Growning up, I recall many stories of people being cut-off from their families after joining the Mormon church. To us such accounts stood as a testament that Satan had a hold on people of other faiths, and caused them to lash out especially vitriolically towards our church. To them, we were a cult.
There is no doubt that many protestant denominations have a very low opinion of Mormons, but we were blind to the fact that such stories are common of pretty much anyone who leaves the faith of their parents. This is understandable when you consider the view the parents often hold that those who apostacize from their church will be doomed to Hell. As awful as this is, it is far worse when your own children fall victim to such a fate (by a loving god, no less).
I once shared with my mother an experience of a person leaving the Mormon Church and being shunned by their parents (whom my mother knew personally), and she was shocked that the parents reacted as they did. This was likely the first time she had heard of this coming from members of her own congregation. As for my parents' reaction to my atheism, my mother just cried uncontrollably, and my father has yet to comment. I am one of the lucky ones. The unluckiest of all are those who are in a position of religious authority or responsibility.
A few years ago, Daniel Dennett (the Santa Clause of Atheism, see left) wondered how many active pastors and reverends and priests no longer believed in their respective faiths. To answer this, he founded the Clergy Project as an outreach for ministers who are now atheists and don't know how to get out. You see, many professional clergy have spent years studying their religion, and have built successful careers preaching. Their entire livelihood is dependent on their faith. They have no other professional skills to speak of, so leaving the church means losing their job and putting the well-being of their families at risk.
One of the main goals of the Clergy Project (now 390 members strong) is to provide aide for those who make the decision to leave the ministry and try to find another job. Two of the most well-known "graduates" of the project are Jerry DeWitt and Teresa MacBain.
Jerry, a product of Jimmy Swaggart, has had a rough time finding a job since leaving his ministry, and even spent some time living amid persecution from former congregants, but now works for a foundation similar to the Clergy Project, Recovering from Religion (a fitting position). Here is an article from the New York Times on Jerry's transition.
Teresa's experience mirrors Jerry's quite a bit. Similarly, she also had trouble finding a new job, but now works for American Atheists. Here is an article from NPR on Teresa's story.
The dilemma of choosing between your family's well-being and your own moral integrity is no doubt difficult. The issue of when an atheist comes out publicly is hotly debated. Some of the more agressive anti-theistic atheists proclaim that all non-believers should be open and vocal about their position. I tend to side with the softer approach that you should only come out if you are comfortable with the potential backlash. Only you can make that call, but if you feel adequately prepared and courageous enough to make the stand, doing so makes the climate of public discourse more hospitable and welcoming for other closeted atheists whose situation may be more dire.
Here is an episode of the Atheist Experience with guest Teresa MacBain:
Here is the Atheist Experience with Jerry DeWitt:
And now, Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet...