Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coming Out Again

On NPR this morning, they discussed a recent survey about race in America. The survey included a question about what kind of person you would least like to see marry into your family. The answer? An atheist. This was good news on the race front, but still slightly troubling.

I am an atheist.

Yes, you read it correctly and I am discovering, more and more, how hated atheists are. Like with sexuality, you often have to "come out" as an atheist, because no one will readily assume you are one. Many people seem to not grasp this concept. I only have to come out as gay, because the world assumes everyone is straight. The same goes for being atheist. Everyone assumes you are either religious in some capacity or at least believe in God. Being gay and being atheist have a lot of similarities. Why do people assume everyone is straight and religious? Because being gay and being atheist is seen as horrible, evil, and nothing you would ever want to assume about someone else. In reality, is it all based in fear.  Gay people scare many straight people because we go against a norm. It is the old saying: people hate what they don't understand. The same with being atheist. People fear those who do not believe in a higher power and assume something is terribly wrong with us. 

I haven't always been an atheist. I wasn't raised that way. I actually attended church almost every Sunday of my life from birth until I turned 19. My first 11 years were spent in a Quaker church (or meeting house). For this I am forever grateful. I have great respect for Quakers and for many of the values they instilled in me. They are open-minded and believe in individual worship and connection with God. They were also one of the first sects of Christianity that embraced gays. Those 11 years had a profound influence on me. This was an influence I didn't even fully acknowledge or realize until my 20s. 

From there my family began attending a First Christian Church. This is where I spent my teenage years. Again, I gained much from this experience. The church was very open and my middle school youth group, which was led by our two pastors (a married couple), spent an entire year exploring and learning about all the other religions of the world. Amazing, right? Christianity acknowledging other religions and showing how similar they are, it doesn't seem possible, but it happened. There I learned a great deal and enjoyed exploring other faiths. Amongst the good, there was also some bad. I felt a bit confused by this shift from a Quaker meeting house to a church that had communion, baptisms, and decorations. Quakers do not believe in symbols or ornamentation. You are not baptized and you never take communion. These were hard switches and ones that troubled me. As time went I on, I often refused to take communion because it didn't make any sense to me and still doesn't. 

When I turned 18, I headed off to college. I went to a small liberal arts college in Southern Indiana. While there, I found a methodist church to attend. It was a small country church with an extremely passionate female pastor. I was moved by her devotion and the casualness of the service. I got myself up almost every Sunday through my freshmen year of college to get on a bus and go to church. This doesn't sound much like an atheist, does it? One Sunday my parents were visiting and we went to the church I had been attending. After the service the pastor, with tears in her eyes (she cried a lot), stopped my mother and told her, "your son loving and knowing Jesus Christ is the greatest gift in the world." A few months later I would wonder, can you get a refund for that gift? 

Shortly after my freshmen year, something snapped. I can't fully place my finger on it, but the more I studied, the more I read, the more I met other people, I realized how deeply troubled I was about religion. This also coincided with my struggle with my own sexuality, but I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I am not an atheist because I am gay. Believe me, I live in the South where most gays are actually religious (strange, I know). These two things happened close together because I was suddenly opening myself up to the possibility of being my own person. 

I didn't immediately call myself an atheist, but I did stop attending church. It just didn't feel right anymore and I felt by going I was dishonoring those who actually do believe. From there I studied more and more. I learned about history. I took a theology class. I took philosophy. I took art history. I took tons of literature classes. And with time it became so obvious: God is a story that some people need to believe in to go on with life. All the religions of the world have been used to explain the unexplainable and to make people feel better about their lots in life. Is that so bad? No, not necessarily. We all have to find ways of coping, but religion doesn't stop there. Religion, above anything else, has been used to control, manipulate, and destroy. Nearly every war or conflict in the history of mankind can be attached to some form of religious dispute. Is that so bad? Yes, very much so. I won't get into all the specifics of why I don't or can't believe in God (it would take up a lot of this blog if I did), but my beliefs are firmly rooted in an understanding of the world and of history and how many religions came into being. 

At 27, I'm comfortable with where I am in my beliefs. I understand some people's need for a God or for religion and I respect the good things that can come from that. But, I'm increasingly alarmed by the hate and destruction around the world based on some myth and story. I respect people's choices to believe in something, but not to harm people in the name of it. I will admit, I do sometimes get that confused look on my face when I meet someone who is extremely well-educated and is still religious. I'm not saying this to sound snobbish or elitist, but most studies show the more educated you are, the more likely you are to not believe in God or organized religion. I think there is something to that. 

My other big issue with religion, particularly Christianity, is that it's based in the idea that I am not good enough on my own and that there is something evil in me that I need to be forgiven for. This doesn't seem like a good way to go through life. I believe in myself. I believe in being good to people. I believe in loving each other and respecting each other. This is what confuses me by the hatred toward atheists. We are somehow seen as bad people because we don't have some book or priest or man in the sky telling us how to live our lives. I am the person I want to be and I try every day to be proud of myself and my actions. Do I always succeed? No, but that is life. I love my partner, my family, and my friends. You don't need religion to be a good person, or if a good person means attacking gay people, starting wars, or blowing up airplanes, than I want no part of it. 

My family is still religious. They still attend church and firmly believe in God and that is okay. I am thankful for the various experiences my parents gave me as a young boy and I cherish them, but now I am my own man. I am an atheist and I'm proud of it.  

-Stephen (the Gay Atheist) 


  1. I'll have to read this more carefully later, when I've put my contacts in and such, but I'm quite intrigued by what I've read so far. I consider myself to be an atheist too, and it is a bit of a closeted identity. I have friends that are outspokenly atheist but when I'm not around them I tend to end up feeling guilty. I equivocate about it and claim agnosticism, which is probably the religious equivalent of bisexuality. I think some of it, too, is wanting to believe in an afterlife. I've spent many dark nights alone in bed fearing the void of nonexistence, but in order to honor the gift of life as it is I can't allow myself to engage in purposeful cognitive dissonance out of unnecessary fear.

    Wow, that was kinda deep, ha.

    There's more that I wrote but I don't wanna right my own post below yours, so I'll end it at that...

    I will say one other thing though in saying, as my friend aptly put, that being an atheist isn't the same as being a "non-believer" (a term often used interchangeably). Sure, I don't believe in God or whatever, but that doesn't mean I don't hold my own tenets, beliefs, philosophies, etc. I just choose to believe differently.

    I'll end here though, as I'm sure I'm just preaching to the choir.

  2. Thanks for the comment and I think you make many valid points. It is important to understand that atheist doesn't mean "non-believer." There are many misconceptions, which I think drove me to write this piece.

    As always, thank you for reading.

  3. I appreciated reading this posting. I would agree with the same feeling as coming out as a Lutheran to many GLBT circles, let alone as an erstwhile seminarian who is waiting to become a way openly gay pastor. I get some pretty wild reactions.

    I would agree too that there are many misconceptions of both atheists and Christians, because we have people speaking for us, in our names (or the names of our faith orientations) who make us look like either idiots, sadists, or raving lunatics (need I say who that would be for me this week? :-)).

    I would never have thought I'd be where I am in my thought/feeling about religion, but there it is. It's like thinking I'll be married to a woman someday with little kids running around. Perish the thought. That would be a disaster!

    At any rate, keep it coming!
    Chris (a gay Lutheran)

  4. I read this to my roommate, a spiritual (not religious) gay man, and he said that he doesn't believe in God for the comfort but that he gets comfort from his belief. And he also said that he doesn't think you're looking at the bigger picture: What happens when we die? Who created the earth? Who created the human race? And if evolution is your explanation, evolution had to begin somewhere to. It makes logical sense to him, he said.

    His argument was that there will always be a question as to where something came from, whether it's explaining how the Big Bang happened or where the particles that make up the universe come from.

    Personally, I refrain from all religion and even the concept of God. My mother is Jewish and my father is Christian, so I wasn't forced to choose either side. And I didn't.

    I would be very interested in what you have to say in response to my roommate's thoughts.


  5. Amanda,

    Thank you and your roommate for adding to the discussion. I don't know that I fully addressed the "bigger picture" as your roommate called it, but I tried to hint at it by saying I don't mind people wanting to believe in something or needing to for whatever reason and many good things can come from that. Many people have a need to answer the questions your roommate brought up in some manner (religious or scientific). My issue is if this then turns into violence, destruction, and hatred of others, which it often does.

    I'm not a big science person either. I do fully believe in evolution, but science doesn't have all the answers. I guess I don't have a large need to have all the questions of the universe explained to me by anyone. What happens when we die? I guess I'll wait and find out. I realize that might make me an oddity.

    I think it's great if your roommate has found a spiritual balance he is comfortable with and I can respect that while still not wanting it for myself.

    There's my attempt at responding. I'm tempted to write more about this topic in a future blog post because I got so many comments on here and on Facebook and there is plenty to talk about and explore.