I originally wrote this in response to a request by another blogger for coming out stories from atheists. I feel a little lazy using it as a blog post verbatim, but, hey, lazy posts are better than no posts, right?
[Edit- I have changed or removed some small details to make the story less personally identifiable. I wish I could say I was just being paranoid, but I know of at least one blogger I used to read who had someone who knows them in meatspace figure out that it was their blog and then use it against them. I blog about things which could potentially cause me harm if the wrong people found out (e.g. being trans), so I think I am going to make a little more effort to protect my anonymity.]
I started using the term atheist to refer to myself about a year ago. The first people I came out to were my roommates, friends, and fellow students at college. I came out to my brother and his wife a little later, and I’m still not out to the rest of my family.
With friends and fellow students, it’s just something I casually bring up if the subject happens to come up. For instance, in a class last semester we were discussing a piece of writing about Cristopher Hitchens. I took this as an opportunity to mention to a classmate that I am an atheist, and he told me that he is Christian. That was pretty much the extent of the conversation. This is the same approach I use for coming out as queer, and so far it’s worked quite well regardless of what I am coming out as. No one has ever made a big deal out of it or seemed to treat me differently afterwards.
With my roommates, what religion every is came up in discussion one day. I told them I’m an atheist, and they told me what they are. It wasn’t really any more contentious a subject than the discussion about what everyone’s hobbies are. My roommates have told me that I’m welcome to accompany them to religious services if I wish, and I plan to invite them in like kind if I ever get around to going to any skeptic/atheist events or joining the campus skeptic/atheist group.
Actually, the religious vs. atheist thing came into play much more when I came out as trans than when I came out as an atheist. My Christian roommate was very supportive and accepting when I first came out as some variety of not-straight (I identify as queer because “it’s complicated” doesn’t really roll off the tongue very well); she was curious and asked questions to try to understand things (which I didn’t mind at all) and never gave me any crap about it. But when I later came out as trans, although it was clear that she was trying to be supportive and accepting, it was also clear that this conflicts with her religious beliefs and that, even though she respects me enough to try to use my preferred name and pronouns, she still thinks of me as female.
She left me a letter right before she went to visit family that basically said “I totally support whatever you decide to do, but I’m going to quote bible verses at you and tell you that I think you are a wonderful person ‘just the way you are’ (read: female) and I pray you will come to accept yourself ‘as you are'”. This was painful to read. I don’t think she meant to be offensive, but intent is NOT magic. I wish she would have said these things to my face or at least given me a chance to respond. I really wish she would not apply her religion-based morality to me or quote bible verses like they’re evidence when she knows I am an atheist. If I were Christian (or perhaps even just some variety of theist) and came out as trans, I could say stuff like “pray with me” or “god made me this way, so surely he made me like this for a reason” or try to argue why being trans is not wrong from a theological perspective, but as an atheist, making these sorts of arguments feels almost dishonest. Why should I have to try to tell someone else what their religion is and isn’t compatible with? Why should I even have to know enough about someone else’s religion to debate this in the first place? I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to approach this, other than to say “don’t impose your religious beliefs on me” (which will probably go over much more diplomatically than what I really want to say, which is “fuck off about your religion”).
Over the past few months, I’ve come out to my brother and his wife as queer, trans, and atheist. It seems like I am always coming out as something. Their reaction is usually something along the lines of “We love you and support you no matter what, and if you need anything, just let us know”. They’re awesome like that. When I decided to come out as an atheist, I already had a few clues that they probably wouldn’t flip out on me. They’d already reacted well when I’d previously come out as other things. They hadn’t gone to church regularly in several years, mostly due to a few bad experiences they had. They were openly supportive of gay marriage and suchlike, despite our parents’ religiously based opposition of gay marriage. My brother and I were both raised in an environment where religion was considered to be THE important thing, though, so it was still scary to tell him I’m an atheist. It took me a little while to work up the nerve. When I did, I just outright said “I’m an atheist” and then spent a minute or two clarifying what that means to me. I got the usual (and awesome) “We love you no matter what” response. I discussed with my brother later what his current beliefs are, and he told me that he still considers himself a Christian, although he doesn’t go to church. He also told me he would support me if I decided to come out to our parents, although he and I both know that one isn’t likely to go so well. One thing I really appreciate is that neither he nor his wife has ever tried to blame my atheism on my queerness, or vice-versa. Neither one was caused by the other, although becoming an atheist made it a lot easier to explore, and come to terms with, my gender and sexuality.
Generally, I’ve been very happy about coming out, especially as an atheist. People tend to say fewer annoying/ignorant/stupid things when I come out as an atheist than when I come out as, say, trans. I like being out because I hate hiding things and I’m not ashamed of who and what I am. I also want people to know that I am an atheist/trans/queer/whatever so that maybe people will start to get the idea that, hey, we’re just regular people. Actually knowing a person who is part of a category of people that gets villified or oppressed may help to demolish some of the harmful stereotypes, like “atheists have no morals”, and it may help people to be more accepting. For example, it’s a lot harder to hate gay people if you find out your son is gay.
As far as coming out advice, make sure to consider carefully who you want to be out to beforehand. If there is a particular person or persons you do not want to be out to, consider carefully whether you want to take the risk of coming out to someone who knows these person(s). If there may be consequences to coming out or being outed, take a little time to think ahead about how you could handle this. Pick a time to come out when there is relatively little else going on, so there won’t be any unusual distractions or stressors to complicate things. If you or the person you are coming out to is upset, it’s not a good time, especially if it’s you that’s upset–the other person might think that being an atheist is upsetting to you, which is probably not the sort of impression you want to make. Make sure you will have some time available afterwards to answer questions or explain things, if needed.
I find it interesting that I can’t really talk about my experiences coming out as an atheist without talking at least a little about my experiences coming out as queer, or vice-versa. These experiences are very closely related and intertwined for me, if for no other reason than that they happened during roughly the same time frame. However, my atheism is not at all related to my queerness, except insofar as being an atheist made it easier to explore my gender and sexuality. When I was religious, I assumed I was straight, because that was the ‘right’ way to be, and, had I known what it meant, I would have assumed I was cisgender for the same reason. I’m really glad I became an atheist before I figured out that I’m queer, because I got to skip the whole religious guilt step. It does, however, rather complicate considerations of if/when I want to come out to my very religious parents. I would rather not come out to them as an atheist at all (for reasons which look like they’ll make a better response to a different post), but I highly doubt I could come out as queer without god coming into the conversation, and I’m not willing to lie if I’m directly asked about my atitude towards god and religion.
As to being involved in the atheist community, I mostly just lurk on FtB and Skepchick, although I have my own small blog, on which I mostly talk about atheism, sexuality/gender, and dreams (literal dreams- I’m into lucid dreaming as a hobby and think dreams in general are fascinating, even if they do tend to inspire a lot of woo).