Two comments from me before I get into this letter, which I am posting with permission, unedited except for the writer’s name.
One: Jean’s experience is surprisingly common. One of the most common — and most surprising — patterns that I found when I was researching Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why was that coming out atheist very often turns out better than people think or fear it will. Virtually every out atheist I’ve read or spoken to has said they’re glad they did it, and many more of them than I expected said that the people in their lives handled it much better than they’d imagined. This experience isn’t universal, of course — but it’s surprisingly common.
Two: Once again, this is why I do this.
Hi Ms. Christina,
I am a closeted atheist, and I just purchased your book “Coming out Atheist” I have not finished it yet, but am already finding it helpful. Tonight, I had my first coming out experience. I had not planned to do it yet, but I kind of set myself up to be forced into it. I’m sure by now, you are sick of coming out stories, but if you want to read more, mine is below.
I only very recently decided I was an atheist, and initially, I saw no reason to tell anyone. However, as I became more active in local atheist groups, I became frustrated at having to lie to family and friends about where I was going. This weekend, I attended a FFRF conference, and I told everyone I was at a veterinary conference. I told work I was visiting friends since they knew there were no vet conferences going on. It is ridiculous for a 40 year old to have to sneak around. It makes me feel like a 16 year old who tells her parents she’s going to a friend’s house when she is really going to a party! I came back from the conference excited about what I’d learned, but couldn’t tell anyone.
My family are mostly Christian. None are extremely fundamental, but several are devout. God and religion are the most important things in my sister’s life. However, she is one of the kindest and least judgmental people I know, so I elected to come out to her first.
Because of your book and other resources, I was prepared for some questions I might receive, and I had thought of how I might respond. I had already written a very detailed e-mail I wanted to ask her to read after we talked. What I had planned was to pick strawberries with my sister this weekend (something we’d tentatively planned already), then sit down afterward and tell her.
I was going to use the next few days to plan and rehearse exactly what to say. Since I haven’t finished the book yet, I’m not sure if this was covered, but in case it wasn’t, this is my tip for anyone planning to come out: the way NOT to set up ‘the talk’ is to call and say “hey, what are you doing this weekend? I’d like to talk to you about something”. Because the person will say “about what?” and there is no way to avoid telling them because they are probably thinking you are dying or getting fired or pregnant or something. Even though you had envisioned sitting down face to face, and were planning to rehearse and think about it all week before talking to them Saturday, you’ll have to go ahead and tell them. Even though you will have already written out a letter, read a book on coming out, and prepared yourself for some expected responses, it will be awkward as hell. It would have been better to simply arrange a visit and bring it up when you arrive. If something happens and it doesn’t seem right or appropriate, you can always do it later. [NOTE FROM GRETA: This isn't covered in the book, and it's really good advice. If I do a second edition, I'll be sure to include it.]
I started out by saying “so, you know how I’ve never been as religious as you? Well, I have done a lot of thinking and questioning, and I’ve decided I’m an atheist” Despite the awkwardness, my sister could NOT have been more amazing. I love this woman! She was calm. The first thing she said was “I obviously don’t agree, but I’m not judging you”. She did tell me she was praying for me, which is absolutely fine. She didn’t try to change my mind, she didn’t ask ‘how could you?’. Her husband is an atheist, (and as it turns out, she has atheist friends too), so she was already aware we weren’t baby eating fire breathing chainsaw murders who tear the ears off of kittens for fun. We talked for about 30 min, and I briefly explained my journey, told her about the atheist meetup groups, and told her about how I felt like I was the only atheist in town until I found my groups. I told her about the conference this weekend, and about how stressful it was to lie to everyone. I knew she would not shun me or get angry, but I was surprised at how easy it really was. We even ended the conversation with humor. I told her I loved her and appreciated her response. Then I asked if she still planned to meet me to pick strawberries. She said “yes”, and I said “so you don’t mind picking strawberries with an atheist?”. She then pretended to be horrified, and said “No way! I could NEVER pick strawberries with an ATHEIST!” I guess you had to be there, but it was funny to us!
The next step is to come out to the rest of the family and then on facebook. I was not planning on telling my dad. He would love me no matter what, but he is terminally ill and deeply religious. I felt it would destroy him, and I wanted him to die with the assurance he would see me in heaven one day. He has a chronic illness, and likely has a year or two left, but he cannot be cured and will gradually deteriorate. He isn’t on facebook (doesn’t even own a computer),and though I know it is a risk, I was planning to ask anyone on facebook who knows him not to tell him. I was willing to take that chance if it meant anyone else who was struggling might be helped by my coming out. My sister thinks I should tell him to avoid being accidentally outed, and to avoid having to lie. She has volunteered to be there, which I think will be helpful. I’d rather have a root canal than cause my dad this kind of pain, but I think my sister is right. The risk is too high, and I’d rather tell him than have him find out. I’m still uncertain about whether or not to tell him.
Anyway, thank you very much for the book. Feel free to use my story on your blog, or in future editions of the book, but since I plan to stay closeted to clients and co-workers, please keep me anonymous.
Jean (not her real name)