“Coming Out” stories: The freedom and loss of saying “I’m an atheist”

Nov 16, 2012

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The role of religious affiliation in the United States is changing.

According to a recent survey from the Pew Forum, one in five Americans is not affiliated with any religion

A small part of this growing group is made up of atheists.

Last weekend, hundreds of atheists gathered in the Bible Belt – Springfield, to be exact – for Skepticon, a national skeptics convention. Not all skeptics are atheists, but many of them are.

Even with the decrease in religious affiliation, some atheists still struggle to find acceptance. The atheist community has borrowed the terminology people usually use to talk about their sexuality: “coming out.” 

For Joe Eversole, coming out as an atheist in 2009 brought a sense of freedom – he finally felt like he could be himself.

But he also lost friends. 

So did Hollis Barton: “I have people that were my best friends that won’t look at me."

She had plans to follow in the footstep of her grandfathers and be a Methodist minister.

Then, she started questioning things more, and eventually made her way to atheism.

When her mom found out Barton wasn’t a Christian, she called the preacher and staged an intervention. 

"Coming out as an atheist to your family can be one of the hardest things you can do if you have a religious family,” Barton said.

That’s something Amanda Vitale knows all too well.

She "was outted" just one day before the conference. She's not welcome home for Christmas. 

"But it's my belief, so I'm not going to shake on it," she said. 

Her sister is the one who let it slip. 

"She didn’t mean it to be a big deal," Vitale said. "She didn’t care that much that I was an atheist because I’m her sister."

Her family had known for a while she wasn’t very religious, but the word “atheist” – that’s what changed things. And that’s just what the atheist community is trying to break – the negative stigma attached to the atheist identity.

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith and Values. "Like" Columbia Faith and Values on Facebook, and follow @ColumbiaFAVS on Twitter.

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