Arguably, disclosing one’s identity as an atheist is a coming out process. Like coming out as gay, it is the unveiling of an invisible identity known to be stigmatized by society, so I think it is safe to assume there are similarities in the process. There are significant differences too—most importantly that one can choose to be an atheist (arguably), whereas one can not choose one’s sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, we know nothing about the atheist coming out process. While there have been decades of research on coming out, it has all focused on sexual orientation and gender identity. And while there have been decades of research on spiritual identity development, all such studies continue to be biased toward belief in a higher power with almost none paying any heed to the unique experience of atheists.
One of my professional/life goals is to help fill this deficit of research so that nonbelievers can be better understood in the context of a society that privileges religion. In the absence of the resources to conduct such studies presently, I will instead look back at my own experience as a case study.
When I tell my coming out story (the atheist one), there is a significant milestone. Like coming out as gay, I think coming out as an atheist involves a connecting of past experiences, a revelation of how past inklings and actions demonstrate that one has been on the path to identifying as an atheist for quite some time. The significant milestone I reference in my story is my college admissions essay, which I finished in January, 2003. I was 17, I was participating in Bible youth groups weekly, and it would be another year and a half before I acknowledged I was gay.
I remember being frustrated with this essay. I had a lot to say and not a lot of space in which to say it. The essay got edited a lot. Ultimately, it had to be cut in half. One of the schools I was applying to (Ithaca College, the one I ended up going to) had a max word length of 350 words. I used every single one of them.
At this point, I think I’ll let the essay speak for itself. You will be surprised by what I had to say seven years ago. The prompt was: Please select a topic of personal interest and explain its importance to you.
Having been born into a family of devout Catholics, heavy religious devotion is always knocking at my door. However, I choose not to answer it. My case differs slightly from the families of my mother’s eleven siblings. My parents adopted me at birth after extensive attempts to bear a biological child, some involving medical procedures that the church shunned.
Ignoring the pressure from her family, my mother chose not to raise me in the church. I was still baptized Catholic, but I never attended more than three Masses a year. Forever shall I appreciate the prudent way she instilled upon me many of the church’s strong morals and a strong belief in God without smothering me in the prayers, rituals, and long church services.
My academic upbringing led to a great inner debate that continues to this day. I don’t doubt that God exists, but I question it constantly. I know there’s got to be something out there, but there are just so many conflicts between the Bible and the world of science.
In addition, almost every conflict in the world’s history has stemmed from dissension among religions, whether it was the Crusades, 9-11 and the Middle East struggle, or even political wars like the American Civil War.
Regardless, I live my life for Him. I dedicate myself to others through friendship and volunteering and I try never to give less than 100%. I also believe in abstinence until marriage and I plan never to voluntarily consume or use tobacco, drugs, or alcohol, having lost both my grandfathers to their destructive natures.
As an additional pursuit of music, I play the organ for a local church. Every week, I overhear Sunday School classes that discuss generalizations in accordance with the strong conservativeness that abounds in my rural community. Often I want to interrupt and argue, but I restrain myself. Many churches tend to confine the scope of their congregations’ perspectives of life.
The Constitution grants us not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion. If I can be raised well without intense church attendance, maybe others can too.
Not the Zack Ford you might be used to reading here on the blog.
The abstinence claim was an easy way to closet myself without realizing it. I did eventually start drinking, but I’m still conservative about it. After I left that summer, I never again set foot in the church that had employed me and celebrated my musicianship. Friendship and volunteering are no less important to me today.
But look at some of that language I used!
Forever shall I appreciate the prudent way she instilled upon me many of the church’s strong morals and a strong belief in God without smothering me in the prayers, rituals, and long church services.
That’s right. At one point in my life, I gave the Catholic Church credit for morality. It makes me nauseous to think about now.
I also appreciated that I’d been taught to believe in God. I no longer maintain that sentiment.
I don’t doubt that God exists, but I question it constantly. I know there’s got to be something out there, but there are just so many conflicts between the Bible and the world of science.
I did not doubt God. At the time, I drew a distinction between religion and beliefs. It was organized religion I despised, not the idea of God. I truly believed God could exist and be worshiped in the absence of organized religion. Religion was the problem, not God. And yet, even then, I knew that there were conflicts between what God was supposed to be and what actually could be. But, for me, my questions were about God; I was not questioning of God.
Regardless, I live my life for Him.
Wow. It still blows my mind that I’d say that. It scares me to think that despite my questions, I had that sense of devotion. I am sure that the inevitable Ford Model of Atheist Identity Development will lend itself to such a phase—a separation from the structure but not the beliefs. That was how I’d explain it: I have my own relationship with Jesus.
My religious identity went pretty latent after that. My coming out as gay journey took over, with its own implications for my worldview, and it wasn’t until really the Fall of 2007 that I started to seriously question again—to seriously think about how I identified. I had already adopted an agnostic point of view with a desire to simply stay away from religious thinking entirely. Everybody else thought it important, so yeah sure, “I believe in God,” but the words meant nothing to me. I started identifying as a Pastafarian, because from a political point of view I thought the FSM was hilarious and brilliant, and I asked for The God Delusion for Christmas (I’ll always laugh about that).
I was a surefire atheist before I’d even gotten halfway through Dawkins’ masterpiece.
How strange to now look back and see how much my thinking has changed. I now call “God” a delusion, a projection only within a person’s own imagination. I say I don’t respect beliefs at all, calling them unfounded ideas without intellectual merit. I chastise the mere idea that morals come from religion, pointing out that religion unfairly claimed moral reasoning as its own to falsely inflate its importance. I no longer abstractly give thanks, but if there is one thing I appreciate in my life, it is the fact that my thinking progressed beyond devotion to invisible deities. I life my life for me and for the people of the world. That, I think, is the most admirable form of devotion I can offer.
Surely, there are more stories to be told. Surely, there is a model for identity development waiting to be formulated so that we can better appreciate and support atheists who are struggling to come out.
But, I guess we first have to recognize that being an atheist isn’t a bad thing. We’ve got a ways to go.