Just over a year ago, I came out as an atheist. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I still remember how my heart pounded, how I kept the post in my drafts folder for days, trying to decide if I should publish or not. How I asked my husband repeatedly if he was okay with me outing us. How I worried about all the people who would be upset, all the doors that would slam in my face.
I ended up posting it, though, with shaking hands but an enormous sense of relief. The truth was out. I could finally be honest. Now I just wait for the reaction.
And the reaction was more positive than I ever could have hoped. A few people Facebook-unfriended me. A few people stopped talking to me. But the overwhelming majority of people offered me either words of encouragement, words of solidarity, or words of love. Some people offered their own faith and prayers, which I appreciated. Some people confided that my story resonated with them deeply and mirrored their own feelings and experiences. Very few doors slammed.
I was still fairly new in Arkansas at the time, only back a year. I was still making friends. I joined a book club around that time, the best book club in the universe, by the way. They made me feel safe, accepted, unjudged. I made friends at the gym. They treated me as someone they trusted, cared about, someone worthy of their friendship.
These people around me - they kept the doors wide open and welcomed me freely into their lives, because of who I am, not what I believe (or don't). Most of them are Christians. They believe in living out the kind of life Jesus asked them to in the Bible, one of love, compassion, and acceptance. These people around me - they succeed in their quest to be like Jesus. I waited for the judgment to eventually fall, but it never did. They just loved.
I thought maybe coming out as an atheist wasn't nearly as terrible as everyone said it would be. After all, very few people shut the door in my face, which was far cry from what I'd braced myself for. Those who did were never close enough friends to begin with.
Now a year has gone by. But as I look back over the past year, I see something else that I never expected.
As time wore on, I noticed that some other people seemed to shy away from me, put up their guard. They hadn't shut me out, but they made some distance. This was to be expected. I imagined many people around here knew nothing of atheists beyond the loud, outspoken, and frankly not very nice Richard Dawkins types. They probably had reason enough to be concerned, a little fearful, a little unsure how I was to change. I noticed people who didn't shut the door in my face had at least taken a step back. A curious step, perhaps, or maybe a suspicious one. There was a distance there that hadn't been there before.
A screen door.
Like one who didn't want to give a salesperson too much encouragement, I realized people were standing behind their screen doors to talk to me. They weren't shutting me out completely, but I was no longer invited in. There was an unbreakable politeness and a general kindness, but the warmth had cooled. At first, I passed it off as my imagination. A year later, though, I'm not sure it's my imagination after all. There are still screen doors making sure I don't get past the threshold.
I guess keeping the screen door closed to me is less cruel than slamming the front door entirely, but it's only slightly less hurtful. It keeps me on the defensive, paranoid, constantly over-analyzing. Is this really happening? Do they really feel this way? Was that me they were referring to? Publishing my memoir has made it even more complicated. It's one thing to be out on a blog with a small readership. It's another to be featured on the popular FriendlyAtheist.com.
I have been so lucky to have so many friends - every version of Christian even, from evangelical to liberal to Mormon - keep their doors wide open. People who can look at who I am and still believe I'm the same trustworthy, good person I've always tried my best to be. I doubt every atheist in the Bible Belt is so fortunate. I'm also lucky to know who not to bother with anymore too - the door slammers. Good riddance to them. That kind of rejection simply makes my life easier.
But the screen doors? Where do I go with them? Where do we stand? Will I ever prove to them that I'm not an awful human being simply because I don't believe what I used to? Are these doors locked forever or just temporarily? Is there even any point in worrying about it?
Read more about the difference between a screen door and a porch.