What would happen if we all came out? What would happen if every atheist, humanist, agnostic, freethinker, and every nonbeliever of every stripe went public about the fact that we don’t believe in any gods?
I know that’s a wildly ambitious goal. It’s also unrealistic: many people really and truly can’t be completely open about their nonbelief without risking their jobs, homes, support systems, children, and in some cases their safety. So let’s dial it back a notch. What would happen if every nonbeliever told one person—just one—that we don’t believe in any gods?
What would happen if those of us who are fairly closeted about our nonbelief came out to one person in our lives—our mother, our brother, our best friend? What would happen if those of us who’ve told some people about our nonbelief but not others came out to just one more person—our cousin, our coworker, our neighbor? What would happen if those of us who are already pretty open about our nonbelief came out to one more person who doesn’t already know—our bank manager, our favorite barista, the person sitting next to us at the airport?
This isn’t an idle question for me. I’ve recently published a book on this topic: Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Based on over four hundred coming-out stories as well as my own observations and experiences, the book is a nuts-and-bolts guide to telling the people in your life that you don’t believe in God. It’s got strategies and philosophies on coming out to family members, friends, coworkers, and spouses. It’s for people coming out in conservative and progressive communities, in the U.S. military, on the Internet, in theocracies both overt and de facto; for students and parents and people who are dealing with other sorts of marginalization; and more. In addition to the guidance on coming out, the book has an entire section on how to help and support other atheists in coming out.
A huge part of the reason that I wrote the book is that I can’t stop thinking about how powerful it would be if every one of us took just one step out of the atheist closet. I think it would be transformative. I think it would radically change the international conversation about atheism—and for that matter, about religion. It would put a serious dent in the bigotry nonbelievers face: research consistently shows that people’s bigotry against a group goes down when they know a person in that group (or, as in the case of invisible minorities such as LGBT people or atheists, when they know that they know a person in that group). So when people know that they know an atheist, it’ll be harder for them to hate or fear us.
It would put a serious dent in the myths and misunderstandings people have about us: it’ll be harder for people to think that atheists have no morality when they know us and see how much we care about doing the right thing, or to think that we have no meaning or joy to our lives when they know us and see how passionate we are. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’ll also put a serious dent in religious belief itself: religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself, and as more people realize that nonbelief is an option, more of them will recognize that belief is insupportable and will let it go. (If you talk to a bunch of atheists and ask why they left religion, you’ll see that “meeting other atheists” or “hearing about atheism” is often an important part of the process.) And as those people let religion go, more people in their lives will start to question it . . . and so on, and so on, and so on. Coming out atheist has a snowball effect—and that snowball has the potential to turn into an avalanche.
Coming out to at least one more person would also radically transform our own lives, for most of us anyway. In the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of coming-out stories that I collected for my book, people said that they were happier after they’d done it. Even if it had been a rough road—even if these people had been met with tears and recriminations, fear and hostility, bigotry, and sometimes outright alienation—they still felt better after doing it, and they still thought it was the right decision. I literally read only one—count ’em, one—story from an atheist who had come out and regretted it. For almost everyone, it changed their lives for the better.
Coming out would do more to help us find one another than almost any other organizing strategy we could come up with. When I was doing my research, one of the themes that kept coming up was atheists gearing up their courage to tell people that they were atheists—and having the people in their lives respond with a relieved and delighted, “Me, too!” I was astonished at how often this happened. I suppose I shouldn’t have been—I’ve been reading the same statistics everyone else has about how many nonbelievers there are and how those numbers are on the rise, so it stands to reason that coming out as an atheist would result in a “Me, too!” a fair amount of the time. It still took me by surprise—the way you can be surprised by something that runs counter to the standard social narratives, but it’s perfectly obvious once you start to think about it. Coming out helps us find one other—and that makes it possible to build communities and organize political campaigns. It makes it possible to get the word out to even more people that religion isn’t the only option—and to create safe places to land for even more people as they continue to let that option go. And finding each other when we come out happens a lot.
If you’re in any doubt about the power of coming out, look at the history of the LGBT community. When I was born, LGBT people were being locked up in mental institutions. Today, we’re getting married. We were able to make that change—and the thousands of other changes we’ve made, in laws and media and in the hearts and minds of millions—when we started to come out. It was hard, especially in the early days, when the laws and the media and the hearts and minds were even harder on us than they are now. But each time a gay person told someone, “I’m gay,” it chipped away at that hatred and fear and ignorance. Each time an atheist tells someone, “I’m an atheist,” it’s doing the same thing. (In fact, atheists have something going for us that LGBTs don’t have: telling people you’re gay doesn’t make them gay, but telling people you’re an atheist can and does help people become atheists.)
I get that it’s hard. I’m not asking anyone to do anything that would seriously screw up their lives. If coming out as an atheist would mean risking your job, your home, your support system, your children, or your safety, I’m not going to ask you to do it.
But for those of us who can do it, coming out about our atheism is one of the most powerful actions we can take. It’s personally powerful. It’s politically powerful. Coming out is what’s going to make it safer for other atheists—the ones who really can’t come out without it seriously screwing up their lives. If every one of us who can do it comes out about our atheism to one person—just one person who doesn’t already know—it could change the world.