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happycrowdA few months back I wrote about a moving open letter written by a couple who had left their church and religious belief behind. Their letter, originally intended for a few friends and family, ended up drawing several thousand visits, mostly from fellow nonbelievers with words of support and encouragement.

A few days later they posted a follow-up expressing their surprise and delight at the response. And in addition to saying some blush-inducingly nice things about me and my work, they put their finger on one of the main reasons I created Parenting Beyond Belief, something very rarely noted but always on my mind. At the risk of vanity, I’ll let them tell it:

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief and one of the primary reasons why Kirby and I were able to write the letter that we did.

I had identified myself as an evangelical Christian for over twenty years. I came to my recent conclusions about my faith without reading any views from “the other side.” I didn’t want anyone telling me what to believe anymore. I wanted to figure out what I believed. I slowly came to realize that I could no longer hold all the inconsistencies together. I couldn’t figure out how to make it all work in my head. It occurred to me that in order to end the disharmony I would have to admit that much of what I was supposed to believe in, I didn’t. It was at that point I began wonder how a person could define their worldview without the supernatural and I began to seek out “the other point of view.”

I have to admit, what I read actually scared me – vitriolic anger. There seemed to be as much hate and intolerance in the “other camp” as in the one I felt I had left.

So it seems very apropos that Dale linked to our letter when it was his book, Parenting Beyond Belief, that actually made me relax and realize that life would probably be okay. Dale’s was the first book that didn’t make me feel stupid for wasting my life for years on a silly religion….His was the first book that gave me hope that some of my friendships might survive this monumental announcement. (Emphasis added)

Most nonbelievers in our culture are entirely closeted — going to church, putting their kids in Sunday school, muttering along with grace and biting their tongues when necessary — because the only atheist they’ve seen is The Angry Atheist, and they’re just not interested in signing up for that. As long as the only option seems to be declaring war on friends and family and on the person you were last week, most people would understandably stay put.

I remember this struggle myself when as a doubting teen I knew of just one atheist on Earth: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Two things were true of Madalyn: she did courageous and important work, and she scared the living shit out of me. I could honor Madalyn for doing her thing, but that level of engagement wasn’t my thing — at least not at that point. Later I would develop the confidence to more forcefully engage the issues of my choice. But 30 years ago, I wasn’t ready for that, and if there was a way to disbelieve and not pledge myself to a life of mortal combat with those around me, I couldn’t see it. For that and other reasons, I remained closeted for years.

Eventually I stumbled on the astonishing lineage of freethinkers and went overnight from closeted isolation to the company of giants — and a member of a tradition with a thousand different ways to be.

I’ve said many times that I would never want to shut down harsh condemnation of religious ideas. I think the intelligent moral fury expressed by people like Hitchens and Condell is very well-justified. They speak powerfully to me where I am now, and I wouldn’t want to do without them. But if that level of high-pitched engagement is the only visible face of the nontheist, think of what it says to people like Kirby and Jennifer. They’ve stopped believing, they’re looking for options, and they are given two choices — continue pretending belief to keep your friends and family intact, or immediately declare war on them and all they stand for.

I’m thrilled to see so many nontheists of all stripes finding the courage to be out and normal. In the end, that has the potential for a more powerful positive effect than all of our high-flying, well-reasoned, and well-justified arguments put together.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.