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Coming Out Atheist: a review

An eleven year old boy is standing in his childhood bedroom while his seven year old brother lies on the wooden bunk bed. With very little thought, he just says something like “That God guy they talk about at school, I reckon he doesn’t exist.”

Some things are easier done as pre-teens and coming out as an atheist is definitely one of them. Of course, it helps that I lived in a family filled with agnostics and atheists, in a country that—David Cameron’s distinctly odd Dyno-Rod fantasies aside—is mostly secular, in an era that is mostly tolerant of disbelief. Residents of other regions of space-time have been less welcoming, as can be seen from instances of extreme religious bullying from the burning of Giordano Bruno to the policy of Disconnection enforced by the Church of Scientology on dissenting family members.

The eventual coming out as gay sixteen years later was slightly less nonchalant than my exit from the irreligious closet. In gay-land, there are some people who it is perfectly appropriate to say “were never closeted”. The closet just wasn’t a thing for them: perhaps through supreme self-confidence, they were out from the earliest moment of realisation. They never were “in” so never needed to come out.

Reading Greta Christina’s book Coming Out Atheist: How To Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why has been making me feel exceptionally lucky that I managed at the tender age of eleven to not only free myself from religion but also to deny myself the dubious comforts of a closet in which to keep my doubts. Since that age, I have always been out about being an atheist even if the sexuality closet was firmly glued shut for quite a while: I was out at school to friends, out at my Jesuit college, out online, out to anyone who wants to have a good old argument about this stuff. Being out as an atheist in central London—home of all those kale-eating metropolitan liberal elites who keep the UKIP voter down!—is refreshingly pain-free. Unless one is unlucky enough to be born in a family of daft fundamentalists, coming out in Britain as an atheist is a bit like coming out as straight. Here, atheists, agnostics and other secular types are the cultural majority—and not too many years from being the statistical majority.

Even if they may feign religious adherence for cultural reasons, most people in Britain are practically secular: only 10% of the population attend a weekly religious service. And the numbers are on our side. The number of people saying they are of “no religion” in the UK census has grown by ten percentage points between 2001 and 2011 (although there are legitimate complaints to be made about census methodology). Young people are less religious than ever. While it may still be a point of (usually fairly idiotic) debate whether Britain is currently a Christian country, the future of Britain’s religiosity is pretty surely one of rapid decline.

As someone who never experienced an atheistic closet and finds the idea that there is such a thing to be an utterly alien idea given my own society’s ever more overwhelming secularity, I’ve never quite gotten what exactly the deal is. To the very idea of the atheist closet, I’m a straight tourist. I picked up Greta Christina’s book precisely because if anyone is able to tackle the subject intelligently and humanely, she can.

The astounding thing about Greta’s book on the subject is how remarkably close the experience tracks with the LGBT coming out experience. As an openly bisexual woman and a writer of essays on sexuality as well as kinky fiction, Greta is excellently qualified to draw those connections.

If, like me, your stay in the atheism closet was exceptionally short and the checking out process was seamless and straight-forward, but one’s exit from the sexuality closet was rather longer and more drawn out, Greta’s book is worth reading to see the differences in experiences. Or rather, to see how for a lot of people, how eerily similar the two are.

And there is plenty to learn. The book describes how some atheists prefer to use what Greta describes as the “no big deal” method. When religion comes up, just drop the atheism in nonchalantly. There is, as the book says, problems with this approach. Namely, however calmly and non-dramatically you decide to announce your atheism, you’ll always have the odd weirdo who might blow up at you about it. This is one of the many wonderful things about being out as gay: you always have to have the mental armour on standby to deal with the occasional asshole. The same is true if you are a open atheist in an area with a noxious amount of religious nuttiness. So get building those mental shields.

The important part of the message is the affirmation that, yes, you bloody well ought to come out. Coming out, standing up and being counted has been the most effective weapon in the history of the gay rights movement. The whole reason homophobes spend so much time telling us to be quiet and “not make a big deal of” being gay is because the closet takes away our power and gives it to them. (Incidentally, in my opinion, the second most important weapon of the gay rights movement has been the hilarious stupidity of the opposition. I’ll leave you to decide whether the stupidity of religious advocates is an excellent tool for the atheists.)

Another recurring theme in the book that neatly parallels the gay experience is the mad lengths some people will go to in order to deny the obvious facts staring them in the face. Just as straight people found an enormous reservoir of cognitive dissonance to explain away the overwhelming campy gayness of everyone from Liberace to Kenneth Williams—and every gay relationship they encountered as being “roommates” and so on, Greta’s book documents numerous instances of religious parents who—unable to grasp the fairly clear statements of disbelief from their children, continue to act in ever more absurd self-denial. (Cognitive dissonance and denial of obvious facts from people who constantly praise the supposed virtues of faith—quelle surprise, non?)

Greta gives an important piece of advice for any closet leavers:

Be clear. Don’t drop hints or leave a trail of clues. If you think it’ll go over better, you can soften the ground first—but eventually, you’ll need to spell it out. Even if you think your hints are pretty obvious, people’s ability to ignore what they don’t want to see is pretty close to infinite.

The other obvious analogy between the case of gay people and atheists with closets and coming out is the strange and persistent belief amongst those unable to come to grips with either obvious hints or even more obvious and clear statements of the fact—that somehow if they force the person to practice as if it were not true, this will somehow change anything. Greta’s book makes mention of people who seem to think that if they just force their religiosity on their offspring with a little more vigour, that’s going to somehow make atheists un-know what they have come to know.

The attentive gay reader will find plenty more such parallels, some amusing, some sad.

The book does not just limit its counsel to those unfortunate souls who find themselves in the social grip of hardcore conservative religiosity and theocracy. Liberal religion—home of piously postmodern interfaith types contemplating the connection between Buddhism and Bultmann—can, despite their stated tolerance, be unwelcoming to the newly deconverted, apparently. More potent than this is the situations mostly outlined by Greta’s African-American correspondents who describe the issues faced when religion is considered foundational by many for their sense of communal identity. The broadly “intersectional” aspects of atheist identity are discussed, with advice on how to deal with how to come out as a female atheist, as an atheist person of colour, or an LGBT atheist. The book is blissfully free of the myopic assumption that atheist activism is complete when one has fully represented the issues as they present themselves to white, straight, cisgender, economically advantaged men in the Western world. Atheism must be for all or it shall be politically dead.

Greta’s advice seems eminently sensible throughout—I did not reach any point where I said “oh, no, she shouldn’t be telling the reader to do that!” The counsel given in the book advises some contextual lenience when it comes to time and place, and pushes the reader to follow a wise path of very selective silence in those situations where outing oneself would bring either no benefit or, worse, cause significant losses.

If you are an atheist who is already open and out about it—or slightly bemused by the idea that people ought to be out—it is worth reading Greta’s book for the stories of how other people came out and the sort of challenges they faced.

If you aren’t out: whatever on earth are you waiting for? Public honesty cripples the attempts by religious cranks and political opportunists to stereotype and demonize us. Coming out—whether as non-religious or as LGBT—makes the world a better place and makes those coming out into happier, more liberated people. You have nothing to lose but your closet.