When An Atheist Should Remain Closeted

“Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!” – Marc Antony 

Should you or shouldn’t you? Those are the choices when considering “coming out” as an unbeliever. Yes or no. Seems simple, right? In fact, there are many in our movement/cause that reason if you are an atheist, you should always be willing to shout it from the mountaintops, and damn the torpedoes.

In most cases, I would agree with this, and have been actively supporting and promoting the “Out Campaign” that has been at the forefront for quite a while now. However, there are times when you should just…

Shut up… 

Wait, what? Yeah, that’s right. There are times when staying in the closet, at least for the time being, is the prudent thing to do. I know, this sounds awfully strange coming from me, but before you get your torches, battering rams and weapons drawn, hear me out for a second.

As people of reason, we are supposed to consider things; weigh them, if you will. Make a list of the pros and cons and make our decisions based on the ramifications of our actions. There are many, many reasons why it is imperative for an atheist to come out of the proverbial closet and make them selves known to the world. I don’t have to extrapolate here, as I have written about this many times, as have many others.

What is not discussed often in these venues are the couple reasons why you should bite your tongue and maybe even fake it for a while. Now, mind you, these circumstances are very specific, and as someone who had tried living a double life for a couple of years, I can tell you with great certainty that it is a dangerous game to play. It messes with your head, and I do not recommend it unless it is absolutely necessary, like if you are…

Living With Fundamentalist Parents… 

If one is under age, in school and living with their parents who are their sole support, they pretty much own their ass. For the most part, this works out pretty well. Most parents I know would be happy with their children if they make it to adulthood without getting arrested, hooked on drugs or either pregnant or fathering a child. They may desire for their child to follow in their religious footprints, but they are not overly insistent.

However, there are fundamentalist Christian parents out there who see things quite differently. They are not only providing free room and board, but also feeding, clothing and – as it is in many cases for older teens – providing a vehicle, paying for car insurance and fuel. The unbelieving children of these parents are aware that mom and/or dad would kick them out of the house and cut them off for being disobedient with regard to church attendance, Sunday school, bible studies and the daily devotion to all things Jesus.

My advice for these kids is to bite their tongue and play the game until such a time comes when they are capable of supporting themselves. Sure, there are the few who have sympathetic relatives they can live with, or perhaps the family of a friend who will be willing to take on the responsibility of supporting another person. For the most part, it doesn’t work out that way, and if you think a fundamentalist parent wouldn’t throw a sixteen-year-old out into the street, you’d be mistaken. Legal or not (depending on the state), it happens with regularity. To the youth who thinks being homeless would be cool, or like camping, it’s not. It sucks, big time…

In Your Job, Family Matters… 

The only instance in which I would similarly advise an adult to bite their tongue is in the matter of their job, and only when there are others who are depending on them, like their family – particularly if they have young children who would suffer the consequences of an unemployed parent.

Before you get your panties in a bunch and, yet again, start to break out your torches and battering rams, I am fully aware of the laws that protect an employee from religious discrimination. If there is discrimination that fits the circumstances that can be addressed by these laws, then my advice would be to contact the EEOC and find a good lawyer and take whatever action is needed to protect your rights.

With that said, I can tell you as a former employer, what many people believe to be illegal behavior is not such. Yes, it may be exasperating to see bibles in the break room, or to listen to your co-workers go on and on and on and on about the love of Jesus and the importance of getting saved while talking among them selves. Yes, I understand that it gnarls your senses to walk by an endless succession of desks or cubicles adorned with crosses, plaques and religious printouts. But in most cases, these activities are not illegal.


Fortunately, most major corporations and many smaller or small businesses have policies that prohibit items of a personal nature to be displayed in the work place, including religious apparel and religious pictures, signs and whatnot. But there are many that do not. This is especially for businesses that are owned by evangelicals.

Sometimes they are easy to spot, like Chick-fil-A, making the decision to not even apply for a job at these establishments fairly easy. Most of the times, you don’t find out until after you’ve already started working there.

Thus, if you just cannot bear to be inundated by these things, or endure the endless chatter by your co-workers expounding their undying devotion to the Lord in the lunchroom or any other place where the law allows them to, but you have a family to feed, my advice to keep your mouth shut, grin and bear it and quietly look for another job.

Thy Will Be Done… 

Yes, it is definitely illegal to fire someone for being an atheist. There is no question about that. However, there are many states that have “at will” employment, meaning they can fire you for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all, as long as it’s not an illegal reason. It sucks, it’s bullshit, but it happens all the time.

It’s better, in these cases, to keep your personal unbelief to yourself and adopt a position not to discuss personal matters at work unless you are one of the fortunate ones to work with another unbeliever which you can associate with during your workday and share your gripes with, or you have the type of a job where nobody really gives a crap as long as you do your job adequately.

Know this, though; the laws that protect you from discrimination also protect others, so choose your words wisely at work when addressing religious co-workers, or you might find yourself on the business end of a lawsuit.

Be Proactive… 

As I wrote earlier, I only give this advice to those who have families depending on them and under the circumstances I outlined. If you are single or prepared for the consequences of going up against a fundamentalist boss, or those favored co-workers (read: ass kissers), then by all means, speak up. Wear your atheist t-shirts, scarlet letter earrings and plaster your car with Darwin Fish, Flying Spaghetti Monsters and other emblems and bumper stickers.

In all circumstances, though, I would suggest that before you do something that you know will cost you your job, or before you decide to quit your job because you can’t stand being around preachy Christians and their religious decorations and adornments, try to have another one lined up.

Final Thoughts… 

Nobody likes to be made to feel inferior or to be forced to act in a way that goes against the very core of his or her principle ideals. This is true for the child of fundamentalist parents or the employee of a fundamentalist boss. But the unbeliever in these situations should be patient. The child will eventually become an adult, and another job opportunity will come along.

I am all for standing your ground and speaking out, but I also must choose my battles wisely, and sometimes I just have to wait for the right opportunity. There is no shame in this, and to quote the Bard yet again,

“To thine own self, be true”

  18 comments for “When An Atheist Should Remain Closeted

  1. ShoeUnited
    April 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Always good advice that some atheists miss. Happily I’m beyond or outside the situations. I think I’ll save my torches for when you do something that isn’t rational, Al. 🙂

  2. Alverant
    April 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    An unforunate, but accurate post. I keep quiet about my beliefs even in my neighborhood to keep the peace. As for work, as you pointed out in at-will states you can be fired for a bad reason as long as it’s not an illegal reason. So if your boss wants to fire you for an illegal reason, then he/she just has to think up a different reason like say the color of your shirt. Yes, it may make the news for a little bit but people forget quickly. I know someone who was fired because of his BO. I’m not sure if that’s the truth or if he was fired for being a jerk (which he was, I just said I knew him not that he was a friend).

    Thing is, if your boss wants to fire you, he/she will find a way. I would also add “while interviewing” to the list for the same reason. It’s even easier to reject a non-believer for a job since they can say, “We found someone who’s a better fit.” pretty easily and since being a better fit is subjective, you can’t disprove it.

  3. Jeff Sherry
    April 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Good advice Al. Many times fundamentalist owned businesses act like a fiefdom, the Best Lock Co. of Indianapolis comes to mind. The employees were were subjected to investigations over their employment years which would include church attendance for considering continued employment.

  4. April 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Unfortunately this is all very true. Sometimes it’s not about what you say or do .. it’s about what you don’t say or do. I was fired from a job at a small advertising company (12 employees) because I failed to participate in lunch time prayers, I didn’t adorn my office with religious themed items, and I didn’t participate in the Baptist Church the owners belonged to.

    There are other times that being silent is the kind thing to do. I care for my 95 year old very Catholic grandmother. Though I don’t actively participate in church activities or religious functions, I do not full out proclaim to her that I am an atheist. I sidestep or avoid the question to begin with. At 95 years old, she can barely remember what she said 5 minutes ago, let alone participate in a debate about morals or religion. Her comfort right now is her religion. Her generation has passed, and all the people she has known are gone. The last thing she needs is the heartbreak of “knowing” that the grand daughter she loves is going to hell.

    • Cents
      April 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      I agree with you completely. The old guard is leaving why make their end of life experiences harder. We are winning. It is just a matter of time, and the internet. The truth is out there and it will eventually displace the myths of religion.

  5. April 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    I agree with you completely Al. I am always calling for atheists to be active on my blog. I often state that being active takes many forms. People have to do what they are comfortable doing. It is not always a good idea for people to “out” themselves in all situations. I am “half-out” you could say. My friends, family, and members of the local atheist community know my stance. However, I run my own business in a small city that requires people to come through my door. If they do not, my family will suffer. It would not be prudent for me to be an atheist activist at work or in the eye of the general public in my town. The financial risk of doing so is too great.

    That does not mean that I can’t be an activist online, spread the word through my blog, be active in my local and other atheist organizations, and encourage friends and family to look closely at their beliefs. There is always something that you can do if you choose to be active.

  6. Norman Lycan
    April 9, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Mr. Steffani,

    After my post about what it cost me to make MY break from religion, you post this! I am by no means accusing you of any form of plagerism, but, several times of late, I wonder if I am your muse.

    You said: “If there is discrimination that fits the circumstances that can be addressed by these laws, then my advice would be to contact the EEOC and find a good lawyer and take whatever action is needed to protect your rights.”

    Here inlies the problem. In at-will states, while federal discrimination laws still apply, to successfully prosecute a complaint on federal grounds, the burden of proof falls to the plaintiff. The only witnesses you have are your fellow workers and they can be fired as easily as you for whatever unprovable reason.

    So, Alverant’s post: “As for work, as you pointed out in at-will states you can be fired for a bad reason as long as it’s not an illegal reason”, falls short of how dicy the balance is.

    And, even now, as I excercise my personal freedom of speech, I place in jeopardy my future employment, because as time goes by, employers are allowed to dig deeper and deeper into your privacy to evalute you for a job. Especially civil servants, required to divulge their facebook username and password, in order to apply for a job.

    But, even my father (a fundamentalist) had the wisdom to tell me there are two things you never discuss at work, and that is religion and politics. It was also the freemason formula to teamwork. It works.


  7. jj7212
    April 9, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Yes, nice point Al. I’ve been more fortunate. 13 years in the Marines (no religous problems) and the last 5 years here in rural Japan. I teach English at a junior high and the staff finds it interesting when I (rarely) talk about religion or politics. It’s not as taboo, just not so interesting here! Evolution is thoroughly taught at the junior high level without any problems at all. The Japanese live two separate lives between science and religion. They are amazed when I mention all the trouble evolution can cause in America! At Halloween, we talk about ghosts. I ask how many believe and half the class raise their hands. I get them to pull out their science book and show me where it talks about ghosts or superstitions. I don’t have to say much other than “You think about it yourself.” You can watch the students’ facial expressions as light bulbs start turning on in their heads! It’s awesome and I don’t even have to mention religion!

  8. Dionigi
    April 10, 2012 at 12:50 am

    One thing you didn’t mention was country. There are still countries around where atheists and people who renounce their religion are killed either by the state or others. For expatriates living and working in these countries it requires a certain amount of prudence.

    • Aliasalpha
      April 10, 2012 at 11:49 pm

      There are also others where people would shrug because we just don’t care about religion

  9. April 11, 2012 at 7:59 am

    One of the atheist/skeptical virtues should demonstrate to others is being prudent. Many people have exposure the the atheist movement only through the internet. And the internet rewards brash and outspoken personalities. However, in real life a person needs to have a plan when dealing with trouble. I’m an out of the bloset atheist, but I tell my young children (6 and 9) not to mention that God is an imaginary friend to their friends. They have both held to that position, except in one case when my then 5 year-old daughter told her teacher that God doesn’t exist (in reaction to the Pledge). There will be a point that my kids will state publicly what their opinions are on the Sky Fairy. At that point, I’m hoping, that they will have their black belts in the TAMA style of martial arts.

  10. had3
    April 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    How is being “proactive” different from being “active?” I know, english is evolving, yada, yada, yada, but still a nit i must pick. 😉

    • H.H.
      April 15, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      How is being “proactive” different from being “active?”

      It differentiates the action from one which is “reactive.”

  11. April 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    I have chosen to remain closeted when it comes to my family. My own nuclear family (my wife and my kids once they are old enough) are aware of my beliefs. But, my parents and siblings are not. I’ve debated whether to “come out” or not. I’ve been tempted many times, especially as I continue to get communication (emails and phone calls) from my father that revolve around Jesus and his wonderful grace and love. My father constantly tells me he is praying for me and asks me for my prayers in his life. I would prefer to just be honest and tell him I don’t pray.

    But, my mother (divorced from my father) is also a Christian, but a much less vocal one. She seems to quietly accept who I am, but I don’t want to overly worry her with thoughts about how her son has left the faith. I don’t want her to lie awake at night and put her health at risk from stressing out about my eternal future.

    So, for now at least, I’ve decided to live my life the way I like and, until anyone from my family comes out and directly asks me, I won’t volunteer my atheism to them.

  12. abusedbypenguins
    April 11, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    The Constitution Of The United States Of America does not exist inside the 4 walls of a church, your place of employment, big box stores, malls, you know “Private Property”. Didn’t used to be that way but walk into wal-mart with a union t-shirt on and see what happens. Welcome to the 4th reich.

    • Norman Lycan
      April 11, 2012 at 10:36 pm

      Neither is the constititution a holy document. It allowed slavery for another hundred years, denied those who did not own real estate, and women the vote, it’s only saving grace was to deny any religion to become a state religion. The system of governance that has resulted in politicians who are cardboard cutouts of actual human beings, being shoved about by big money. I have no sense of pride, I can’t speak for you. But, most of the country speaks of “broken government”, and a feeling of helplessness to effect change. That is the constitution in its current and inevitable stage of unintended consequences.


  13. April 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Some truly wonderful information, Gladiolus I noticed this. “We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything.” by Blaise Pascal.

  14. April 24, 2012 at 11:42 am

    As someone who suddenly started getting unsatisfactory job reviews made of cobbled-up nonsense when it came out that I was pro-choice, I can relate! In a highly religious environment I suggest not coming out atheist at work even if you are leaving: you’ll need references in the future, as well.

Leave a Reply