A few days ago, I had an e-mail query from an atheist looking for advice. I answered him as best as I was able, but his was a question that I think could benefit from some additional perspectives. With my correspondent’s permission, I’m reprinting his query below. If you were in his situation, what would you do?
My wife is a Christian and I am an Atheist. We have two small children. She knows how I feel about religion and doesn’t like it, but we have basically agreed to disagree. I do not try to convince her that her beliefs are false because I do not think she wants to hear it. Her family is Catholic and they do not know that I am an Atheist. Otherwise, we have a wonderful relationship and I love her dearly. However, recently, as I have been learning more and more about religion, it has become more and more difficult to keep my Atheism “in the closet” and hidden from her family. When we are at my in-laws’ home and religious issues are being discussed, it is very hard for me to keep my thoughts to myself. I really want to let the world know that I am an Atheist and that Atheism is the answer. However, I also know how much my wife wants her parents and siblings to continue liking me and this would pretty much keep that from ever happening. I also know that my wife is an intelligent lady, but she knows very little about Atheism or even her own religion. She has simply clung to Christianity because that is what her family believes and that is what she finds comfortable. I do not want to cause her little world to come crashing down, but at the same time, I hate pretending to believe in something that I know is false. Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to start fights with her family or argue about whose right and whose wrong, I just want to disassociate myself with Christianity.
What do you suggest?
First of all, I think my correspondent is wise to fear a prejudiced reaction. Atheists are more visible than we once were, but no matter how many millions of books Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris sell, there will be millions more believers who have never read them, never heard atheists speak in our own words, and know us only as objects of calumny from their sermons.
On the other hand, the only way we’ll ever combat those stereotypes is by stepping out and becoming visible, showing others that we exist and are not the misanthropes we have been demonized as. For this reason, I encourage all atheists whose situations permit it to come out of the closet and declare themselves, and I applaud my correspondent for wanting to do so. At the same time, I sympathize with his desire not to provoke fights. Our purpose in coming out should be to make friends, not enemies. And while many religious people perceive the mere existence of atheists as an insult, I think this hostile reaction can be defused if done with sufficient candor and tact.
You said you didn’t want to start a fight with your in-laws, and I don’t think you have to. The next time you’re there and religious issues come up, especially if someone makes a comment that thoughtlessly assumes you’re a Christian, I’d just say something like, “Thank you for your concern, but actually I’m an atheist, and here’s what I think…” Then give your opinion – not hostile or combative, but a simple statement of what you feel and why. If someone attacks you, defend yourself, but don’t get angry or confrontational and don’t try to convert them; just emphasize that you’re still a good, moral person, like most atheists. If people get agitated, I’d tell them politely that I won’t discuss this any more right now, and give them a chance to cool down. If you do this and stick to it, over time they may come to accept you.
Or, another thought: it might be even better for you to arrange for your wife to mention your atheism. Having her break this news to her parents, rather than you, may soften the blow for them.