Going backward, I didn't even have a big "coming out" to anyone in college. My university, or at least the students that I knew, seemed to be about 40% atheist, 30% catholic, 10% muslim, and 20% various protestant varieties, wiccan, buddhist, etc. Nobody even blinked an eye at atheism there. This doesn't surprise me. In Mensa Magazine in 2002, Paul Bell published a meta-analysis of 43 different studies over the last 80 years. 39 of them (over 90%) found an inverse proportion between how much education a person has, versus how likely they are to hold any religious beliefs.
High school was very different. I was in the Bible Belt (a term coined by an atheist!) and shared a school with plenty of fundamentalists. I remember sometimes debating the existance of God -- and even the historical truth of the Noachian flood! -- during class.
Memory of those debates sticks in my mind like the memories of a good meal. And the debates that I know are still to come, like a party scheduled in the near future. Like I said, it's been a while since I've "come out" to anybody. I'm yearning for a good debate.
I feel that debate is the atheist's lot in life. It's usually not a vicious "You're gonna go to hell!" / "You're an insignificant speck in the universe!" debate. Much of the time it's almost more of an interview -- the point being to satisfy the curiosity of someone that has maybe never met an atheist before. We get a chance to clear up that atheists aren't devil worshippers, and point out a few problems we have with religion. Maybe point out a few famous atheists they might recognize, so they won't think we're all Al-Qaeda terrorists. It's sometimes only a debate in the sense that you are on two different sides of a very high fence, and are discussing the property lines. Not about moving it, just about the line itself.
Until we're more prevalent, we're a curiosity. In the current religious climate (at least, in the U.S.), we especially need to satisfy that curiosity in a way that makes us appear harmless. For these casual debate/discussions, I don't think our goal should be deconversion, but indifference.
I loved Hemant's story about his appearance on the christian talk show. What really struck me was this part:
One Christian audience member came up to me afterwards and said I had changed his views on atheists – we weren’t so bad after all – which was one of the nicest things I could’ve heard. That was sweet.
I think that's what we should be going for right now. Make it known that we are not devil worshippers. We're not devoid of morals. We're not the bad guys. We're just not anything to get your magic underwear in knots over.
And maybe, just maybe, we can get them to start thinking a little more on their own.