I am also a young atheist, as far as the adoption of the label is concerned. I "came out" in February of this year, despite first acknowledging to myself that I was indeed an atheist back in October of 2012. Perhaps my story will be of some use to you, understanding of course that what was best for me may not be in your best interests. I don't know enough about your situation to advise you on anything; I can only tell you what happened to me, in hopes that it will help you.
First, I'm happy your husband was understanding. That was very brave of you to be honest with him, and it's always a relief to know your spouse accepts you. I can also sympathize with your feelings of dishonesty, as they too gripped me before I declared my position on the matter. It was difficult to talk to my extended family without lying through my teeth; it's truly a horrible, sickening feeling. I found it difficult to maintain eye contact and I would just nod or agree whenever they told me something about Jesus. It wasn't the fact that I was closeted or hesitant about embracing the label of atheism, it was the fact I was knowingly being dishonest to my loved ones that bothered me so much.
Eventually I came to a point where I had to ask myself why I was doing what I was doing. It turns out, I was afraid of hurting other people, especially my grandma. Luckily for me I have an atheist cousin who encouraged me to come out, although he assumed my relatives would go insane or become very angry. I did not suspect that, having experienced for myself the sadness that comes with “knowing” someone you care about could be hell bound. They’re still sad about it but they must deal with it in prayer because they have not been forcing me to attend church or asking questions or anything for quite some time.
Long story short, I decided to come out. The decision was largely an emotional one, made to alleviate an emotional problem (guilt from hypocrisy and lying). Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best way to let people know what I really think. Here’s what happened:
I decided to “come out” as an atheist, and I did so on Facebook (probably not the best, thoughtful way of informing your loved ones). I chose to write down what I was thinking rather than have a face to face, primarily because my verbal skills amount to “but um, yeah.”
I believe this declaration was a mistake because the term has so much baggage that it automatically shuts down people’s willingness to be open – not only on your ideas about faith and god but also on everything else. I believe it would have been better to answer people’s questions or statements truthfully, i.e. “I don’t believe this.” This is because atheism is in essence the act of suspending belief in an absurd, undefinable, abstract concept called “god.” I think Sam Harris made a good point about the mistake of labeling yourself, unfortunately that came a bit too late. When one says that they are an atheist, people make a lot of assumptions that aren’t true. But in any case, whether you declare yourself an atheist, or avoid the label, the moment you express a lack of belief, is the moment many may pass off your other ideas as worldly, ungodly, or wrongheaded.
I wish I would have become a voluntaryist before coming forward with my atheism, because my religious family may have listened to me more then. My ideas about the state and spanking may have been better transmitted without the “this guy is talking nonsense because his thinking is askew without the Lord in his life.”
My parents and sister knew about my lack of faith long before this happened. I was never in any fear of being disowned or kicked out or the victim of an honor killing because they’re my family, and for all their faults they’ve dedicated a lot of resources into raising me. When I told them, sure they weren’t delighted but they said they loved me and wouldn’t ever disown me, even if I “decided to be gay.”
My mother cried when I first told her I had doubts about the “scriptural validity of the trinity” back in 2010. That was not fun putting my mother through that because she’s firmly committed to the fantasy. She wanted the best for me, and she wanted me to go to heaven with her. I can’t really fault her for not taking it well, since she hasn’t been exposed to anything that caused her to really question her faith (we’re all in the deep south, surrounded by confirmation bias). She was born into the faith to, and I won’t get into her background now, but yeah. It’s very easy to sympathize with both my mom and dad, given how they were treated. I’ll not get into my childhood here, but I can certainly say it was no where near as bad as they had it. The important thing is, we all want to be in each other’s lives. With time and patience, maybe this world might gain a few more atheists and anarchists. I wouldn’t count it out, given that I’m here, which is statistically a miracle, given where I’ve come from.
One other thing: I came out when I was fully dependent on my folks; I still am, for reasons I won’t get into here.
When deciding to be truthful about your stance on god, you have to weigh out what is more important to you. Would you rather wait until you’re financially independent? Do you want to tell everyone at once or personalize your messages? Would you rather your extended family take you more seriously on your views about the state? Would you rather tell the truth without labels that may make that job more difficult? Or would you rather embrace a label and be forthright about your stance on god?
It all depends on your own situation, where you are from, and how understanding or loving your family is. There’s no right answer here, but there’s consequences for everything. If you were living in Saudi Arabia and your religion was Islam, my advice would be very different because I would fear for your safety much more. It seems that fear is not warranted in your case.
I’ve included the letter I posted to Facebook, should it help you with your own. It may not be the best way of phrasing things but it got the job done.
As for the reactions? I got a few likes from some old acquaintances and a few questions via email from my grandma. I worried a lot for no reason. Everyone seems to be fine and I don’t have the guilt of living a lie anymore.