(Via Emmanuel Donate)
While I generally consider myself a private person, I’ve been actively blogging, sharing articles online, and participating in groups with shared interests for a number of years now. Through these outlets I’ve connected with many people and new friends, and also became involved with different organizations. It was through one of these networks that I met up with another Latino professional visiting Atlanta, Mr. David Tamayo, the acting president of the Hispanic American Freethinkers. I support the interests of this group, so when he asked me to participate in an interview for a podcast I readily agreed. A few months later the podcast was published. I was overwhelmed by the realization that I had shared my beliefs so publicly.
After the initial shock wore off I had a few conversations with other atheist friends and did a little bit of soul searching through reading and listening to my favorite philosophers. Although my “coming out” had not been intentional, it has been one of the most liberating experiences I have ever felt. I’ve decided to publish the details of the story in the hopes that it will inspire others of the same conviction to do the same.
I was 16 years old when I first discovered that I was an atheist. At the time, the most difficult problem in the world was surviving high school. My father was in the military and I spent most of my childhood hopping around military bases. In the 10th grade I moved to Puerto Rico and started high school at a private school.
I should mention that Puerto Rico itself is a highly religious country. As far as I know everyone in my extended family are Christian of varying denominations: Catholic, Jehovah Witness, Evangelical/Pentecostal, etc. I’ve also never seen a single Puerto Rican publicly speak in favor of Atheism on the island in any forum.
Even so, when I started school in Puerto Rico a number of different things forced me to seriously question some of what was behind my own Christianity. Prior to moving to Puerto Rico my life was great. On the military bases, communities were incredibly diverse and the children all very warm and welcoming. We all knew what it was like to be the new kid. Personally, I was on cloud nine early in adolescence. I had good grades, played sports, and had a few good, close friendships. When I moved to Puerto Rico, all of those things changed. The move itself didn’t phase me, as I was used to moving. What became very difficult was how I was initially treated by other students in high school. No longer was I the cute, intelligent Puerto Rican kid in the class. I was one of many cute, intelligent Puerto Rican kids, some of whom had been going to school with each other for 10 years or more. I was teased for everything. My accent, my intelligence, and for being “gay”. It is unfortunate that this was at the time, and persists as a means to demean and alienate boys of every orientation.
This made me question some pretty big things about god. How was it that I could be an altar boy for so many years, preach in favor of the church as a teenager, and generally have supported faith for so long, to be faced with this kind of torment? Wasn’t faith precisely the thing that is supposed to make life easier? What was I doing wrong?
I thought back on the last time I felt I needed god’s help. It was 7 years earlier when I was in the third grade. There was one night back then where I truly felt I needed god’s help. I remember that I kneeled down at the end of my bed and prayed as hard as I had ever prayed before in my life. The next day the situation unfolded as I expected and everything happened just as I envisioned it would in my prayers. God came through for me, and I decided I wanted to be a priest.
On the basis of this past experience I told myself that my problem was that I had not been praying hard enough. I hadn’t prayed so hard since that night. At this point I decided that I was not being faithful enough and I changed churches until I ended up in an evangelical church. I believed that in a stricter church I would find support for the kind of life that had once been mine: happy, supported, and with many friends. I nose dived into evangelism, and still nothing at school changed. I continued to be ostracized and teased, and life refused to make sense.
One night at service I was listening to the preacher and I was trying to understand what the message was. I slowly started understanding his words and realized a very paralyzing thought. I was going to hell. It was inevitable. Every sentence he uttered convinced me more and more that I would never be absolved of sin and that I was headed to hell with all deliberate speed.
I never really payed attention to the people around me at services, but for some reason, after I came to the realization that I would be burning in hell for eternity, I looked to see what other people were doing. I thought to myself “this man is telling us we are going to burn, how is everyone else reacting to this news?” Some were dancing, some were wailing, and some were speaking in tongues. I was aware of the dissonance in these messages. How could people hear the message that we were all destined to eternity in hell and then decide to celebrate the idea in this enraptured state? I broke down.
My body started trembling and I started to cry like I had never cried in my life. I couldn’t tell the difference between sweat, tears, or snot and my brain refused to think of anything other than the fact that I was destined to spend eternity in torment. I fell to my knees and sobbed. And then the most ridiculous, unbelievable thing happened where everyone in the room rushed over to celebrate with me. In my mind I was damned, to them I had been saved. People took me by the arms, and having no energy to resist, they moved me to the front of the church where the pastor was waiting with some kind of bottle.
I was exhausted when I finally made it home, I passed out in to sleep. The next morning I woke up and I felt fine. FINE. As I was eating breakfast, it occurred to me that I had just received the worst news of my life a few hours earlier yet I was enjoying my toast as if nothing had happened. I realized something was wrong. But who could explain it? Everyone I knew thought I had just had the greatest moment of my life and yet I felt more confused than ever. There was nowhere to turn and no one to ask. Then I remembered some books I had been ignoring for the last six years. I decided I would read some of them.
My father values education over just about everything in life and my mother generally feels the same, she’s a teacher. When I was in the sixth grade my father spent A LOT of money on a set of Britannica Encyclopedias. Part of that deal included Britannica’s Great Books series, a compilation of classic literature that included Aristotle, Voltaire, Spinoza and many others.
My first experience with these books was in the form of a “punishment”. I had invited my friend Brad to come play video games with me but my father thought that our evening would be better spent with Don Quijote and Chaucer. My poor friend and I had to spend an hour reading at the table before we could play our video games. I could hardly contain my embarrassment and frustration. I remember my mother smiling in a corner waiting for the appropriate time to intercede and let boys be boys. Eventually we were allowed to our Street Fighter II and that was the end of those awful books.
Five years later I needed answers and the wisdom of my parents shone through my confusion. Education and knowledge are the keys to finding answers to questions. I started with Aristotle.
It took a couple weeks, in fact it took me about three days to get through the first page of Aristotle’s categories. I had never read anything in that sort of language before and the things he was writing about were so above my head that I could not wrap myself around them without serious parsing of sentences and multiple trips to dictionaries. A few weeks later we got an internet connection. Between the great books and the internet I became a philosophical monster. Through the process I found intellectual courage and insight. When I made it to Spinoza the world started making sense again. I finally found an answer I was looking for but it was completely unexpected and in a most raw form: no one who speaks with certainty about the existence of god has the slightest idea of what they are talking about.
I went back to my high school with a vengeance. I challenged my classmates and my teachers on the topic as much as I possibly could at every opportunity. Although there were many of these encounters I will recount the two most memorable ones here. Both occurred during my senior Spanish literature class. The Spanish teacher and I had developed a very good intellectual relationship, we challenged each other on current events in Puerto Rico and often had very good philosophical conversations.
One day in her spanish class we were asked to share our opinions on a rewritten translation of a quote by John Stuart Mill, “it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. We were to choose a side and some of us would be called to share our opinions. My initial reaction to this quote was that the answer was obvious, of course one would choose to be the Socrates, what could be better than the truth? It’s a trick question, the Socrates is more satisfied than the pig. And so I wrote my paper. The teacher then asked the class to share our papers and a girl (who, of course was also my greatest crush throughout high school) raises her hand straight into the air to be first. I remember thinking that she was incapable of choosing the wrong answer, after all, she always had the best grades and in my opinion was always the most responsible student. I was wrong. In fact six more girls had volunteered their answers and each one of them went with being the satisfied pig. I was shocked. Exasperated, I raised my hand and shared my paper and at the same time came out as an atheist to my senior class.
After that day, I returned to school with atheistic quotes plastered all over the front cover of my school binder. On the back, a picture of a pig with the red circle (such as are in no-smoking signs) and a strike through it. My atheism quickly became a hot button issue. The Spanish teacher thought it would be a good idea for me to explain my beliefs to the class in a presentation. I agreed to make my presentation even though I thought it would be fruitless. I gave the best explanation of the big bang and evolution that I could at the time but I could see my classmates faces the entire time, only a few had any interest.
I quickly became irate and used my intellectual upper hand and my immediate control of the classroom to cut down some of my classmates at the knees when they asked questions that I thought were a mockery of my words. A few of my classmates did ask me serious questions and I did my best to give them my honest answers, I remember all five of them and still sincerely appreciate their honest interest in my ideas. The end of my presentation in front of the class was after one of the girls stood up from her desk and screamed at me in her fullest voice: “You are going to burn in hell!” I didn’t have the energy to continue after that and I think the teacher realized it was time to stop. I had done my best but the teacher told me I had squandered the opportunity to speak to the class. The relationship between us immediately disintegrated and I stopped participating in her class.
In high school I continued to be somewhat ostracized, but at least now I felt that it was for what I was, and not for what I was not. And that made bearing the brunt of the teasing significantly easier. These events led to what would be the most difficult part of my atheist conversion, my family. I never stopped reading those books or the articles I could find online. One day I found an especially interesting article, a satire that described Lucifer as the one true god. I found it absolutely hilarious, however my father didn’t find it quite as funny when he saw it on the computer screen (I had forgotten to close the window and walked away to make my lunch in the kitchen).
A couple hours later he called me to the living room and sat down with me. He asked if I had anything to tell him and I responded no, somewhat bewildered. He said, “I saw what was on your computer screen, now do you have anything to tell me? ” At first I was scared to answer, but at that point what more could I say but the truth? I had already been caught, I was already getting burned at school, how much worse could it be? And my father had always been willing to listen to me. I told him that I thought the idea of god was an old idea, that it didn’t make sense, and that it couldn’t possibly be true. At the time I thought he was totally with me because he was very quiet, and he nodded as I spoke. It turns out this was the calm before the storm.
Later that same week, my parents were both in my room one evening and the subject came up. I won’t give details about any of what was said but I will say it was a knockdown battle, far worse than anything I had gone through in school. Not because of the quality of the words but because of who and what I was challenging. I never had any idea how deep the idea ran in my family, maybe it was my ignorance or maybe it was because after understanding the nature of the god problem I didn’t think anyone was truly capable of taking it seriously. I think most atheists that have converted from a belief in god would agree that the whole process is akin to making god and jesus christ equivalent to Santa Claus. Truly becoming an atheist is generally a kind of inoculation. In any case, having lost my ability to understand just what I had challenged, and just how far that challenge went, I was unprepared for the argument that night.
After that evening I was forced to go to church every Sunday. It was as if I had injected the household with more faith than had ever been present before. I reacted very strongly to this, I felt that it was unfair to be forced to partake in something I did not believe in. I decided that I would act in kind, as most rebellious teenagers do. After mass every Sunday I would get the ladder from the toolshed and climb up to the roof for exactly one hour. I thought that if I was going to be forced into an hour of mass that I deserved to take an hour away from my family.
After a few weeks my family eventually found my hour away strange. My father was the first to approach me and one Sunday he asked if he could come up to the roof with me. I wanted to say no, but I knew I did not have a choice. I said yes and up he came. The conversation was long but the general idea was him asking for an explanation. Again forced into honesty, I told him why I took an hour for myself every Sunday. I explained that being persecuted for having different beliefs was precisely what happened to Christ and that I thought forcing me to go to church was ironically reminiscent. Luckily my father is a reasonable man and after that he decided against forcing me to go to church.
The issue became a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in my household and generally speaking the topic no longer comes up. Despite this, I must say that my parents have still been incredibly supportive of all of my other endeavors and since that time I have never been punished or reprimanded by either of them for these beliefs. I would imagine that they still suffer because of this decision and I have had family members question whether I can truly love or respect them because of my lack of faith. Others have told me that it is impossible for me to be an atheist, I think they simply prefer to believe that I am lying or confused, or that I do it for attention. What I have learned thirteen years later is that I have kept my parent’s values but without the attached mythology. I eventually became a teacher and have never stopped educating myself, which is what I think my parents tried to teach me from the beginning.
It may be that family members will disagree with my sharing this story. Family always comes first, and these are the kinds of things I think they would prefer I leave in the closet. It doesn’t feel good to know they feel the way they do about my beliefs, much in the same way they may experience my feelings about their own beliefs. THE difference lies in having different beliefs than the majority of my community, which can be a isolating feeling. It suffices to say that it was not easy to make the decision to share the details of this story as publicly as I have.
If you are thinking about coming out as an atheist then there are a number of considerations to have. Coming out will undoubtedly bring many serious and harsh difficulties to your life, especially if you come from a traditionally religious home. You may lose family support, friends, and some people will even stop speaking to you. Complete strangers have said to my face that I deserve to die the worst possible death imaginable, showing absolutely no guilt or remorse for having said it. Many of those that don’t say it will think it, again with no remorse or guilt.
Ultimately coming out in this way is something I knew I had to do. I know now that I prefer to have the people around me be honest with their affections for me and they cannot do that if I live a lie. I am coming out in this way hoping that the people I love will expand their understanding and acceptance of what I believe, and to give others the courage to speak out for their atheism.