Some atheists remain in the closet their whole lives, some come out to most people, and some burst out of the closet blaring a trumpet. You all know which category I fell into.
But it probably wasn’t the wisest strategy. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have toned it down a notch or two, though I still would have come out publicly. Recently a family member contacted me about my atheism and I had the opportunity to personally come out to them in what seemed a much more pleasant and thoughtful way than I had come out to everyone else. From that dialogue, I’ve adapted this announcement letter, which I wish I would have sent in the first place.
Should anyone who wants to come out stumble upon this, feel free to plagiarize.
Dear [Christian Friend],
I hope this letter finds you well. Recently, I’ve changed my worldview and I want to let you know personally. After a long period of reflection and study, I have come to accept atheism as the most likely answer to whether God exists.
Religion is a hazardous topic to broach with anyone, and it is especially so with those with whom I have a cherished personal connection. Nevertheless, I’ve contacted you because I value our friendship and I’d like to try and head off some potential problems right away.
It is and always has been a privilege to know you, regardless of how much our religious beliefs may differ. But the fact that I’ve lost the faith that at least initially formed much of the common ground on which our relationship was built leaves us in a difficult position for several reasons. First, my rejection of the faith we used to share could easily be misconstrued as a rejection of the value of our friendship–but nothing could be further from the truth. My dissenting conclusions on matters of metaphysics should be irrelevant to whether or not we can do the things friends do–like take a road trip or enjoy a meal together. I still value our friendship. Of course, I can’t attend church or pray with you anymore, but I hope you don’t take personal offense; my absence is simply a matter of maintaining intellectual integrity.
The second reason my loss of faith puts us in a difficult position is that holding a differing opinion is almost unavoidably interpreted as arrogant. Any time someone asserts that someone else’s opinion is wrong, especially if they’ve carefully considered it, they are bound to offend. Unfortunately, Christianity and atheism are simply at odds. But if we can agree to disagree, and wrap our opinions in humility, perhaps we can stave off the arrogance and offence long enough to understand each other. I pledge to do my best to be humble, respectful, and thoughtful.
The third reason we’re in a difficult position is that given the depth of your commitment to Christianity, it’s possible to take my deconversion as a wholesale rejection of everything you stand for. Clearly no friendship can survive that kind of assault. But fortunately, it would be a mistake to interpret my deconversion in that way. While we may disagree about the existence of God, we still share a number of core values. Compassion and truth-seeking, for example, are still of utmost importance to both of us. Moreover, we still share the values of beholding the mysteries of our existence, finding beauty in art and in nature, and enjoying friends and family. While our friendship previously pursued these goods under the banner of Christianity, there is no reason it cannot continue to do so under a secular banner.
The final reason we’re in a difficult position is more recondite. For any number of reasons, you can attribute my loss of faith to a deformity of character rather than to an error in judgment. An agreement to disagree notwithstanding, interpreting my loss of faith in this way is the surest way of damaging our relationship.
Deconverting–as we atheists call it sometimes–was the most difficult decision of my life. When I returned from University, I launched a personal study of other religions because and only because I longed to “seek and save the lost”. I began to study Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism so I could better reach those communities, both in the U.S. and abroad. Ironically, my search for the best way to propagate my beliefs ultimately disabused me of them. For reasons beyond the scope of this letter, I lost all faith in the conception of God I had obediently and sincerely served for twenty-two years. Upon realizing I was an atheist, I was devastated.
Now, as I mentioned before, this can be taken one of two ways. My friends can believe me and credit my decision to what they as believers see as a tragic error in judgment, or they can credit my decision to a deformity of character. From my viewpoint, taking the latter position would be the emotional equivalent of contacting me after I had lost everything in a house fire and calmly informing me that not only was I at fault, but that I secretly wanted it to happen. Besides castigating my character, it would also belittle the incredibly taxing emotional and intellectual ordeal I endured. If at all possible, please interpret my deconversion in the more charitable light.
Although there are more obstacles we will have to address, hopefully these remarks will start us down the right path. To be sure, this shift in thought and lifestyle marks a significant change in the way we will interact, but I believe we can find a new way to successfully continue our friendship. Moreover, we can cultivate opportunities for fruitful dialogue if you so desire. I’ve written a short introduction to my new position and welcome your comments.
All the best to you,