In a perfect would, people wouldn't have to hide what they are. Thoughts and ideas would be freely shared, discussed, criticism and skepticism taken honestly and gratefully and debate engaged in joyously.
"I believe the moon is made of dust bunnies!"
"It can't be. We've sent people there, they brought rocks back. We can examine those."
"Maybe those are the meteors that have hit since and it's farther in."
"Well, here's more evidence against."
"Oh, that certainly hurts my evidence for. I'll think about it."
"Great. Want to go to lunch?"
"Hey, I'm gay."
"Really? Oh, I know a guy you'll want to meet, he just moved into the area last month."
Sadly, that's not the world we live in. People hold on to ideas regardless of the evidence. Scientists (not science, mind you, science tends to be patient and grind this sort of thing down when it impedes progress) can be guilty of this - for instance, Thompson's reputation and stubbornness held back (as I recall) decoding Mayan inscriptions for years. Once he died, other voices could be heard that brought much more understanding. Other people do so for money (especially politicians and businesses - look at the so-called "debate" over man-made global warming. Note there is not a debate in the scientific community.) Or, of interest to - and sometimes as a threat to - atheists, for religious purposes.
Atheists share a few things with the LGBT community. We're not, in many areas, socially accepted. We're demonized by people who don't, and in many cases don't want to, understand us - and those people are in the majority in this country. We're the target of attacks - and when we try to speak up for our rights, we're attacked for that as well. So it's only logical that we've also adopted the idea of "coming out of the closet."
The phrase seems to be a mix of two meanings - an old tradition of a "coming out" party, where a young (rich) woman was presented to the community, and "the closet" - specifically the one you kept things hidden. I'm sure we're generally familiar with the phrase "skeletons in the closet." (As a side note, wouldn't it be awesome for Atheists to be celebrated with a 'coming out' party? For that matter, wouldn't it be great if the LGBT and atheist communities could guarantee it would be that joyous for everyone?)
And the other thing we share is that we really have to think about not just when, but if we come out, and to who.
I think in some ways it's easier for an Atheist to remain hidden - depending, of course, on family and community. (For instance, on TheThinkingAtheist's podcast, he'd had a letter from a young man who, while atheist, was going on a two year Mormon mission because of his family. I can't imagine how difficult that is.) Most of what we do fits in just fine with society as a whole. It's a little harder to be accidentally outed. But we do have to be careful with some people and what we say or do.
For instance, I became an atheist - or, was, and admitted it to myself finally - while taking care of my mom. I've mentioned this before. It wasn't the process of taking care of her that did it. I just finally basically realized it myself. But other than not going to church, and disagreeing with her over things like gay marriage (I do have to note, by the way, that despite all the references I *am* straight - I do, however, have LGBT friends) and even just not being bothered by them - which did lead to her asking "Why have you turned your back on God?" (oh, how close to the truth she was...) she never knew. Had I told her...
Well, all I had in mind was her reaction to my ex. See, when we'd decided to get married, I was still living in FL. She was in Oregon. Months prior, I'd happened to mention (I don't recall what the situation was, probably debunking something) to my cousin that this girl was a witch. Well, there we were, months later, she and her mom were on the way cross country and my cousin mentions it to my aunt, who overreacts of course, and tells my mom, who tells my dad... and they immediately insist she can't stay at either their house or my aunt's.
Why? Not wanting to know anything about it. And of course poisoning by our own preacher back in WI and his anti-halloween, "witches sacrifice babies and poison kids" BS, for instance. She believed differently. They went from "We can't wait to meet her" to a "Get the kindling out," severe hatred.
So I lied for her. I immediately started building new walls for her closet - and she knew she'd have to be careful, but I still warned her when we talked that night. I told her my cousin had misunderstood when I'd told her she'd "studied" it, that she'd done so in school for a project, not that she did so to become a wiccan, that would be silly.
That immediately calmed them down. They knew I looked into things and obviously hadn't become a baby-eating, fire breathing, satan worshiping demon, so obviously I'd look for someone like that too. Besides, I went to church (I considered myself a somewhat lapsed christian at the time, a touch more welcoming but Jesus was still lord, etc, etc. ) And they went back to being welcoming, but a touch wary.
Needless to say, that was very heavily on my mind. And so all the time she was alive, I never told her "I'm an atheist." Not only would I have been immediately looking for someplace new to live, but more importantly, it would have hurt her very badly. I knew that. And I'm not sure, for more practical reasons (and of the same order as looking for somewhere new to live,) she would have wanted me around TO help her out. I couldn't live with not helping when she needed it. And certainly didn't want to hurt her. So, while she lived, I added a pillow and nice reading lamp to my "closet" because I knew I'd be staying there.
Once she passed, I was... generally "out." Though I waited 'til I was out of FL to really start saying so. And it's still not something I'd say to my oldest, heavily christian, brother - again, mostly because it would probably hurt him. Though if the need arose... yes, I would. I don't think he's as much of a "crusader" - he's really more the sort that, if someone had to be Christian, I'd want them to be like. I haven't heard him speak against anyone, he genuinely loves helping people, etc. He's Christian, but he'd be a genuinely good, moral person even without it.
And yes, maybe I'm looking at my brother through rose-colored glasses - I do genuinely love him, even if I don't agree with him on this - I think if more Christians (and other religious followers!) were like him, there'd be no need of a closet for anyone.
But, there is. And the point of all this?
Everyone's situation is different. There's nothing wrong with NOT coming out, if you're in that sort of a situation where it would be a bad thing. The decision to come out can be painful, and can have harsh consequences. I've heard others stories of losing jobs, being cut off from their family, even divorce. It can be very difficult. Be careful, cautious and considerate of if and when you come out - and respect others decisions.
If you do stay in the closet, though, you can still do good work. Work from within. Even without saying you're an atheist, you can stand up for logic and reason. You can stand for others rights. Stand for scientifically-based evidence and truth. Yes, that "one little thing" - or big thing - will still bug you, probably... but you won't be living as much of a lie, and may just do some good and help plant a few seeds of temperance and acceptance.
And we'll be here for you online. Even if you have to use "private browsing" to cover your tracks, the community is here online. You are not alone.