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Reader Asks: When is the best time to come out as a non-believer?

A reader writes:

I didn’t know you took Dear Abby questions, but here’s mine. I’m a recent graduate in a “helping profession.” I have a new job and everyone is a Christian. There’s a local skeptic meet-up group that I’d like to be involved with, but I feel like if I come out as agnostic now I will never be promoted and my career will stagnate. But if I wait 5 years or so then come out, I will be in a better place to help the movement. Does that make sense or am I rationalizing cowardice? — K. G.

Thanks for the question, KG!  For the record, last week’s question was the first reader question I’ve answered.  I didn’t originally intend for this to be an advice column, but I’m certainly happy to try to help if any other readers have been struggling with a question involving atheism.

So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of your question.  You haven’t given me a lot of detail, and that in itself tells me something.  You’re clearly concerned that even giving away which profession you’re in will possibly compromise your future.  And whether that’s true or not, the fact that you feel that way speaks volumes about the oppressive work environment.  (You’d be surprised, I think, at how many people are probably in exactly the same position.  I don’t think there’s any chance of someone guessing who you are from a Dear William letter, even if you had given your exact profession.)

My first guess is that you’re in some kind of internship or other temporary position, where your evaluation is going to determine whether you get hired permanently.  (Although… five years?  Maybe a tenure track position?)  And “helping profession?”  Are you a nurse?  A social worker?  A therapist?  Not knowing, I’ll just make some generic observations.  Feel free to contact me again if you’d like to be more specific, and I’ll answer privately.

Technically speaking, your involvement with a skeptic group in your free time should have absolutely no bearing on work.  Are you worried about snooping co-workers seeing posts on Facebook?  Or maybe the skeptic group has public events and you don’t want to be seen with them?  If that’s the case, then there’s probably a “middle ground” position that will give you a little bit of both worlds.  Get in contact with the skeptic group and explain to them that you’re in a temporary “holding pattern,” and that you need to get your promotion before you can be openly skeptical.  Tell them that you’d love to be involved, but you’d like to remain behind the scenes.  If they have events, find ways to help them backstage.  Donate money, bake cookies, stuff envelopes, order pizza.  Do anything you can think of to show that you’re supportive of the cause, but don’t participate visibly in public events.  If they have a Facebook page, encourage them to make it a closed group so you don’t have to worry about co-workers cyber-spying on you.  (Don’t worry about attending meetings at a bar.  Join them and have fun.  If all they’re doing is sitting around having beer, your co-workers have absolutely nothing to pin on you.)

This kind of approach has two benefits.  First, it’s unlikely anyone at your job will find out.  Second, if they do find out, they’ll have had to really snoop to do so.  If that’s the case, you might well have a legitimate discrimination suit.  I know that’s not much of a consolation.  Most companies are not fond of hiring the job candidate who sued their last company for discrimination.  But at some point, non-believers everywhere have to at least start nibbling the bullet, even if they’re not willing to commit to a bite.  The reason so many non-believers have this problem is that so many believers are actively hiding their non-belief.

There’s possibly a bigger life decision here as well.  Are you in a profession that is loaded with Christians in every location?  Or did you just get unlucky and get hired by the one company run by an Evangelical?  If you’re going to be facing this same worry every time you move jobs, you might need to think about whether your career and your lifestyle are compatible.  I’m guessing you’re pretty young.  Maybe 25 or 30?  (If it’s a job, you’re probably just out of grad school.  If a tenure track position, you just finished your PhD…)  It may not seem like it now, while the rush of graduation is still the main thing you’re feeling, but trust me on this one:  Getting another degree or otherwise changing fields might be a better option than committing to a field where you’ll be constantly living a double life.

If you’re just unlucky with your initial job placement, I don’t think it’s necessarily rationalizing cowardice to “play the part” until your job is protected, or you are promoted over the people you’re worried about.  But five years seems like a long time to pretend to be someone you’re not, or to hide personal activities from all prying eyes.  And frankly, if you’re in a field where Christianity is so prominent that you can’t even hang out with a skeptic group on your free time…

Well… that really is a pickle, isn’t it?

KG, my best guess is that you’re over-estimating the impact of someone figuring out that you’re a non-believer.  Christians aren’t generally afraid of non-believers who keep their noses down and don’t actively challenge believers.  They’re afraid of the ones who make a stink.  I don’t think joining a skeptic group will ruin your life, especially if you let them know you don’t want to be in any pictures that might make the local paper.  Get involved.  At the least, let the skeptics know that you’re one of them.  Tell them your situation.  For one thing, they’ll be thrilled to have the support, even if it’s behind the scenes.  For another, it’ll energize them towards action, knowing that there are still such big issues with “coming out” in your area.  Your story will give them resolve that they’re doing something important just by existing.

Remember that coming out in your private life doesn’t mean you have to come out at work.  The workplace isn’t an appropriate place for religion OR atheism.  If they’re constantly flaunting their Christianity, they’re in the wrong, and you don’t have to flaunt your atheism to counteract their gaffe.  Keep your nose down at work, and do your job so well that nobody will think of giving you less than an excellent rating.  Don’t comment on religion one way or the other.  But in your private life, don’t be afraid to make non-believer friends, or to hang out with them in public.  As long as you’re not seen as an active threat to Christians at work, they’re unlikely to cause you any trouble.



2 thoughts on “Reader Asks: When is the best time to come out as a non-believer?

  1. Since I fail at posting on examiner.

    I think the best thing to do is test the waters. Contrary to popular belief, not every Christian wants to burn the unbeliever. This conception could lead to a selfful filling prophecy.

    This isn’t really an issue at my workplace, if somebody asks me to attend some religious event I just say no.

    Posted by Alison | August 24, 2011, 9:12 pm
  2. In my humble opinion, there comes a point when coming out, being who one is, suffering the real and/or supposed consequences of irrational societal prejudice is easier to do than continuing to present a false façade. To continue to be what they expect just to be accepted by “them” becomes less important than being who you really are because it is more important to you. It feels somehow very selfish, very anti-social. But you cannot go on lying to others in violation of yourself. In my experience, for me at least, it was not as bad as I had anticipated and as time passes it does get better. We do what we must to get by.

    In my case I came out as a transsexual woman. That is something that we of the gender community literally wear as our sleeves for all to see. At 6’ 2” & 200 lbs. and 50 something years old when I transitioned, I am seldom mistaken as a natal woman. I am also in a very rural area where there is not the anonymity of the masses. I will be the first to admit that there were some negative reactions initially but over time it has improved. I’m old news. I’m not the guy in a dress any more, I am their friend Stacey who helped them when they needed it.

    What I have learned however is that what has changed is probably me more than them. I don’t care what other people think. I now live a mind over matter life, if I don’t mind, they don’t matter, and the people who really matter – they don’t mind.

    In my experience the biggest complaint people important to me had was that I did not tell them the truth initially, or at least as I came to accept the reality of myself. Time delayed makes things worse.

    From my current perspective, the worst that can happen is that you fall back to the bottom of the professional ladder. The sooner you do that, the shorter the fall. In my case I fell from the top and am starting at the bottom again, proving my worth in my real persona one person at a time, just like we all did the first time. We just didn’t know that is what we had to do the first time around! The fact is that most people will learn you are OK. By experiencing your reality they disprove their own assumptions. But some people will never change their illogical bigoted stance because that is after all what it means to be a bigot. You need to accept that point, some people will never accept your difference.

    Now I would suggest that when you walk down the street, few people are going to know you are an atheist unless you tell them. In the case of theologies it used to be that like sex, religion was not a conversation in polite society. With the rise of evangelical Christianity however the polite conversation has gone by the wayside, replaced by vulgar proselytizing. Their “praise the Lord” and “God bless you” and seemingly mandatory prayer moments have become so automatic they don’t even know they do it anymore. Say Amen! You of course can choose not to discuss your views, but that does not stop them from preaching on you. Without your saying a thing they will make their assumptions and then proceed to crucify you for them. In my case for example, even though I am a celibate pansexual (interested in people’s character not their sexuality) I am regularly condemned as “Gay” or “Faggot” – the facts don’t matter to the ignorant, illogical or bigoted.

    And I also understand the necessity at some point to stand up for your convictions, hence my own political activism. When it gets to that point – and you will know when it does – you will do what you have to and hold your head high.

    But in the meantime, might I suggest that like I did in my early days, perhaps you should seek out a skeptic group in a large urban area to explore yourself. A few miles away, an area where you are not apt to be known, a crowd in which to meld, all are aids to your anonymity while you satisfy yourself to your convictions. With new friends made, with experience real and vicariously shared by others similarly positioned, you’ll be in a different position. When you have your own self-confidence, and your own support group, you’ll be prepared to counter the ignorance.

    Come out wisely is what I recommend. Learn yourself, learn the experiences of others, have no doubts in your mind as to your convictions – and the real consequences to be expected – before you go 24/7/365 activist out. (The genie does not go back into the bottle!) Get some real world experience even if you have to travel a few miles to do it safely. But don’t delay any longer than you absolutely have to. First of all the longer you wait the more you have to loose. Second, the longer you wait, the more you miss in terms of being happy in and of yourself. To live life to the fullest you must be fully you. Every minute you delay you will in hindsight regret.

    And good luck to you!

    Posted by Stacey Gray | August 25, 2011, 1:37 pm

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