Michael Trollan is the founder of SecularAction.org, former chairman of the Secular Coalition for America, and serves on the board of directors for Sunday Assembly New York and for Ideas Beyond Borders. He's been an activist since December 2012.
This the first action an atheist can take to support the secular cause, and one of the most important. The reason for this is that when someone religious has a child, sibling, parent or friend who is out as atheist, they become aware that atheists are normal, moral people. It dispels the myths that are so easy for them to hold about what an atheist stands for.
Similar to the realities of the LGBT communities, speaking out about atheism can be scary. The fear of being treated differently, judged, ostracized or rejected does exist. Atheists are presently a minority, are distrusted by those who don't know atheists personally, and it can be intimidating to disagree with loved ones who hold religious beliefs. But there is power and liberation in claiming and speaking your truth. The negative view of atheism is a result of misunderstanding and irrational fear, and this perception will change as more atheists come out.
“Coming out” means being up front about your beliefs. Getting started is as simple as updating your Facebook profile to list "Atheist" as your religion. It then expands to speaking up at school, work, or among friends and family; if others are talking about religion or the supernatural, don’t disappear in the background and keep silent. Get involved in the conversation, ask questions, and share your point of view. It isn’t necessary to try and convert others to atheism. Simply sharing your perspective will help force you to dig deep and research and articulate your beliefs, while improving your critical thinking and discussion skills, as well as encouraging others to think more critically about their own beliefs. The more atheists that come out in a positive way, the more credible and trustworthy atheism will continue to become in the mainstream. Take that first step!
Also, this fantastic excerpt from Greta Christina's book, "Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why", really nails it:
Coming out atheist is not evangelizing. I’m going to say that right off the bat. If it is, than it’s evangelizing to simply say, “I’m a Christian,” or “I’m a Hindu.” If it is, then it’s evangelizing to say anything at all about what we think about the world, ever. And I don’t think that’s a particularly useful definition of the word. Simply disclosing that you’re an atheist doesn’t make you an irritating proselytizer knocking on people’s doors asking if they’ve heard the good news about Charles Darwin.
But it is true that coming out doesn’t just make you happier, and it doesn’t just make other atheists happier. Coming out actually helps create other atheists. Even if you never argue with anyone about their religion, even if you never once try to persuade anyone that their religious beliefs are mistaken, the simple act of telling people “I’m an atheist” puts cracks in people’s faith, or widens cracks that are already there. If you ask atheists what made them become an atheist, many will tell you that simply seeing other atheists, or hearing about them, is part of what made them question their beliefs.
You may not care whether there are more atheists in the world. And that’s fine. If you’re unconcerned about other people’s beliefs, if you’d be totally okay with religion if it weren’t for faith healing and homophobia and stoning adulterers and so on — that’s fine. You can skip this chapter.
But if you think religion is a harmful idea, or simply an incorrect one, and you’d like to see fewer people think it (as you would with any other harmful and/or false idea), then coming out is a powerful way to help make that happen. Maybe even the most powerful way.
Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. And coming out atheist denies it that consent.
Religion — the hypothesis that the world is the way it is because of supernatural beings or forces acting on the natural world — is a bad idea. At best, it’s almost certainly wrong; at worst, it’s incoherent. Religious beliefs are either unfalsifiable — in which case we should reject them on that basis alone — or they’ve been falsified. It has never turned out to be the right answer to anything. It may have made sense thousands of years ago, when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do today, but it makes no sense now. Of course we don’t know everything there is to know about the universe — but given the fact that natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, and supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never, assuming that one particular supernatural explanation will turn out to be right is clearly a sucker’s bet.
Religion is a bad idea. It can’t stand up on its own. But it can — and does — perpetuate itself through social consent. It perpetuates itself through people not asking hard questions, or indeed any. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful and will result in punishment, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life. It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are extra-prone to believing whatever they’re taught. It perpetuates itself through social conventions and even legal protections that keep religious leaders and organizations from suffering consequences when they behave despicably. It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion — or pretending to believe in religion — a necessity to function and indeed survive. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Religion perpetuates itself through social consent.
And coming out atheist denies it that consent.
This, in my opinion, is one of the best reasons for atheists to come out. You don’t have to argue with people about their beliefs. If all you do is tell people “I’m an atheist,” you’re denying religion your social consent.
And as the years and decades roll on, this will have a snowball effect. The more of us there are who deny consent to religion, the harder it’ll be to ignore difficult questions about it, or to ignore the option of atheism. And as it gets harder to ignore difficult questions about religion, more people will become atheists… and as more people become atheists and come out about it… oh, you get the picture.