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The word "confess" usually involves reluctantly admitting some wrongdoing -- a secret, a lie, a crime.

So when Arian Foster, the star NFL running back for the Houston Texans, appeared in ESPN The Magazine under the headline "The Confession of Arian Foster," I thought he might be conceding to being a steroid-using North Korean national living here illegally.

No, he's an atheist.

The fact that this revelation of a simple personal belief came with a "confession" headline was troubling, because the discussion transcends that.

Why this 'confession' matters

Foster's decision to go public about his beliefs is a significant source of inspiration. Not for the NFL, a traditional bastion of American quasi-religious fervor. And not for other athletes, some of whom have proved intolerant by taunting Foster for his "devil worship."

It's an inspiration for all the people who have yet to "confess" that they don't believe in God because they fear discrimination or feeling alone. People who are in a position I completely understand.

Growing up on Long Island, I've always been surrounded by Christianity. Raised Catholic, I have had the holy water poured on my head, eaten the body and drank the blood, and attended Catholic elementary and high school.

During my senior year of high school, I began to feel uneasy about religious doctrine. I knew it had social utility, but the philosophical baggage led me to feel guilty, scientifically ignorant and mentally imprisoned. I couldn't pray for others without thinking it fruitless, and I couldn't ask for divine inspiration without feeling unheard.

Deciding for myself

Instead of repressing the feeling, I did my own research. I read the works of prominent atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I found agreement with my doubt but still felt secluded.

After months of self-reflection, nonbelief won the mental tug-of-war. Still, I lay awake for nights wondering how much I would disappoint my parents and peers. Telling my friends turned into a roundtable Q&A, fortunately ending with an apathetic yet friendly "Whatever, man." Telling my dad, a fairly religious man, was difficult as my brother gave me a nervous sideways glance over dinner.

But dad understood. "As long as you're not getting into any Scientology or something," he said.

Don't worry, pops, Tom Cruise has laid claim to that. I'm just an atheist.

To be clear, Foster does not define himself with that word, but he does say, "I don't believe in God," and that fits the bill. For him, the road was tough.

Foster, raised a Muslim in New Mexico, plays for a team in the heart of the Bible Belt and for an organization with religious aspects from pregame rituals to celebrations, tattoos and postgame interviews. It's no surprise that for years, Foster said, he was afraid to express himself. And when he did, he was often questioned in a suspicious manner.

Todd Stiefel, chair of the organization Openly Secular, summed up the significance: "This is unprecedented. He is the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up . . . for secular Americans."

Nonbelievers, like me

Although more than 20 percent of the American public identify as religiously "unaffiliated," according to Pew Research Center, only about 3 percent use the term "atheist." But there are undoubtedly more shoving their doubt under their mental carpet.

As Catholic rock star Pope Francis makes his historic U.S. visit, that 20 percent not only will be reminded of the religiosity of this country, but also of its potency. Look at the attitude that Foster has exposed -- the NFL had an athlete that is openly homosexual before one that is openly atheist.

But if anything I've said rings true for you, take comfort in recognizing the shifting environment of this country. There are many who have doubts, including at least one star athlete, and now more than ever that's an acceptable view. Even Pope Francis has said atheists have a place in heaven.

I don't think that place exists, Your Holiness, but I appreciate the gesture.

Christopher Leelum is a student majoring in journalism and philosophy at Stony Brook University.

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