Should I come out as an atheist?

I've been lying to my family, my friends and my religious university -- I don't believe in God! I don't! I don't!

Published October 25, 2007 11:16AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 20-year-old who is attending college full time. I am also an atheist. The problem is, no one knows and I feel like I cannot tell anyone.

For one thing, I attend a Christian-affiliated school that in order to attend I was required to sign a statement of faith. I knew I didn't believe in a god (or specifically, their God) when I signed it, but I did anyway just so there wouldn't be any hassle with the college -- I'm a transfer student and I just want to finish my degree as soon as possible. If I began actually being honest, however, I have a feeling the school would dismiss me.

The other thing preventing me from "coming out" is the number of relationships that seem like they would crumble as a result. My parents and I have never had the best relationship. We've just recently started becoming close, and I don't want to lose that. They are deeply religious, however, and my admitting to be an atheist might tear that fragile bond apart. This past summer I tried having some conversations with them about my changing religious beliefs, and I've never before seen them so angry. While I do not need their approval (there is no way I would claim a belief out of guilt), I also do not need to be alienated from my parents. Then there is all of my friends, who are mostly Christians. They all think I believe likewise, and I haven't really done anything to prevent the thought. I'm afraid that telling the truth about who I am might place a huge distance between me and the ones I love.

I'm really tired of lying and I just want people to know me for who I am. But would announcing my atheism do more damage than good? Should I just remain as I am until I graduate and am out on my own? Or should I be bold and be honest and hope it all works out for the best?

Atheist in Hiding

Dear Atheist,

In order to decide what to do, you have to ask yourself what sort of worldview your atheism compels you to hold. Is your atheism simply a lack of belief in God? Or is it a system of rational materialist beliefs that encompasses politics and psychology? Do you believe that no phenomena exist that cannot be measured by science, and that anyone who believes in such things is simply in error, perhaps just following the dominant crowd, or perhaps taking psychological refuge in superstition, unable to bear the knowledge that this is all there is, that it's a material world and no more?

If you believe this, then you may also believe that because they teach hocus-pocus nonsense churches and their affiliated schools are harmful to society and must be brought down and destroyed. If you believe that religion is a source of wars, poverty and injustice, and is used by states to condition citizens to a deluded passivity so they can carry out evil and destructive plans, then I would think you would feel it is your duty to proclaim your atheism and enlist in the battle against organized religion.

Or do you think religion is just fine for some people but not for you? If so, you might conclude that it's nobody's business what you believe.

So you have to figure that out. What do you believe? What do you think? What are the implications? What are your responsibilities?

I would also ask this: How did you come to your atheism? Did you once believe in God and renounce your belief? If so, then if you were to proclaim your new lack of faith to a believer, he or she would probably consider it a crisis of faith and look at you as someone in need of help. That can be most exasperating! You might find yourself saying, You don't understand! I don't want your help! I don't want your love! This is what I believe! We are alone, we are strictly biochemical processes, we live and we die and that's that! I am not in the grip of the devil! I am not having a crisis of faith! I am simply an atheist! Get away from me!

Since you lied to get into this college, we must also ask about your ethical beliefs. If one were to argue that man or woman is strictly a biochemical process, utterly alone in the universe, utterly free, responsible to no God and no civil authority, then you might argue that lying to the university is perfectly OK. But if you believe that atheists ought to abide by the ethical system of the society they live in, that's a different story. Are you bound by contracts? Do you believe in the authority of civil law? Or might you reject civil law, too, on the grounds that it is rooted in feudalism and Judeo-Christian morality?

This is all way over my head. I mean, I know these questions exist, but I am no philosopher or religious scholar. You're going to have to answer them yourself. I'm just saying, if you want to know what to do, you have to understand the implications of your beliefs and ideas.

Do you believe that there are no personal consequences to lying? Obviously not, because your lying is weighing on your conscience. So what is the source of your conscience? Is it biological, a kind of species survival imperative? Perhaps so. But if not, what is it?

Further: Do you believe that the university has a right to enforce its agreement with you and to kick you out if you don't keep the agreement? Or do you believe that the university, as an arm of organized religion, is an inherently obnoxious institution and not deserving of fair treatment? Perhaps you believe that the university does not deserve to know the truth.

So what would be the implications if the university entered into contracts with students but then did nothing to enforce them? Would those contracts have any meaning? If the university does not have to abide by its contract with you in that regard, does it have to abide by any contract at all with you? Can it, for instance, throw you out for no reason at all? Or lock you up? Or press you into servitude?

OK, so that's extreme. I'm just saying: What are the ground rules?

You might say that one's faith is such a personal thing that a university has no business making it a matter of contractual agreement. And if the university were your basic liberal arts, Enlightenment-type institution, I would agree. But this university is, I take it, a religious institution. The fact is, all the university is saying is that you have to profess a faith, right? It's not claiming that it can know what's in your heart, right? Do you believe the university has a right to peer into your heart and ask these things? Certainly if you are an atheist you would have to believe that it's impossible for anyone else to know what's going on in your head, or heart. So why not just lie about it? What difference does it make?

Your situation raises so many questions!

I can't tell you what to do. I can only encourage you to think through this problem on your own. That is hard. You probably could use some help. So talk to other atheists. Ask how they handled similar situations. I'm sure you can find plenty of atheists on the Web. And -- if experience is any indication! -- many readers of this column will find your dilemma worthy of serious comment.

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