So I was never simply a closeted atheist (knowing I was an atheist but keeping it secret), which may or may not disqualify this story from the book, but I did need a bit of nudging to properly realize and accept that what I felt actually was atheism. And for me, the instrumental factors in that realization were 1) people I already liked and respected who were openly atheists, and 2) being educated about what atheism actually is. I think these are both very important either way.

  9. naathcousins says

    I’ve never really “come out” as atheist as such (as in, a dramatic “hey everybody, I’m an atheist” moment) so no-one has individually “helped me come out”. But the fact that many of my friends are openly atheist, and none of the others are the sort of people who try to convert one to their faith; that’s the thing that has made me never need a “coming out” moment with my friends. Also the general cultural assumptions in this country (the UK) are generally open to atheism; and none of my colleagues or acquaintances have ever been shocked to when I’ve said I’m an atheist. The general acceptance of atheism as an available option that sensible people might choose means I’ve never really needed “help” with coming out.

    The only people who have ever resisted my atheism are my parents, which is sort of understandable as they made a promise to do their best to bring us (me + brother) up as good Catholics and we, er, aren’t (so maybe they feel bad about that?). I’m still not really sure whether they accept that I’m an *atheist* as opposed to a “bad Catholic” (that is, they know I don’t attend church and am shacking up with my partner so forth; but I’m not sure they’ve accepted my actual non-belief, of which there is obviously rather less unavoidable evidence).

    Alas I don’t really have any advice on how to create a community that is widely accepting of atheism. But supposing that you are in such a community I think that a good way to re-assure new people that your community is totally accepting is to sometimes talk about the subject in a non-judgemental way. It’s harder with atheism than with things that people actually *do* – much easier to talk about something you actualli *did* “oh, last week I saw my wife’s boyfriend’s parents for the first time; they are super awesome” than “didn’t attend church, again”. But yeah, I guess try to look like people who are accepting of people and then they will be happier to tell you stuff about themselves.

  10. steffp says

    Disclaimer: I’m European, and my coming out as an Atheist was long ago, in the 60s. So my experiences may not be very useful today.
    I grew up in a small German village where everyone was Catholic. Except for the border guards, some of whom may have been Lutherans, but, as people not from here they did not count. I recall I had a classmate who left class during our weekly hour of instruction of Catholicism. Must have been one of those. My mother – so I later learned – had converted to RCC a few years before my birth, merely because in our region living in a religious intermarriage would have prevented my dad from working as a teacher. And like most fresh converts, she tended to be pretty strict in matters of faith. To my dad, being Catholic was merely tradition, and he knew all the traditional ways around the more demanding religious requirements. When traveling on a Friday, he wouldn’t spend time on finding a restaurant that served the prescribed fish. But I’m sure he’d include such in his weekly confession. Sometimes he would carry his more exotic sins to a confessor in the next town.

    So, the tenants of Catholicism were an integral element of community, even society, if not the universe – not that we knew too much about the latter two. There were certain differences, dad’s winks that indicated that some rules were less important than others, as opposed to mom’s freshly acquired Jesuit fundamentalism.
    My parents must have had an unusual ability to bear cognitive dissonance, because they insisted on an intense learning environment, which meant free access to all the books, and additional home-schooling in the afternoon and on weekends to compensate for the poor standards of the village school with its two classes for grades 1 to 4, and 5 to 8. And so much of what they taught us was in direct opposition to their religious convictions. I have never believed that the bible’s account of creation was true: not after the field trip (at 6) to a nearby chalk quarry, where we collected all kinds of ammonites, and used a biology textbook to compare them to other fossils. And the book said millions and millions of years, and that soil does not bring forth plants if you add water. No plants until life came out of the water. And of course the book was right, it was science, and we learned that science could be trusted.
    I’m the second of four children. My elder sister, after a while, attended high school in the next town, and her school books were still more interesting. Geology, Biology, History.

    When I was ten, Dad got a promotion, and we moved to a small town, 100 miles away, but in a region that was as exclusively Lutheran as our county had been Catholic. Now we were part of the minority. Changes one’s view on tolerance. We moved in with mom’s brother, who was a closeted gay and the first atheist I ever met. Strange records and books on his bookshelves. Classical and Jazz music, poetry, art picture books, a complete history of fine arts and philosophy. He held papers and magazines that we had never heard of, and political convictions (timid labor party) that were totally different. And he did not attend church on Sundays.
    He did not mention his atheism at all, but he would patiently explain the difficult words in his history of philosophy, and did not object when we kids sneaked into his room and marveled at his van Gogh and impressionism picture books. He taught us mental discipline, and Kantian audacity of inquiry. This was, I think in retrospect, the foundation of atheism for all of us. But like he stayed in closet with his homosexuality, which was never mentioned, we avoided religious themes. It was a family secret, all the more as our – loving – parents did not share our light-hearted dismissal of all religious restrictions. So many discussions, until we agreed to disagree. So my elder sister and I would attend church and, on our way home, mock the badly composed inconclusive sermons among ourselves. She felt a lot more guilty about her “loss of god” than me, I kind of felt relieved from a bitter and inconsistent tyrant. Maybe the stupid RCC condemnation of sex as sin – I was just discovering the wonders of desire and sex – made it easier for me.

    In 1968 I went to university, a very secular one, where Theologians were merely seen as funny types. The Berkeley revolt hat finally crossed the Atlantic, and religion, with its long tradition of aiding the rulers, was thoroughly discredited. A year later, the law criminalizing homosexuality was abolished, against strong opposition by the Catholic church. Soon after that, my uncle had his “coming out”, presenting his decade-long boy friend, a Danish painter. To see these two lovers, happily blinking in broad daylight, holding hands, was wonderful.
    At our next visit to my parent’s home, my sister and I refused to go to church as usual. We did not meet any resistance – both parents, enraged by the discriminating sermons against “unnatural perversion” and “sinful contraception”, had quit their church attendance. As dad put it: “I’m OK with god, but there are problems with the ground staff” – a position which today many members of the RCC will take.

    Coming out as an atheist was not difficult in a left-leaning student subculture. It was, however, difficult to be outspoken on the job. But in the seventies in Germany, especially in the North, it was perfectly OK to state that one was “not religious”. Different in the Catholic South. I remember attending a birthday party of a colleague in Munich, where my innocent remark that I could not believe that a god that created gall wasps was good led to a jaw-dropping all around. And a proselytizing frenzy, at grade 4 level, flowers and bees. As if their lives depended upon my sharing their naivety. And these were journalists in their forties. I think it will take a lot more gung-ho to be outspoken in such an environment.

    Helpful for the development of my position was that no one tried to convert me to atheism. I was only given the tools – science, philosophy, history. After a while I recognized that I was without any belief in god, but not alone, and happily joined the flock.
    I have a son, who’s majored in “comparative religious science”, We didn’t baptize him, but at school he took obligatory courses in “biblical history”. When he was 14 or so, he toyed with a vague deism, which I found pretty interesting, but refused to lecture him on the weakness of that position. He found out all by himself, discussing it in his peer group.

    I think it’s more important to be present, make one’s position clear, but – unless when attacked by a missionary – refrain from proselytizing. So many people I know don’t dare to stand by their atheism – they have to know they are not alone.

  11. says

    Coming out is a process and a series of discrete encounters. Unless you have a static social lifestyle you do it again and again and again. Beware though that coming out involves compromising positions where you may seem a bit cowardly to other outs that find it easier to be strident. At a family reunion my B-I-L helped me come out; as I hesitated for words to answer the question he interjected “I think Jim is a secularist.” This did help as it seemed less offensive, more digestible, than atheist. In another situation calling one’s self a secularist allows you to talk about a secular society allowing religious diversity and tolerance and takes the discussion away from what you are.

    Sadly the same B-I-L later said I was a militant atheist in front of an A-I-L (aunt in law) who is super devout and constantly interjects religion into her everyday language. I was so mortified I said yes and affirmed it in a dramatic way which scared the crap out of her. If I had had a quick wit at that point I would have a better response. So it helps to model your interactions so you can say things you want as you want and prepare.

    Just yesterday I was at a tool rental center and conversation turned to governance and rules. He remarked that there didn’t need to be government if people just followed the bible. I responded I wasn’t religious. Another euphemism. But one that is often told by farm-labor that doesn’t like church but believes the bible is valuable. Being nonreligious is sufficiently ambiguous that you haven’t fully outed yourself.

    Part of this whole sneaky process is to preserve peace and avoid confrontation. You want to express an opinion but you don’t want to experience immediate rejection–call me foolish. Especially if these are people you will see again and they can hurt or help you.

    My friends who practice a kind of religion often try to make me feel better by telling me they aren’t really religious they just practice it. I hate this and I don’t want to hear how they like me but are going to still follow their asshole religion. They are the same ones that smoke, drink, and do drugs behind their wives backs cuz they can’t be real to the one they should be most real to. Rather than confessing they don’t like religion or they don’t really believe in god it would be better to just talk and be friends. I am not a counselor to their hypocrisy and it puts me in the awkward situation of blessing their bullshit or not.

    The sad side of this is relationships shouldn’t involve such hardcore attitudes that either partner feels they must lie. SInce I happen to be around men the most it is the women in this case that are so adamant that their spouse be this way or that that they lie and cheat their transgressions. It’s hard for me to lie fully and it takes practice for me to collude. Yet if I didn’t have dishonest friends I would have no friends at all–there’s a sad comment. Rural areas and tight families don’t allow a lot of choice.

    Since I am rarely in the position to help others come out I don’t know how to help that except theoretically. I would guess that immediate and appropriate support is alway helpful.

    Every conversation requires adaptation to the audience. When talking to a musician I go into a musical vernacular. Always thinking of individual vernaculars may make you seem like a chameleon but it also helps gain trust and enhance conversation. Then when you do inject something contrary it has a better chance of being heard. Evaluate and cater to your audience.

    In coming out I would recommend the classic brief-do-debrief cycle where you previsualize your conversations so you’re ready, do them, and then dissect how it could have gone better and how you will do it next time. For this don’t ruminate, don’t contemplate, don’t meditate but treat it as interview practice.

    Don’t out others unless they are ready. Don’t even play with outing others. Even if they have outed themselves in one venue don’t assume they are generally out. LGBT types are pretty familiar with the whole outing process but I have found LGBT communities very widely in how they out themselves and others. Be aware of environment and situation. By listening to the subtleties and nuances of the social and personal dynamics you can better adjust your own additions.

    Use less harmful scenarios to out yourself. Missionaries and unfamiliar proselytizers aren’t going to ruin your life. I know it seems like it’s giving them time but outing yourself to a JW will help you get comfortable with expressing yourself contrarily. Friends who are religious can still be good interlocutors if you are careful and will give insight into what makes them religious, why, and how they can and are tolerant, and may help you understand motivations for staying religious.

    Of course talking about your outing experiences with others gives you ideas and eliminates feelings of aloneness. If you have a partner that is religious or doesn’t want to out themselves don’t try to convert them, don’t brag about how great you outed yourself, and don’t bitch about how you got busted when you outed. Yet, if they happen to be with you when you are in a potential outing don’t hold back unless it will harm them.

    Hope this helps add to the conversation…

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