Coming Out About My Unbelief to My Sister

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sheldon, who blogs at Ramblings of Sheldon. It was originally published on November 27, 2013.

As I’ve said before, I’m really growing weary of the charade I have to keep up in order to remain in the atheist closet. I had been talking to my fellow ex-fundamentalist bloggers on Twitter about whether I should come out to my sister, who has always been there for me throughout my life (she even helped to raise me as a young boy, long story there I won’t get into right now.

On Sunday, I was debating whether or not I should come out, but then lost my courage at the last minute. Well, finally, Tuesday night, I finally worked up the courage to finally come out to her.

My sister, in recent years, has gone from the Independent Fundamental Baptist cult to what would be considered more mainstream beliefs in the fundamentalist/evangelical world (beliefs more along the lines of the Southern Baptist denomination).

I’m glad she’s out of the IFB. She fell into that group because of the influence of the IFB ran “school” I went to in my elementary years. She was there too — though, because of the age gap between us, she was in her high school years at the time, and fell prey to them pushing Hyles-Anderson College as a great place to go.

Still, I wish she would give up fundamentalism altogether, especially for the sake of her kids. Right now, she is homeschooling her kids with ACE.

That’s the same awful curriculum I grew up with.

I talk to my nephew and two nieces on the phone, and when I’m visiting her in northern Indiana. It kinds of breaks my heart to see how they just seem more childlike, than other children their age.

They do get to spend time with other children at their church, and with some young neighbors, but still, the isolation inherent in fundamentalist homeschooling is taking its toll. She doesn’t even realize it. She doesn’t realize the effects of that because she wasn’t home schooled herself.

I’m wondering that if in 10-15 years, I’m going to be getting that coming out call from one of her kids. She means well, and isn’t hostile or abusive towards her kids by any means, like our mother was. She just doesn’t know the difference. Really, it’s unfortunate. I wonder how many young fundamentalist mothers like her are out there.

I called her, and I just spilled it to her. I didn’t use the dreaded “A word” (Atheism). I didn’t know if that would distract from the whole conversation. She was surprised as I expected, and she said that it would have “blown her socks off if she was wearing them”.

I started from the beginning, from the nervous breakdown, being told that my depression was “guilt” and not having a “right relationship with god”, the unfortunate falling for that cruel lie, doubling down on Christianity, soaking up as much as I could about the Bible again, studying it and the works of various theologians, and eventually coming to realization that I couldn’t believe in it anymore.

It worried her to some extent, she seems to think that it’s just a time of questioning, despite me repeatedly telling her that it’s been 4 years now since I came to the conclusion that I can no longer believe. She told me to be sure before I eventually have to approach my mom and dad about this, and warned me about how that she is likely going to throw all she has been doing recently for me in my face.

She knows what my mom is like.

My sister had the worst end of the abuse growing up, because she was the only one willing to stand up to my mom.

I just tried to survive as best I could, staying out of her way, avoiding anything I knew would trigger her anger. Though it didn’t often work. She would invent any excuse necessary to take out her anger on us.

My sister doesn’t seem to understand what it going on, that this is not something I came to lightly. But the important thing is, she’s standing behind me. She has made it clear that she will stand behind me, even after this, and won’t let her beliefs get in the way of family.

In some ways, she can see how I reached this point. She said at times that he has questioned everything. She says at times she doesn’t feel as close to God as she used to feel, but she always ended up coming back.

I had told her, looking at it now, when I’m “undercover” in the church  I am in, (the one I am a member of still, and have attended since I was 12), that I hear what people are saying around me, and I can’t understand how I possibly believed it in the first place. She said it was because that was all I ever knew from birth, had I been raised in another nation, the predominant faith there would have been all I knew.

In some ways she gets it, and in some ways she doesn’t. I hope that the more open I become with her, that it will help her gain more of an understanding of why I came to this point, and that it’s who I am now. I told her that I’m growing weary of all this, I can’t keep hiding who I am now, and that I’m not looking forward to dealing with my mom.

It really will show my mom’s character (or more than likely, lack thereof), when I finally come out to her. I could lose the financial help and help with rebuilding my house, and taking care of my dog that she is currently doing, which would be hard to deal with. But I can learn to cope, the rough road ahead will be worth it.

I want to finally be able to live openly — and if that means losing the relationship with my mother, or being forced to cut her out of my life for my own sanity, then that is worth it.

In fact, it sounds horrible, but that’s probably the best outcome in the end, the one that will help me to heal over time.

I wish my mom could be more like my sister, willing to accept me for who I am, even if she doesn’t understand it. In fact, I wish more families, and parents especially, would follow her example.

You don’t have to agree with your family members in order to love them, and if you are putting your faith, your dogma, over love for your family, it’s showing that your religion (or more than likely, your interpretation of it), is more important to you than the people you are supposed to love.

It reveals to me, especially if you are a parent, that you are using your faith as means to control and manipulate people, and that if your children/family members are rejecting that, then they are worthless to you as a human being.

If someone feels this way, then they are not someone I want in my life, and I have no respect for them at all.


  • Sheldon, I applaud your willingness to be open with your sister. I’m a Christian pastor, but there are times when I’m anxious about even letting other Christians know what I think about certain issues. And yet, as I get older I’m convinced that hiding who we really are is poisonous to our personhood. I’m trying to be more courageous, more open, more honest. I’m glad that you are on the same journey.

    I don’t know your mom, obviously, but she may just be afraid of what loss of faith would mean for you. I hope that somehow you’ll find a way to talk to her about this, and that she’ll accept you regardless. I can’t imagine rejecting my children over issues of faith – or anything else for that matter.

    Thanks for continuing to share your story!

  • As a closeted atheist myself, only known in my family to my sister, who cleaves strongly to her faith, I agree with you. Sisters can be the best.

  • I get it. This last week we were talking about atonement in one of my classes, and all I could think is it doesn’t make sense to me anymore, and I could not make myself make sense of it. If you don’t believe, you don’t believe. But it also goes that way with Christians. If you do believe, you can’t just make yourself not.

  • I’m glad she took it relatively well 🙂 I’m also an atheist. My family took it well, but as I gradually told more of my friends I had some very dramatic reactions. It’s such a HUGE relief, though, to get it off your chest.

  • Finally admitting to myself and the world that I am an atheist was the most liberating experience of my life!

  • I love this article because it is so real; there’s no big climax or redemptive moment, just someone trying to get through to the family members that still matter to him. I have a question, and I’m not trying to be accusing, but I’m honestly curious what some folks think about this:

    It’s become common lately, I’ve noticed, for Atheists (or other ex-Christians, but I especially see it in the Atheist community) to use the terms “coming out” and “in the closet” to describe their experiences. While I admit that it is a decent descriptive term, this has historically been language used by the LGBT community, and has only recently been co-opted by the a-religious community. I am unsure how I feel about it, and I’m wondering what some other peoples’ thoughts are. Certainly, Atheists and LGBT folks sometimes have similar experiences when being open with family members and friends, but it also seems a bit presumptuous or disrespectful sometimes to me that this language has been so freely co-opted and used by another group with still very different experiences than LGBT folks. It seems a bit like equating the two which feels wrong to me. I dunno… does anyone have an opinion on that? Is this disrespectful like equating the LGBT movement to the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, or is it acceptable? I’d love to hear from you!

  • I am both an atheist and a member of the LGBT community and I don’t find a problem with it. I highly recommend this video on the subject:

    • I am also non-religious (I guess agnostic) and also a member of the LGBT community, but I’m still not sure about it. I don’t think we should quickly dismiss the possibility that it is harmful just because some of us in the group don’t mind it… or at least we should still have the conversation.

      The video is pretty awesome… and amusing. =) Thanks for showing it to me.

  • I commend your courage. I know it’s hard to come out as an atheist. Reading your posts, I see a lot of similarities in our childhoods. When I came out to family and friends, I lost most. My older sister hasn’t talked to me in two years, that’s been hard. Others disowned me, or took actions to destroy me. My parents had a funeral for me. But, in the end, the ones who loved me, have become closer, and the freedom of being who I am is important to me.

  • Sheldon, huge props for coming out to your sister! I wish I had people in my family that I felt safe coming out to. I honestly can’t decide if I should anyway, because I too am tired of the charade. My husband came out to his family. They decided that he must be severely depressed because of his “malfunctional thought patterns” and have been trying to send him to a live-in treatment program ever since. Funny thing is, he’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him!

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