Ask Richard: The Risks of Telling the Truth and the Costs of Keeping Secrets About Your Atheism

These three letters share a common theme, the difficult choices of being open or secretive about one’s atheism to family and friends. The issues in the letters overlap. Much of what I suggest for one case will apply to the others.

Dear Richard,

First off, thank you for starting this “Ask the Atheist” advice column. It is nice to have a place where we can get advice from someone without the “god will guide you,” and “pray about it.”

Secondly, my question. I am an atheist, but have not quite fully come out to my family. They know I am not religious, but I have never said “I am an atheist.” My parents are very religious. I have a decent relationship with them, and I know that they already don’t fully approve of my lifestyle (living with a girlfriend, child out of wedlock.)

My mother will be coming out to visit us for our daughter’s 4th birthday later this month. We had stayed in their house for a while, when they were traveling, and when they came back we made a point of putting away all of our atheist/irreverent books and movies, so as not to cause any drama. Now she is coming to my home, and will undoubtedly see my bookshelf. I don’t want to ruin our relationship (especially for my daughter’s sake), but fear that this may be a final straw for her. Is there any safe way to handle this?

Filius

Dear Richard,

My husband and I are both atheists who were raised catholic. I am a bit more “militant” in my atheism but overall we agree on most issues involving religion. The one place we don’t agree is in regards to coming out about our atheism to our other family members, who are all fairly devout Catholics. I told my family about my lack of belief as soon as I was no longer living with them, and although we fought about it a lot at the time, our relationship now is just as good as ever and I’m glad to have it out in the open.

My husband on the other hand has never told his parents about his atheism or mine and doesn’t plan to, because he says he doesn’t want to upset them or give them cause for worry. This makes me feel really uncomfortable around them, especially when they pray over meals, or ask us about local churches etc. The funny thing is, our wedding was completely god-free, in a garden with a UU minister and a ceremony we totally put together ourselves, so it should be obvious that we aren’t catholic at least. I’m just not sure why keeping quiet to his family to keep the peace is worth the tension it causes between my husband and I. Any thoughts on how to deal with this?

Ex-Catholic Wife

Dear Richard,

I very much liked your response to the question of how to be an “Out Atheist” in online forums and discussions. It was well thought-out and reasoned, and addresses something that I’ve struggled with (and continue to struggle with) in online discussions on both religion and politics to this day.

The question I want to ask is related, but slightly different. How do I be an “Out Atheist” in my real life? More generally, how do I lead a life with my friends where I am true to my ideals and beliefs without alienating people and being an overbearing jerk about them? For instance, many in my family are very religious, and I generally tend not to talk about these things with them so as to not make waves. But what if these issues come up? How do I stay true to my own beliefs without damaging a relationship that I really don’t want to damage? More generally, how do I do this with friends (and it doesn’t necessarily have to be on the subject of atheism)? For instance, when a friend says that something is “gay” meaning that it’s bad, do I do more damage to my friendship by calling him out on it than I do to myself by remaining silent?

Thanks a lot for your advice, Richard. Keep up the good work.

Tim

Dear Filius, Ex-Catholic Wife and Tim,

The short answer: There are no painless solutions to these problems.

The long answer: Every solution to problems like these is a trade-off. They all have costs and benefits. Choosing the best solution may be easy or hard, and then we take our chances, but there are some ways to increase the odds of a better outcome. I’ll get to those later.

Filius, sometimes there is a difference between the short term and the long term costs and benefits of a solution. For instance, in the case of your atheist books, the short term solution at first seems obvious. Simply hide the books in your house that might upset your mother just as you had while staying at her house. Problem solved… for now. However, that’s only a postponement of a crisis that probably cannot be prevented forever. As Shakespeare said, “Truth will out.” In some situations, putting off the upsetting truth makes it easier to take later, but in other situations, doing that will just make it all the worse later. Even if the difficulty is not changed by delaying, your enjoyment of the “peace” you’re keeping is to some extent spoiled by the fear of being discovered and the resentment from having to pretend to be something you’re not in front of your loved ones, even in your own home. If the truth will out sooner or later, it might be preferable to have it come out in a controlled situation of your design, rather than haphazardly. You may be underestimating your mother’s resiliency, as well as underestimating the leverage you possess in her granddaughter. Will there be upset? Most likely. Will it last a lifetime? Probably not. Will it be good to not have to hide things? Definitely.

Ex-Catholic Wife, your letter describes how when two partners have different solutions to the same problem, that difference can become a bigger problem than the first. You have gone through the difficulties of coming out to your family, and after some time you are now enjoying the benefit of improved relationships and the ability to be genuine in their presence. Your husband wants to keep it all a secret from his family, and so you feel awkward going between the open family and the secretive one. So now the tension and resentment have shifted more between the two of you than between either of you and either family.

Talk to him about the bond, the alliance, the unity between the two of you. That’s the most important relationship in your lives. Share with him what you went through before, during and after you came out to your family; the fear that held you back, the anger and hurt that you endured once you had told your truth, and the eventual relief and healing that came later. Ask him if he feels like he has to hold back truths from you as well, for fear of your not accepting. Patiently coax him to first be more open and risk-taking with you, if need be, and reward him with acceptance. Let him see that you understand his fear about his family from your own experience, and that you have confidence that he, with your support, will be able to go through the difficult truth-telling process with them, and the two of you will emerge on the other side with a stronger marriage as well as better family relationships.

Tim, your letter very clearly illustrates the almost universal struggle between our desire to be ourselves and our desire to be loved. Friendships and family relationships that require us to have less of one in order to have more of the other need to be improved at their foundation. Before finding how to talk about a touchy subject, you must first talk about the relationship itself, about how you want it to be more mutually open and accepting. If you feel stifled by what you sense are restrictions on what you can say, perhaps the other person feels stifled too, about other topics. Gradually establish a right to free speech between you. Give permission to the other to respectfully confront you if you step on their toes, and ask for the same permission in return. If talking about talking, about the relationship itself feels awkward at first, then go right ahead and talk about that awkwardness. It’s all part of laying a foundation of trust and respect that will withstand the stress of disagreement. Try out a couple of easier subjects for frankness before moving on to the heavier, riskier feeling ones. Each time you successfully broach a sensitive matter, that adds strength to your foundation.

In cases like these three, it is fear that holds us hostage. We fear someone else’s fear, the fear that our family and friends have for our unbelief, our difference from them. They have been taught to fear unbelief and unbelievers, or anything different from their beliefs. They may react with what looks like anger, indignation or disgust, but the root is actually fear. They’re not bad, they’re afraid. Remembering that can help you to use the universal solvent for fear, love.

Please do not dismiss my invocation of love as a corny cliché or a platitude. It works. When revealing fear-inducing truths to your family and friends, Always begin, continue and end with love. Saying again and again “I love you” literally, as well as in your tone, in your body language, and in your actions will disperse their fear and the other emotions that spring from it. Whether you’re saying “Mom, I’m an atheist,” or “John, saying ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’ hurts my feelings,” if “I love you” is clearly part of your statement, then most likely they’ll be better able to deal with it. Sometimes this is a slow process, but if you patiently, patiently keep soaking your truthful words with your love for your family and friends, their fear will gradually dissolve, and your freedom from keeping secrets will increase.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Filius

    Richard,
    Thank you for the advice, however my mother’s visit has come and gone. I had decided that I would not hide anything, yet I would also not bring it up unless directly asked. This put me in a more prepared mindset to handle her asking me, instead of coming out and making her feel attacked. The visit went well and nothing came up regarding my reading or lifestyle, however during one conversation (which was not directly related to religion), she respectfully acknowledge my skepticism of her beliefs. It was a good moment for me. I know to many believers, being skeptical and being atheist can come off as two different things, so there is still some work on my part, but I will not be hiding it any longer. Once again, thank you for your advice, as I will hold it dear for future encounters.

  • Tim

    Richard,

    Thank you very much for the response. As far as friends using “gay” as an epithet, I think it was more of a reflexive thing on their part than any kind of active animosity, and the fact that a good mutual friend has since come out of the closet has softened even that.

    As far as the rest, I think I’ve decided to handle my family in the same way that I do my work. I’m not going to be out in people’s faces about stuff, but neither am I going to hide it, and if they ask about it, I will have an open and honest conversation about it. My very religious aunt knows I’m an atheist, and she often complains to my mother about it, and about how my beliefs are offensive to her. I counter to my mother that my aunt’s beliefs are in no way offensive to me, and that she’s got the right to believe as she wants. There’s a mutual respect that underlies my side of the disagreement, at least, and though I haven’t spoken with my aunt about it, I like to think that I’m a quiet example in her life of how an atheist isn’t by definition a bad person.

  • Mark

    You wrote:”…our wedding was completely god-free, in a garden with a UU minister…”

    Huh??

    God free but with a minister?

    Are you kidding?

    I wonder how many other people who read this blog are only pretending to be atheists?

  • JulietEcho

    Mark said:

    God free but with a minister?

    Are you kidding?

    I wonder how many other people who read this blog are only pretending to be atheists?

    Someone can be a minister and not inject any religious talk into a wedding, just as someone could be an atheist and read from a Bible at a wedding. And many UU members are atheists and agnostics who join the UU church for community.

    We had a Methodist minister for our wedding, as he was our college chaplain and a good friend. He knew that we were both atheists and that my family was very religious, and he helped us create a great ceremony that didn’t arouse their suspicions or compromise our own beliefs.

    Being an atheist doesn’t mean that you refuse to touch anything or anyone with religious ties. That would make for a pretty lonely life, at least here in the US.

  • http://angelofharlots.blogspot.com Nena

    Thank you for this forum, Richard. I had a question very like this myself, and your response was helpful to me.

    Your short answer is certainly true, though. It is not going to be painless.

  • Anonymous

    Every solution to problems like these is a trade-off. They all have costs and benefits.

    In all due respect, coming out of the closest as an atheist to very religious parents or in-laws is social suicide. It will probably come with very high costs – and there are no potential benefits. The best “benefit” you can hope for is that everything stays relatively the same. But your atheism will still be a source of tension, whether in your face or behind your back. Best to just keep quiet if you already know that they strongly disagree with you. Self-sacrifice can be justified if it produces some really large benefit later, but an idea is not worth socially dying for. Airing unpopular ideas to the people around you is just a recipe for disaster. It’s better to air them on the Internet where you can have an outlet for expressing yourself and remain anonymous – just don’t sign your real name or a future employer might find it.

    However, that’s only a postponement of a crisis that probably cannot be prevented forever. As Shakespeare said, “Truth will out.”

    Sometimes truth will out. Sometimes not. Most of us don’t enjoy confrontation. So you have to cross your fingers and hope for the best. If you never discuss it, your atheism may never be discovered. I’m sure politicians have plenty of secrets we never heard about. If that’s right, truth doesn’t always out.

    your enjoyment of the “peace” you’re keeping is to some extent spoiled by the fear of being discovered and the resentment from having to pretend to be something you’re not in front of your loved ones, even in your own home. If the truth will out sooner or later, it might be preferable to have it come out in a controlled situation of your design, rather than haphazardly.

    Tangible peace v. tangible drama. I know what I’d pick. What makes you think you have any control over the reactions of other people? There’s the rub. If you’re closeted, you have some control. If you’re open, you have no control at all. It’s 100% up to the other people. Those odds suck. People don’t fall down wells on purpose for a reason. There’s no benefit in going out of your way to voluntarily give up whether you live or die and leave that to other people. That’s just as true for family relationships.

    Patiently coax him to first be more open and risk-taking with you, if need be, and reward him with acceptance.

    Interesting comment. I never thought of it this way before, but maybe those who feel a need to come out as an atheist to everyone they meet get some sort of thrill out of it, maybe a thrill out of the confrontation, like people who skydive. If that’s so, that your individual predilection, though. It is probably not this woman’s husband’s predilection. He might not get a thrill out of it at all; it might have the opposite effect, making him extremely uncomfortable. If that’s right, then he gets no benefit out of coming out at all and shouldn’t be peer pressured into doing it. We’re all adults here, right?

    If you feel stifled by what you sense are restrictions on what you can say, perhaps the other person feels stifled too, about other topics. Gradually establish a right to free speech between you.

    I’m sorry, but this strikes me as incredibly naive. Have you noticed the idiocracy we live in? People doubt that Obama was born in the US, and will sacrifice themselves, if it comes to that, to prevent getting their own healthcare coverage! Imagine the horror if greedy private HMOs no longer maintained the health care system!

    Remember the Iraq war, when 80% of the US though invasion was a good idea? I wasn’t one of them. The lesson: We are all stifled, all the time. Might as well not make your life harder than it has to be while you are being stifled.

    I don’t feel stifled when I fail to tell my neighbor that he’s fat, dumb, and lazy. What would be the point in telling him that – to make him pissed and raise the chances of waking up to slashed tires? I don’t feel stifled when I fail to tell religious people that I’m an atheist, either.

  • Peregrine

    Most of my friends know, and I don’t make much of a secret about it. But my family, as far as I can tell, are blissfully unaware.

    My mother mentioned one time that she knew that I didn’t take church life seriously, and that she was “disappointed”. But as far as I can tell, she just thinks I’m just a lapsed Catholic. Aside from my wife and to a certain extent my sisters, I don’t think anyone in my family knows just exactly where I stand on religion. And they’ve never asked.

    I’ve thought about the whole “coming out” thing. But I think it’s best to just let it slide until it comes up in conversation. I’ve missed a few opportunities, I’m sure. But I don’t really feel that I need to make a special point of it.

    My family is odd that way. They’re pretty easy going sometimes, but other times, there’s a hint of closet intolerance. My cousin told the family he was gay last year, and it went over surprisingly well. There were a few people who had to come to terms with it, but most of us weren’t bothered. Some of us even knew, or sort of guessed, already.

    I was married by a deputy clerk on the front lawn of my parent’s place, in a secular ceremony, with no mention of god. No one complained. At least not openly that I’m aware.

    But still, I’ve been witness to other instances of less tolerance that frankly surprised me, so I’m wary.

    It’ll probably come up when we start having kids, and I have to explain why we’re not getting them baptized.

    Still, it would be nice to get it over with before then. It would give me the opportunity to be a little more open with certain things, like online activities, and other projects. Hey, I won a contest last month. That’s kindof cool. But no one offline knows about it.

    I’m just going to play it by ear, and see what happens. That’s my plan.

  • JulietEcho

    I think most atheists feel most “stifled” if, in order to keep up the pretense, they are forced to say or do things that they don’t mean/believe. Having to go to church or tell reassuring lies on a regular basis can be emotionally exhausting when you don’t believe religion has any truth to it – and downright psychological torture if you believe that religion can be harmful.

  • K

    Coming out atheist to your family can be daunting, especially when your family is uber-religious. In my case, I never made a point to express my disbelief but I never denied it. My parents figured it out when I went on and on about evolution of biology/physiology, culture, and language while in my sophomore year of college. They asked if I believed in god anymore, I said no. My family falls in the uber-religious category, many are missionaries, almost all are fundamentalist evangelicals. Despite one brief interlude of my mother yelling that I would “one day know god’s love,” not much came of the revelation. My parents were even happy for me when I met and married someone who enjoined in my lack of belief. My atheism made me no less their beloved daughter.

    Speaking of weddings, we were married by an episcopal priest in my parents’ backyard. The priest was also our bartender. I’ve found that many true theologians, like him, are often as agnostic and atheist as the rest of us. For a lot of them, the church is more a career than a conviction, it’s just that their expertise and education are in religion.

    And as for coming out in the workplace, I don’t make a point to. I also don’t go along with any superstitious nonsense. I say ‘gesundheit’ instead of ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. I say ‘I’ll keep her in my thoughts’ or ‘I wish her the best’ rather than ‘I’ll pray for her’. These are just ways I circumvent religious colloquialisms. I once had a nosy co-worker who grilled everyone on their religious beliefs shortly after she came to work with us (she also asked us how much we made which is not only nosy but rude, imo). Turns out she’s Roman Catholic, the good kind who goes to mass twice a week, has a smoking and republican-voting habit, two boyfriends, and a child out of wedlock — not that I’m judging here. :) The conversation went like this:

    Co-worker: So what about you, K? Where do you go to church?
    K: I’m atheist. I don’t go to church.
    Co-worker: So you don’t believe in anything? No creator, no life force (I hate when they say that, it’s so ambiguous), or gaia, or anything?

    K: No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. *SMILE*

    End of conversation. We got along well at work after that, she never tried to convert me, she never really asked me about my atheism ever again.

    It seems to me that people tend to accept it, on an individual basis. I think the religious masses are afraid of the heathen hordes, but not of the singular non-believers. They compartmentalize your non-belief, they gloss over it and go on loving you like they always have.

  • Tizzle

    I came out as not-their-religion, which was close enough to Atheist to be a problem. My mother and I had many conversations about it, especially during the time that I was considering Paganism before moving on to Atheism. Our conversations were difficult and emotional, but they sure helped when I finally also determined I am, then came out as, a lesbian. While I still haven’t used the ‘A’ word, it is right there on my facebook page, which my mother could choose to look at (she signs on there very rarely).

    My cousin and I have often discussed our relationships with our mothers (they are sisters). She, now that we are in our 30s, wishes she had gone through all the work I did when I was in my early 20s. Because it’s still there for her to work through, but she really doesn’t want to now. I believe my relationship with my mother is stronger than it would have been. Note: I don’t have a relationship with my still-Christian siblings which I haven’t yet figured out what to do/think about.

    To the wife/husband: I would suggest that the wife not assume her way is the only way. While I encourage people to ‘come out’, at least to close family members, I would not presume to insist upon it. This situation strikes me as being one that is “typical” male v. female relating techniques. Generally (of course generalizations are problematic, etc) men share less/ are less open/ care less as adults about their relationships with their mothers. My point being, it may not be fear that motivates him, but apathy.

  • AxeGrrl

    anonymous wrote:

    I don’t feel stifled when I fail to tell my neighbor that he’s fat, dumb, and lazy. What would be the point in telling him that – to make him pissed and raise the chances of waking up to slashed tires? I don’t feel stifled when I fail to tell religious people that I’m an atheist, either.

    It’s quite revealing that you seem to think that simply being open about one’s atheism is akin to being needlessly insulting. It’s a completely specious analogy, but, as I said, quite revealing of your attitude/mindset.

    And regarding feeling ‘stifled’…..because you don’t feel that way you simply can’t fathom why anyone else might feel that way?

    Some people would rather live open and honestly (which doesn’t mean in-your-face-and-confrontationally) than live feeling somewhat cloistered as a result of having to cater to the ‘delicate sensibilities’ of ignorant relatives and/or co-workers.

  • Anonymous

    It’s quite revealing that you seem to think that simply being open about one’s atheism is akin to being needlessly insulting. It’s a completely specious analogy, but, as I said, quite revealing of your attitude/mindset.

    I’m talking about the reactions of other people. More often than not, very religious people will take an admission of atheism, or being outspoken about it, as a needless attack on their faith. They shouldn’t, but as I said, we have zero control over the reactions of other people. It’s emotional to them in the same way that an insult is. It’s not rational, but it’s the way the uber-religious usually are.

    And regarding feeling ’stifled’…..because you don’t feel that way you simply can’t fathom why anyone else might feel that way?

    I’m fine with people coming out of the closet of their own initiative. I’m opposed to coaxing one’s husband into coming out of the closest when he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to, however.

    The problem is that the “out’rs” are encouraging people to come out of the closet when that would be a bad idea most of the time. Their message is not “Hey, come out if you want, but if you don’t want to come out, that’s cool too. Do whatever.”

    Their goal is for as many people as possible to come out. That’s not compatible with free thought, i.e. making up your own mind. The out’rs want people out in large numbers, and if that requires pressuring people to come out, or encouraging them to come out against their own interests, the end justifies the means. And when you get disowned, or are fired, or are not hired, the out’rs aren’t going to be waiting in the wings to offer you family resources or a new job. You’ll be out on your ass, and as on your own as you ever were, with no support network to catch you if you fall.

    Some people would rather live open and honestly (which doesn’t mean in-your-face-and-confrontationally) than live feeling somewhat cloistered as a result of having to cater to the ‘delicate sensibilities’ of ignorant relatives and/or co-workers.

    This is a personal choice and I have no beef with people who make it. I just don’t support the presumption that everyone should be like you in this regard. It reminds me of the parent-childless debate: parents are always pushing the childless to have kids, whether that would be a good idea for the childless or not. Let the childless decide for themselves whether they want kids, and if not, don’t pretend they are lesser for not being like you, or have some obligation to see things your way. The childless are not deriding parents for choosing to have kids (except maybe for Octomom); but parents are often pushing the childless to decide things like they did.

    The pushy “out’rs” strike me as a different kind of dogmatist in a similar way. They think that every atheist should share their identity politics agenda. But I disagree. To each his own. If you’re into identity politics, fine. But if not, fine too. Not everyone defines who they are as atheists. Some of us just happen to be atheists. Just like some Hispanics don’t self-identity ethnically; they just happened to have Hispanic parents.

    We atheists just happen to care about truth; others, not so much. But we are not special or more important than others because of this. We’re all in the same boat here. We’re all equally valuable (or dispensible) whatever our beliefs, heritage, gender, etc.

  • J B Tait

    What disturbs me is that the question even has to be asked.
    Would we see a religionist asking on their Christian site if they should come out to their atheist friends, relatives, or employer?
    That question is not meant to be rhetorical. Do they ask?

  • Filius

    JB,
    I completely agree with your sentiment. It is ridiculous that I, and many others, feel we need to ask this question of ourselves. However, after seeing what families can do to “black sheeps”, I have to concider the consequences. My partner grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, and in her early 20s, decided that it was not the right life for her. She was disfellowshipped and her parents did not speak to her for roughly 4 years. This was just from leaving the faith, not atheism. We have recently made contact with them, since we had our daughter, but the relationship will never be good. So yes, I do have to ask myself if that is something I want to go through.

  • Filius

    As for religionists asking this question, if they were raised in a closed-minded, anti-religion home, then yes, I believe they would be asking themselves this. If they were raised in an environment that rewarded thoughts and questioning, they would have a stronger foundation for decisions they make, so they probably won’t be asking this.

    One of the things I’ve noticed since moving out to the Pacific Northwest is the areas acceptance, and tolerance for individual philosophies and lifestyles. But when you grow up in a midwest farming community, it can be much harder to accept yourself, let alone put it out there for others to accept. I do not hide who I am here, but when it comes to my religious family, I have to think about consequences.

  • Filius

    Anon,
    I do agree that, for some, coming out can be social suicide. However, as JulietEcho pointed out, it can be much more difficult, internally, to keep it bottled up, and perpetuate a life that is not real for the eyes of others. That’s the benefit, being able to be yourself. It is on an idividual level, as to whether or not that is a big enough benefit to warrant the risk. I happen to live 1500 miles from my family, so they do not have a direct impact on my day-to-day life, but I still value the relationship we do have, and have to consider what their reaction may be.

    I will have to, partially, agree with your Sometimes truth will out. Sometimes not. You’re right. However, my handling of events will be better established, regardless of their reaction, if it comes out on my terms.

    As for trying to coax someone to come out, I agree. People should be made to feel that they can take things at their own pace. Nobody should be forced to come out, and no one should be forced to stay closeted. However, trying to help someone feel more comfortable with who they are is a great idea. So maybe coax was the wrong word for Richard to have used.

    Thank you for your comment post. It is great to get vast interpretations on ideas and questions.