There's plenty of advice nowadays about how and when to tell the people in your life, but I, personally, have been interested in hearing about people's experiences after telling people. It's interesting to hear about people's reactions to the news, the impact it has on relationships, how the encounters go, if it's a positive or a negative experience, etc. I'm going to share with you my experience coming out as an atheist.
I didn't have a horrible, tragic experience coming out to friends or family. In fact, my experience was surprisingly quite positive. I had heard from so many people about all the relationships they lost when they started telling people and stories of family members not taking them seriously or accusing them of just being rebellious. My experience was not like that at all. My dad and one of my 3 brothers were already atheists so obviously sharing with them was an easy conversation. The rest of my family members are believers though and more than anything I just didn't want this to come between our relationships.
Of all of them I think it was the hardest to tell my in-laws. For them, this came out of nowhere and was completely unexpected. As far as they knew we were still strong believers and nothing had changed. I hadn't even told them that my dad had come out as an atheist several months earlier. I had no idea what their reaction would be and I was really nervous that they would resent me. I really love them both and would never want anything to come between us that would forever alter our relationship, but I knew that I had to be honest about the conclusions I had come to because it is extremely important to me and I know that their faith is extremely important to them. So one weekend when they came to visit our family my husband and I sat down to talk with them and we told them about the research we had been doing and the conclusions that we had been drawing and that, for me, it had led me to the point of realizing that I no longer believe in god. For my husband, he was still undecided and looking into his own research. They were obviously disappointed and confused and asked a lot of questions. It pained me to answer some of the questions because I knew that, as a believer, it would be difficult to hear some of those things coming out of the mouth of someone they love. All-in-all I felt that it was a good conversation and that by the end of it they could understand where I was coming from, but firmly disagreed with my conclusions (which is fine because I wasn't trying to convince them of anything). The thing that blew me away was their completely unconditional love for me. I had been so nervous that they would resent me and think I was corrupting their son, but they said, "You are our daughter and we love you no matter what." That touched me to my depths! Such a simple, yet so powerful, thing to say to your daughter-in-law. My mom-in-law said that she knows what it feels like to have someone blow up on her for not believing what she is "supposed" to believe and she didn't want to treat us that way. She made it clear that she disagreed, but that absolutely no love or respect was being removed and that she would be praying for us. Such amazing people they are.
The other hard person to tell was my mom. Even though it wasn't out of nowhere for her, because she knew that I was looking into things and doing a lot of research and reading, she would still be very disappointed to know what I had concluded. I love and respect my mom so much and value her relationship more than most relationships in my life. She is ALWAYS there for me. It doesn't matter what kind of shit I've gotten myself into, she's there. I knew she would be there for me in this instance too, but I also knew that it would break her heart and that fact broke my heart too. When my dad shared with us that he was an atheist I was the one she confided in and shared her feelings with. I was the one who confirmed to her that the Bible says that once you're saved you're always saved and that perhaps god still had dad's soul even though dad had wandered from him. We are not only mother and daughter, but we are very close friends. I can't even think of the specific conversation in which I told mom definitively that I'm an atheist, but it just kind of came out little by little in conversations that we had as I was doing my research. She knew that my research was taking me in the opposite direction than I wanted it to and I think she knew where I would land on things. She had to witness and even be the victim of a few of my emotional breakdowns and she never once reacted badly to me. I said some pretty awful things a couple times when I was really upset (the worst of which when I went off my antidepressants cold turkey). I beat myself up over those times, but she doesn't hold it against me and loves me through all the ups and downs. My mom is amazing. It breaks my heart when I hear people's stories of being disowned by their parents or kicked out of the house. I've even read stories of young teens who were physically abused by a parent for saying that they don't believe in god. I could never fully understand what they have gone through because I couldn't possibly comprehend it.
To tell my brothers and sisters-in-law I wrote a letter and sent it via email so that I could fully express my thoughts and explain a little of what had brought me to my conclusions. They responded well to me even though a couple of them were very sad for me and disappointed. I also wrote a letter to 3 of my best friends to tell them personally. With one of them I was afraid, at first, that I would actually lose their friendship (which thankfully ended up not to be the case). Another one expressed that they loved me and could understand, but completely disagreed with my conclusions and the other agreed with most of what I said, but still believes in "the basics" of Christianity. The strangest thing for me was knowing that I had a pretty big impact on 2 of those people coming to a "relationship with Christ" in the first place. One of those friends was actually an atheist when I met him and I invited him to church and me and my family had many conversations with him about god which resulted in him deciding that he believed. I then had to turn around and basically say, "So, you know how I told you that you were wrong for being an atheist? Well, now I'm an atheist and I was wrong for telling you that you should be a Christian." That's embarrassing. He took it super well though and we had some good laughs over it. He is seriously such a wonderful friend! All 3 of them are!
Coming Out on Facebook
Once I had told family and my 3 closest friends I shared a post on facebook that read:
For the past several years I have had some doubts and hard questions about my Christian beliefs and have sought out answers without much success. I've held onto my beliefs just assuming the answers must be out there and I would hopefully find them or maybe God would reveal them to me. Recently I realized that I needed to actively dig into research about Christianity and figure out why exactly it is that I believe and what evidence there is for those beliefs. I studied the arguments on both the apologetics side and the atheist side with as objective an approach as I could. I truly wanted to find sufficient evidence to continue in my lifelong beliefs...However, what I found was quite the opposite. I no longer trust the Bible as the inerrant word of God and therefore cannot use it to base my entire life on. Not only that but there are a lot of very disturbing stories, laws and commands directly from God in the Bible that indicate to me that the "God" I've been worshiping all these years is NOT the God of the Bible. I have no desire to worship that God. If you don't know what I'm talking about refer to Psalm 137:9, I Timothy 2:12, Jeremiah 19:9, I Peter 2:18, 2 Kings 2:23-24, Deut 22:25-29 (just to name a few). Because of the things I have learned in my very extensive research I can no longer call myself a Christian. This is not the outcome that I wanted when I went into this. I was hoping to strengthen my faith. I realize that this is probably pretty hard for some of you to read, but I wanted to be honest about where I stand on things. I'm open to talk with anyone who has questions for me. Just know that I did not come to this decision without much turmoil, but I now accept that I don't have all the answers and that is ok. Everything actually makes a heck of a lot more sense now though, surprisingly. I'm not going to go into all the details of why I don't believe in this post so if you want to know more pm me.
I really didn't know what kind of response I would get from this post, but I was prepared for the worst. However, I got overwhelmingly positive feedback from almost everyone who contacted me. It kind of blew me away. I received a lot of messages from Christian friends who told me that they still loved me and were praying for me, but even more than that I received messages from people who were either questioning their beliefs or had stopped believing all together and were impressed with my courage to say something publicly. I couldn't believe how many people I knew who were asking the same questions and finding religion lacking. Several people confided in me privately with their questions and concerns, some told me that they had asked many of the same questions I had but were holding onto to their beliefs for one reason or another, and others told me that they went through a similar experience and no longer believed. There were a couple people who were a bit more offensive, considering the backlash I had expected, I experienced nothing even close! I'm one of the lucky ones. Many people do not have even one positive response to them coming out atheist. People wonder why many atheists are angry. Well, considering some of the things they've experienced from believers, who can really blame them.
I'm going to share some of the positive feedback I got from friends and family below (I will not be naming anyone). Some are Christians and some are not.
"I commend you for not being a sheep. Doing research and coming to a logical conclusion based on what you've found or didn't find is the smartest thing you can do. Don't believe or disbelieve just because someone else thinks you should or shouldn't."
"It's not easy to share what you shared. I'm very proud of you. I hope you don't face any backlash or negativity from others. I'll keep you in my thoughts."
From Christian: "bold post! i admire your honesty ... if you'd ever like to talk about spirituality i'd be willing to chat and i'd be very curious to hear about your journey!"
From Christian: "Hey Jenica! Saw your post on fb about your faith journey. I would love to hear more. It is so true that your belief system must be something that you fully understand and own- I really respect that you have taken time and energy to really research and seek answers. Thankful for you, miss you and your family."
"Hey dear, I just wanted to say I admire u for comin out on Facebook about not being a Christian anymore. It took an extreme amount of courage and I believe u r such a strong woman to look up to. I believe it is a choice only u could make and I hope that u r happy wit ur decision. U inspire me to be just as bold wit my beliefs as well...I don't know if I'm technically still a Christian anymore either because of all that I believe in...so thank u for being so brave and sharing ur journey."
From Christian: "Love you friend. I admire your courage for sharing this."
From Christian: "Jenica, even before this post, I knew you well enough (mostly through facebook:)) to be able to say that you are an honest and upfront person. I respect your search for truth very much, and I know that you will continue that search for the rest of your life. One of our greatest weaknesses as Christians is an inability to understand doubts or uncertainties. I've been there and I get it."
"That is why you are a wonderful person, after much searching you're happy and confident and free to spread the wisdom and encouragement to others. You rock girl!
From Christian: "I'm so proud of you, Jenica! It's never an easy decision when it comes to faith. I'm so glad you are freed by your journey. I remember the many lunches and conversations we had years back. I was surprised but happy to see this post. I walked a similar journey before I had met you so I understand. I now have faith in truly caring about people and their rights to be happy and not judged. I try to have grace when people make mistakes. I try to walk the life of Christ not the narrow views of the men who wrote the Old Testament. I completely understand and respect other people's faith or non faith. I married an atheist and couldn't be happier. Thanks again for sharing."
"Thanks for sharing, Jenica! It's so nice to see candid honesty! Kudos to you! I have felt exactly what you refer to here due to all of the religious stuff piled upon me my entire life. Mine was coupled with abuse, which made it all the more confusing. I'm currently on my own journey to figure stuff out. Thanks for the encouragement!"
From Christian: Oh no! Jenica! Much respect to you though. A lot of people don't have the courage to try and find things out in the first place, or to admit to themselves what they've found out, or to admit it to others. Your example of courage helps them. Love you, but you're dead to me (just kidding).
"Thanks for sharing where you're at, boo, that takes guts (but you've never been short on those)."
"That's very brave of you, Jenica. I have always felt left out of some special community because I don't consider myself a Christian, but like you I have done research and just can't believe the things people are told to believe in that faith, and I never wanted to join just to fit in. You can still live a very fulfilling life without having an organized religion to belong to. Just be true to yourself!"
"I don't know you super well, but I so appreciate your honesty. I also really appreciate that you have come to this decision/direction for your life on your own and not just going along with someone else. It shows great character. I wear a smile for you."
From my Mom (Christian): I love you sis. I know this has been a very difficult road for you and all of us as a family but always know that I am proud of you and will always admire you and love you. All who know you know that this decision could not have been easy for you."
From my Dad: "I'm proud of my Jenica."
Why share my experience?
I share all of this because I think it's nice to hear a positive story from time to time in the midst of all of the bad stories. As atheists we tend to only hear the sad or infuriating stories of people who came out to friends and family and were ostracized or attacked, but there are many wonderful, understanding believers out there who treat the non-believers in their life with love and respect. I think that's an important thing to remember. That's not to say that I haven't been offended or angered by any of the things that have been said to me since sharing my non-belief. Some people are incredibly ignorant, but, in my case, they have been the minority and I try to keep that in mind whenever I feel angry about something that has been said.
Why come out at all?
Many of my views, perspectives and beliefs have changed since becoming an atheist (refer to Reflections on Life Beyond Faith). Because of some of the things that I've discovered about myself and the world around me I feel a deep desire to make a difference in whatever way I can - big or small. I call myself an atheist because of what I don't believe, but I call myself a secular humanist because of what I DO believe. I believe that everyone has the right to live and believe as they please so long as their beliefs do not impinge upon or oppress others. I feel a responsibility to my fellow humans, to my children and the future generations to make this world a better place. By coming out and letting the people around me know what I believe and where I stand on certain human rights issues, I've opened the door to be a voice for a movement that I firmly believe in and to speak out against injustice. This is just one of the reasons that I think it's important to tell the people in your life what you really believe or don't believe. It allows you to be a voice and it helps to normalize the concept of atheism so that people will stop equating atheism with things like satan worship.
Coming out can obviously be a complicated issue for some people and I recognize that fact and would encourage people to use their best judgment. I don't want people to be kicked out of their homes, lose their jobs, lose their marriages, be alienated from family and friends, or any other of the awful things that can happen to people who come out atheist. However, if you are not in a situation where any of those things would happen why not just be open and honest with the people in your life and let them know that you're not a believer and you're still a great person with high moral values and a love for life?
The very first atheist I've ever known is my brother, Nate. He told my parents when he was about 15 that he didn't believe in god and that he never had. He told them this and asked that they not make him go to church anymore. They agreed to that. I didn't realize, at the time, the impact it would have on me to know that he didn't believe, but was still an awesome, loving, moral person. I realize now that seeing that he could be a great person with high moral values without god shook some of the foundations of my faith and really made me think. I recognized that Nate was a better person than I was and certainly better than some of the Christians I know and yet he was heading toward an eternity of torment simply because he couldn't believe the unbelievable. I had several conversations with him to pick his brain and try to figure out how and why someone who was raised the same as I was could believe so differently than me. I had hoped that eventually he would change his mind, but I knew from my conversations with him that it wasn't likely. I was forced to ask the question, "How is it 'justice' for a person like him to be sent to hell for eternity for just not believing an ancient story that is hard to believe and has to be taken on faith?" In fact, it got me asking a lot of hard questions. I'm not going to point to him as the reason I'm not a Christian or to anyone specific for that matter, but knowing that you can be good without god and knowing that Nate's eternal fate would be the opposite of justice opened my mind to the possibility that what I believed might not be completely true.
Nate has never even been a very out-spoken, in-your-face atheist, but he has been upfront and honest about what he does and doesn't believe and it made a huge impact on me without me even realizing it. It is for this reason that I think it's important for people to be honest.
If you are questioning, in a crisis situation or just need someone to talk to who won't judge you and won't try to persuade you one way or another you can call the Hotline Project at 1-84-I-DOUBT-IT (1-844-368-2848) or visit Recovering from Religion - hotline project.
If you are in a position of leadership in the church and feel that you don't have a way out please visit The Clergy Project.