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Risk Assessment Help for Teens and Young Adults Coming Out Atheist in the US

Updated on April 14, 2016
Kylyssa profile image

Kylyssa is an American atheist with high-functioning autism trying to navigate a mostly religious world with no well-beaten path to follow

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Coming Out Atheist in America is Still Controversial?!?!

Surprisingly, atheism is still somewhat controversial in the United States in the twenty-first century. However, more atheists than ever in America are coming out of the closet. Many of the people coming out as nonreligious in the United States are teens and young adults. While the movements urging nonbelievers to come out of their closets in America likely indicate that being openly atheist in America has become much safer now there may still be some risks involved.

I urge teens and young adults considering coming out as atheist to pause and make a risk assessment first. This article covers some of the potential risks in coming out atheist as a teen in America, but certainly not all. Please keep that in mind and spend some time thinking about your unique personal situation before coming out as an atheist to your family. friends, work, or school.


What Will Coming Out as an Atheist Do for You?

Before coming out atheist it’s a good idea to weigh what you’ll get out of it against the possible consequences of coming out.

If being open about your world-view would boost your self-esteem by making it so you won’t feel you have to hide what you really think around everyone and the risk seems small, there’s no reason to not to come out if you want to. If the risk seems high and the benefits aren't even higher, there’s probably no reason you have to come out as an atheist right now.

If you think you might face physical, emotional, or financial abuse, it's probably a good idea to wait until you are living on your own to come out. After all, atheism isn't like a religious belief; it's not more precious or more important than your life or personal safety. Don't think you'll be OK on the street if getting kicked out for such a disclosure is a real possibility in your situation.

Even if you think your parents are unlikely to kick you out when you come out as a non-believer, it's not a bad idea to have some kind of backup plan in place so you don't find yourself sleeping on the street if they surprise you. If you have absolutely no backup place to stay and you have any doubts about your parents' reaction, it's probably a good idea to wait until you do.

A Very Common Reaction to Coming Out as an Atheist

It is common for a parent, grandparent or other relative to stop talking to anyone who comes out as atheist, agnostic, or non-theist regardless of what church that relative attends or identifies with. It can cause a severe rift in the relationship between the atheist and that relative. If you feel this might happen in your case you’ll want to evaluate whether being an out and proud atheist is worth it to you. If the person most likely to disown you or stop speaking to you plays a very important role in your life you may wish to reconsider waiting a few years either to very, very slowly come out as an atheist or to come out to him or her when you have had a lot more time to think about how to do so respectfully and gently. Most atheists I know have at least one family member who will have nothing to do with them due to their religious beliefs.

Quite often, something much less severe happens. Parents will often tell their atheist offspring that it’s a phase he’ll grow out of or that he’s just coming out to get attention or because it’s trendy or cool. Some friends or relatives may try to make hints about religion or even blatantly evangelize in a condescending manner. It’s important to try to “be the better man” and remain polite.

Keep in mind that people may become angry at you when you admit you don’t believe what they do. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about you. Things will go a lot better if you remain patient and kind rather than matching their anger with anger.

Risk Factors for Alienating Family from Coming Out Atheist

One in four lgbt teens and young adults in America can expect to get kicked out of their parents’ home. Similar numbers experience physical, financial, or emotional abuse. Some are treated as mentally ill and sent to abusive “re-education” facilities. Since the vast majority of this happens due to parental religious beliefs the “re-education” facilities are almost all if not all operated by religious groups. Coming out atheist is likely to have similar risk factors due to atheism hitting a similar “evil, immoral, and going to Hell” nerve with some religious parents.

In my experience working with homeless lgbt teens the biggest risk factor for being ejected from the home for sexual orientation seems to be having socially conservative religious parents of any religion or denomination. LGBT teens and young adults seem to rarely get kicked out of moderate, liberal, or only fiscally (economy, government spending, and money stuff) conservative religious homes.

If your parents attend a moderate or liberal church you likely stand a very small chance of experiencing abuse or ejection from your home when you come out atheist to your family. If your parents are socially liberal or socially moderate it is also unlikely, even if they are fiscally conservative.

If your parents attend a socially conservative church you will want to think long and hard before coming out as an atheist to them.

Getting kicked out or abused are not the only two negative things that could happen to a teen or young adult coming out of the atheist closet. Negative parental reactions to announcements counter to their religious beliefs range from merely annoying to dangerous.

As long as the atheist coming out remains patient and respectful most parents are likely to come around eventually and respect his or her right to think and to believe or to not believe.

Risks to Relationships with Peers Due to Coming Out Atheist

When you come out as an atheist teen or young adult you may also experience negative reactions from your friends. Again, this is something you’ll want to think over before coming out as an atheist to your friends. Usually, it will be no big deal to come out to your friends but, in some cases it can be very upsetting.

Some of your peers may feel angry or upset at you and others may avoid you once you come out atheist. It is not uncommon for peers to evangelize to teens who come out as nonreligious and it can be a challenge to those relationships if they can't eventually just accept their atheist peers as they are. Occasionally, friends may turn on you, exclude you, or start rumors about you when you come out atheist. If you are easily brought to tears you should be aware that the chances of one or more of your peers saying something hurtful to you about being an atheist are fairly high.

Problems in School for Open Atheists

If you decide to come out as an atheist to your schoolmates and teachers it can cause a number of difficulties for you. You may be actively harassed by classmates, teachers, and other school staff or you may just hear a few sly digs now and then.

It is possible that coming out atheist in school may prevent you from participating or continuing to participate in extra-curricular activities due to other students, parents, or school staff making things up about you. While this probably isn't all that common, your chances of exclusion after coming out atheist seem to be highest in small rural communities.

School Problems Faced by Nicole Smallkowski, Openly Atheist Teen

What Motivated Me to Write This Page about Coming Out Atheist as A Teen or Young Adult

Over the years, I took in quite a few homeless lgbt teens and young adults. Quite a few of them regretted their decision to come out to parents who then abused them and discarded them. They regretted leaping before looking. Since the decision to discard a glbt teenager is usually based on religious beliefs it seems likely to me that some atheist teens and young adults might encounter similar difficulties.

No Swearing in the Guestbook, Please

Please, no profanity.

The purpose of this page is to help teens and young adults decide if coming out atheist is right for them. It is not intended to convert teens and young adults to atheism but to help teens and young adults who are already nonbelievers to decide whether or not it's safe for them to come out of the closet .

Please, no evangelism.

© 2012 Kylyssa Shay

How Do You Feel about Coming Out Atheist as a Teen or Young Adult? - Family Friendly Guestbook

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    • Kylyssa profile image
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      Kylyssa Shay 21 months ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      Thank you for sharing your story. I think your geeky acquaintance probably liked you and felt you weren't the sort of person who would be cruel to him for being different. He probably cared enough about you to want you to know who he really was inside. Maintaining any sort of charade long term really wears on a person and it makes getting close to other people difficult.

      I'm sorry you got involved in a cult but I'm glad you made it out. I think the average person has little defense against getting sucked into a cult if they are approached at a vulnerable point in life. It takes a lot of strength to break with a cult and few who do come out unharmed. You fought a war to get yourself back against an enemy with lots of weapons and much greater numbers. That's something to be proud of.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 21 months ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      I recently remembered a shocking statement a classmate said to me at my Christian high school. He told me he didn't believe in God. I was so stunned, I think I blocked it from my mind all these decades. Back then, I couldn't understand how anyone could not believe in God.

      This guy was a total geek. He was bullied by a really creepy guy, and many other classmates harassed him for being "effeminate". However, he wound up doing extremely well. He was one of the few who did not go directly on to college; right after graduation, he went to work at a paper mill and made $20,000 his first year - a LOT of money back in 1979! (Four years later, I had a boss who graduated with a degree in business and he was making half that much - then got fired on silly charges 8 months after hire).

      Looking back, I realize it must have taken him a tremendous amount of courage to confess that to me, an ultra-conservative Christian. Oakland CA was a hostile place even for me, a black girl who wasn't tough; it must have been ever so much worse for him, a white guy.

      Anyway, I'm really glad he turned out well! As for me, having since inadvertently joined a cult, putting my life in danger and suffering two nervous breakdowns four years apart as a result, I've had A LOT to think about.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 2 years ago

      Hello kylyssa.

      How to say, what to say or not to say?!

      After viewing the video, my spirit got hurt( ! ). Should not happen but down deep in my innermost being couldn't find reason why some human beings treat the other human beings they wouldn't want to be treated. Christians ? or christians, as well others believers either into existing a god, or the God or believing in no-existing a god, or no existing the God. Let everyone just shut-up and live your conviction- your fixed / firm belief.If ? when that what you have is better, good, desirable to be part of, so be it. When you are admired for your uniqueness as "Christian" asked to share what is it ? may I have it... than in the spirit of meekness , and understanding give an account privately... Likewise the other "religious" believer including atheistic religion...

      Young people are in search of their own identity, and perhaps parents are the first one as the role models to provide much needed and satisfactory answer.

      The rest is between you and your god (something / someone you devoting your life to )-- Yes it is between you and your God, how do you present the highest moral quality of yourself as human being.

      Voted up and useful.

    • sockii profile image

      Nicole Pellegrini 5 years ago from New Jersey

      I hope this lens will be useful to those questioning coming out. I like how you draw the similarities to coming out as a LGBT teen as there are many similar issues to face and decide what is worth dealing with at any given time. I am a Christian yet always have wondered how some Christians could reject others based only on differing beliefs, when I thought we were supposed to love everyone and accept that we are not in a position to cast judgement on others in such a fashion.

    • randomthings lm profile image

      randomthings lm 5 years ago

      Very nice lens. It is difficult for young people (or people of any age) to be open about being atheists, or even agnostic. Thanks for sharing this info. Hopefully it will help more people understand. A lot of people are atheists and still receive much grief for being so. Thanks!

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