Living in the Closet: It's Dark, Yes, But It's Also Warm and Cozy!

For anyone who hasn't read my blog posts, I am still a "closet atheist": I don't publicly identify as an atheist, and in fact, part of my income comes from church music.  I am Director of Music at a small Methodist church in Nashville, TN.  That's right...the buckle of the Bible belt!  I honestly can't see myself admitting my atheism to anyone in the near future, as my family's harmony and financial security rely partly on my keeping my church job.

Being honest with myself, however, I have to admit that I don't really believe in any of the religious activities in which I participate.  I am fascinated culturally by religion, Judaism and Christianity in particular.  I know so many sincere, intelligent people, who see no disconnect between their intelligence and their faith.  (My wife is one of of the smartest people I know.)  And so I stay in the closet. Several people here at TA have criticized me for "living a lie."  They ask, wouldn't it be better to "live in the light," so to speak?  I admit, it's dark here in the closet.  I often feel like I can't see the light, metaphorically speaking, and yet, just as in a real closet, there's a certain coziness and familiarity to living that way. (I'm not inclined to claustrophobia, you see.) Also, as a musician, I can't deny that there is an awful lot of amazing music written by deeply religious people: Handel's Messiah, the Bach B-minor Mass, Verdi's and Mozart's Requiems, and so on.  So I'm on familiar ground when I speak the language of faith.

Would I prefer to be open about my atheism?  Sometimes, yes, I would.  It's not always easy to play a role in real life. And when people around me talk about the power of prayer, or all the blessings of their lives, or about so-and-so, who's "looking down from heaven," I tend to squirm a bit.  My parents, for example, aren't really very religious.  And yet, they still go to visit my brother's grave, and often talk about how they "know Sean is looking down on us."  Awkward.  

I still have a collection of about 250 Bibles.  Sometimes, I stop and consider, what's the point?  I don't believe in all the supernatural gobbledygook that's in the Bible.  I recognize the Bible's role in world literature, of course, but really, what is the point, if you don't believe in it as the "Word of God"?  Well, I don't collect stamps or rocks, but I do collect Bibles...and Shakespeare's works, and Sherlock Holmes books.  So what does it really matter if I believe in it or not?  It's a collection, just like some people collect dolls or Beanie Babies.

So I remain a closet atheist, and continue to wonder if I'll ever leave the comfortable darkness. Meanwhile, I take the occasional peek outside...thus, this blog.  Thanks for reading.

Shit, maybe if I picture my "closet" like this one, I'll never leave!  ;-)

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Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on August 11, 2014 at 5:04pm

Whenever I pass an interesting looking church I will drop in for a few minutes to check out the architecture and stained glass. I really like places where religion blends with old traditions and where mythology and legends meet. I once spent Christmas day in this Mosque, a story that annoys many Christians. I think Allegri’s Miserere is exquisite and I have no problem saying so. I acknowledge that religious inspired art and music has added to our global culture.

People will either assume I am a person of Faith or that I am “spiritual” when they discover this. I am however an unapologetic Atheist. I give the religious no quarter when they attempt to put a foot over the line into the secular world. I actively fight for the removal of all religious teaching in publicly tax funded schools. I also want to see a complete separation of church and state and a complete removal of religious interference in public (secular) life. I will fight for their rights to freely believe whatever (nonsense) they want to believe but they must keep it out of my face. I am so unyielding on these points and I do not care how offensive any Muslim or Christian finds that to be. I don’t care because they are taking the offence, I am not giving it. I see adults that believe in gods as immature and will say so to them if they start telling me they can talk to the creator of the Universe or that they will become immortal when they die. I find their beliefs offensive and consider religion to be way past it’s sell by date. Overall it is not a force for good in the world.

I suppose I live in a time and place where I can be open about my Atheism and however the last paragraph sounded, I am generally not bothered by anyone’s religion until they try to shove it in my face or I hear of more religiously inspired atrocities and crimes against women and children done in some non-existent god’s name. I have a short fuse in those matters :-)

I know of many atheists that are unable to come out of the closet. Mainly because it would have a damaging effect on the quality of their lives, be it socially or in the workplace or most likely with immediate family. I totally understand that. The time will come though when it will no longer be an issue. Atheist and secular organisations are growing and gaining membership right around the world. It is up to us all to take ownership of the word “Atheist”. It does not mean denying people the right to hold beliefs in any god, it just means that our rights not to believe in the same thing is acknowledged by the religious and that right is respected by the nations we live in.

Comment by _Robert_ on August 12, 2014 at 12:59am

I'm sure the religious are quick to claim the great composers, but let us not forget that the clergy often held the commission money that these composers lived on. The age of reason was dawning and the great men of the art rubbed elbows with people like Voltaire. 

Beethoven didn't go to church or confession and was most likely a deist. Bach joined the Society for Musical Sciences; mathematicians, philosophers, and artists who believed that mathematics could be used to explain artistic, philosophic, and natural phenomena. That is something to really consider. Bach's music feels like calculus to me, very mathematical.

No one knows what the real inspiration was, but I am guessing it was the music itself.

Not that I am a great composer, but I write music when I get motivated. Many people think this song that follows is religious. Well it felt somehow religious  transcendent when it came together.

"confused right from the beginning, searching through this life that's never ending"

"do you see what I see, can you look back at me?"


Comment by Belle Rose on August 12, 2014 at 2:24am
A.T. I'll admit I'm one of "those" people who had mentioned "be yourself" I owe you an apology. I'm sorry if it made you feel any more burden than you already do, that was not my intention. Who am i to talk or judge? It's your life, and only YOU know what's best for you. I applaud your bravery and dedication to your family.!!
If it's any consolation, I have come out to my family that I am no longer a Christian, and they largely don't care.....because they aren't religious. I was the only Christian in my family for the most part...especially my immediate family. But I have my closets too A.T. I have many parts of myself that I have kept hidden from everyone, and I dare not say anything to anyone. It is lonely to live what can feel like a fasad.

I suppose my own goal (personally) is to move forward and become who I am, NOW...what that looks like for me is to simply go forward and be myself. Without apology. That is something I consider to be the most precious thing and the best part of living our find and BE -- ourselves. It is the epitome of freedom - something that up until recently I never had, whether by force, or by psychological prison walls that were only in the mind, the truth is that living in the darkness, and the loneliness is what has brought me the greatest sorrow, and now loneliness. I suppose for me it may be because I have always cared too much about what other people think of me. As it turns out, I am not any more respected by my family for who I have become, and I have not earned any new credibility. I am still the same person to them. My reputation within my family was tarnished when I was a teenager. I did a lot of things that made them worry about me. And so even though now I am 32 with a child, they look at me and still see that teenager. It is not fair, but it is the truth I have to face. I made a lot of amends when i was working the 12 steps through AA in my early twenties. And I became what seemed like a good Christian. But I never could quite stop (completely) being bad. Even now, it forever haunts me. That urge to do dumb, destructive, senseless shit. So i do not know how it feels to be well-respected, and actually have something like that to lose. I can only say that the truth, in my case, is all i have left. If I were a person who actually had something, I too would think twice before changing it forever. Many times when we make a change, or tell someone something about ourselves, it has lasting consequences. You must be completely ready and willing to face those consequences, no matter how painful they may be. No matter how much you wish it didn't have to be that way. So for you, telling your family that your an Atheist sounds like would have a negative impact on how they act towards you, and would burden you financially. Perhaps there will come a day when you will find that telling them the truth, no matter how painful it will be for all of you, will become necessary, because you love them too much to lie to them. And you cannot bear the thought of coming to the end of your life and realizing that the way you lived it in front of those you love the most dearly, was all a lie, and that they do not really know YOU. If that thought makes you sad to think about, there might come a day when you decide it's time to clean out the closet. I do sincerely hope that for your sake you will have the opportunity to experience complete freedom, despite the pain. It does hurt. You just have to be ready to let it hurt.
Comment by Belle Rose on August 12, 2014 at 2:52am
@Reg, very well said :-)
Comment by Jesse Selasi on August 12, 2014 at 4:32am

I could much identify with you, I come from a religious background and switched to reason a few years ago. I recently joined the choir upon persistence from my mum. I feel I could burst out, I wish I would come out "darkness" but my family would explode. I want to keep them happy so I stay in the dark,. I am willing to give up that amount of freedom for my family to stay put. 

Comment by A.T. Heist on August 12, 2014 at 11:04am

@Belle Rose  Thanks so much for your comment.  I hold no animosity towards those who have recommended I be true to myself.  I think they have good intentions. And certainly there is a part of me that wishes I could be more straightforward. I appreciate your sharing your point of view with me. The only criticisms I've received here at TA (a little while back) that really upset me were the couple posts that flippantly said something along the lines of "Your wife will probably divorce you once she finds out you're not a Christian." I think that kind of thing is really thoughtless, and a bit naive, actually.  As if I'm worried about breaking up with a girlfriend, rather than caring about my wife and kids. Sometimes the realities of human relationships are a bit more complex than some folks, even intelligent atheists, like to believe.

Comment by A.T. Heist on August 12, 2014 at 11:11am

@RobertPiano  Thanks for sharing that song.  I agree with you to a certain point on some of the great composers.  I suspect Beethoven was not religious in the modern evangelical sense.  Bach, however, seems to have been deeply devout, which is not surprising, considering where he lived and worked, and the time period in which he resided.  I've sung several of the great sacred choral works, and I don't think there's any denying that many of them were religiously motivated.  However, the truly great ones, I think, transcend their religious aspirations and are, in the end, simply great works of music, in much the same way that some Gothic cathedrals are great works of architecture.

Comment by Simon Paynton on August 12, 2014 at 11:56am

Well said Reg, and well said Belle as well. 

I agree with Belle, it's wrong to live a lie to those who love you.  (Forgive the straight-talking language, but I don't know how to sugar-coat it.)  So maybe you should at least "come out" to your wife, for the sake of honesty.  When we commit an inconsistency, there are two aspects to this: the inconsistency itself, and how we deal with it.  I believe that how we deal with it is much more important. 

I have a friend who's fallen on hard times, and has been taken up by the Church.  When I go there, they ask me if I go to Church, and I say no, but I love Jesus and have two posters of Jesus on my wall.  This is a serious statement as I believe there are huge philosophical and ethical areas of Christianity that are valuable and may be used by atheists if we would just stop turning our noses up at it.  See my (under construction) website if you like. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on August 12, 2014 at 11:57am

PS the website doesn't seem to work very well in Internet Explorer. 

Comment by Belle Rose on August 12, 2014 at 1:53pm

Sometimes the realities of human relationships are a bit more complex than some folks, even intelligent atheists, like to believe.

I think that's true, and you're very wise for not taking this lightly and considering the consequences of your actions before you act. That shows a great deal of maturity and courage. I really do applaud you A.T. and while my point of view is perhaps more idealistic than anything, I do think your approach is phenomenally commendable, honorable, and responsible. You are a wonderful husband and father (just in case you didn't know that ;-)


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