I've been an atheist since 1994 and for at least the first two years I was what I would call these days a closet atheist. I had stopped attending church services and basically was focused on trying to overcome the withdrawal symptoms I acquired as a result of my separation. It's weird but upon backward reflection it was akin to separation anxiety as suffered most commonly by children and adolescents. The only difference was that my family and loved ones at the time was the church.
The church in those days was my life, I lived for doing what I believed was to be the will of God. I worked hard at helping my fellow brethren in Christ with their daily struggles, and the youth of the church looked up to me. The service of the Lord was my reason for being and my self appointed purpose and goal in life. At the time of course I did not see it as self appointed, I believed that I was called by God himself to carry out his will through my ministry.
Having had many discussions with fellow atheists who were at one time believers I found that I was not alone in this. It's almost like a gay person struggling with how he or she could articulate to those they love about their alternative lifestyle choices. I think that it is not that bad for coming out to family if you have a similar situation such as mine.
I come from a very divided family and outside of my immediate family such as my wife and kids I am not that close to my extended family. I keep to myself and am a loner for the most part and am content with the simplest things in life. To my knowledge to date I am the only atheist in my entire family. For about two years I kept my atheism to myself and not even my wife was aware of the change that was going on in me. When I came out my family basically just did not take me seriously and thought that I was just going through some phase and that I would eventually get over it.
It's going to be 19 years since I left the faith and my mind is entirely made up that the biblical god does not exist, that Jesus never existed, and that the bible cannot be trusted as a reliable document for knowledge of any kind. It gets science wrong, history wrong, and is wrong about a slew of information which we have learned through more conventional fields of knowledge to be wrong. It cannot be trusted as an historical document either; since most of the claims made throughout the scriptures cannot be verified such as the global flood and other mythological and ridiculous tales told within its pages.
For others though who have very strong family ties and care about what others think of them it is not so easy. When someone decides to leave the faith they risk losing everything from every so called friend they have met in the faith. Their own family will ostracize them and treat them like the plague simply because they have overcome the oppression of religious beliefs. When I left the church for instance, I lost all of my friends, and even to this day am considered the family loon.
The biggest consequence for me was my dependency on my faith to help me through life. Like a child it was time to ween myself from religion all on my own with no one to talk to or anywhere to turn for advice. In those days the information that we now have readily available on the internet was not available. Many more prominent atheists were just coming out themselves. I learned to live without religion the hard way on my own. I read every book I could find on several topics that helped to put into perspective my fears and my doubts about my former beliefs.
I kept silent for two years while I did my research. I was focused on books that might be able to explain many of my subjective experiences while a believer. I read books on psychiatry, psychology, books on hypnosis, etc. It wasn't till about 96' when I was on my way to work that I was approached on the subway platform by two Jehovah's witnesses and was asked if I would like to know about God or something to that effect. I was in a hurry and I blurted out that I had no time to which they responded by asking me if I was not interested in eternal life. I said that I wasn't and that I had enough on my plate at the moment with this life.
On that day it dawned on me that I should not be ashamed of who I am and what I believe. I remembered that freedom of speech is one of my constitutional rights and if you don't agree with me then that is your right as well. From that moment on I decided to let everyone know that I was an atheist and damn proud of it! Theists can run around proselytizing to the world and I have to keep my mouth shut simply because I don't find their beliefs convincing? Theists claim that they are under attack and that they are being persecuted whenever we speak out against them. But their accusations simply don't hold water.
When religion decides to force its ways into our government and seek legislation in favor of their groups beliefs based on nothing more than their own convictions of faith then we have to speak up. When religion crosses the line into government affairs such as individual rights of freedom etc. then they should expect to find some opposition.
There are many reasons people find it difficult to "come out" and for every atheist these reasons are different. Some are concerned about what their family or community will think of them, others risk losing everything in their professional lives, or they are dealing with inner struggles about their former beliefs etc. It's not easy to break from tradition and go against the grain but that is exactly what atheists and other suppressed groups have to do. Women fought for their rights to vote, men of color fought for rights to be treated equally, gays currently fight for their rights as a whole to be gay and accepted by society.
Thankfully today many people coming out as atheists have so many resources available to them such as books and online forums and web pages where they can get help with both their personal struggles and inner conflicts and with dealing with the adverse effect that may result from family members etc. There are several online sites where you can find information about evolutionary theory and critical thinking etc. Here is a small list of some sites I recommend to atheists who are seeking to educate themselves about atheism and some of the common struggles we all face. These are some of the sites that I commonly frequent or refer others to enjoy the process of learning and enlightenment.
Finally, for you new atheists you can check out the out campaign for more information.