Telling Others I am an Atheist

Over the past 3 years I have told several people that I am a former Christian, now an atheist. Interestingly, but probably not surprisingly, I’ve found that telling strangers is much easier than telling those I already know. I’m talking about face to face conversations here.

In my former job, I spent a good deal of time on the train to and from London; a journey of over three hours. So it is inevitable that I’ll occasionally end up in conversation with my neighbour and sometimes that conversation will go on for most of the journey. As a result, there are times when the subject turns to science or religion. In these circumstances I found myself being very open about my religious status. In almost every case the person I’ve been talking to has been a fellow atheist or agnostic. On revealing that I’m a former Christian, very few of these fellow travellers took the subject further and showed any interest in why I changed my stance. Those that did found my ‘science convinced me’ explanation sufficient and acceptable.

Basically, those who already hold a view that the god concept is either questionable or false have accepted my change of religious state with a ‘Cool, good for you’ and moved on. Sometimes that can be a little deflating; this is a subject that dominates my life after all. I lived a Christian life for many years and the step away was difficult and challenging and the ripples do continue. Changing your stance on religion is not comparable to changing your preference of car. This has been a good experience for me because it has forced me to step outside of what dominates my life and engage with others on what is meaningful to them. Something I didn’t do often enough when I was a Christian.

On the flip side, telling Christians is, predictably, a whole other experience. Those that know me are understandably sad, this is because they know me and care for me. Their response is out of love for a friend and I fully get that, but it is still not an affirming response.

Last week I told a total stranger, who is a Christian, and the result almost comical. I say almost because her reaction was instinctive, she wasn’t faking it. Thinking about it after the event I wonder how my Cristian self would have responded in the same situation. My timing also sucked a bit too. I was on my way home after a week of work and happened to sit next to her, with a work colleague, she overheard us talking about my upbringing in Africa and how I was from missionary stock. This encouraged her, because she happened to be on her way home from a Christian event called David’s Tent. Not something I am familiar with, but from what she said it seems to include extended sessions of worship that last over 24 hours. Not something I’ve done myself and strikes me as a tad excessive. Anyway, this girl, is on her way home, tired and full of the effects of having spent a week with fellow Christians; something I most certainly can identify with, I’ve been there many times, as a leader on a summer camp and as one of thousands at a popular Christian festival. Probably not the best time to get faced with a former Christian.

When I told her I had turned my back on faith she actually winced and leaned away from me. It was as though I had caused her genuine and severe mental anguish, maybe I did. The trigger seemed to be the phrase “I just don’t believe anymore”. It was as though her brain was trying to shout back, “that’s not possible”. I changed the subject onto her job and she relaxed again. It turns out she takes the same train route to and from work so maybe I’ll bump into her again, who knows.

Breaking it all down into its simplest states, Christian responses to my atheism are understandably sad while non-religious responses are either indifferent or congratulatory. Which brings me to a very serious point; this balance of reactions only encourages me to seek out my atheist brethren and form friendship bonds with them. If Christians want to win atheists back, they need to develop a better response.