I am a humanist. That’s not something I always share with others, especially here in South Carolina, where the first question people generally ask upon meeting you is, “So where do you go to church?”; where people regularly talk about God as their co-pilot and Jesus as their fishing buddy; where prayer is considered a viable solution to every problem, from ending drought to finding a parking place. Publicly admitting that you are a humanist – or an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, free thinker, or any other variety of nonbeliever – anywhere in America is about as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion hall. Where I live, being a nonbeliever can get you denied a promotion and fired from your job. It can get you disowned by your family and deserted by your friends. It can get your house or car vandalized, and it can get you physically harmed. Prejudice against nonbelievers may be the last socially acceptable bigotry.
So it may seem strange that I strongly advocate that we humanists come out of the closet, but that’s exactly what I think we should do. As we well know, the phrase “coming out of the closet” was first used by LGBT people, and I think it is relevant for us humanists, as well, because being a nonbeliever, like being gay, carries a stigma. Even the symbol for atheism is a scarlet A. People assume that if you are a nonbeliever, you have no morals, meaning, or joy in your life, and the only way to dispel that myth is to show people that they are wrong. We have learned from our LGBT brothers and sisters that the way to melt the fear, ignorance, and hatred in our society is to come out and show others that LGBT people are people, too. Society also needs to see that humanists don’t have horns and tails. When I was growing up, we were not even talking about homosexuality; now LGBT people are getting married, even in South Carolina, and all of us regard Ellen Degeneres as our best friend. The remarkable pace of change in attitudes toward LGBT persons in our lifetime would not have happened unless, one by one, they started coming out of the closet to their sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, bosses and coworkers. We humanists need to do the same.
This is how a nation’s consciousness is changed – one person at a time. We are already seeing America’s consciousness changing in regard to humanism. The fastest growing religious group in America is, ironically, not religious. They are the “Nones,” the religiously non-affiliated, and they comprise about 16% of Americans today. Among 18 to 35-year-olds, that number rises to one in three. This is the highest level of religious disaffiliation since the Pew Research Center has been taking such polls.
Coming out as a humanist can be transformative socially, and it can be transformative personally. One of the most painful coming out stories I have heard was told to me by a member of my UU congregation. When her mother, with whom my parishioner and her two small children were living, discovered that she was an atheist, she kicked her daughter and her grandchildren out of the house. Not content to stop there, the mother informed her daughter’s employer, who promptly fired her. Says my parishioner, “It was a very painful and stressful time in my life that I wouldn't wish on anyone, but I wouldn't go back to that life if you paid me. The fear and guilt that I was constantly wracked with was almost overwhelming. The peace I found on the other side of atheism is amazing.”
Her story tells me two things. First, as we have learned from our LGBT brothers and sisters, we have to be selective about coming out. If coming out as a humanist would mean risking your job, your home, your support system, your children, or your safety, you would want to think twice about it. Everyone has different circumstances and different personalities, so we have to come out on our own time-table and in our own way. But I suspect we can come out with more people more often than we assume. In preparation for writing her book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Greta Christina read and listened to literally hundreds of “coming out atheist” stories, and there was immense variety among them. But the overwhelming majority of cases turned out well. She heard from exactly one person -- just one person -- who said they regretted having done it. Even as horrific as my parishioner’s coming out experience was, after all was said and done, she was glad she did it.
The second thing my church member’s experience tells me is that peace comes from being true to yourself. The peace she found is the peace of living with integrity. It’s the peace of making your words and actions consistent with your values. It’s making your outside match your inside. I know, not from reading books or hearing from others, but from my own personal experience that living with authenticity is the most powerful part of coming out of the closet, whatever your closet may be. And I did not have that experience in my life until I met a group of people called Unitarian Universalists.
The poet William Ward writes:
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental,
To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self,
To place our ideas, our dreams before the crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To hope is to risk despair,
To live is to risk dying.
But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love....live.
Coming out as a humanist is really about the courage and peace of taking the risk to be yourself, and that’s really the only life worth living.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, SC
Photo credit: Samuraijohnny on Flickr