Opinion

Agnostics need more support in coming out to family and friends

Lyndsay West. Photo courtesy of Lyndsay West

(RNS) One year ago, I published a piece that completely transformed my relationship with my immediate family. In it, I shared my tumultuous journey of religious skepticism and explained how diverging from my family’s spiritual beliefs had profound psychological consequences.

Lyndsay West. Photo courtesy of Lyndsay West

Lyndsay West is a head-and-neck cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City and a contributing blogger to The Huffington Post. Photo courtesy of Lyndsay West

I know that I am not the only 25-year-old agnostic in the world, but the fellowship that is so easily accessible within the Christian community seems relatively lacking for nonbelievers. I went from being inundated by church events celebrating like-mindedness to feeling pathological in my irreligious rebirth.

Why is that the case when Americans are increasingly abandoning their association with organized religion?

If we’re not vocal about our status, a sea of religious people will drown us out and others won’t feel comfortable shedding their religious façade.

Through my experience, I’ve learned that hiding one’s true beliefs from friends and family contributes to an atmosphere of silence and stigma, which prevents atheists, agnostics and so-called nones from establishing a support system.

I found religious freedom within my family, and I hope that my story inspires skeptics of all backgrounds to candidly “come out” as well. Personal relationships benefit from honesty, and the nonreligious community will benefit from gaining one more forthright member.

When I submitted the article confessing my beliefs, I did not expect my parents to discover it. For that matter, I did not anticipate my family ever unearthing the deep dark secret that my born-again Baptist parents have a staunch agnostic daughter.

But shortly after the article posted in May of 2015, they heard about my public admission through the well-connected network of our Dallas church.

Because I live in New York City, my parents chose to wait and confront me about my proclaimed agnosticism when I paid them a visit later that summer. I can imagine that they felt an acute sense of loss during this time. The God-fearing woman they reared and treasured had vanished.

My parents are fundamentally wholesome people, not because they are Christians, but because they have kind souls and good intentions. I simply could not force myself to face them. I felt like an entirely different person with an entirely different sense of existential value. The ensuing inner turmoil left me in a distressed haze. I concluded that telling them would be too upsetting for both parties, so I pretended to maintain my religiosity instead. Over time, I erected an immense wall of lies. Eventually, that wall loomed like an impassable hurdle I could not break through; I thought I would never know what was on the other side.

Fortunately, the other side offers fresh air and reprieve.

Having undergone the requisite period of sorrow, anger and confusion, my parents confronted me calmly and lovingly. I am beyond relieved that they now see and accept me for who I truly am. Their love for me is as unconditional as Jesus’ love for them. I respect them for choosing to embrace me in my “heathenness” even while they privately mourn my separation from the church. In this way, they not only get to know the real me, but I also learn a great deal about their selfless resolve to put their children’s interests above their own.

With my newfound religious freedom, I wonder what the dynamic will look like going forward.

Upon hearing my conclusion that there is no life after death, my parents expressed their comfort in the Bible. Several verses refer to a record in which God inscribes each name destined for heaven.

One such verse reads, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Obviously, this statement has impending implications for nonbelievers. My parents find solace in my previous relationship with Jesus, and they hope that my name is permanently engraved in the Book of Life, regardless of my present agnosticism.

While they appreciate my honesty, they view me in an unfamiliar light — as one whose status in the Book of Life might have changed. I ask myself, what will it feel like to be a daughter who is prayed for in this specific way? What will it look like to interact with them as their child but not a child of God? These uncertainties are accompanied by both anxiety and elation.

My parents delivered on their open door policy — and I could not be more grateful. In fact, I feel enormously liberated. But I cannot promise the same for everyone’s parents. I’m unsatisfied with the scarce amount of resources available to me and I imagine it’s even more agonizing for those without parental support.

Several people commended my “bravery.” I appreciate their words, but it’s unsettling to me that simply existing with a particular set of socially nonconventional beliefs is considered brave. As a member of the white middle class, I have not encountered much adversity. This is the first time I’ve had to go against the grain, and while I now have a greater respect for marginalized groups, I’m appalled at how little progress has been made to bolster the community of skeptics.

There are a number of reasons to encourage secular solidarity. Politically, our voice is underrepresented; according to a 2012 Pew Research Study, openly renouncing God is an unelectable move. Where is our caucus? How can we have genuine influence on the political process if we don’t openly organize? The vilification of our ideologies affects us in the civil sphere, but my main concern is on an individual level.

Fellow heathens, you are not alone. Being forthright in your beliefs might be difficult, but it is not impossible. We are in dire need of a social network, and if you’re hesitant to come forward, know that that reluctance helps perpetuate our marginalization. There is strength in numbers. Our perspectives deserve to be acknowledged. Someone out there is having an identity crisis related to his or her shifting beliefs, and consolation comes from realizing that a united force exists to offer support.

(Lyndsay West is a head-and-neck cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City and a contributing blogger to The Huffington Post)

This is the second in a series of occasional essays on how young Americans experience religion and spirituality. Unsolicited submissions are welcome: [email protected]


RELATED: How climate change challenged, then strengthened my faith


 

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  • There are plenty of organizations out there like the one you’re seeking. Recovering From Religion comes to mind.

  • Agnostics don’t need support, they just need to admit they are also atheists, that it is not wrong to be an atheist, then follow the few simple rules for maintaining a peaceful non-religious life: (1) keep your mouth shut about it; and (2) don’t interfere with the religious habits of the religious folks in your life, but firmly and politely exclude yourself from their religious activities without disrespecting them. Anybody who goes beyond this is asking for trouble, whether religious or not.

    If everyone acted in this manner, religious or otherwise, religion itself might be transformed from oppression into just another hobby, and atheists wouldn’t be as distrusted as rapists (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/in-atheists-we-distrust/), which is a completely ridiculous notion.

  • What a good article, well-written and personal. Being true to one’s self is life’s journey, made even more difficult when that results in great differences from loved ones. I applaud Ms. West’s courage and strength in taking these steps. Congratulations.

  • There are also atheist and skeptic organisations and societies in many cities across America and the world. In America, at least, many of the members in these places will understand and sympathise with the turmoil that comes from such an idealogical shift.

  • Great article. The author, and fellow readers, can search through MeetUp for an Atheist/Agnostic meetups in your area. If you don’t have one, start one! I started an Atheist group back in 2002, now I can get together with 25-30 of them every week! And I live in the Bible Belt: 🙂

  • You can pretty much count on missing the mark anytime you assert that a group of misunderstood people don’t need support. Even in affirming atheism this comment chastises anyone who self-selects a different label, which only goes to prove the point that they are misunderstood from every direction.

    I also disagree that remaining silent is a solution of any kind. How else can one find others like themselves if they don’t speak up? How else will anyone else out there learn they are not alone?

    And lastly, simply excluding oneself from religious activities is in itself an act of rebellion in families whose lives revolve around their religion. Doing so inescapably “interferes” with their own identity because to have a child leave the faith is an insult and a sign of failure on the part of the parent/community. I’m not saying that’s how it should be, I’m saying that’s how it is.

    Speaking up and seeking to be better understood is exactly the right thing to do, and I applaud the author for having the courage to do so in such an articulate and affirming way.

  • I suppose for the “coming out” situation, YMMV. I find it’s more peaceful to steer away from the topic altogether. As far as being understood, it’s a binary thing: you are either fully understood (by other atheists) or are viewed as a troubled weirdo doomed to eternity in hell. There’s essentially no middle ground, and the conversations tend to be “us vs. them”. In other words, support is simply agreement among those who think alike, but that agreement does nothing to further the cause because neither side wants to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other. It’s reduced to a “majority rules” situation.

    And yes, everything about atheism is rebellion—that’s exactly the point—but to call attention to that rebellion goes against the nature of atheism; you might as well be Muslim against Jew. Being an atheist (idealistically to me, that is) means moving completely away from the conflict rather than creating a new one by mustering the forces (getting support) against religion.

  • My biggest problem with religion is most people believe you must think like they do to have God in your life. It doesn’t matter if it is friends, relatives or people you hardly know they want you to follow their logic or beliefs. I happen to think it is all about how we treat one another if there is an afterlife or there isn’t. It is a simple way of living that everyone feels a goodness from every encounter.

  • For many people, they do. Richard Dawkins, EO Wilson, even comedian Ricky Gervais have mentioned evolution in connection with their own personal choice of atheism, with Dawkins being the most explicit about it.

    As Dawkins pointed out, evolution is NOT compatible with Christianity.

  • As Dawkins pointed out, evolution is NOT compatible with Christianity.

    I’m not sure if Dawkins can speak for Christianity.

  • Interesting (and true) observation that in American politics in 2016, “openly renouncing God is an unelectable move.” However, I wonder how much longer that will remain true. Not long ago, the same was said of LGBTQ politicians. And during the just-concluded DNC convention, there were numerous shout-outs to “people of all faiths, or no faith at all” — something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. As atheism/agnosticism becomes normalized and enters the mainstream, we will inevitably see atheist and agnostic politicians seek, and win, elections to higher office.

  • Hi Agni, good question–they did. I did not pay much attention to the case for evolution growing up (I discarded it as silly and thought the idea of us evolving from apes was laughable). When I started making friends in college outside of my religious circle, I saw that very intelligent people believed in evolution and thought that maybe it wasn’t so silly after all. The more I explored the science behind it, the more I favored that explanation over creationism. I think that a literalist view of Genesis directly contradicts pretty much everything we know now, scientifically; however, I respect those who take a more liberal reading and try and figure out how their faith is compatible with scientific claims. While I don’t personally espouse a creationist viewpoint, I think that the latter endeavor is laudable.

  • Thank you! Self-actualization has been a long road for me (and one that I’m still on), but I’m much more content now that I’ve been true to myself and have let that truth be known.

  • Hi Neil, thanks for your kind words. I completely agree with you. Excluding myself from my family’s religious practices was pragmatically impossible given their heavy involvement–unless I openly told them the truth about my beliefs. I wanted to be delicate with my “coming out” for the exact reasons that you pointed out (it insults their own identity).

    Keeping silent about my agnosticism was not something I could handle psychologically if I wanted to be close with them and to be intimately known by them.

  • Are you aware of the church of the flying spaghetti monster? I kid you not. Google it.

  • If you have read Genesis, Dawkins statement should be pretty obvious, unless you are like the Catholics, and waiver on some of the OT as not literal, or somehow misinterpreted. There were many reasons why I became an atheist, Genesis was certainly a contributing factor for me.

  • A not-absolutely-literal interpretation of Genesis is the position held by most Christians in the world (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, moderate to liberal Protestants, e.g.); so an absolutely literal interpretation is actually the minority position (and, thus, the not-so-obvious position, historically speaking).

  • Very thoughtful piece. It puts us in a situation of consistently being labeled as aggressively anti-religion, even if we’re simply stating our beliefs without trying to “start” anything. Unfortunate, because I do enjoy discussing religion with religious people, and I wish it didn’t so quickly devolve into a one-way, defensive shouting match. Obviously, that’s not always the case. But when you look at it from this perspective (of our mere existence being offensive), then you see how it happens more often than not.

  • I have heard of it! So great. I actually came across it for the first time in college– there was a pamphlet in one of my friend’s bathrooms. I was still religious at the time, so I was more offended than amused. Now, I think it’s wonderful.

  • It’s not just that evolution is incompatible with a literal reading of Genesis, it’s that it is incompatible with a loving god who takes an interest in his creation. Liberal Christians who think they can resolve the conflict by saying “evolution is just the method God used to create everything” haven’t actually given the matter sufficient thought.

    “While I welcome anyone who recognizes that the evidence for evolution is
    such that it cannot sensibly be denied, to attempt to co-opt evolution
    as part of a divine plan simply does not work, and suggests a highly
    superficial understanding of the subject. Not only does evolution not
    need to be guided in any way, but any conscious, sentient guide would
    have to be a monster of the most sadistic type: for evolution is not
    pretty, is not gentle, is not kind, is not compassionate, is not loving.
    Evolution is blind, and brutal, and callous. It is not an aspiration or
    a blueprint to live up to (we have to create those for ourselves): it
    is simply what happens, the blind, inexorable forces of nature at work.
    An omnipotent deity who chose evolution by natural selection as the
    means by which to bring about the array of living creatures that
    populate the Earth today would be many things – but loving would not be
    one of them. Nor perfect. Nor compassionate. Nor merciful. Evolution
    produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost
    of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of
    individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far
    become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love.” –Paula Kirby

  • but any conscious, sentient guide would
    have to be a monster of the most sadistic type: for evolution is not
    pretty, is not gentle, is not kind, is not compassionate, is not loving.

    You don’t have to bring in evolution and claim that evolution depicts a sadistic God. You can simply look out at the world, at the present-day suffering and killing and hatred and apparently senseless death and pain, and then deny that any sort of loving deity could have created such a world.

  • As Greta Christina put it, religion relies on social consent. That consent need not be vocal. If your approach works for you, great. Religion, particularly Christianity in the US, carries a whole lot of privilege that will only chip away when there’s vocal opposition to its practices, many of which are insidious.

  • True, the Problem of Evil was raised long before the discovery of evolution. The real issue evolution poses for Christianity is that it renders the God hypothesis unnecessary for understanding ourselves and our origins, and indeed even a hindrance.

  • So true. Two obvious facts use to bother me a lot.

    1. What kind of a god creates an environment where an innocent child under 5 dies a horrible death from starvation or disease about every 15 seconds, 24 by 7 by 365.

    2. What kind of a god created land and sea creatures, such that 90% of them must brutally kill and eat some other poor creature for their very survival. What a wonderful blood and guts world he “designed” for them.

    The issue about how a god does this does not bother me any longer, because the only rational answer is that there is no god.

  • Thank you, Lyndsay, for that! As you acknowledged, coming out agnostic or atheist is extremely painful, and in many cases, it can threaten one’s marriage, livelihood, and social structure all at once. Indeed we do need more support.
    I just wanted to mention another good social outlet for agnostics – Unitarian Universalist congregations. As I’ve been coming out, I’ve found a very nice UU group in my area and just visiting them helps give me support and new hope for connectedness. No need to be theist or deist – so it seems to be a group that dances on the divide between spiritual and secular – no creed required.

  • Lyndsay, Advice from your parents: Like I tell my politically conservative friends to not listen to Rush and his ilk, please stay away from similar atheist/agnostic type presentations. Late night comedians and podcasts, “the friendly atheist”, and even the vaulted Dawkins, do your cause more harm than good by mocking what they disagree with. Many of us who are Christian have more education than you, so saying that all are ignorant is, well, ignorant. There are lots of good causes out there than aren’t religious based, animal rescues, etc. Get involved, find a new purpose.

  • Somebody needs to write a really good “Coming Out For Dummies” self-help book, because I’ve gotta tell you, it’s freaking hard! I personally have only come out to a few close family members, and saying “It did not go well” is putting it lightly. The problem for me is not the admission that I no longer believe, it’s explaining why I no longer believe that screws everything up. And I want to be as honest with people as possible, there’s just no good way to say “I am no longer a Christian because I don’t find the Bible to be very reliable” without seriously offending someone. Even though it’s the truth, I can still completely understand why that statement is offensive. And it leads to debates that in the end are only harmful to my personal relationships. It’s tough, and it’s made me very reluctant to come out any further.

    Really great article, by the way…

  • Thank you for writing – it is touching to hear from Lyndsay’s parents, and you do have a great point. I also cringe when I hear mocking, strident voices of “militant atheists” and wish I wasn’t associated with them.

    I do have to say, however, that there would be great service to humanity in atheists and agnostics standing up and admitting the soul searching and fact-finding that led to deconversion. It is deeply painful. Far from the typical theist notion that somebody leaves the faith “because they no longer want to be accountable to God” or “they want to live in sin” or “they want to be their own boss” – the actual truth is starkly different and immensely excruciating. Most of us left the faith kicking and screaming, hoping for one last apologetic that would dismiss the many evidences against our often-lifelong beliefs – or hoping to find one last buttress for the house of cards that was once our creed. Most of us dread (for months or even years) the moment where we have enough courage to “come out”, knowing the trail of hurt and brokenness that will lie in our wake. And there is little to look forward to on the other side in terms of social tolerance or even blithe disinterest in our new-found world view. In nearly every arena of moral or political discourse, atheists and agnostics are falsely considered the bottom of the barrel (in some studies, we rate lower than child molesters in the amount of trust or respect we’re given). In much the same way that “black lives matter”, we must recognize the injustices that lead to the cry that “unbelievers’ lives matter!”

    At the same time I give you huge credit for the empathetic, caring parents that Lyndsay has described. The tolerance you have shown is exemplary, and, I must say sadly, truly rare. Thank you!

  • Hi Rex,

    I just want to clarify that crashtx1 is not a member of my family, and I’m not sure why he/she claimed to be (typo? maybe he meant for, not from). Regardless, he/she is not associated with me.

    In terms of your comment, I love the line “one last buttress for the house of cards that was once our creed”! Your assessment very much aligns with my own, and I wish you the best in your own spiritual journey.

    Crashtx1,

    I agree that some atheists/agnostics (or really anyone, from any creed) can come across as arrogant and condescending. Personally, when people ask me the number one reason why I chose to leave the faith, I cite my education. It’s a difficult word to use; by saying it, I do not mean that I am “more educated” or “better educated”, but simply that certain things I have been exposed to during my education have led me to believe that God does not exist. The way each person perceives certain facts and opinions throughout the course of their education is obviously variable, and I agree that to assume that someone is religious just because they are uneducated is missing the complete picture.

  • I agree that for me, knowledge and education were primary in my journey to atheism. There were things early on that always bugged me, like how people not exposed to Christianity could be barred from heaven, how religion basically seemed to be primarily a product of ones random geography, and why would a god “design” such a horrible blood and guts world for sea and land animals. And the more I actually read and studied the Bible, instead of just listening to Sunday sermons, the more things just did not add up or simply were impossible.

  • I suspect most people who go to church have little understanding of the religion; rather, they go to socialize. Ironically, with their Sunday friends, they obey the taboo that no one should talk about religion, politics, or sex. Thus none really know what the other members believe. And probably few among them would be capable of holding a coherent conversation on religion. Even here at this website, the discussion is often not about religion but mostly about events somehow connected to religion. Religion is a bunch of metaphors for things that are unknown to us. Not easy to discuss.

    I hadn’t heard about the ‘book of life’ in 50 years and more. So there are still people out there who have this preoccupation — amazing. It is very, very difficult to see one’s parents trapped in some sort of mind prison. But I suppose we all have our various distorted views. The only two people I know who go to church, go there despite knowing everything I know about it being unbelievable. I have no idea why they go really. Some sort of compulsion. I’m glad you are writing about these things.

    Each person who thinks of herself as a ‘believer’ has the mistaken notion that she believes just like millions of others. When in fact, no two people think exactly alike. If they ever actually talked about religion to their fellow pew sitters, they might begin to realize that. It is very important to them to believe they are part of something important, like ‘the one true church’ and that they are a member of the pack.

    I don’t think God makes throw-away people just to test them and knowing the outcome in advance, ‘he’ then throws them away into a fiery lake. If ‘he’ did, that would be rather pointless, wouldn’t it? Probably God would not be doing that. And if God is love, then It would not be throwing people away as that would be unloving. Rather it is supposed Christians who would like to toss their neighbors into a fiery lake.

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