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Why Do Many Religious Believers Want to Silence Atheists?

When atheists come out, all too often the reaction is to try to shove them back into the closet.

Photo Credit: TheThinkingAtheist; Screenshot /


Why do so many religious believers want atheists to lie about our atheism?

It seems backward. Believers are always telling atheists that we need religion for morality; that we have to believe because without religion, people would have no reason not to murder and steal and lie. And yet, all too often, they ask us to lie. When atheists come out of the closet and tell the people in our lives that we don't believe in God, all too often the reaction is to try to shove us back in.

In some cases, they simply want us to keep our mouths shut: when the topic of religion comes up, they want us to tell the lie of omission. But much of the time, they actually ask us to lie outright. They ask us to lie to other family members. They ask us to attend church or other religious services. They sometimes even ask us to perform important religious rituals, like funerals or confirmations, where we're not just lying to the people around us, but to the god they supposedly believe in.

Why would they do this?

When I was doing research for my new guidebook, “ Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why,” I was shocked at how often this happens. I read over 400 "coming out atheist" stories to write this book, and in the stories I read, this theme came up again and again and again.

You see it a lot with parents and children. When kids and teenagers tell their parents that they're atheists, parents often respond by insisting that their kids keep up a religious charade. Alexander came out as atheist to his family in fourth grade, and was met with hostility and confusion — and quickly went back into the closet. "True to form," he says on his Scribbles and Rants blog, "my parents dropped the matter as long as I went through the motions and didn't bring it up myself."

Parents don't just pressure their atheist kids to keep up the facade, either. They often force them into it. On the Coming Out Godless Project website, Emmanuel Donate says when he was a teenager and came out as atheist to his family, a Latino family who took their Catholicism seriously, they forced him to go to church with them. And Lexie tells of the enormous fight she had with her mother over whether she would go to church. "I did go to church that next morning," she says, "albeit yelling, screaming and basically being dragged out of the door (picture a teenager and mother behaving basically like a young mum and tantruming toddler)."

This doesn't just mean making kids sit through church, either. Stories of kids and teenagers being forced to go through confirmations and other important religious rituals are ridiculously common. Helena says she was pressured to be confirmed into her Lutheran church — even though she knew she was an atheist and had tried to make that as clear as she could. And she isn't alone. Lauren, who came out as atheist to her Lutheran family and church at age 12, told both her mother and her pastor that she didn't want to be confirmed. When she told her pastor, "I can't get up there and say stuff I don't believe," he replied, "Please stop disrupting class with your questions. This is a special time in everyone's life — don't ruin it." 

The upshot was that she was forced to go through with the ceremony, and to lie, in public, about her atheism. Now, here's the thing: Confirmation is one of the most serious rituals in religion. It's the ritual in which children accept adult responsibility for their purported soul, and declare their adult commitment to their religion. The whole point is that they're finally making a free choice about participating in religion, instead of just going along with their family. Yet parents and clergy still pressure kids into this ritual, or even force them into it. Even when they know it's a lie.