I've been an atheist for 2 years, so far, and I am still afraid to "come out." I live a secret life as an atheist. I'm a grown man and I'm afraid to tell my parents about my belief system (which is: reality-based, rational thinking). I won't even tell my best friend. I'm afraid I will be ostracized by the people I love.
If anyone asks me to pray at a family event, I'll just kindly decline and say something like, "Someone else should do it. I don't feel comfortable doing that," instead of telling my family members I'm an atheist (incidentally, I did tell one of my sisters about my non-belief, and I told her not to tell anyone). I still bow my head during mealtime prayers as an act of respect.
Sometimes I fear social situations where the topic of religion comes up and someone (like a friend, a family member, or a work colleague) might ask my opinion about something. I'm faced with the dilemma of lying in order to feel 'safe' or just admitting I'm an atheist. Has anyone decided to be bold and come out in public? If so, what happened? Did you lose your relationships? Did people make fun of you or scorn you?
When I was a teenager, I decided to "give my heart to Christ" and become a serious Christian. I felt an obligation to do so after a few Bible studies with someone who was very knowledgeable. Yet, even then, I would defend the rights of atheists to live in a secular society. I've always believed that one's religion was personal and should never be dictated to others or sponsored by a government that represents all people.
Thank you for your encouragement. I'm not one to bring up the subject of religion or atheism at a family outing or a formal event. If someone were to ask my opinion, I might give it or decline to give it to make the conversation civil. At this point in my life, I just want to live honestly. I don't like the idea of lying to appease the religious folks. I'd like to live in a society where they didn't have a sort of "politically correct" coddling. I suppose I can relate to the other side---having been there. However, during the years when I was a Christian, I was never personally offended by someone who said (s)he was an atheist. I just thought that person was a little weird. ; ^ )
"incidentally, I did tell one of my sisters about my non-belief, and I told her not to tell anyone"
Why is it you decided to confide in your sister and not your best friend? Was your sister understanding and receptive to your new position in life? Perhaps you should ask yourself what sort of foundation you have between yourself and your best friend. Why do you consider that individual your best friend? Trust & confidence to be open and honest with one another are hallmarks of a healthy friendship. If you fear rejection from them perhaps you should reevaluate your relationship. If your sister has remained silent about your revelation you could consider recruiting her as an ally in coming out to the rest of your family. Even if she disagrees with your atheist sentiments she may still be willing to support you and defend your right to believe as you see fit. At some point you will be willing to overcome your uneasiness about being forthright with others as it seems that lying or being deceptive does not sit well with you. Do it when you feel prepared and comfortable with your position. I wish you well.
For a transitional atheist it's not just about coming out, it's about feeling comfortable in your atheism. Sorting through in your mind your approaches to certain situations. Which seems to me is what you are doing. Those who were never indoctrinated (lucky people) may not understand how hard the transition is. You have an enormous respect for those around you because say they brought you into the world, but you just don't believe in what they do & don't respect that . Not only have you had to sort it out in your own mind, now you have to sort out how this relates to others around you.
Make it easy on yourself, just show the people around you your respect & love, as well as dropping in things like your interests in science (most atheists enjoy this subject) or your philosophies on life. Elli's suggestion of dropping in hypothetical conversations based on a friend is a great idea, you can then gauge their response. Perhaps approach your siblings, like your sister & ask for their support to sit down with your parents. Explaining to them you just want to be honest. Also in regards to prayers at the dinner table, when you feel more comfortable or people are more aware, perhaps offer to say something, create a beautiful paragraph in your mind of what you'd like to say instead, then blow them away :), it doesn't have to be a prayer.
As an atheist you have the means through a rational mind to find rational solutions. It will be a slow transition & often frustrating at times, but it will be worth it in the end.
Not a direct quote but Hitchens, in "god is not great" spoke about being in Ireland, during the height of the catholic vs protestant conflicts, and a story of people being stopped at check points and asked, "what are you, protestant or catholic?" If you answered atheist you were asked, "protestant atheist or catholic atheist?".
We're asked to pick our battles. With family it's rather easy for most. In that the whole loving you unconditionally thing. Although some family's have a hard time accepting their child's choice of sexuality let alone non religion.
Respect for someone's beliefs is not a bad thing. At one point most of us believed in all this hocus pocus. We sometimes forget how hurt we felt when someone spoke ill about our beliefs.
As time has gone on I personally have found it easier to tell, even perfect strangers, how I feel about religion and theism. I guess when you hit 56 you could really care what most people think. Or maybe it's just me. I can accept most people as they are. Some have a hard time accepting me as I am but it's cool. That's totally on them not on me.
Good luck. Hope you can find a happy medium.