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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Coming Out Atheist

I met Greta Christina at the Secular Student Alliance conference last month. She spoke about coming out as an atheist. The most salient point from her talk for me was that unlike coming out queer, coming out atheist implies a judgment that you are rejecting the other person's way of being. When you tell someone you're queer, there's no expectation that everyone should be. Everyone has to find the sexual and gender expression that seems most authentic personally. Atheists, on the other hand, tend to believe that anyone who thinks it through will come to atheism as the only reasonable conclusion. Coming out atheist implies rejection on some level of the person on the receiving end of the announcement in a way that coming out queer does not.

Greta Christina's presentation reminded me of some advise I once read about coming out queer that also bears on coming out atheist. The advise was to bear in mind that the person to whom the declaration is being made is at a disadvantage. While the person making the disclosure has had time to ponder and rehearse, the person on the receiving end is hearing the news for the first time. In light of the point about the rejection implied in coming out atheist, it may be even more important for the atheist to prepare for a spontaneous, raw reaction to the coming out disclosure.

Greta Christina's presentation also reminded me of a second aspect of coming out queer that would seem to apply to coming out atheist. The issue is heteronormativity, which would translate to something like theonormativity for atheists. The problem is that people in the majority do not have to make a grand announcement. It's a burden that falls entirely to the minority. There's a certain absurdity about having to disclose something personal merely because people will make a default assumption otherwise. The fact is that coming out consists of some episodes that are dramatic announcements and others that are matter-of-fact disclosures that come up spontaneously in response to a faulty assumption. You're never finished coming out until everyone you'll ever meet has gotten the memo.

I delayed coming out to my ultra-conservative, religious family because I knew I could never expect any sincere expression of support from them. I opted for voluntary estrangement. By the time I'd grown indifferent to their support, I resented any obligation to make a grand announcement. The chance of a casual, matter-of-fact correction in the context of a faulty assumption was improbable in the extreme, given the infrequency of our interaction. I hesitated to send  Facebook friend requests to my family to obviate the need for an announcement because I didn't want to be governed by my righteous indignation or refusal accept the world as it is. A friend observed that the Facebook strategy would give my family the option to initiate discussion or persist in the polite fiction that has become the basis of our now tenuous relationship. I've been prepared for many years to be rejected unambiguously by my family, but I never prepared for the alternative. It never occurred to me how much work might be involved in repairing damaged ties, but it wouldn't be fair to sever them altogether without testing them first.

1 comment:

  1. Oh be careful of doing it on facebook. I'm a godless gay guy. Causes no end of consternation on the part of my father, with whom I no longer speak.

    It started on Facebook - him calling me and I quote "a gay basterd" and got worse from there until such time I blocked my father on facebook, and had my aunt tell him I no longer wanted to speak to him. In fact my last conversation with dad was that I hope he died a lonely old man.

    I have a fairly high tolerance btw, it took me 45 years to do that.