I received two letters dealing with a similar holiday time quandary, going to Christmas Mass for the sake of the family, and so I am combining them in this post.
Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
I’ve been an atheist for several years now, and the only person in my family who knows is my sister, and she shares my doubts, though perhaps not quite as strongly as I do.
Every year around Christmastime I get anxious over how in the world I am going to escape Mass on Christmas. My parents are not fanatically religious, but my grandparents are, and I’m always hard pressed to find a way to not attend. My personal thoughts on the holiday are that a couple of days eating and spending time with family is a good thing, but I can’t be honest with myself and still attend church.
I’ve been toying with the idea of telling my parents, since I am now in my mid-twenties, and I think they will take me more seriously now than if I had told them several years ago. Telling them would help with the struggle I have around the holidays and they might be willing to play defense with my grandparents. I have a couple of problems with telling them, though. I doubt my sister would be willing to admit her feelings as well, because she is more of a “shut my mouth and please other people” kind of person, which I can’t fault her for, so I would be alone in this awkward situation. My dad is more accepting and contemplative, considering he is a therapist, so I wonder if I should tell him first, or have the talk with both my parents?
“Coming out of the closet” as an atheist has been something I have gone back and forth about for so long, and I wonder if finally saying it out loud would actually help or not. Would it just be better to keep my mouth shut and tolerate the religious services around Christmastime? After all, I don’t encounter them any other time of year. I just feel like I’m being dishonest with myself, and that my parents don’t know who I really am.
Thanks so much,
You have wrestled with this “coming out” decision for some time, year round. It has only become more vexing at this particular time because of the annoying ritual that you are expected to attend each year. I think of most coming out decisions as a matter of weighing cost versus benefit, risk versus safety.
It sounds like the main benefit of revealing your atheism would be that you would feel more true to yourself, and more honest, genuine and complete with your parents. For a person in her mid twenties, I can certainly understand your getting tired of hiding truths and faking things as if you were an adolescent still under your parent’s care. If you also tell your grandparents, you might not have to go to mass, but you might still end up going anyway, for concessionary reasons.
As for the cost, at worst there’s the risk of the anger, reproach, disappointment, division, and even disowning that sadly we so often hear about in families. You are the best judge of how likely that scenario is in your family. From what you’ve described, it sounds like there’s a chance that at least your parents would be able to adjust and accept it.
Coming out is a tough decision because there’s no going back. However, in your case, your family landscape could allow you to come out in controlled steps. At each step, having seen how things went, you could better estimate the cost versus benefit of the next step.
If you decide to go for it, I think that confiding in your dad as a first step is a good idea, since he is more accepting and contemplative, and is a therapist. There’s no guarantee that he’ll handle it the way you hope, but it sounds like he’s the best bet.
Approach him as an adult would approach a therapist. Ask if he is willing to talk with you about something confidentially, promising you that he will keep it just between the two of you until if and when you decide that your mother should be included. As a therapist, he understands the importance of confidentiality, and that it is an essential trust. If he agrees, then tell him your views and your concerns.
When atheists have kept this secret from loved ones for a long time, sometimes they inadvertently slip into a role of “confessing” it as if it’s a crime or a moral failing. Be careful to present it as a straight forward matter of fact about you, being neither ashamed and apologetic, nor defiant and proud. It’s just what’s so about you.
Based on the outcome of talking with your dad, you will be more able to decide whether and when to go to the next step of telling your mother. Again, make it clear to both of your parents that you must be the one who decides whether and when to tell your grandparents. Your parents may have useful advice about that.
Since your grandparents are the most religious, you might decide to postpone telling them. The cost of holding back may be that you have to go to yet another Christmas Mass to please them. As you said, it’s just a brief concession that you only have to perform once a year. Being able to be more open with your parents may be enough to compensate for that compromise to your grandparents’ feelings.
As far as your cautious sister is concerned, I would not ask her to come out with you; she should have no pressure about that. She should be allowed to do that on her own time and terms. But it would be considerate and fair to her to let her know what you intend to do, so that she is prepared for any waves this may generate through the family.
Janice, I hope whatever you decide results in a more relaxed and loving time with your family. The holiday season can be cold enough without having to feel like a Cold War spy concealing a secret identity.
I’ve enjoyed your column and site for sometime now. I’ve been an Atheist for several years now, and I’m lucky to have found a woman who, despite having an upbringing (like mine) in the Catholic church, is an Atheist as well.
I’m also very fortunate that her parents (my future in-laws) are very welcoming people who never preach or guilt us about our feelings on religion despite the strong connection they have with the Catholic church.
I am conflicted on one issue though: my future in-laws live out of town, and when we visit them for the Christmas holidays, there’s an unspoken expectation that we will join them in attending Midnight Mass on Christmas eve. While it’s only a minor inconvenience at worst, I’m conflicted as to whether or not I take communion. While it doesn’t offend me to do it, it also doesn’t mean anything to me either. On the other hand, I risk offending my father-in-law by not taking communion, or insulting the tenets of Catholicism by partaking in something in which I don’t have a spiritual connection.
Thanks in advance,
Since apparently you are “out” enough with your in-laws so that they seem to accept your feelings about religion, your challenge is much simpler than Janice’s.
It sounds like you and your wife don’t mind going to the Mass as a gesture of courtesy to your in-laws, and that taking communion is not a problem for you. Since you are more or less able to be frank with your father-in-law about your lack of belief, why not simply ask him which he would prefer? Explain to him your concern about being respectful, just as you have explained here. Knowing that you don’t connect with it, would he see taking communion or not taking communion to be the more respectful thing for you to do?
The Catholic Church might have prescribed policies about this, but you don’t need to please the Church, you just want to be respectful to your in-laws. I think that they would be very pleased that you were showing them this consideration and being so conscientious.
I commend you on your sensitivity about the nuances of this, wanting to act respectfully to both your in-laws and the church tenets that have meaning for them.