Coming Out As An Atheist

A few weeks ago, on a breezy Saturday evening, my husband and I were spending time with our friend Israel in his apartment in San Francisco. We all work at Google and our conversations usually revolve around start-ups or cool projects, but this was not one of those times.

“Were you raised a Hindu?” Israel asked me. His assumption was understandable since I am from India. I knew where it was headed and it’s not my favorite topic, but the affable environment made me open up.

My upbringing in an Indian upper-middle class family was a unique experience. Although my family was Muslim, I went to a private Catholic school and most of my friends were Hindus. Thus, at a very young age, I started wrestling with religious inconsistencies I was constantly exposed to. Critical thinking eventually led me to reject religion and the idea of an all-powerful god. However, I was alone in my outlook - neither my family nor my friends shared it.

Atheism may represent just a sliver of the population but its numbers appear to be growing. According to a 2014 study by Pew Research, 3.1% of American adults said they were atheists when asked about their religious identity - a near doubling since 2007 when the figure was a mere 1.6%. These statistics unfortunately don’t exist for a country like India.

I told Israel about the misogynistic culture and illogical ideology that permeated my childhood. My not-so-faded memories stood out like jagged splinters of glass, and as I flitted through them, Israel suddenly exclaimed, “You broke the matrix too!”

I was momentarily surprised. Not because of the way he summed up my past, but because of the word “too”. I know Israel, unlike me, had a conventional upbringing. He sensed my curiosity and had an idea: , “Oh man! “ he said. “You should talk to Jesse. He was raised in a conservative evangelical family and he was actually home-schooled, but he broke the matrix too.” The matrix was of course a reference to the 90’s sci-fi movie, where the protagonist breaks free from the perceived reality to which he is assigned.

I knew Jesse as a brilliant and thoughtful engineer, not as someone who also had a suffocating childhood. Our conversations thus far had been restricted to fixing software bugs and launching features. But now I almost had an instant personal connection that I couldn’t wait to explore.

Sure enough, two weeks later, we all ended up in Los Angeles for a conference. As the program drew to a close, I pulled Jesse aside and mentioned my conversation with Israel. He had the familiar expression of a surprise dart through his eyes. He smiled and slowly delved into his past.

Like other evangelical Christians, Jesse was taught to denounce science and despise non-believers. He was trained to care more about abstinence and rapture than honesty and compassion. He was homeschooled and his exposure outside was strictly limited to his church community. His only avenue to the world at large was through the internet.

“I used the internet to convert other people,” he recounted. However, the strangers he challenged on the web were patient and understanding. They told him that the studies from pseudo-science books he read had been debunked, and instead pointed him to peer-reviewed research articles. They sowed the seeds of doubt that slowly started to take root. Unbeknownst to his family, he discovered philosophies and values that resonated deeply with him. Soon he taught himself to write computer code instead of decoding the mysteries of the bible.

When he grappled with the realization that he could no longer believe the dogmatic “truths” to which his family subscribed, he couldn’t tell them. He feared it would shatter everything they had wished and hoped for.

“When I told my mom I joined Google, which was a major milestone in my life, she said she was disappointed that I was not regularly attending church” he said. “That hurt.” Jesse smiled and I could instantly connect with his agony. Conversations with his family often included the phrase, “I will pray for you”, a reminder that no matter how happy or successful he might be, it wouldn’t measure up to an arbitrary ritual that they held high.

He told me he was going to have an open discussion with his parents the next time they visited him. While they might already have guessed he was an atheist, he suppressed that conversion in their presence. The passive shaming and condemnation takes a toll, and to be able to finally come out as a non-believer can be deeply cathartic.

In some ways this process bears resemblance to someone coming out as gay or lesbian. As a society, we now have more awareness - and tolerance - of the damage caused when a person’s LGBTQ identity is repressed. Having celebrated pride month, should we also shine light on those of us who don’t fit the cultural or religious mold? To escape the clutches of belief systems reinforced through many generations, is indeed, ‘breaking the matrix’.

Childhood comes prepackaged with trials and tribulations, with your changing body and obscure emotions. The need to fit in, tinged with the irony of figuring out your individuality. But when you top that with a heap of religious and cultural expectations, and force obedience through fear and guilt, growing up becomes infinitely challenging. When people like Jesse and I look back on our childhood, it’s not with a wave of nostalgia but with bottled-up agony. We couldn’t wait to grow up, to be able to express ideas and make our own decisions without strident voices telling us how we failed somebody or something.

As the social hour at the summit came to a close, Jesse smiled and said, “It’s so special to meet someone who has shared a similar struggle”. I nodded in agreement and wished him luck.

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