Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, by Greta Christina (Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, 2014, ISBN 978-1939578198) 440 pp. Paperback, $17.95.
Beginning in 1999 when I started the first secular humanist group in Indiana and continuing in my position as executive director of Center for Inquiry–Indiana, I have heard hundreds of de-conversion stories. People hear about our weekly Sunday morning Coffee and Conversation and come to share their leaving-religion stories. In most cases, they express concerns about other people in their lives finding out that they no longer consider themselves religious. For some, it is fear of losing their jobs, but for most, it is fear of what will happen when their spouses, parents, and/or friends find out. In her newest book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Greta Christina features more “coming out to family” stories than all the other kinds of stories put together.
I have seen firsthand how much these people need community, and it has become my passion to meet that need. Therefore, I was especially interested in the book’s chapter on community building. My experience bears out what Greta Christina says: “It’s easier [to come out as a nonbeliever] when you know that you’ll have a supportive community that can give you some or all of what you got from religion.”
As she writes, “. . . There’s exactly one thing, and only one thing, that religion uniquely provides: a belief in the supernatural. . . . Everything else that religion happens to provide—social support, rites of passage, a sense of tradition, a sense of purpose and meaning, safety nets, networking, companionship and continuity, etc.—none of that is particular to religion. All of it can be gotten elsewhere.” And I share the experience that Christina describes about being involved in organized atheism. “One of the things I love most about being in organized atheism is how much it’s widened my circle of friends.” I had never met so many interesting and intelligent people before becoming involved.
Through meeting and interacting with other atheists, newcomers to our community can see how other atheists live happy, fulfilling, moral lives. I agree with Christina that it is important that atheists come out of the closet, but they should not feel obligated to go around telling everyone about it. One’s religion—or lack thereof—is a personal matter and isn’t anyone else’s business. But on the other hand, if the subject of religious beliefs comes up, we should not remain silent, and we should never apologize for our atheism.
And as Christina says, there are also good reasons to not come out: for example, if you think it would seriously endanger your safety or the safety of the people in your life.
Christina addresses the issue of what name a group should choose. I agree that different names may appeal to different communities; however, I am opposed to using monikers with negative connotations, such as “Godless Atheists” or “Heathens.” They perpetuate the stereotypes about the nonreligious that many people have. When I started a group in Indiana, I named it “Humanist Friendship Group of Central Indiana” because I wanted the name to be positive and welcoming. That is also why I like the organizational name “Center for Inquiry.” It is not negative or limiting; the word atheist is. CFI’s name is inclusive of all who are inquiring and allows for the broad mission of the organization.
A passion of mine that I don’t find addressed in this book is putting a positive public face on a group. I have networked over the years with organizations in the community that share our stance on issues. Through this, CFI–Indiana has gained respect among those in the local progressive community who are our allies. Coming Out Atheist is a great book for people who are in that process. It would be comforting for them to hear that others are almost always glad that they came out and that it has made their lives better. Very few of the coming out stories end with dire consequences. Even if there are some short-term negatives, they are rarely long-term. Only one person that Christina interviewed said that she regretted coming out.
However, if one expects this book to tell him or her exactly how to come out as an atheist, he or she will be disappointed and rightly so. As Christina says, “Here are some right ways to come out.” She lists eleven helpful suggestions but acknowledges that the process is different for everyone; we should be patient and be the bigger person in our interactions with people who may be surprised or upset, know where to draw the line on how much resistance we are willing to take, expect fairness in their treatment of us, and never apologize for our choice.
Although the book is based on four hundred “coming out atheist” stories that Christina gathered from responses to her blog, readers spreading the word, web sites of other groups, and several books about atheism, she admits that it is not a representative sample of all atheists from all over the world and all demographics, so readers should take this limitation into consideration.
My major criticism of this book is that it is very repetitious and would read more smoothly and be shorter if some topics were combined. However, the short chapters did motivate me to keep reading—I was not faced with a lengthy chapter each time I picked up the book. All in all, I would recommend this book to those who are struggling with the decision to come out and how to do it. Another good book (though there are many others) is Jim Mulholland’s Leaving My Religion: A Practical Guide to Becoming Non-Religious. Mulholland is a former minister and author of Christian books who has come out as an atheist and wants to help others in their transitions. He says, “When it comes to your happiness, what you believe is not nearly as important as your ability to live out those beliefs with integrity and authenticity.”
Reba Boyd Wooden is executive director of the Center for Inquiry–Indiana and director of the Center for Inquiry Secular Celebrant Program.