How to Say You Don’t Believe

Six tips for coming out of the closet as a “none” at your next family gathering.

With the publication of the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008, we learned that a full 20 percent of the U.S. population claims its religious identity as either a “none” (one who identifies as non-religious) or a “don’t know” (one who chooses to not answer the religion question or has not thought about it).

The last people to find out about a person’s religious identity (or lack thereof) always seem to be the family. So shouldn’t you take advantage of this week’s big family gathering to let them know your status? Isn’t this Sunday’s family dinner the perfect time to come out of the closet?

For those who are unsure how to proceed, I offer some tips for the strategies you can use for a smooth transition into the category of “no religion,” aka “none,” aka “nothing.”*

*Results not guaranteed.

Strength In Numbers

If you are not heartened by the 61 million Americans who join you in non-belief, find others in your family who you suspect might share in your rejection of religion. Ally yourself with them. The more the merrier. So call that cousin who always sits alone in the corner, maybe they don’t go to church either. Or maybe they are just weird, or a pedophile, or a homicidal maniac — but it is worth a shot. Using “we” instead of “I” makes coming out of the closet a little easier. But watch out — after the initial “we,” as in “we don’t believe in this and such,” you probably won’t agree on anything else. “Getting atheists to agree on something is like herding cats,” a wise man once told me. Meow.

Avoid the A-Word

The term “atheist” tends to set people on edge. It might be what you are once you give up (or admit you never had) a belief in a god or gods, but it might cause unneeded drama and unrest. There are hundreds of other words to use, so maybe you can start with those and work your way into your new identity as an atheist. You can use some of the more known words like Rationalist, Humanist, Skeptic, Free Thinker, or the slightly easier to digest Agonistic. Or you can try to confuse the folks by using a string of “isms” and “ists.” Try describing yourself as an anti-supernaturalist, or a neo-philosophizing inter-humanist pro-Darwinist.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

This policy has had mixed results for gays in the military and I don’t recommend it. But if you are really unable to spill it, you can continue to give it a try. Be sure to use it with a stiff drink or two. But not more than four, since alcohol is a lip lubricant and you are trying not to loosen those flappers. Just a note: I tried this technique for a few years with my in-laws and ended up writing a book about my non-belief status which caused a family drama since I included the aforementioned in-laws in said book. So beware of the results of taping your mouth shut.

The Door Knob Declaration

In order to allow sink-in time, you can drop the news at the very last moments of the gathering, also known as the tail-light tell all. As you leave the family home, gathering, or reunion, you can make your statement of newly found life philosophy the very last thing you say. “Bye everyone, and there is no god!” might work, or, “See you next year; I’m a non-believer!” is another good line to use. Added benefit: you don’t have to see their reactions. That can wait till next time . . . if there is a next time.

The Drop-In

Subtly might be your best bet. If you can work the truth in to a casual conversation, you might be able to say it and have it go right over your relatives’ heads, at least momentarily. “Pass the beans to the humanist over here.” Or, “Hey, Mom. I love your new couch; I don’t believe in God.” Real smooth, like frosting on the cake. They might just nod along and not realize what you said until later, after you are back on your home turf. Sure, you might get a frantic call at 2 a.m. “What did you say?” But hey, at least you a) got through another family dinner and b) told the truth.

The Band Aid

“Just rip it off!” That’s right . . . just do it! The faster you get it over with, the less it will hurt. Or that is the theory anyway. Anyone who has ripped a band aid off with speed and brute force knows that it can sting. But still, when it comes to telling your family that you no longer believe just saying it might be a relief, and then the hardest part will be over. So walk into that house and stand your ground. It will certainly be a Sunday dinner you will never forget. Just be sure to bring the bactine.

Image via Shutterstock.

Nica Lalli
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  • coloradodog

    How arrogant for some people to claim themselves to be “believers” and other “non-believers.” Everybody believes in something and to assume “believing” means adherence to a contradictory, ancient, punitive Abrahamic religion reflects the classic narrow minds of these “religious” people.

  • PSolus

    As to nomenclature, I’ve variously referred to myself as pagan (in the spirit of Breaker Morant: “…somebody who doesn’t believe there’s a divine being dispensing justice to mankind.”), heathen, reprobate, and infidel.However, after reading a quote by Elie Wiesel, I now prefer to use the term “indifferent” to accurately describe myself when asked about any beliefs that I do not have.

  • CCNL

    If you were Jewish, Christian, or Moslem simply send the appropriate sections via e-mail to the members of your family:The subject of prayer relates directly to the subject of religions and their foundations. And what has history, scriptural text reviews and archeology taught us about these foundations?1. Abraham is the reported founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Based on all we know now, Abraham was at best a combination of three separate individuals with 1.5 million Conservative Jews no longer believing he existed at all. (ditto for all the characters in the OT).references: National Georgraphic review on Abraham and 2. The founders of Christianity and Islam were both illiterate. i.e. neither one proof read or approved the NT or the Koran so we are taking the word of scribes and embellishers with their own agendas.references: NT exegetes from the last two hundred years, Karen Armstrong’s reviews of Islam and 3. Christianity is based on the whim of Pilate, the false prophesy of the imminent second coming, and the sword of Constantine. references: NT exegetes and their conclusions/books from the last two hundred yearsConclusion: Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers have very little foundation to rely on.

  • djmolter

    I continually hear Christians say that they are persecuted for their beliefs. However, I see just as many Christians persecuting those who claim they don’t believe, or simply are not sure what they believe. I’m with you, coloradodog — everyone believes in something, even if that belief is that they don’t believe what everyone else believes. Do “believers” somehow think that “non-believers” have arrived at their position without struggle? From my own experience, I know that soul searching is not the sole province of the faithful. Raised in a Christian home and baptized a Protestant, I have struggled most of my life to understand why, when so many people seem comfortable with religion in general and Christianity in particular, I never have. It is only within the last six months that I have reconciled myself with the fact that, if categories need be applied, I probably am an agnostic. All I ask is the same courtesy I extend to “believers” — to be allowed to state my view without being looked at askance and pitied by those who think they know better.

  • ThomasBaum

    “How to say you don’t believe”Maybe it should be “How to say what you do believe”, don’t you think?One way would be to open your mouth and say something if someone does believe something and we all believe something.People should not be afraid to put what they believe into words the best that they can because if they just recite words that others have written, is it what they believe or is it what they are told to believe?God gave us reason for a reason and I believe that not using that reason is throwing away one of the gifts that God has given us.When people let others run their life even those that supposedly have their best interests at heart are throwing another gift that God has given us and that is free will.And those people that try to run other people’s life are just bullies to put it in simple language and bullies are just people that are afraid of living their own life, so they try to live other people’s life.Bullies come in all spectrums, some of which are: physical, emotional, physcological, spiritual… .Just say honestly what you believe if someone has a problem with that than it is their problem, not yours.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.