The increasingly common experience of ‘coming out’ as an atheist carries its own challenges.
As we approach adulthood, there are a number of hard talks people must have with their parents—about sexual orientation, about living your own dreams (and not those of Mom and Dad), about what we really believe. Those moments of truth help transition many of us from being the person our parents thought we’d be, to accepting ourselves for who we really are. But coming out, and opening up, always comes with the risk of rejection.
Christy Meyer was home-schooled with a religiously-based curriculum that taught reading, writing, morality, and that the Earth is 6,000 years old. At age 12, Meyer made her first non-home-schooled friends, and when a new pal, from a mixed Buddhist and Muslim family asked, “Do you think that I’m going to hell?” Meyer had to answer, “Yes.” She soon realized other good people around the world, who by the accident of circumstance were not Christian, would also be damned according to her belief system. “That was so jarring for me. And I really look back at that as a pivotal moment.”
Throughout the rest of her teenage years, Meyer worked her way through a questioning period that frightened her parents and left her with a shameful mix of emotions. She tried to respond to “a tremendous amount of blow-back” from her family. Part of her just wanted to be angry. “I was also trying really hard to still have my parents love me, and still feel safe and part of the family structure,” she says.
It was a painful process. In fact, Meyer has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, because her withdrawal from Christianity cut so deep and had such lasting effects. At 30, she calls herself “practically an atheist, with occasional god moods.” She says she sometimes wonders what it would be like “not feeling like I have to atone for breaking my parents’ hearts.”
Meyer's experience is increasingly common—coming out as a non-believer. According to “The Global Index on Religiosity and Atheism,” since 2005, the number of Americans who identify as atheists rose from 1 to 5 percent. That number is even higher among Millennials. A recent Pew Poll showed 32 percent of surveyed Millennials have doubted the existence of God, and groups like the Secular Student Alliance are growing rapidly.
The spike in numbers of people identifying as atheist has also corresponded with a series of best-selling books on the subject by writers like Richard Dawkins, whose foundation has also launched The Out Campaign. That initiative aims to help atheists “come out of the closet,” feel liberated, and by example, encourage others to come out. The movement comes complete with stickers, pins and T-shirts adorned with the scarlet letter A.
Despite rising numbers of atheists, stigma persists, and public perception of atheists continues to be incredibly negative in the US. One 2011 survey indicated that, in a hypothetical scenario, those surveyed saw atheists and rapists as comparatively criminally untrustworthy. Another survey from researchers at the University of Minnesota showed that among all groups, people least wanted their sons and daughters to marry atheists. In some ways, marginalizing atheists is among the few remaining socially accepted bigotries.
Those sorts of social pressures certainly inform how, and to whom, people express their atheism. But for many new atheists, fear of rejection is compounded by the real existential crisis that happens during a change in belief.
Aaron Friedman, 27, was raised in a Modern-Orthodox Jewish family, attended yeshiva, but by fifth grade began questioning the foundations of his religion. By seventh grade, he was in complete emotional and religious turmoil. He explains he was “afraid to voice the opinions in my head that there is no god, no meaning to life, and that my existence is potentially meaningless.” He “cried often and privately.” This was around the time of the September 11th attacks, and his parents also began to question their faith.
Friedman says facing nihilism was brutal, but now accepting that there is no god, no meaning, no anything really, is an opportunity. “I don’t take things too seriously, but I hold on to my emotions as the most real thing I have. I focus on people, because if I live for myself I am meaningless. But if I live for others, then my actions can have lasting effects for generations.”
For all the emotions and risks of embracing one’s atheism, being true to one’s beliefs carries its own rewards.
Today, Meyer runs an ExChristianPostTheo group in New York City, with a support group for ex-Christians, but also a post-theological gathering for open discussions on religious topics (next up is “free will” and there may be cocktails). After all these years, Meyer is finding peace and now sees being open about her beliefs is part of that. "Part of healing," she says, "is being proud of who you are."