With membership over 1000 strong, the Oklahoma Atheists recently took what some might call a big step in launching our public facebook page. You know how it works, you can press the Like button and everyone you know will find out you publicly approve of us. To some like myself (now, anyway), this is no big deal. I've been talking about my godlessness in public for a couple of years now, so the only surprise to friends and family might be that there is such a thing as organized godlessness.
For others, though, or for me just a few years in the past, accidentally pressing that little button on a silly website could mean losing friends, dividing family, or losing jobs. Poppycock, you might say, and you should because it's fun. Go on, say it out loud. Forsooth, says I, and to make it real I'll first give you some stories about real people right now. I'll be vague and obviously won't share names to protect them. Then I'll share part of my story.
Plenty of small Oklahoma towns are centered around church life. Church is the biggest business in town, and it's where everyone meets on Wednesday and Sunday to be together, make connections, and help each other out. Church is the community in these towns, and often enough it's church connections that get people jobs. Last year a young woman in one of these communities had a near-meltdown after leaving her facebook open to the AOK page at her workplace and thought her boss might have seen it. For days she waited for a pink slip to arrive, or for her family to begin trying to save her embattled soul, or for the church itself to stage an intervention. It was finally decided that the boss must not have seen it, because she was able to continue to falsely worship every Wednesday and Sunday without breaking her family's hearts.
I was able to attend a group called Empowering Atheists that's hosted by AOK. This is where the three major categories of nonbeliever - those raised secular, the recently deconverted, and the long-past deconverted - meet up to share their stories and discuss how each can move forward in life and society. It's great because the recently deconverted are often not out, and they get to hear the "it gets better" stories of those of us who have gotten past that troublesome part; Those who were raised secular get to share in the very real trauma being experienced by people leaving the fold, and can share in this process that all too often feels like grieving and being born at once. One man shared the story of his utter fear as he told his wife, presumably a devout Christian, that he didn't believe in her god. He told of how he was terrified that she would renounce her love for him and take his children away to protect them from the hellfire their father would experience. In this case an uneasy truce was initially carved out, and several months later they're happy and strong together.
In the same group I met a man who was some two years divorced after renouncing his religion publicly with his family and friends. He had recently moved to the area to leave behind the friends and family among whom he was no longer welcome. His story gets better because he found a thriving secular community here in the city where he could make new friends who wouldn't judge him for his opinion on dieties.
Four or five years ago my job title was Home Installer for computer and audio/video components for a now-defunct big box electronics store. I'd set up computers, networks, televisions, and other electronics for people who needed help with it. At the time I was living with a friend who was an out atheist, and I was beginning my process of earnestly leaving faith. I found myself at a house decorated overmuch with crosses and the like. The nice woman whose new computer I set up asked me to what church I belonged. "Oh, I'm... between churches." I responded, because I didn't want to cause problems on behalf of the company. "Are you one of those atheists? Have you renounced your savior?" I assured her this was not the case, but admitted that my roommate was. Her reply was very matter-of-fact. "Your friend is going to burn forever, you know that? All those atheists and muslims ought to be rounded up and put in the gas chamber. It would do the world some good, and only good god-fearing folk would be left. I'd be able to walk around knowing everyone I met was a good Christian."
Two years ago I was married and spent a lot of time with my family-in-law and their friends. I'd been slowly losing faith for years and it had come to the point where even my stock replies of "I'm still searching for answers" and "I just don't like *organized* religion" felt outright dishonest. I said the A-word one day, a huge step for me. It was suggested that I keep that to myself because it would reflect badly on the family, and there would be no further discussion on the subject. In hindsight I'm sure they thought they were being accepting and progressive, allowing someone who has renounced god to remain undisturbed in their midst.
You might think that consequences that strong would be in a pure minority of cases; I mean, it's 2012, and even here in the south it's getting progressive. These are the worst-case scenarios, right? As of this writing, 136 of our one thousand total members and 423 active members in the private group have Liked our public page. Roughly one third of our online-active members, and one sixth of our total membership have decided the risks of clicking this out-button are manageable at this time.
What this means to me is that my enthusiasm is valid, and my loudness is necessary. Every time someone tells me I made it easier for them to publicly or privately renounce religion, every time someone calls me during a deconversion or crisis of faith, every time someone silently smiles and nods during a heated debate, I'm reminded that I don't just speak for myself, nor do you. I speak on behalf of someone whose circumstances prevent them from defending his point of view. I speak for one of the last groups of second class citizens, whose rational ideas on unprovable magic make them an embodiment of evil for most current presidential candidates; whose ideas on dieties hopefully don't make them unelectable for public office in oklahoma.
What can you do? If you're unsure whether you should publicly renounce your former god, don't do it prematurely. Weigh your real-life consequences first. Carefully lay groundwork to prepare your loved ones, and if it'll lose you a job or support or financially cripple you or cause you potential bodily harm, wait. I don't ask you to suffer for a cause. You're needed as a whole being. If you're comfortable, then wear that A pin. Be available for others who need support. Either way, contact your local group, there are thousands. Browse atheists.org, or heck - contact me. I'll do my best to set you up with a nearby group. I hope for a day when the unabashedly religiously unaffiliated can run for public office and interview for jobs without wondering whether it will make life difficult. Until then we can work together to break down preconceptions and build communities outside the walls of church.