Of Course You Should Come Out


[Graphic from the OUT Campaign]

Salon’s Cary Tennis answered this letter from a 20-year-old atheist with noncommittal gobbledygook. At least Tennis didn’t show his full bore anti-atheist leanings like he has in past columns, so that’s progress. He did, however briefly, raise the “militant atheist” specter, and questions about atheist moral standards. But he did seem to acknowledge that atheists could have a code of ethics. Tennis also suggested that maybe atheists themselves might have something of value to say to this young person. Definitely a partial but still welcome change of heart from Mr. Tennis. Here is the original letter:

Dear Cary,

I am a 20-year-old who is attending college full time. I am also an atheist. The problem is, no one knows and I feel like I cannot tell anyone.

For one thing, I attend a Christian-affiliated school that in order to attend I was required to sign a statement of faith. I knew I didn’t believe in a god (or specifically, their God) when I signed it, but I did anyway just so there wouldn’t be any hassle with the college — I’m a transfer student and I just want to finish my degree as soon as possible. If I began actually being honest, however, I have a feeling the school would dismiss me.

The other thing preventing me from “coming out” is the number of relationships that seem like they would crumble as a result. My parents and I have never had the best relationship. We’ve just recently started becoming close, and I don’t want to lose that. They are deeply religious, however, and my admitting to be an atheist might tear that fragile bond apart. This past summer I tried having some conversations with them about my changing religious beliefs, and I’ve never before seen them so angry. While I do not need their approval (there is no way I would claim a belief out of guilt), I also do not need to be alienated from my parents. Then there is all of my friends, who are mostly Christians. They all think I believe likewise, and I haven’t really done anything to prevent the thought. I’m afraid that telling the truth about who I am might place a huge distance between me and the ones I love.

I’m really tired of lying and I just want people to know me for who I am. But would announcing my atheism do more damage than good? Should I just remain as I am until I graduate and am out on my own? Or should I be bold and be honest and hope it all works out for the best?

Atheist in Hiding

Clips from Cary’s tentative and not-entirely-helpful answer:

In order to decide what to do, you have to ask yourself what sort of world view your atheism compels you to hold. Is your atheism simply a lack of belief in God? Or is it a system of rational materialist beliefs that encompasses politics and psychology? Do you believe that no phenomena exist that cannot be measured by science, and that anyone who believes in such things is simply in error, perhaps just following the dominant crowd, or perhaps taking psychological refuge in superstition, unable to bear the knowledge that this is all there is, that it’s a material world and no more?

If you believe this, then you may also believe that because they teach hocus-pocus nonsense in churches and their affiliated schools are harmful to society and must be brought down and destroyed. If you believe that religion is a source of wars, poverty and injustice, and is used by states to condition citizens to a deluded passivity so they can carry out evil and destructive plans, then I would think you would feel it is your duty to proclaim your atheism and enlist in the battle against organized religion.

*Sigh* Don’t know where people get this stuff: Proclaiming your personal lack of beliefs or declaring theism to be untrue is not the same thing as feeling compelled to wage a “battle against organized religion”? Can’t they stop confusing acts of conscience with militancy and violence? Guess not. Tennis continues:

Since you lied to get into this college, we must also ask about your ethical beliefs. If one were to argue that man or woman is strictly a biochemical process, utterly alone in the universe, utterly free, responsible to no God and no civil authority, then you might argue that lying to the university is perfectly OK. But if you believe that atheists ought to abide by the ethical system of the society they live in, that’s a different story. Are you bound by contracts? Do you believe in the authority of civil law? Or might you reject civil law, too, on the grounds that it is rooted in feudalism and Judeo-Christian morality?

This is all way over my head. I mean, I know these questions exist, but I am no philosopher or religious scholar. You’re going to have to answer them yourself. I’m just saying, if you want to know what to do, you have to understand the implications of your beliefs and ideas.


Your situation raises so many questions!

I can’t tell you what to do. I can only encourage you to think through this problem on your own. That is hard. You probably could use some help. So talk to other atheists. Ask how they handled similar situations. I’m sure you can find plenty of atheists on the Web. And — if experience is any indication! — many readers of this column will find your dilemma worthy of serious comment.

My response:

Come out!

No relationship, with parents or otherwise, is worth having if a person doesn’t accept you for who you are. If you want that acceptance, then you will have to shout who you are in a loud enough voice that everyone you associate with knows about it. (Get some atheist T-shirts and bumper stickers if necessary) You will lose some friends and gain new ones. This process may be difficult, but pretending to be someone you’re not is even worse. Get right with yourself, and you will solve the ethical problem that caused you to lie on your application.

Come out! And transfer out of that brainwash-mill you’re attending–right away.

Some people prefer that everything be smooth and nice and non-confrontational. That we get along nicely with everyone, no matter what their ideas. But ideas have implications–strong ones. They shape a person’s every act. When they are incoherent or hidebound by unsupportable traditions (as we find with most organized religions), they can cause otherwise good people to justify horrendous acts. They make people untrustworthy and unpredictable. God can tell them to do anything, and then God can change his mind.

The bad ideas of religion can also affect your education and modes of thought in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

You’re already way ahead of most people, in that you have philosophically rejected religion. Now claim the prize and fully embrace who you are. I was raised religious and I became a minister when I was 23. I spent precious years of my youth professing one thing and believing another. (Though I kind of made myself believe in it for a while.)

I had doubts from the time I was maybe 13, I waited until I was 30 to leave the church, and several more years before I fully came out as an atheist. It was a waste of precious time. Do it now. You’ll be glad you did.


Comments (7 comments)

valhar2000 / October 25th, 2007, 2:27 am / #1

Well, as has been said before, if you write to a newspaper columnist for advice, you get what you paid for. Though, as you say, that was rather better than the average.

jeff / October 25th, 2007, 5:57 am / #2

Thank you! I am normally a fan of Cary Tennis’s column, but I have also noticed his anti-atheist leanings.

He just doesn’t get what atheism is.

If one were to argue that man or woman is strictly a biochemical process, utterly alone in the universe, utterly free, responsible to no God and no civil authority, then you might argue that lying to the university is perfectly OK.

In his mind, not believing in god makes one an anarchist as well. Obviously this is nonsense. Most atheists are humanists. We don’t inflict suffering on others, but not because god says we shouldn’t. We follow the Golden Rule (which is often co-opted by religion but is common sense and has nothing to do with god).

Aaron Kinney / October 25th, 2007, 8:03 pm / #3

Its sad to think that in this day and age, some atheists are afraid to “come out of the closet” to anybody.

I guess Im lucky in that I live in a relatively open minded city (Los Angeles) where being an atheist wont get you blacklisted.

But even though I have announced my atheism to most of my friends and family, I cannot let my grandfather know about it. Even I am “in the closet” when it comes to my grandfather. He is so religious that I sincerely believe that if he were to find out about my atheism, it would cause him such distress that he might have a heart attack or something. Hes too old to have to deal with his grandson being destined to hell.

Its a shame to think that I have to hide my ideology from a loved family member, especially when its to protect them more than me. I love my grandpa to death, but the poor guy is hopelessly brainwashed by Xtianity.

BlackSun / October 26th, 2007, 9:19 am / #4


This is one of the biggest myths we atheists have to dispel, and it’s a recurring meme. But it’s pure bigotry. Imagine if someone was saying in a national publication that Jews, or Buddhists were similarly immoral. They’d be taken down in an heartbeat. But somehow it’s still OK to say it about atheists.


Too bad about your grand-pops. You never know, he’s obviously seen a lot in his life, and maybe could handle it better than you think.

TW / October 26th, 2007, 1:59 pm / #5

This is one of the things which really highlights (to me anyway) the cultural differences between the UK and the US.

Times may be changing over here (theism is on the rise) but the concept of “coming out” as an atheist is really alien to me. Everyone I know, everyone I went to school with, (nearly) everyone I’ve worked with and certainly all my family have assumed Atheism as a default setting. If anything, I would have had to go round telling people if I had converted to Catholicism or Anglicanism…

While it is strange to me, I really feel sorry for people who are in the position where they have to agonise over telling their loved ones that they no longer believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Goblins (etc).

On a side note, and it may make me a bad person, but if I was in the correspondents position, and the University I was at had otherwise excellent teaching standards and their religious status didn’t in any other way inconvenience me (*), I wouldn’t hesitate to pretend I was a theist in order that I could complete my studies. The only thing that would worry me, is a University so wedded to irrationality may be teaching woo and nonsense…

(*) Yes, I know there are lots of caveats there. I am trying to stop myself looking like a lying scumbag…

Cristy / October 30th, 2007, 11:13 am / #6

I get shocked looks a lot of the time when I tell people I am an atheist. I think that in the US you are presumed to be religious automatically. I rejected Christian concepts from the get-go (I grew up on a farm so I knew that virgins did not give birth) and I was agnostic by around age nine and an atheist at thirteen. However, it wasn’t until about a year later that I started identifying myself as an atheist and openly discussing my atheism. I grew up in a very conservative area so I recieved a lot of taunting. It was worth it though to be able to openly express and discuss my views.

Jeff / October 30th, 2007, 12:10 pm / #7

Other Jeff–you put it perfectly: The Golden Rule. It’s so simple, universal and, well, simple. It won the Cold War! “We don’t wanna get nuked, so we ain’t gonna nuke you.”

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