Why Some of Us Stay Closeted

closet3Recently someone suggested to a group of mostly closeted atheists in the Deep South that maybe they shouldn’t be closeted at all.  Maybe they should “come out” because so many Americans are already too judgmental towards non-believers and the only way to counter that is for more of us to openly identify ourselves. That may very well be the case, and I do hope more of us can make that transition with a minimal amount of loss in our personal lives.  But there are at least a couple of issues which are lost on people not from our region of the country.

The first should be fairly obvious to anyone who lives where I live:  Coming out as an atheist in the Deep South can cost you your friends, your job, and even your family.  I know this because I am in touch with hundreds of southern atheists like myself who have experienced significant losses in each one of these areas.  Many have suffered losses in more than one of these categories and I even know some who have experienced all three.  Never mind the legality of losing your job for being an atheist—it still happens.  Court cases can sometimes turn on a character judgment and if a judge or jury believes that being an atheist makes you a bad person, that will affect their perception of you. The same thing is true of employers. Judges and employers are still people and people have biases which affect their perceptions of others.

But there’s another kind of difficulty which people like me face after we identify ourselves as atheists:  Even those who still accept us become less comfortable being around us, and that creates an unwanted emotional distance. This consequence is perhaps more subtle than the first but it is much more prevalent. From the moment a friend, family member, or coworker learns this about me, they start editing themselves. They suddenly feel the need to avoid certain subjects or else to preface statements with “Now I know YOU don’t believe this, but I believe that…”  Because I live in Mississippi, the chances are good that I’ve already heard whatever you’re about to say at least five times today.

I do not personally require any disclaimers or qualifications, and frankly I’d be happier if you could just not edit yourself at all—just talk to me like you would anybody else with whom you are comfortable. The truth is, however, that they do not only do this for my benefit (if they do then let this be my announcement to STOP IT because I can handle a difference of opinions…I’m quite used to it, I assure you).  They also do this because it makes them uncomfortable to know that I don’t share the same assumptions about the world that they do, and this makes them feel they should preface each important statement with an acknowledgement of our differences.  But this is terribly awkward, and it creates a distance between us which would never have been there had I not told them at some point in the past that I am not a Christian.

That’s the second reason why many of us don’t openly identify ourselves as atheists.  The awkwardness and the unnecessary distance are unpleasant and they never would have been there had we not “come out” in the first place.  At times, this awkwardness can even lead some to count us out of things (e.g. conversations, get-togethers, etc) because they would feel the need to be more guarded around us regardless of whether or not we would ever verbalize any disagreement with anything they’d say in such a social setting. We wouldn’t have to—the mere knowledge that we think differently on something as important as religion is enough to scare many away.  Religious beliefs are such a sensitive subject for so many that they’d rather not have to deal with the disparity at all if they can avoid it.

Maybe such things don’t bother you.  I know many who seem oblivious to this.  But some of us are bothered by these things, particularly if they happen within some of our primary relationships (e.g. with our spouses, children, parents, siblings, or close friends).  Now, I’ll admit that there comes a time when you have to say something in order to maintain an honest relationship.  But hopefully this post will explain why some of us are very reluctant and slow to “come out” of the atheist closet.



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149 Responses to Why Some of Us Stay Closeted

  1. Aviyah says:

    Wow, thank you for being so candid in writing of your experience. It makes me think of how Americans sometimes start speaking louder and slower around a foreign person for fear that they won’t be understood. While their actions may be awkward, they are probably just not certain how to respond since the majority of their circle of influence all appear so similar. I hope they will read what you’ve written and see that their “editing” is unnecessary.

    Discrimination of any kind is dishonorable. As a follower of Yeshua, I can tell you that hypocrites exist everywhere, regardless of faith. Nonetheless, I am very sorry that you have to live so privately, and I hope things change for the better.

  2. rlynnmoore says:

    Reblogged this on Catching Fire and commented:
    It is very hard, especially in the South to admit that you may have walked away from typical religious faith. In the UK this is more common and in NYC this is more common. But this is THE SOUTH where we hold strong to tradition. I personally pick and chose who I discuss my values with and I work for a very conservative company so I try not to mention it at work. But this decision, like one’s religious beliefs is a personal and individual choice…

  3. Todd says:

    Hi godless…really interesting post. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am a Christian…a follower of Jesus, if you will. It’s no different here, but in reverse. I am very sorry to hear about your experiences with people who claim the Gospel as their world view. The stories of the woman at the well and the Good Samaritan come to mind. Jesus was loving without qualification. We are called to be the same…period.

    One idea I have for you. I think you need to frame your world view in terms of what you ARE…not what you ARE NOT. Your “About” page is signed -godless. Without God. The word atheist essentially means the same thing. Someone who denies the existence of deity. For your friends that you are afraid to “come out” to…instead of saying, “I don’t believe in God”, tell them what you DO believe in. That is a far more constructive beginning to the conversation…and one that is not threatening to them. And…it would be helpful for you too.

    I confess I have only read this one post…perhaps you have laid out your world view in other posts. No matter what our world views are, though, they need to integrate the reality around us. I happen to think the Christian faith does this very well…far better than any other world view. You obviously don’t agree. But for an atheist to say that they are not a believer because Christianity is lame…that leaves a vacuum. What do you believe then…and why does it work as a practical foundation for living? Start your conversation that way and I think it will be a great ride that you and your friends can take together.


    • Thanks for the feedback, Todd. In my context (the Deep South), I find that this conversation NEEDS to start by clarifying by identifying myself as an atheist because there is such an entrenched stigma about it. Atheism needs to be personalized for many people I know because they see us in caricatures only, through two-dimensional good vs. evil glasses (and we’re the bad guys).

      But your point is valid. I am also a Humanist, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere (see my Video section). I will be discussing that more in the future as well. Again, thanks for the input!

      • Your reply is so funny.

        And it goes to the heart of your problem. You ARE without God. And you choose that as your identity.

        And it would be painful for you to choose to merely be you.

        What that tells me is very simple and very atheistic, you want the people around you to become like you are.

        Oh well.

        I have lost jobs, and been discriminated against, because I am a Christian. That has never meant that I expect those people to become like I am. Being a Christian is truly difficult in modern America.

        To each his own, but I think the previous writer nailed it down for you.

        Learn to accept who you are, or change to become who you really are.


        • The previous writer managed to say something similar but with far less condescension. I’m not sure where you’re getting the notion that accepting the label “atheist” means I want everyone else to become one, too. Also, I’ve explained elsewhere that I only accept this label reluctantly…I prefer the term Humanist because of what it stands for.

          I’m sorry that you’ve seen discrimination for being a Christian. I will not condone discrimination for religious differences no matter toward whom it is directed. I will gladly support your right to religious freedom just as surely as I will support my own right to not be religious.

  4. I recently wrote my “coming out” letter to my parents. I’m fortunate that I’ve had a relatively positive response. I also live in a the UK where it’s being atheist is not a big deal, at least not in my experience. I sympathise with the struggles of people who fear to be honest. It’s a sad and unfortunate state to be sure.

    Here’s my letter to my parents, for what it’s worth: http://amrestorative.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/part-ii-on-how-i-became-an-atheist/

  5. Thanks for starting a dialogue. I am a Christian in the north and like Todd, the roles are reversed. It’s a shame that people treat you and other atheists differently. I wish more “Christians” loved everyone instead of just those who agree with them. On behalf of the ignorant, I apologize.

  6. Mike Lince says:

    I find it interesting that you used the term ‘coming out’ to equate the stigma of being atheist to that of being gay. It serves to emphasize the strong social bias against those who believe something counter to the mainstream. I also find interesting the comments of non-South Christians who refer to a reverse bias – being Christian in a non-Christian mainstream society. I can understand their discomfort, especially those who feel called upon to proselytize whether or not others wish to hear about salvation. As an atheist, I am sure you can attest to how quickly that gets tiring.

    I believe this life is it; that there is no heaven or hell, and I won’t be reincarnated as another life form. I believe that most people are inherently good while some choose to commit acts of evil. I have loving and caring friends, some of whom are devoted Christians, but it is usually a showstopper if someone asks me if I have been saved. Nevertheless, I always graciously accept the offers of others to pray for me if it makes them feel better.

    Personally, I think we would all be more comfortable if everyone kept their religious beliefs to themselves. For those who possess great gifts like health, prosperity, athletic ability, musical talent, or a belief in eternal salvation, you are most appreciated when you have the good grace to accept your blessings without feeling the need to preach about them.

  7. diradar6 says:

    You hit the nail on the head. I too live in the south (NC) and am an atheist. I work in a company that gives praise to our heavenly father before social functions (like Christmas dinner). There are a few of us around and fortunately the atmosphere is tolerant but not obliging.
    However, that is why I have this Internet persona – to protect myself from discrimination in future endeavors. It really is a pain in the ass having to maintain two identities though.

  8. Jon says:

    I never would have guessed that this is happening maybe because I am one of those who are oblivious of the situation. Nevertheless, I still respect your choice and quite frankly support your idea. Kudos to you!

  9. Can definitely relate to this. Still a closeted Atheist because I come from an extremely Catholic family and country where admitting you’re an Atheist is equivalent to saying you sympathize with Hitler.

    • Yep. Just got a comment recently along the same lines, in fact. The moment you try to elucidate a humanistic basis for ethics, someone has to say “that sounds like what the totalitarian dictators would say.” Not a super constructive direction to take the conversation.

    • jumeirajames says:

      Funnily enough, Hitler was a devoted Catholic. But I know what you mean.

  10. Thank you for this very thoughtful post. I used to be very open about my Atheism, when I was among friends with like minds. Recently, I’ve found it difficult to mention my beliefs because of my fear of how some of the new people in my life will react. I live in New York City, a place where people would never get away with firing someone for being an Athiest, but I still have no idea how some of my friends will react. I think religion, or lack thereof, is a very private affair, yet it somehow seems to come into conversation. Like you said, it’s a palpable difference in how people treat you, even if they don’t mean to. I really enjoyed reading.

  11. Lisa Shaw says:

    I have to wonder why on earth anyone *has* to know what another person believes about God. I’ve had many a conversation about religion but never an argument because I always simply back away whenever someone starts getting a little wild-eyed and let them believe whatever they want to believe without opinion or judgment from me. You don’t ever need to tell anyone you don’t believe in their god, or any god. When does this topic even come up in polite conversation? Best to just change the subject and move on because nobody will change your mind and you surely won’t change theirs.

    • jwkuyser says:

      This: “let them believe whatever they want to believe without opinion or judgment”

      Beacuse this: “nobody will change your mind and you surely won’t change theirs.”

      Exactly. :)

  12. Glaucio says:

    Openly declaring skepticism has ever been – and still is – a painful issue for me, especially when it comes to family events like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, birthday parties and so on. It’s hard to find yourself alone when surrounded by people you’ve learned to respect and love since you were born. Many years passed after my deconversion while I kept the habit of showing contradictions in the Bible, arguing on the logical flawed biblical concept of god, hell and so on. Eventually, time showed how this approach was meaningless and counterproductive, at least in the context of a more radical fundamentalist environment like mine. Fundamentalists won’t try and see something differently from what they’ve ever seen because they just don’t want to. Therefore, I personally don’t see honesty (in this sense of the word) as the best choice to all occasions. That said, I avoid talking on this subject (atheism) as much as it’s possible for me among relatives. That brings such an amount of isolation of course. Just as I use to say to myself, ‘I’ve lost my family to religion’.
    There’s another point to it: asserting different points of view, be it political, personal, or religious, can sometimes change a pleasant meeting into something not so enjoyable. As we know, most human beings would rather hear something they want than someone speaking the truth – Unfortunately. On the other hand, we all have the need of being part of a group. Depending on the people you are talking to, saying you are an atheist means breaking links between you and everybody else. I mean, of course people who really know me are aware that I’m no longer a theist, it’s just that they feel uncomfortable with my openly declaring that. So now I see no reason for that anymore. I think it’s the same case as to political views, when I used to be very opinionated at defending my personal convictions on politics, and after some years acting like this, noticed there weren’t much profit from it.
    Let’s picture a situation in which you are surrounded by Christian relatives in a family meeting, and the subject of God, Jesus and the Bible is brought up – as usual. Now I see if I just keep silent about my personal view of reality, that doesn’t mean I lack honesty towards what I believe/disbelieve or my way of seeing reality. Of course, if someone comes to ask me directly if I believe the God depicted in the Bible exists, he’s going to hear a sound “No, I don’t”.
    Like many other issues in life, I don’t find necessary to expose my opposing opinion every time other people say things I disagree with. That’s what went wrong with me in the past, I used to think that ‘intelectual honesty’ implied pointing out my opinion whenever the opposite opinion showed up.
    But as I said before, it’s necessary for us to feel part of people who see important matters in a way similar to ours. That’s why it’s important for me to take part in online forums like the one we have right here.

    • Well put, Glaucio. You expressed well why this isn’t always just a matter of intellectual honesty. It’s often simply a strategic decision to “pick your battles.” We are not only rational beings, we are also emotional and social beings. For me this means sometimes I decide to withhold my opinion in order to continue enjoying a good relationship with people who see things differently from me. Often, they are doing the same!

      My problem comes when others cannot keep their opinions to themselves and judge me for not believing the same things they believe. At that point, I will speak up.

      • What a dark day for organized religion, Christianity in particular, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyone who claims to be Christian, the turns around and ostracizes others for not believing has lost all context of what being a Christian is about.

        I will admit that voicing your Atheism is gutsy, so too, can claiming to be Christian. Maybe we are more alike than different. As a practical Christian, I have more respect for an Atheist who knows what they believe or don’t believe, than I do a Christian who treats his fellow man (or woman, or child) with any less respect and care than they would their own brother, since its clear they don’t have a clue as to what is is to be Christian.

        Christianity should be about living a life that reflects what Jesus taught, not about ramming stupid rules down peoples throats.

        You’d think we’d learned something from the crusades.

  13. jumeirajames says:

    I imagine that being a closet atheist is like being a closet gay – you only think people don’t know what’s going on, but they do.

  14. I can relate. When I became a Christian up in “godless D.C.” – even worse, in the progressive nonprofit world – I experienced some of the same behaviors only in reverse. All of my atheist and anti-Christian friends started to treat me that way! People just want everyone to be like them, it seems. Hang in there. We are all one, as it turns out – we just aren’t very good at it.
    Congrats on the FP!

  15. robindcole says:

    Agreed, and something that is not often considered or talked about. I grew up in Utah in a secular family, so it wasn’t difficult to discuss religion objectively. Unfortunately I took this familiarity and confidence out into school, university, and the workplace before I realized that I was doing myself lasting harm by “admitting” my status. It wasn’t difficult to find others, so I never felt obliged to come out. But it would have been comforting to speak about my beliefs as often and as loudly as the religious did without worrying about the consequences.

  16. In my experience, the big problems arise in social situations both from those of any faith who assume it is their duty to convert those of another faith or background, and from the unspoken assumption that everyone in the room feels the same way about everything. The nature of the belief is almost irrelevant. I dislike avocado, yet you love it. What gives either of us the right to tell the other they are wrong? And yes, I have tried guacamole, and no, I don’t feel the need to keep sampling every single avocado that I happen upon in the assumption that there is somewhere the one fruit that will change my mind. I’m fine eating beetroot instead, thank you, so help yourself to your dip of choice and neither one of us will go hungry. Might be over-egging the metaphor here, but still.

  17. koolanosh says:

    Reblogged this on Rattlers Pit and commented:

  18. I am not an atheist, contrary to what a lot of people think in my real life, but I am not a fan of organized religion. Mississippi is not a good place to be an atheist. I went to college in Alabama and I got lectured for just reading my horoscope. I don’t come out to people that I meditate nowadays. In Miami, it is just not accepted to be anything other than Catholic. I understand your decision and wish you the best.

  19. meatfillin says:

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, here at meatfillin we place our faith in the great Pie God. It is an all-seeing, all-doing god that has placed the holy grail of perfect pie somewhere amongst the Northumberland countryside, for which we devote our days in search of, hopefully one day leading to the ultimate state of fulfilment and happiness.

    Our god is the one true god and you atheists are fools.

  20. Piobaireachd says:

    I hear the pies at St James have really gone doon hill, meatfillin, so you must be further north. =)

  21. micey says:

    Nobody should attack anybody for their worldview, whatever that worldview may be. Thanks for sharing!

  22. Piobaireachd says:

    I think worldviews are fair game, but ad hominem attacks are not. People should be able to support their world views with data and evidence. To what degree does it support/encourage well being and opportunities for growth? There are good worldviews and rubbish worldviews from that POV. The Taliban’s worldview, for example, should be attacked. It clearly promotes human misery and suffering. They don’t get a free pass. Sorry. There are plenty of other examples of world views that are epic fails. They should be ridiculed out of existence.

  23. Marshall Hendrix says:

    I graduated from a private Baptist college in the deep south and this post hits home with me. Still to this day, I have difficulty at times revealing that I’m an atheist. I’ve been testing the waters for a while now and dripping my atheism into conversations here and there without much problem, but that’s because I’ve been very selective of who I speak with. One day I would love to just a post a status on my Facebook and see what happens. Nice post.

  24. Iris Adler says:

    Holy cow. Y’know, I’d never really realized that there’s a “closet” as far as sharing one’s religion or lack thereof goes.Thanks for the eye-opener.

  25. I’m not exactly closeted about it, but here in NC, I do have to pointedly separate my business from my politics and (lack of) religion. I’ve learned to just smile and say Thank you when people tell me to have a “blessed day”, etc.
    It used to bother me slightly, but I know they mean well.

  26. I can completely understand your reluctance to share this part of yourself with your colleagues or acquaintances, but it must be so difficult not to be able to share this with your family or close friends. When I was a child living in small town Texas, I always thought it was fun to get a rise out of telling my Christian classmates that I didn’t believe in god, but my parents belonged to the Unitarian-Universalist Church (a church without a specific creed or god) where many of the members were atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc. So despite any conflict at school, my family unit and our close friends were like me. As I got older, though, I realized that constantly being in conflict with everyone at school made life more difficult. In high school, I simply collected a small group of like-minded classmates as friends and kept my religious views to myself for the most part, even though at that time I despised religion and particularly Christianity. I left Texas for California to go to college and stayed. I haven’t even dreamed of moving back and the conservative, Christian default culture is one of the main reasons. Adulthood and escape from the South has allowed me to develop a better understanding and acceptance of religion and spirituality and I don’t feel the same defensive ill-will I used to, as I have been able to see how it can be a really positive thing in people’s lives.

  27. cmxstevenson says:

    If people really opened up about what they truly believe, I imagine we would not find the rigid uniformity that appears on the surface of religious groups. That may be what really scares people about an atheist outsider – someone whose beliefs differ from mine challenges me to examine, understand and articulate my own beliefs. Many people don’t like to do that.

    Part of the issue you’ve raised is that religion is both a system of beliefs and a culture. Many comments above refer to challenges that stem more from the cultural aspect of religion rather than the beliefs themselves. But most religions are not content to simply be a belief system; they intend to create a culture. Cultures, by definition, have insiders and outsiders.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  28. Snowbrush says:

    Golly, you got a few responses to this one, did you! I left Mississippi and moved to the most liberal part of Oregon because of the way atheists are treated in the South, especially the rural South where I lived. Even there, though, I was out because that’s just who I am. Some people simply don’t have the option of keeping their mouths shut when it concerns an issue that they feel strongly about. That said, I was treated as if my atheism meant that there was something wrong with me, and the same attitude prevails here, yet where I live (in Eugene with a metro area of around 300,000), there are several atheist groups, and all seem to be prospering, and some have 200-300 members. This means that even one group probably has more members than there are un-closeted atheists in the whole state of Mississippi.

  29. uglicoyote says:

    Reblogged this on The Road and commented:
    I understand this position.

  30. Dave Weir says:

    Thank you for your post, it rings true for me. Never having been to the South, I’m not sure what it’s like, but I think there are some parallels with life here in small town Yukon.

    I know that for me, I wasn’t eager to come out of the closet. In the end, it happened when I had to stand up for my kids’ rights at the local public school. And yes, it has come at a cost, just as you suggested.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  31. I’m a former Christian Scientist who was raised in the South, I have not “come out” to my family about my decision to leave, or my new found agnostic/atheist views. Although I’ve since moved to a more liberal part of the country, I find it is easier to stay quiet about my CS past & path away from it than it is to talk about. It is easier to mutter something about “spiritual” and change the topic than it is to explain why I left (which is why I blog about it).

  32. Arkenaten says:

    This type of post blows me away. Until I began blogging I never would have imagined that atheism was such a major issue.
    But it seems that, while Dawkins, Krauss etc and (the late great Hitch) are doing their best to light fires under the backside of the religiously retarded, they are ever going to struggle when so much of the U. S. of Eh? believes that metaphorically rubbing two sticks together is where its at when it comes living in the 21st century.

    Best of luck.
    If ever you fancy a light-hearted laugh pop over. There’s always something religiously mental happening.

  33. Tiffini says:

    Thanks for this POV. We are moving to Northern MS, very small and remote town in a few months, and I’m really worried about how we’ll be perceived as liberals, atheists, etc. And I’m concerned about my kids being taken in by the pervasive Christian culture. We’re only staying a year, though, and it’s tough to keep my mouth shut, but I think it might be for the better.

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