The atheist community includes many brave activists. Stories of young activists standing up for their lack of religious belief are especially inspiring, but my story isn’t like that.
My story is important in its normalcy and needs to be told so that the culture of casual oppression and suppression can change. It needs to be told so that young atheists can realize that coming out isn’t as bad as it seems.
I didn’t have to face down an angry mob of strangers — I had to talk to my friends and family. In some respects, that can seem even more frightening.
In high school, I found myself mentally maturing and abandoning beliefs I’d been raised with. I left behind a sense of superiority, a subliminal sexism, an outright homophobia and a black-and-white view of morality. Finally, in April 2012, I realized that I had left God behind, too.
After I came to terms with this realization, I became afraid of how my parents might react. They and the rest of my family are Jehovah’s Witnesses. The culture is hard to describe to an outsider.
Internally, the religion is referred to as the “Truth,” and everything outside of it is the “World.” Those words illustrate the polarized world in which the faithful live. They are fighting, not a battle, but a disease. They socially isolate themselves from people of other faiths and shun their own members who sin or rebel.
Those two phenomena combined to form a powerful incentive for me to stay in the closet: My only close friends were inside the religion and would abandon me if I ever expressed my doubts. This shunning, known as “disfellowshipping,” kept me in the closet for almost a year.
The world of the closet is a dark and lonely one. Yet, my world was brightened by what I found online: information and community.
I surrendered my voice to preserve peace. When I finally stood up, I found my fears were no more substantial than the supernatural claims I had once believed in. In my own journey, I found that community and courage were the keystones to surviving the difficult path that many young atheists must take.
My father, believing that I couldn’t be emotionally fulfilled with my lack of belief, repeatedly asked me whether I was happy that I came out as an atheist. I answered him proudly then as I answer him now: “Yes!”
Aaron McLaughlin, 18, grew up in Eveleth, Minn., then moved with his family to Sioux City, Iowa, and Georgia. After graduating second academically in his high school class, he’s majoring in business at the University of Iowa, where he plans to join the Secular Student Alliance.