Being (Mostly) Openly Atheist

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

When it comes to my atheism, I am mostly out of the closet. My parents know. My boyfriend knows (and turns out to have become an atheist right around the same time). My friends at college know, as do the majority of my professors (They’re fantastic). My parents took it the worst, but ultimately, so far, everyone has accepted that I no longer believe in God. Everyone, that is, except the people I’ve conveniently neglected to tell.

1 – My extended family.

2 – My godparents.

3 – My family’s church friends.

Basically anyone I don’t at least interact with on a weekly basis.

At first, I explained my decision not to tell them with the notion that they didn’t need to know–which was true. They didn’t. But then I found myself in a bit of a tricky situation over the weekend. There was a death in my family, and at the funeral (which was, of course, a mass), the time came for everyone to receive communion.

If I chose to receive it, I would gravely offend my parents, who taught me that receiving communion while not in good standing with the church (which I’m not, since I no longer attend mass) is a mortal sin–the worst kind of sin. Because I don’t believe, I don’t care about the part where that offends God. Nevertheless, I don’t want my parents to be miserable, thinking about how my soul’s been further damned by such a heinous sacrilege against the real presence of Jesus, whom they believe the bread and wine become in the Eucharist. I know my parents. They’ll spend ages praying for me and freaking out about what God might do to me if I stand up and eat a cracker that He’s chosen to grace with His presence. My other option was simple:  don’t receive communion. That choice came with repercussions too, though:  I would be outing myself as a sinner of some kind, if not specifically an atheist. Why is that, you ask?

There are only a few reasons not to receive communion:

1) Failing to fast adequately (1 full hour) before communion

2) Not being in “good standing” with the church. This can range from “Oops, I committed a mortal sin and haven’t been to confession yet,” to “I’m not Catholic.” Both apply to me. (For more details on who is and isn’t allowed receive communion, check out this link.)

Because I arrived early to the funeral (It took place two hours away, so we gave ourselves extra time getting there), everyone knew I had fasted the required 1 hour. They also assumed I was a devout Catholic, because that’s how my parents raised me. While one extended family relative did know (that Buddhist uncle I mentioned in my post on belief in an afterlife as a coping mechanism), I assumed that no one else did. I hadn’t told them. My grandparents were there! I didn’t want them to know.

Maybe they won’t notice if I don’t receive I thought as I waited for everyone to arrive. When it was time for the funeral to begin, I realized to my horror that there were only 10 people there. (The relative who passed away had been estranged from the family, and seemingly from everyone, since really only family and some close friends of ours came, none of whom knew him except for my grandma.) That meant that if I didn’t receive communion, people would notice.

I realize this seems like I’m making a big deal out of the decision of whether or not to participate in a meaningless ceremony, but Catholics can be very judgmental. This is the same issue Catholics who use contraception, or have premarital sex, or cohabitate face every Sunday. They technically can’t receive communion in a state of sin (and there are supposedly grave repercussions if they do for their souls,) but if they choose not to, it casts suspicion on their behavior.

In the end, I chose to make life easy for my parents, who I’ll have to live with at the end of next semester since I’ll be graduating in May. I stayed in the pew and let everyone else receive “Jesus.” No one said anything to me. I hope my grandmother wasn’t looking as people went up to receive. As I waited in the pew, I realized that most of the people who received were the row in front of me:  my parents and grandparents. My brother received communion too, as did one of the family friends. My cousin and aunt, sitting beside me, didn’t receive either. They’re atheists too. I can’t remember if my uncle did, but I really don’t care. What I realized suddenly, sitting in that pew, abstaining from the cardboard-tasting unleavened bread I’d eaten every Sunday since second grade, was that I was in good company. I wasn’t the only non-Catholic there. My grandmother’s best friend, who is Jewish, had come. My uncle, the Buddhist, contributed by reading the first scripture reading. My cousin and aunt, my fellow non-believers, were sitting right next to me. Five out of the ten people there weren’t Catholic. Many of us had been raised that way, but this funeral wasn’t our cup of tea.

I got lucky when it came to communion. The only person who said anything to me was my atheist cousin, who proudly showed me the notes she’d taken in her cell phone during mass. They were her thoughts on the religion, such as “priests need to get laid.” and “Quick, the church needs new seats! Give me money!” Some of them were downright hilarious, and I enjoyed laughing with her and sharing an atheist moment with a relative. My brother joined us and read some, admitting that despite his reception of communion, he considers himself agnostic right now, bringing the total number of non-Catholics at the funeral to a whopping 6/10. That’s 60%. I’m increasingly thinking that being openly atheist might not be a bad thing. Overall, those 10 members of my family and its close friends weren’t exactly lacking in religious diversity. I was just happy to not be the only non-Catholic there. I’m not sure if I’ll go out of my way to tell my grandparents about my atheism, but at least it seems I can relax and be myself around them. In my panic, I had forgotten that I wasn’t the first one to ditch Catholicism.

That just leaves two more groups:  Godparents, and my parents’ religious friends. My godparents came over to dinner a few nights ago, and I said grace for the first time in a while, just to dip back into the closet for one meal. They’re very sweet, but they’re devout Catholic republicans who moved to the south and love it there for all the wrong reasons. I also have more education than they do, even though they’re older than my parents and I haven’t yet finished college. The disparity in education is sometimes glaring, which makes me nervous about their ability to think critically and take the news objectively. Then there’s that last group. My parents’ religious friends believe in spiritual warfare and possession. (Not sure what that is? Check out my post about it here.) I think it’s safe to say I’ll be sticking to the closet with those two groups for as long as I can.

Overall, so far, being out has been good for me. It’s been emotionally freeing, and if you read my “Why Atheist?” page you’ll see that it’s gotten me out of attending mass. I know that not everyone has such a positive experience with coming out as part of a minority group, though. Feel free to comment with any stories you have about being openly atheist, or otherwise being yourself in a way you weren’t sure your family or other people would understand and accept. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think your comments through before posting.

As always, happy thinking!


2 thoughts on “Being (Mostly) Openly Atheist

  1. I took my time coming out as an atheist to most of my family, but it tended to happen quite suddenly at family gatherings in the course of some theological discussion. I never minded though, I’m moved out and have a family of my own already so it was never going to have that large of an impact on my day to day life.

    Since then it’s all gone better than expected though! I’m always interested in a good discussion or friendly debate at a family get-together, so if someone brings up religion or theology I’m the first to jump in. 😉


    • That’s a great place to be. The timing of a deconversion can definitely have a huge impact on how risky coming out is. It’s interesting to me that religious discussion and debate happen at family reunions for you, because my family has so many people who feel strongly about religion (but in different ways and with different religions) that they typically don’t feel comfortable doing that in front of the whole family. We sort of take each other aside to do it. Debate and discussion are definitely good things to have. It’s great to see people engaging in healthy critical thinking.


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