Monday, June 1, 2009

One foot in the closet

People are always talking about atheists being in the closet, a term we stole from the gays for not being publicly honest about how you really are. I feel bad for the people who have to keep their atheism a secret. There are plenty of good reasons to do it - religious friends and family members you don't want to lose, possible drama at work, living in a small conservative neighborhood, etc. But even if staying closeted is the safer alternative, it still sucks knowing you're "living a lie."

I've found myself in an odd predicament. I'm basically completely out of the closet except for two people - my grandparents. They go to church every weekend, they take religious holidays seriously, they cross themselves before eating, etc. But my grandparents are by no means bible thumpers or overly zealous; they're fairly liberal and honestly never really talk about religion. They even know that my parents and I never go to church and that I wasn't baptized, and that has never really come up in conversation as a problem (at least not in front of me).

However, them knowing I am an atheist is not an option. My mom asserts that it would break their poor 88 year old hearts knowing I didn't believe in God, and to never ever mention anything about it to them. I have to catch myself to not mention club related stuff, especially since that takes up so much of my time at school. Usually I can get away with being in local newspapers because it won't get back to them. And the internet isn't too big of an issue because they have no idea how to use a computer.

Honestly my main fear is that someone who DOES know how to use a computer is going to Google my name one day and tell them about it. I mean, I don't hide my atheism. I don't want to hide it. I have an atheist heavy blog, my name is plastered on the Society of Non-Theists website, if you know my email you can probably find a half dozen websites and blogs I comment at. I used to think I was safe since my uncle, the only person who would probably squeal on me if he found out, had no idea how to use a computer. But apparently he's at Googling level now, so I'm getting a bit worried.

I guess I should be happy it's just two people I'm hiding from, but it still makes me feel bad that I have this "deep dark secret." I'd love to be even more active in the atheist community - writing books, doing events that get national news coverage - but I'm too afraid it would trickle back to my grandparents. And the last thing I'd want to do is upset them; they're honestly the most kind, wonderful people and I love them very much. People have told me that they're old and to just wait until they pass away, but I think that's awful. I'd love for them to live to be 120 if they could. I hope beyond hope that they make it to my wedding (whenever that will be, sort of have to find a guy first), but at the same time I know there's no way I'll get married in a church or have any mention of God at the ceremony. And that makes me nervous.

Is there anyone else teetering between out and closeted? Desperately trying to hide your atheism from a select few while being out and active everywhere else? Or am I just destined for failure?


  1. I'm out to everyone except for two aunts and an uncle, and like you, I just don't think I could tell them without breaking their hearts.

  2. Well I am out to all of my friends, but none of my family. They are all Catholics that diligently go to church every week. Having been raised Catholic, baptized, confirmed, reconciled, etc., I honestly am afraid of how they would react if they found out.

    So I can understand how you want to keep your atheism from your grandparents, and you are definitely not alone in your teetering. I just hope one day atheists won't have to live in fear of what their family or others will think of them once they find out. But that might be hoping for too much; gays don't even have that luxury yet. Sad.

  3. I'm not really out to anyone but my spouse and my mother (who has lost her faith). I keep it to myself, unless I hear someone trashing atheists. Then I try to explain where they're getting it wrong, leaving out any mention that I might be one. I'm certain most people are figuring it out.

    Why am I not "out of the closet"? Mostly it's because it's no one's business but mine, but I do understand how it can be perceived to be "living a lie." Someday I'll probably make the public announcements--just not today.

  4. I'm in a similar predicament myself. My grandparents are very devout Christians, former members of the exclusive brethren who think of owning a television as being overexposure to worldly evils. So far I haven't even considered telling them I don't share their beliefs - there's a lot of things my family don't tell them about, for better or worse - but the more immediate quandary I have is more to do with my parents. For a long time I did everything I could to convince them I shared their faith, making excuses about not going to church and squirming out of questioning with vagueness. Unfortunately I'm not the subtlest of people and my discomfort was probably kind of obvious. More recently (about two years since I admitted to myself that "Christian" probably wasn't an accurate self-descriptor any more, which was a long process in itself) I've started to spend more time discussing belief-related issues with them. I still haven't been able to bring myself to say directly "I'm not a Christian any more", it's still kind of an elephant in the room that I'm still trying to decide how to resolve, but I think it's become clear to them through our discussions that my beliefs aren't the same as theirs any more, and that such changes are almost to be expected. In return, in talking about their faith I've learned more about what they believe... it turns out (funnily enough!) that their view of the world isn't as one-dimensional as it may have seemed when I was growing up in it, and in fact their views are every bit as complex and interesting as any other human being's (I know, it's obvious when you think about it, but hey, I'm an idiot). The upshot is that we understand each other a lot better and nobody's angry or upset, and the situation is balanced if not necessarily perfect.
    Obviously every situation is different (I'm not quite as actively "out" in my daily life as you are) and I can't really give you any direct advice because I'm one of those annoying people who'll ramble on for ages then sharply yank the rug out with a pensive "On the other hand...", but if you're more subtle than me in conversation it might be worth engaging your grandparents in some deep discussions about Life, the Universe and Everything to gauge their possible responses, if you get the opportunity. Then you can build your own idea of how the revelation would affect them. Remember, your mother is their kid... she may have a simplified view of their philosophy! If nothing else, you get to learn more about how they see the world and bond over some mutual musings, and they get to shower you with advice and observations. If you've already done this, kudos on being a better grandchild than I've managed to be!
    It's probably not my place to randomly hurl my overly wordy two cents at you on this but I happened to chance across this post (procrastinating from finals revision by poking through my browser history - originally referred to your "Professor and the Dominatrix" review via Pharyngula) and my variation on this flavour of issue has been preying on my mind a lot lately so I thought I'd write it down in the hope some use may come of it (also because it's another way to procrastinate!). Whatever you decide to do I hope it goes well for you.

  5. I am out to my friends and I don't hide it on the internet, but I am in the closet to my family. They are deeply religious. I tried to talk to my sister about evolution and she went off on me about how she knew Jesus. I wanted to say what does that have to do with evolution, but just dropped it and have stayed in the closet since.

    My parents started the creationist garbage and I had them read Dr. Miller's books. They are now more open about evolution.

  6. I'm completely out. I mean, I don't go around yelling it, but I think the way I act leaves few people in any doubt.

  7. I'm in the same boat Jen, with my grandparents, and some of my extended family. Some of my uncles are even ministers.
    The wedding will really be the only tricky part. But I think it can be done in a way that it's not obviously lacking religion. I mean, if you have a nice ceremony with traditional dressing and decorations, you say most of the traditional things and you give vows and whatnot, it won't be obvious that religion isn't a part of it. And I think that's how I'll handle it. By avoiding it with them.

  8. I'm out to most of my friends, and I bet my other really religios, close friends probably 'know' or assume, but we have a mutual agreement to not talk about religion to each other.

    On the other hand, coworkers (except for a few that I trust to tell things to), don't know that I'm a non-theist. I am honestly afraid of being ridiculed in my workplace as well as losing respect from my coworkers and the people that I have to take care of. This is especially hard since I am somewhat active with the club, and they could probably easily find things either on my Facebook or the newspaper.

  9. I never came out to either of my grandparents, either as a gay man or as an atheist. After my grandpa died (this was in 2005), I had a brief conversation with my brother, where I mused about the fact that he, my grandpa, would never know about this side of my life (up until he got sick, he kept trying to set me up with the woman who lived across the street from him). My brothers response was, basically, "So what?" I think he was right. We are all many things. Yes, being gay and/or an atheist is (or can be) and important part about who we are, but it is not the all of it. And certain parts of our lives simply do not need to be a part of certain relationships with others, and that doesn't demean the relationship.

    As for the problem of what will happen if they find out that you are an atheist the only thought I have on that is that (I suspect) it probably isn't worth worrying too much about. Continue to love them as their granddaughter, and if they do learn that you are an atheist, let them set the tone of the conversation, if it is even conversation-worthy to them.

  10. Consider the possibility that your grandparents already know, but keep quiet about it for the sake of your mother, or for the sake of a generally quiet life. If they're not overtly religious (such as always seeing everything in some kind of religious context), they may feel that your belief or lack of belief is your own affair, and not something they should be concerned about.

    Is it possible that the reason they "never really talk about religion" is because they are aware of your views and don't wish to upset you?

  11. As a closeted agnostic myself, I totally understand where you're coming from, and I agree - it really, really sucks!

    (This sounds mean, and I promise I don't mean it in a mean way) I'm glad for you that the only people you are hiding from are your non-tech-savvy grandparents. I am an agnostic in a REALLY small town in Oklahoma, and as a high school English teacher, I have to be "in the closet" from the entire TOWN, including my students, who are a LOT more Net-savvy than anybody's grandparents. I can't FART in this town without somebody knowing about it. Being a closeted agnostic is HARD, and I've had to go incognito online, basically living a double life.

    *Sigh* When I have tenure, maybe it won't matter so much. *Snort* Who am I kidding? The only difference tenure will make is that it'll be that much harder for them to get rid of me (my boss wouldn't allow it anyway, but they'd still try, saying that I was "corrupting their babies" - their babies are 16-18 years old and have probably had more sex than I have - how can I possibly corrupt them?)

    But I digress. The main thing I want to say is, don't feel you need to be "out" to everyone or you're a sham. Some things just aren't worth mentioning to some people. If they ever asked you about it outright, I'd tell the truth, but why would they ask you in the first place?

    Believe me, I understand your struggle. It's hard feeling as though you have to lie about who you are to "get by." It causes bitter feelings to churn up in your gut when you think, "Why do I have to act this way? Why oh why can't the world be open-minded enough to accept me the way I am?" I agree wholeheartedly - the world SHOULD accept all of us the way we are.

  12. I was reading this for humanist symposium that I'm about to write and post, and I do feel for ya.

    Last summer when I was visiting my mom in NYC, I went to get haircut. In 30 min that I was gone, a friend of my mom's friend, called my mom's friend, and that friend called my mom and told them about my blog and me being an atheist. Yea, gossip travels fast. At least it wasn't bad, not what I imagined it would be.

    Being from Ukraine, no one there knows abour my atheism. The way I see it, I'm not hiding it. They don't ask, I won't mention it. If they find out, which they will sooner or later I will deal with it then.

    Anyways. You said you were hiding it from grandparents, what about uncle? Won't that make it 3 people? :-p

    Don't forget to come out to Atheist Alliance International Convention, maybe you'll find a guy there ;-) so many atheists from everywhere.

    I better get back to symposium,