A Glimpse Back: The Long Road To Coming Out As An Atheist

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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.

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There are 10 Comments to "A Glimpse Back: The Long Road To Coming Out As An Atheist"

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Zack Ford. Zack Ford said: ZackFord Blogs – A Glimpse Back: The Long Road To Coming Out As An Atheist – http://is.gd/c3yoo – #atheism #highered #studentaffairs [...]

  • J Doe says:

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing this!

    My own parents are atheists, so I never really had any religious beliefs to speak of – I’ve never had to really “come out” to myself on this. They never pushed me away from religion, but without anyone insisting that I believe, I saw all the religious stories I subsequently heard the same way I saw my favorite book of Greek myths.

    By the time my own worldview was worth labeling, I called myself agnostic, and I was one of the smarmy ones acting all snooty towards atheists and theists alike (I’ve never had to come out as a self-righteous ass, either! ;) ). Eventually I moved away from that, though, and I really have Scientology to thank.

    See, it was Xenu who made me realize that I couldn’t take (my) agnosticism seriously. Sure, I don’t have complete causal knowledge of the universe!!1!. But I don’t need to in order to recognize bad fiction. And the other religions aren’t any better, just older, so we have less direct demonstrations of the fact that their creators were hacks. It’s a pretty linear scale from how seriously we take Scientology to how seriously we take Mormonism to how seriously we take older religions. I am not Xenu-agnostic; I am not teapot-agnostic, I am not Yahweh-agnostic.

    So, until very recently, I identified as a “soft” or “weak” atheist, and would carefully spell out how I didn’t make the positive claim “There is no god,” but laugh off as vanishingly insignificant the possibility that deities exist. Now, I’ve clarified a bit more.

    See, when I’m talking about any general thing I see in the world, I don’t bother to make this sort of distinction. I say “the sky is blue” without appending the disclaimer “I know that there is a non-zero possibility that I am a brain in a jar experiencing a false Matrix-like world that has a purple sky or no sky at all, but – ” before simply stating “the sky is blue.” I do not feel it is necessary, before every statement about the observable world, to concede that I do not have a direct link to ABSOLUTE TRUTH. No rational person does think they have a direct line to ABSOLUTE TRUTH – it’s understood that I am not talking as such.

    So why, in conversations about theism, should I feel it necessary to hem and haw and call myself “soft” or “weak” and append this little bit of lucidity?

    Fuck that noise. It’s your respect meme in action, nothing more. The sky is blue; there are no deities; and I do not need to bend over backwards to accommodate any theist who believes that they do have a personal relationship with ABSOLUTE TRUTH. Yes, of course there is a technical “possibility” that deities exist – so what? It is insignificantly, negligibly small. I refuse to step back and attempt to sugarcoat my worldview with modifiers like “weak” and “soft” in order to, quite blatantly, make myself more palatable to theists and seem less different from them. A central tenet of rational atheist thought about deities is that their existence is a testable, observable claim like any other – so, like any other outrageous and completely unsupported claim, I will discard it and speak of it like I do Xenu and the Matrix.

    I am an atheist. Period. And I’m taking back my vocabulary.

    The whole idea of soft/hard atheism (or your atheism/contratheism, though less markedly so) is really based on accommodating angry privileged people. The very distinction implies “well yes, I’m an atheist, but I’m not one of those bad, scary atheists – I’m one of the good ones!” It’s inherently self-demonizing, implying that atheism IS a bad, scary thing, just that *I* am moderate, and therefore *I’m* one of the safe ones. Again, fuck that noise. The idea around “hard atheism” in any case – a profound, unshakable *belief* that there is no possibility of deities – is not a “more extreme” version of my worldview; it’s a repudiation of it, a descent to the same type of magical thinking and belief in a connection to ABSOLUTE TRUTH that plagues the radical theists. That is not a view associated with atheism. It is a rusty old canard that we should abandon as a straw atheist, not some fringe group to demonize in our stead. We are the radical fringe that embraces rational thought.

  • There has been a little bit of research into this topic.  Some Master’s students at Michigan State University presented on their research at NASPA a few years ago.  In fact, it may have been the joint ACPA/NASPA conference in Florida; I don’t remember the precise details but I’m sure that if you search the NASPA archives you’ll find it.  They came to the same conclusion that you did: coming out as an atheist is in many ways similar to coming out as gay.

  • ZackFord says:

    Thanks Kevin, but if you’ll excuse me, I need to get just a little snarky. Don’t take it personally…

    I’m sure their study had compelling results that have been further validated by research. I’m sure it’s also been taken into consideration in all further studies of spirituality. I bet many models for atheist identity development have been investigated and are now common in student development theory textbooks. In fact, atheist identity development is now a standard consideration in all university practices, with absolutely no resources being dedicated to “spiritual development,” recognizing these would clearly ostracize students and inhibit their identity development!

    I’m sorry. I just get so frustrated that we herald spirituality as this wonderful new dimension of student affairs and we praise Astin for his extensive research, when his motives (and his funding) are all clearly biased toward religious belief. Goodman and Mueller had the first published study on atheist students, and it took until 2009 to happen. We have a long way to go in recognizing the insane amount of privilege inherent in these discussions and how far behind we are.

  • ZackFord says:

    Haha, I really am grateful to have folks like you commenting, Kevin. Just imagine it’s 50 years ago, and you were telling me that some Master’s students had done the only research on the experience of gay people and their general conclusion wasn’t really useful or surprising. I was just really triggered by your comment, but I don’t want you to think that I was triggered by YOU.

  • [...] » Read Zack’s recent post about coming out as an atheist. [...]

  • I’m not quite convinced that the spirituality research is biased against non-believers.  I think it’s possible given the pervasive biases against non-believers in much of the U.S. but I haven’t looked into the current body of research enough to be convinced myself.  It’s certainly not the case among most of my colleagues here in Indiana University’s doctoral program in higher education and it’s not the case among my colleagues at NSSE (and we’re the target of ire because we explicitly ask students about “spirituality”).  But maybe I just have open-minded and reasonable colleagues, eh? :)
    Given the early state of the research, I’m not particularly bothered by it.  Further, that research into spirituality is not aimed at non-believers also doesn’t really bother me anymore than research into disabilities is not aimed at non-disabled persons.  I just don’t believe that coming to an understanding of the powerful role that religion plays in many people’s lives is necessarily hostile to or exclusive of non-believers.
    Should we extend the research to also include non-believers?  Of course!  It seems the natural next step to take and the responsible thing to do.  But I’m not (yet) willing to take up arms simply because we haven’t yet taken that step.  I’m not particularly eager to add this to my research agenda so it seems hypocritical of me to try to force it on others.

  • ZackFord says:

    My concern is that there have been many studies and models proposed (over decades), but they all couch many aspects of development into spirituality that aren’t necessarily spiritual. There are aspects of meaning-making, diversity appreciation, leadership development and more that are all considered part of “spiritual development,” but often with the conclusion that when individuals do not progress in their spiritual development, they thus foreclose entirely on the identity development that comes with.

    Spirituality, itself, does not apply to everyone. Everyone has a race, a sex, a sexual orientation… but not everybody is spiritual. So to say that spirituality research is not biased is, arguably, a statement biased by spirituality.

    What upsets me is that there is so much of what we call “spiritual development” that we only measure by studying believers. The mere fact that we’ve studies them almost exclusively concerns me, because believers are the privileged group. They already are the standard. Do we study race by measuring white development and say that those who don’t fulfill what we understand about white development are foreclosed? Do we claim to know a lot about the experience of gay students because of our models of heterosexuality?

    It’s a serious bias that concerns me, and a huge deficit in our understandings of identity development.

  • Shelonda says:

    Hello,  I listened to your story and realized that you probably need to find it within yourself to find out who Jesus really is because it sounds as though you are trying to find a belief where you do not have to compromise your homosexuality or things you do not want to compromise. You seem to be a  very confused and damaged by some sort of molestation or other demonic influence that is not really who you are. Instead of building up a website to find answers about your identity from others, ask Jesus to come in to your heart with sincerety and he is the only one that can provide that hole in  your heart for the answers since he created you. To say that you live your life for you and the people in this world is like taking a knife and stabbing yourself because the world cares nothing about you, but Jesus does and you will never be able to meet the expectations of the world or yourself. Look in the mirror how many times have you dissapointed yourself? Take it from someone that Jesus has delivered from self and people. When you come to love yourself, you will realize even in your confusion, Jesus was there all along waiting on you just to seek him. Invest  in a King James Bible(living translation) and begin to read and pray for change and for him to reveal the reason that you are here so you can began fulfilling your purpose instead of being blindsided by that which feels good to you, but is not good for you. Zackford how many times have  you awaken

  • ZackFord says:

    Hey Shelonda, I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but I offered a lengthy response to your comment in a separate post: http://zackfordblogs.com/2010/06/how-not-to-evangelize-to-an-atheist-starring-shelonda/

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