Atheists, humanists, and other non-theists also refer to going public with their lack of religion as “coming out.” It has some similarities with the more-familiar coming out of the closet of LGBT folks. Although a growing minority, non-theism is still a minority position, and thus subject to the resistance and suppression of the majority. This will continue to be the case for some time, since the influence of religion, especially Christianity in the Western world, extends far beyond those who actively think of themselves as Christians. More on that later.
The process of coming out has been a difficult one for me, at least internally, accompanied by all the angst existentialists take pleasure in. I grew up in church, and it was my primary social network. I was implicitly told I didn’t need anything else, and for all practical purposes, I didn’t…until I was no longer a Christian. I began to realize that, combined with the fact that I got married at 18, I had little understanding of other social circles outside of church ones. Luckily—or unluckily depending on how one looks at it, since my education certainly contributed to my deconversion— I had begun graduate school, so I had many companions who loved to talk about religion…as long as it wasn’t personal. So discuss the problems of religion until you’re blue in the face, but don’t indicate you are personally invested. That’s another post as well.
Since I was in California, however, away from the community where I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life, I didn’t have to deal with the nearly universally Christian social network I grew up in. I only saw those folks once every six months, and once I stopped keeping up the pretense of attending church, hardly at all. Since I now live back in the area though, the potential for those interactions has greatly increased. My handful of experiences with Christian friends since my deconversion has helped me understand that a common social background can be the predominant determination of the success of friendship. Of course, most people know this, but you think it doesn’t apply to you. There is a shared language that comes with a shared background, in both literal and metaphorical senses, and with that gone, it’s understandably more difficult for people to communicate with you.
I also was reluctant to be very forthcoming with my change of belief. Christianity had brought me my biggest social advances: positions of leadership in various churches, opportunities to speak and play music in front of large audiences, respect within my small social circles, etc. It also was responsible for my field of study in graduate school (and was the content of my research as well). It took me a while to figure out for myself just how it would all play out. Would I have to change my subject of study completely? Should I even care about it anymore? Maybe I go back to the discipline of history instead of religious studies? The foundations have had to shift, but I remain committed to the importance of studying the Christian tradition.
On a personal level, I also did not want to glom onto an atheistic (or agnostic, or other) position in the way I had done so with Christianity. Due in part to the enlightened self-important status gained from my academic inculcation, I felt as if I was “bigger” than any label. In sincerity, though, I did—and do, athough the existential weight is much less now—want to leave myself open for the possibility that it is all true, that Christianity or some other tradition does hold the keys to the universe, despite all the evidence to the contrary. All these thoughts kept me from bursting people’s bubbles when they assumed who I was. For new relationships, I would gladly explain myself, but for old ones, it didn’t seem worth the effort.
I still have not read Emerson’s Self Reliance, but have always loved his well-known quote that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Emerson was also a favorite of Nietzsche.) I have often kept quiet (in religion and other areas) to fool others and myself that I am coherent and consistent. (It also reminds me of the slip of paper my grandfather had under a sheet of glass on his desk that read, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”) Better though to commit strongly to my views as they stand and change as they change. Consistency be damned!
Frankly, I am still not sure if my family (beyond my wife) knows where I’m coming from now, or even if they want to know. We’ve talked around the subject on many occasions, but neither party wants to confront the elephant in the room. Perhaps these are just my projections. I’m fairly confident that I’ll still get along with the majority of my family, but it remains to be seen.