By Charles David Johnson
I’ve been in the closet most of my adult life. Some of my friends might never understand, might reject me, and might un-friend me on Facebook, or worse. But it’s not the G-closet, which you’re probably thinking of.
I’m an atheist, and I think it’s time to come out of the Atheist Closet.
Why now? As I write this, it is Easter Sunday, 2015, supposedly in the modern era. I live comfortably, if not prosperously. I teach math at a community college. I have friends who are Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Gay, Lesbian, Black, Lebanese, Iranian, Chinese, White, Hispanic. You name it, I’ve got a friend of that persuasion. Until now, very few knew that I am an atheist. Not even some of my atheist friends know.
But, like more than eight million “fans,” I follow George Takei on Facebook, and he has given me the courage to do this.
The truth is, I don’t even much like the whole “Atheist Movement” thing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s absurd. Ron Reagan, son of the former POTUS, goes on television and does a commercial advertising some Atheist organization, probably the same Atheist organization founded by Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the same organization that had a “Dial An Atheist” phone number back in the 1970s. When you called it, you got a recording talking about how one can prove that God doesn’t exist. Like that’s even possible.
You might argue, if you’re an atheist, why wouldn’t you want other like-minded atheists working to protect your rights?
My rights? What are my rights? To argue with strangers about their religious beliefs? To criticize their way of life or their belief systems? To take people to court over whether they want to put a manger in a public place or utter a belief in public?
I love my Christian friends. I grew up in a Christian culture. Why would I be so arrogant as to think I’m right and they are wrong and that they should change their beliefs to be more like mine?
Actually, I did believe that way when I was younger, in my teens and early twenties, what I can legitimately call “My Youth”. (I’m older than “middle aged” now, if you want to be mathematically precise.)
I did a lot of stupid things in My Youth.
“Atlas Shrugged” was my bible, and I was constantly in search of Dagny Taggert, the novel’s heroine. One girl who fit the bill – she claimed to be an atheist and she was pretty smart – attracted my attention. But then we went away to separate colleges at the end of high school. When we came back home after the first semester, we agreed to a dinner date. And, horror of horrors, she had become a Jesus Freak. (That’s what we called born-again Christians in the mid-70s.) So I tried arguing with her. Maybe there was still hope.
Maybe I could convince Dagny that her belief system was flawed, erroneous, illogical, that she had gone astray. She came over to our family home in the country, at the conclusion of our dinner date, sat with me on our nice sofa in the living room, the only room of the house reserved for company, and we discussed her Jesus Freakism. But Dagny stood her ground. Even though I disagreed with every belief she uttered, from the “fact” that the earth was only 6,000 years old, and the fossils were placed in the ground to test our faith, to the belief that God controls our daily life in every imaginable way, I was unable to logically prove that she was wrong. And of course logical proof is the hallmark of a rational scientific belief system. Ayn Rand would have been proud.
Dagny was still the sweet, pretty, and intelligent girl I had known in high school. And even though I disagreed with her, I made the decision to accept her for who she was.
Yes. Accept. She was now off limits from my vitriolic diatribe against theism.
As the years went by, others would join the ranks of those I accepted.
There was a time when I didn’t much like or trust gay people. Maybe somewhere deep down, I was afraid that one of them would try to touch my pee pee, or talk me into touching his. I’m not even sure where a fear like that would come from. I mean, I touch my own all the time. And I’m not averse to girls touching my pee pee, when appropriate, of course. It’s not as if the planet will explode if a guy touches mine or I touch his. But such are the irrational fears that we harbor.
I grew up in small-town, pasty-white America, where there was only one black family and one Mexican family in the town. (We called them “Mexicans” even though they could have been from Venezuela, for all we knew.) There were no gays, at least none that I knew of. George Takei played Sulu on Star Trek. Even pasty-white America watched Star Trek and loved it. Nobody guessed that Sulu was gay.
In college, I came into contact with a few militant gays. I ran the cash register and worked the grill in the dorm basement during my four years at the university. One night, a short cute black girl with short cute black hair came through the line to pay for her late-night snack. She was wearing a large pin on her chest that read, “How Dare You Presume That I Am A Heterosexual.” Upon reading her pin, I laughed out loud, thinking it was a joke. But it wasn’t. She stared back at me in disgust.
In late 1979, my best friend and his wife, (whom I shall call) Smithy and Louise, were going through a divorce. I had known both since early in high school. Smithy entered graduate school at UC San Francisco, and when he moved to the Bay Area from pasty-white America, he stayed with me at my apartment for a couple of weeks. Louise was scheduled to follow him out, and they would try to keep their marriage alive in San Francisco.
One night, Smithy and I stayed up late and talked. He told me the long story of how his marital troubles had begun. I listened with interest to the story he told about the affair he had with his lab partner. Thinking to myself, how could anyone resist a beautiful, young college coed lab partner, I did not blame Smithy. They were married so young, after all, only twenty years old when the knot was tied. So of course it seemed like an acceptable error, even though it threatened his marriage.
Imagine my stunned silence when I learned, as Smithy and I sat together on my bed in the dark, that the coed’s name was “Steve.” I was filled with revulsion.
My best friend was gay.
Somehow Smithy and I remained friends, and I accepted him. For months after, we hung out together, even went to gay bars together. Louise moved to San Francisco, but the marriage didn’t survive.
He was Best Man at my wedding two years later. We grew apart and saw each other infrequently in the years after. He eventually married a man and adopted two children. I am friends with his grown son on Facebook, though Smithy avoids social media. From what I can tell, everyone seems happy, though I wish we were closer.
All of that happened many years ago. I entered my own closet. I worked, divorced, went to graduate school twice, built a modest life, surrounded by Jesus Freaks and Gays, and other people of different stripes.
Fast forward to 1998 when I met another Dagny Taggert. Funny, beautiful, sexy, smart. Maybe she didn’t run a railroad, but for the next seventeen years, she would be my best friend. I shall call her Dagny2.
There was a slight problem: Dagny2 is a lesbian. As she has put it, she has an aversion to the male organ. But we have dinner once a week, sometimes see movies together, and look after each other’s cats when necessary. Romance is out of the question, although I find myself loving her nonetheless.
I met Dagny3 nine years ago. Dagny3 is beautiful, smart, heterosexual, a dream come true. But there is a slight problem: Dagny3 is a born-again Christian. (We no longer call them Jesus Freaks.) And because I’m an atheist, I don’t satisfy her number one requirement: “A Dedication to God and Jesus.” So while we are friends, and we have dinner often, and see the occasional movie together, there is, again, no romance.
Yet here we are today. My two best female friends tolerate and accept me, and I tolerate and accept them.
I do not wish to hold myself up as some sort of example for humanity. But I would like to ask the following question: If an atheist, heterosexual man can find genuine friendship with a Lesbian agnostic woman and a fundamentalist born again Christian woman, is it possible to look past the superficial differences that separate us?
To my ultraconservative friends, I promise to try to find the good in what you might regard as a God-centered life, even if I don’t believe in the reality of God myself. That pursuit has occupied me now for many years, and I will continue.
To my ultraliberal friends, I promise to try to tolerate you as much as an old man can, even when I disagree that your behaviors are the best for the future of mankind. Okay, humankind.
So why come out of the Atheist Closet now, on Easter Sunday, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? Hiding in the closet, behind a door away from the light, avoiding confrontation is no way to live. Takei taught me that: To come out of the closet and face the critics, bare your soul for all humanity to see, make a stand. Takei is a crossover hit, popular with the liberals and the conservatives. He tells us what he thinks, even if we don’t agree with him. Like Jon Stewart with his hilarious look at the right and left. Like Patrick Buchanan, once a brain trust of the right. Like Ronald Reagan, who took down the Soviet Union. Like The Beatles, who taught the world to love and imagine.
And like Jesus, who came out of the cave after three days. Whether he came out in fact, or merely in spirit, is a question I am not equipped to prove. I believe one way. You may believe another. And I’m okay with that.
The fact remains, his coming out changed the world.