None of us are “out.” To a one, we all have secrets, aspects of ourselves we might like to share but which, for our own reasons, we do not. There are blog posts I won’t write because their very premise would say too much about me. “Atheist” is far from the most marginalized category to which I belong.
Yet “out” I am, as an atheist at least. I told the story of how I came from my Catholic upbringing to my current aggressive antitheism in three installments, but it doesn’t spend much time on how my friends and family came to understand it, or not.
I had no concept of atheism as such when I came to the realization that deities were imaginary. I was a precocious fourth-grader, and I was too excited at the prospect of having solved a big tricky puzzle to even contemplate the perks of not having to go to Sunday school anymore. My brother faced my epiphany with confusion, offering no hint that he understood it; he may not even remember the conversation. The friend I shared it with shouted at me as a blasphemer, a reaction I found at least as incomprehensible. And my parents? They were no different, and I can’t blame them. I hadn’t finished forming those thoughts before their magnitude compelled me to air them, and they weren’t impressed, nor were they permissive. They tried to convince me I was wrong, but they didn’t know what they were arguing against, and I couldn’t have told them yet. The lesson I learned was altogether different: keep it a secret. They didn’t change my opinion even a little, but they taught me that all-important lesson of being an American atheist in an immigrant family: keep secrets. I had found and peeked out the closet door, and shut it firmly.
So I kept secrets. My ideas kept spinning and forming, but now they could only be mine. I attended religious lessons and events in irritated but complacent boredom. The booming, distorted Spanish was something I learned to tune out as I examined the architecture and statuary and the air vent slats. True to form, my parents dropped the matter as long as I went through the motions and didn’t bring it up myself. Religion was a cultural necessity more than anything else, part of how they tried to keep us Hispanic in the face of Anglo-American hegemony. Discussing religion around the dinner table was rare, and even then I could handle it as I always did: as a puzzle to solve.
I dodged and handwaved questions about my religious status from friends and family on the rare occasions that they arose, ever vigilant for the secret signs that my true nature might be received warmly. Even when I found them, or thought I did, I was careful. I don’t remember when I learned the word “atheist,” but even after I did I rarely used it. In high school, I found a group of friends that were, at best, totally apathetic about religion, and they found nothing threatening about my slightly more intense disregard for gods and angels. Even the devout Mormon girlfriend I had for one of the more memorable years of my public education thought of me mostly as a “lapsed,” “non-observant” Christian, though some of our conversations should have clued her in that I was far worse a blasphemer than that. The air vents in her church had eleven slats.
It wasn’t really until I got a Facebook account in 2005 that I was “out” in any real sense. I did not hesitate to designate myself “Atheist” on my profile. I wanted people to see that, and to weed themselves out if it was a problem. I wanted to stop facing the tragic, unpleasant question of whether to eventually share that fact with someone who might make a scene or stop talking to me if they knew, so I set up that mechanism of quick, passive rejection. If I could not steel my heart, I would steel my Facebook.
Over time, I became more open about my atheism, and the label rapidly became a comfortable summary of my conclusions about the supernatural. More and more of my friends were people who saw nothing wrong with it, or who themselves wore it proudly. In Miami, I let loose in the spoken word session of a poetry class with a piece decrying the authoritarian and anti-science nature of religion and the wonder of a humanist worldview that took joy and solace in reality. I was a founding member of the University of Miami’s SHAARKS. I fully expected to receive violence when I left that room, but I was untouched. In Ottawa I attended events hosted by CFI Ottawa, the Ottawa Skeptics, and more rarely, the Humanist Association of Ottawa. I have atheist-themed T-shirts.
At work, no one talks about their churches, and I likewise keep my atheist goings-on quiet. Unless someone asks me the right questions, or recognizes my Ottawa Skeptics T-shirts, or looks up the CFI events I used to advertise, I’m invisible—but so is everyone else. It’s a non-subject here, a private matter for one’s friends and family rather than colleagues. My supervisor knows, and I’m likewise aware of his less strident atheism. We had a fourth-year student who described himself as “atheist as hell,” but he doesn’t have a Facebook profile and we lost touch quickly. I don’t wear my “Atheism is not a religion; It’s a personal relationship with reality” shirt at work, and especially not while I’m teaching, as part of my recognition of this norm and of my role in a secular rather than sectarian education system. Those are the perks of working in eastern Canada, I suppose.
But I still banked on one big, ultimately erroneous assumption: that my family would remain tech-illiterate enough to never see my Facebook page.
My parents remain barely capable of computer use. They can use Microsoft Word for basic letter-writing tasks (though they might need someone to open it for them); they can use Gmail to send and receive messages. They were very proud of themselves when they internalized how to operate Gmail’s video-call feature and could use it to keep in touch with me during my graduate work. But they spent virtually no time on Facebook, even after Mom got a profile. My siblings are, of course, avid users, but they regard my personal details as mine, and none of their business. It was an uncle who apprised my parents of the “Atheist” designation in my profile summary, and to the torrent of anti-religious messages that circulate on my newsfeed.
I hadn’t counted on that. I knew that the total lack of secrecy with which I maintained my online presence meant that it was only a matter of time before they saw it, but I always assumed my parents would see it first. Either way, it was in some sense exactly what I wanted: for them to start the conversation with me, so that they couldn’t pretend that I was being “confrontational” by acknowledging that they and I see the world differently. The phone call that my uncle provoked from Mom was tense, but focused more on the “shame” that I had made my sentiments public, instead of keeping them secret. But now they know that I’ve been an atheist since I was 12 or so and out on Facebook since 2005, and they’ll have to come to grips with that.
We’ve had a few more talks like that since then, on the handful of occasions when they’ve said something to me that I couldn’t or wouldn’t simply evade or tolerate. I’ve gotten less and less tolerant of anti-atheist stereotypes, and my family is a boundless font of clichés about what it means to be a nonbeliever. I keep hoping, hoping that at some point they’ll fully and honestly recognize that they can’t say things about “atheists” without saying them about me, and can’t believe awful things about “atheists” without including me in their bigotry. Someday they’ll either change their rhetoric to “atheists who aren’t Alex” or stop saying it. If we ever reach the point where they defend me from someone else who badmouths atheists as a whole, even if they do it by throwing the rest of the world’s unbelievers under the bus with a comment like “but they’re not all like that,” I might cry.
Is it weird, to wish my parents could respect me at least that much?
We left off at me leaving them some brochures about secular humanism and a copy of Greta Christina’s Why are you Atheists so Angry? 99 Things that Piss Off the Godless before returning to Ottawa. Since they’ve not brought the topic up again after such an incendiary salvo, I’m assuming they haven’t read any of it and have returned to our prior “no one says a word” détente. They spent the time between my original epiphany and 2005 in denial about every decision I’ve ever made that they didn’t like—atheism, dating that Mormon girl, not going to medical school—why should this be any different?
So I’m out—online. I’m out—to my friends. I’m out, to a point, at work. I don’t bring it up unheralded, so casual acquaintances might well be projecting all sorts of nonsense on me that I’m not going out of my way to seek out and correct. But with my family, that closet door has to stay a little bit closed, if I ever want to talk to them about something other than how they draw solace from statues of angels and I do not, and how that makes me a “closed-minded” monster.
Someday, perhaps. Someday.