Yes, many Atheists do hide their Atheism from family and friends. Many Atheists are afraid of the repercussions of letting their loved one know about their Atheism. Many Atheists just avoid the conflict.
There are so many variables that an Atheist must concern himself with in revealing his Atheism to family and friends. The real difficulty is that each family member and each friend (individually) create a completely new set of variables for the Atheist to deal with.
These variables include the degree of religiosity of the person, the closeness to the person, the time one has known the person, the attitudes (including tolerance) of the person, and other issues. I often jokingly say that it is easier to come out of the closet as a homosexual than it is to come out as an Atheist.
The problem is that my joke is not too far from the truth. A homosexual friend of mine that is also an Atheist said he received more static about his Atheism then he ever did about his homosexuality. While the family was disgusted over his homosexuality, they seemed comforted that he at least believed in a god. When he told them that he did not believe in god, they started to distance themselves from him. In hindsight, my friend misinterpreted the variables and came out of the closet to his family the wrong way. There are still family that refuse to talk to him.
One of the biggest issues for an Atheist when coming out of the closet is the sincerity of the people they are telling. What I mean is that they often sincerely believe that you will go to Hell and burn for all eternity. This creates emotional stress for them, can often be seriously heartbreaking, and may cause depression in some. You have to weigh their degree of religiosity and sometimes even their age. Should you tell grandma at ninety or let her die thinking she will see all her loved ones in Heaven?
When another friend of mine finally told his Mom, she cried. She cried because she was sincerely concerned for his soul and that he was going to Hell. She felt with all her heart that she would never see her son for eternity; that she would have to peer down from Heaven and see him writhing in pain at the torturing hands of Satan. While this friend saw the ridiculousness of his mother’s beliefs, he understood her sincerity and he had to deal with guilt from telling her. He second-guessed his decision to come out of the closet with his mother.
How open-minded are your parents and friends? Should you only tell your immediate family or include your extended family? Should you come out at work? Should you tell your spouse or children? Will the people you tell ostracize you? Will your friends leave you? Will everyone start a proselytizing campaign or an “intervention?”
These questions plague the Atheist before coming out of the closet. The sad part is that these questions are even considered. Why should Atheists be afraid to admit what they are to their relatives and friends? Why should Atheists be worried about discrimination at the workplace? Why should Atheists fear retaliation in the form of proselytizing and religious harassment and discrimination?
What do you do if you are still underage? Should you wait until after you leave the house? Can your parents still force you to go to church? Will your parents increase your religious indoctrination and get your preacher or priest involved? Will your parents get other family members involved? Will people single you out for ridicule and harassment at school? Will your teachers get involved in the proselytizing? Will your family see your declaration of Atheism as a form of teen rebellion instead of an honest lack of belief?
Obviously, other issues and variables come into play. I could never list all of them. Each individual will face different problems and different variables that they will have to take into consideration.The comedy movie Blasphemy is a perfect example of how not to come out as an Atheist to your family.
Generally, the best method is to bring it up slowly and to use “less stressful” terminology.
For example, start by asking probing questions that do not give away your Atheism (play the doubting Thomas role). You can point out inconsistencies, contradictions, and other fallacies without coming out directly and saying, “I don’t believe in gods.” Sometimes simple things like, “I don’t understand this doctrine” or “How did Noah fit all those animals into that tiny Ark?” can be great tools for letting your family know that you are questioning your faith and religion, but without coming out and saying you’re an Atheist.
By leading up slowly, over the course of a few months or so, they will be more prepared for your declaration and it will not be such an emotional hammer for them. You can use “friendly” terms like Freethinker or Agnostic instead of the dreaded “A” word if you think that will help your family and friends deal with it.
I know it can be stressful on the Atheist hiding their identity. There are feelings of resentment that build up because they feel forced to hide their true feelings from family and friends. Why should we have to hide while they get to express their religiosity out in the open? Do we ask the black man to paint his skin white in order to avoid discrimination? Do we ask the woman to act masculine in order to avoid discrimination? So why do Atheists still hide?
This goes back to the taboo associated with the word based on the very myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings that I am addressing at Atheism Awareness. Even Atheists fall victim to the perpetuation of the 3 M’s.
Barna Research, a Christian research organization based in San Diego, conducted a survey in 1998 on non-believers in churches. The survey concluded that up to 7% of all churchgoers are non-believers that are afraid to come out of the closet to their family. These non-believers live a fake life, living a game of charades and lies as they appease their family and friends. Others pretend to be believers in order to keep their business contacts – knowing that as soon as word gets out that they are Atheist, they may lose a large portion of their clientele.
Of course, there are examples of coming out of the closet that went perfectly. The family was accepting and friends shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “Whatever floats your boat.”
I recommend a few things before coming out of the closet.
Join a local Atheist or Freethought group. Fellowship with like-minded individuals is just as important for Atheists as it is for churchgoers. You may even consider your local Unitarian Universalist church or fellowship, as many of the congregations are Atheists and Humanists.
Be prepared to answer questions that will come your way. You should be able to answer these questions without hesitation. Questioners identify hesitation as doubt, which may lead to heavier proselytizing. Be prepared to be hit with questions like, “How did this happen?” Be ready to answer questions like, “Can’t you find some other way to rebel?”
Accumulate lots of ammunition. In the case of Freethinkers, Agnostics and Atheists the ammunition is knowledge. If you cannot argue against what you believe then you should not be arguing for it. You should have knowledge of all sides, all arguments, and counter-arguments, both sides of the issues and know how to rebut people properly. You do not have to be an all-star debater or be exceptionally articulate – you just need to know the information so you can properly rebut anything that comes your way.
If someone hits you with a question that you are not prepared for or something you do not know – that is okay. Tell them you have to think about and you will get back to them. Do not delve into a subject where you know less than the other person does – they will corner you too easily. Remain on the offensive if you can – there are only certain times where appearing innocently defensive works to your benefit.
Be patient. Coming out of the closet will not resolve itself overnight. You may have to explain things over time and you may have to come out slowly.
Most of all, do not let anyone force you into coming out. Come out when you are ready. On the other side of the coin, do not let anyone keep you in the closet – come out when you are ready.