Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Screen Doors

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

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.


  1. I think that when you believe something fundamentally different from what someone else believes, a screen door may be the only way to honestly relate to each other, without fighting. It isn't that anybody is trying to shut anybody out, it's just that core beliefs are significant in terms of humans' ability to relate to each other on a really deep level. You can really like someone, really care about someone, enjoy their personality and want the best for them, but fundamental differences in what people believe about the source, purpose and culmination of life inherently put a crimp on how people are able to share the deepest parts of life. You can share life and conversation and even meals, but there are places in your relationship that are no longer safe to delve into. There is a level of vulnerability that no longer feels safe, and so a screen door goes up. It says, "I believe this, and you do not, so although I want to be your friend, there is a weird barrier now, although I wish there wasn't and I still want to be as much a part of your life as I can be."

    1. That's probably true... but it's also probably something to work towards surmounting. As a Christian myself for so long, my closest friends' lack of beliefs didn't stop me from loving them deeply. Some of my best friends were atheists, and while I wished they could "know God" the way I felt I did, I didn't feel that we couldn't connect on a very deep level.

      I don't mean to sound harsh, and I'm certainly not directing this at you! But having been on both sides of the "door" now, I really wonder if the screen door is there as a self-preservation for those already very insecure - either about themselves in general, or about their faith.

    2. When you were a Christian, didn't you sometimes feel that you had to hold back about expressing your beliefs, for fear of putting a huge block in your relationship with your atheist friends? We all make mistakes and (I think) just stumble along in life. I can be quite critical of others until I realize how many time I put my own foot into my own mouth. So I am not trying to defend anything here, and I figure for every person with fairly clear thinking and fairly good motives, there may be a completely muddled and selfish person, Christian or atheist alike. But I'm trying to say that I think maybe a screen door is an attempt to avoid building a brick wall. I say this because my youngest son hit a faith crisis right about the same time you declared your atheism. I don't think he'd say he's an atheist. I think he believes there is a God; he just doesn't particularly like God right now. Between the two of you, my world has been rocked with a massive sense of loss. Yet I have hope in my Lord, and I pray for Him to reveal His light and beauty and grace. When I held my tiny baby boy and felt all that mother-love for him, when I nursed him and burped him, washed him and dressed him, cared for him and delighted in how cute he was and the funny things he said and did, I never imagined that we would be here at this point today. I still love him with all my heart, but there are many things I cannot say to him. To me, this is my screen door: I am open to him, I long to have a full relationship with him. I pray for him multiple times every day. He is always welcome in my home. I love to be able to cook for him, or do his laundry, although he rarely allows me to. When he wants to talk, I am ready, I respond. But I have to wait. I have to wait for him to open the door. My screen door is unlocked and I stand behind it watching the horizon for his silhouette, hoping like crazy that he will come home and turn the handle.

    3. Your comment has led me to write something new about this. I hope you don't mind that I'm about to post your comment in my next blog post!!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me, Lori.

    I've been thinking about how very gorgeous your writing is it and how I feel so connected to you now. I feel like a real friend to you...your writing is that powerful.

    1. We ARE real friends! :D

    2. I feel the same way about Ruth above! We've never met, but I feel like we really know each other regardless. :) I'd take both of y'all out for a coffee and a chat!

  3. Some times scree doors get ripped away by the wind (pneuma) ;0)

    1. Maybe sometimes that's a good thing. ;)


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