Ask Richard: Young Atheist Considers Coming Out to His Grandparents

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Hey Richard,

I’m in the 9th grade and I’ve been reading and commenting on Friendly Atheist for several months. You and I have had some good conversations here. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’m a big fan of your advice.

I’ve got some very religious grandparents. Actually, they’ve got maybe 10-15 images of Jesus and crosses around their home. I became an atheist about one year ago, and I’m an “out” atheist, but I haven’t told them. When I talk to them, they always say that they’re “praying for me” and that “God is with me”. I always just say, “thank you” and ignore it, but it makes me somewhat uncomfortable because I feel like I’m being dishonest with them. I love them both and they deserve to know the truth. On the other hand, I’m unsure as to how they might react. It’s more likely that they’ll accept and respect me, yet one can never be 100% sure. As you can guess, I hope that they’ll be okay with it, but I don’t know whether or not I should take the risk.

Thank you very much,
Trevor

Dear Trevor,

Before figuring out how to tell your grandparents, you need a “whether report,” as in whether or not you should do that at all. Because you’re already “out” to other people, this knowledge might eventually reach them without your choice, but then again, it might not.

Since starting this column, I’ve received about 200 letters. The problems people present fall into categories such as ethical dilemmas, raising children, or unwanted proselytizing.

But by far, the largest category of letters is called “Help! My Family is Treating Me As If I’m Disgusting Vermin Since I Told Them I’m An Atheist!”

Over and over, so many of the stories relate how when the atheists came out, their families suddenly changed from loving and supportive, to cold, rejecting, hostile, and even vicious. The years that the atheist has spent being loving, supportive and loyal to the family apparently count for absolutely nothing, as if that never took place. They are instantly regarded as vile monsters simply because of their membership in a belief category. Their actual behavior or conduct has nothing to do with it.

While the atheists may have expected some upset from the family, they are often stunned by the intensity of the reaction. The hurt that the atheists suffer can be heart-rending, and the level of insanity in the rest of the family can be bewildering. The younger the atheists are, the more vulnerable they are to pressure, manipulation and mistreatment by the family.

Certainly, not all families react so horrendously. Some handle it quite well, some have some tension but eventually adjust, but enough of them have this explosion of utter irrationality that I hesitate to ever suggest that someone reveal their atheism without very carefully testing the waters first.

So go fishing.

There’s an old cliché about a person approaching a psychologist saying, “Doc, I have this friend who has a problem,” when it’s really his own problem. Old western movies often used a cliché where the hero held his hat out on a stick from behind a rock to see if anyone would shoot at him. As cliché as those methods are, they can work.

Bringing up the topic of another person’s atheism might give you some insight into how they might respond to your atheism. Of course, the exact way you’d go about this with your grandparents would depend on the nature of your relationship with them. Your delivery might be offhand and casual, or a more serious request for advice. With whatever adjustments that would be fitting for your relationship with them, you might say something like this:

“Grampa and Gramma, I wanted to ask your opinion on something. A friend of mine confided to me that he has realized that he’s no longer convinced that there is a god. He’s always been a very good friend, and he has always been an honest and good person. I didn’t quite know what to say, and so I was wondering if you have any suggestions.”

Avoid asking closed-ended, yes-or-no, either-or questions such as “Should I remain friends with him?” Such questions supply them the answers to choose from, and you’ll get less information about their attitudes. Ask open-ended questions about their thoughts, feelings and suggestions about the situation.

Tell the story first without the “A-bomb” word, and then later mention the term “atheist.” If their reaction is significantly different between “he’s not convinced that there is a god” and “he’s an atheist,” you’ll also gain insight into any misconceptions they might have about that scary, scary word. That will help you plan your statements if you decide to tell them.

I’ll acknowledge straight out that telling them such a “friend of mine” story is a lie, and I make no apologies for that. I’m usually the champion for honesty, but I’m not at all above lying to avoid getting my head shot off.

But there’s more to the act of telling the truth than the consequences we personally face.

It is also important to consider the effect it will have on the people whom we’re telling. We’d all love to have open, honest and frank relationships with our families, not having to pretend or give vague, non-committal responses, but it can be a grave mistake to become entirely self-centered in our eagerness to be completely honest. If we disregard or dismiss the upset that others will go through just so that we will feel better, then our actions can be much more about selfishness than truthfulness.

After all, our beliefs about religion are nobody else’s business. They don’t really need to know, even if we need, or think we need, to tell them. Do our needs always trump all other considerations?

Trevor, I know you love your grandparents, and when you say “I love them both and they deserve to know the truth,” I say they deserve your kindness and respect. Delivering those two things is much more delicate and complicated than simply delivering the truth. Instead of mechanically following a rule about honesty at all costs, we have to apply our judgment to situations. Kindness might suggest that you allow them to continue their assumptions about your beliefs, while respect might suggest that you let them know what you really think. Yet kindness could also be seen as telling them who their grandson really is, and respect might be best served by leaving their beliefs and assumptions well enough alone.

You instinctively know this, and that is why you have hesitated to tell them. You’re not just considering the cost it might have on you, you’re also considering the cost it might have on them. That circumspection is from a more mature love than just blithely telling them the truth.

Beware of simple, formulaic answers to life’s problems. Life is never simple. We have to use our judgment and make decisions based on incomplete information. Even our best decisions always, always have their drawbacks. All we can do is try to get as much information as we can, and then take our chances.

The fishing expedition I have suggested might bring you some of that information. To clarify my position as I have in other posts, I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying make your decision based on thoughtful deliberation rather than from a prescribed rule or an impulse.

You are a most excellent young man, and regardless of your decision or its outcome, your grandparents should to be very proud of you.

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.

  • http://ottodestruct.com Otto

    Why do people even consider “coming out” with regard to atheism?

    Look, your beliefs are your own business. If the topic comes up, then fine, but I wouldn’t make it a point to tell people about it.

    How my grandparents found out I am an atheist: They asked me to go to church one Sunday morning, and I said “no, I don’t believe in that sort of thing”, then turned back to cartoons. End of discussion, really. I never even used the word “atheist”. I simply said “I don’t believe” and went on with my life as if nothing of consequence had happened.

    If you don’t *make* it into a big deal, then it usually is not a big deal. It’s only when you assign labels to it and treat it like it is some kind of problem that it becomes an actual problem.

    More to the point, don’t feel uncomfortable when they say they’re praying for you and similar things. They have their beliefs, and them praying is *for them*, not for you. It makes them feel better, and even though you don’t believe in it, that doesn’t really make you dishonest in any way. What they do with their beliefs is no more your problem than your beliefs are theirs. I mean, so they’ve got a whole lot of that old-timey christian in them… Big deal, old folks tend to be that way. Product of their times and what not. Hey, could be worse, my grandparents are pretty darned racist sometimes. Just nod, smile, and ignore it.

  • Polly

    and that “God is with me”.

    He said he was with me!
    That jerk!

    (I think I’m having a lagunatic moment)

  • Kyle

    Very excellent advice. However, be very careful about how you go about this “fishing” endeavor. You may get a sense for how someone feels about a particular group of people by the way your family members react, but once they know it’s you, they may react very differently.

    Coming out as an atheist has wonderful parallels in the LGBT community. I’ve had to face coming out as transsexual and gay to my brothers. In one instance, with my younger brother, I had plenty of time to “go fishing” and drop subtle hints before I actually told him anything. At first, he seemed okay with the idea. But after a time, he decided he wasn’t going to be so loving and accepting. I suspect his motives are driven by stress in his life, and very probably, fear. My other brother, I didn’t exactly have that luxury. Under pressure from my youngest brother, I simply dropped a bombshell on my middle brother. So far, he’s taking it very graciously. It very much depends on the individual person.
    Hopefully, your family will remember you as a kind and thoughtful person when they are faced with applying the dreaded “atheist” label to you. It’s tough, but I agree with you. You should be as honest as you can in life. Kudos to you for stepping up to the challenge. Honesty isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it.

  • Ron in Houston

    I agree with Richard about testing the waters first, but then again, I also agree with Otto. Why must you come out? What is it about atheism where people feel this need to “come out?”

  • Valdyr

    I agree! We should stay as quiet and powerless as possible. Visibility only causes uncomfortable and bad things, like having to stand up for oneself. If we’re good little girls and boys, I’m sure everyone will just forget about us and attitudes towards the nonreligious will further warm without any real-life examples to contrast the already fond perceptions people have.

    Keep your heads down. Hug your Senator or Congressbeing. Think harmony.

  • http://ottodestruct.com Otto

    Valdyr: Where did you get that ridiculous idea? By all means, vote against stupidity and shout down ignorance in our government.

    But you don’t need to be some kind of lower-class group of people to do that. It’s not about hiding who you are, it’s about BEING who you are.

    I’m an athiest. But I don’t feel the need to preach about it and get up in everybody’s face and be a dick. That would make me no better than the christians I regularly kick off my front porch.

    Attitudes toward the non-religious *WILL* change. Why? Because the trend is increasing and pretty soon religion will be in the minority. The more they fight it, the more idiotic they look.

    Sanity *is* winning.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    I’m also not sure why atheists feel the need to “come out” of the closet. I guess maybe it’s more pressing if your family is religious and putting religious pressure on you, but I never experienced that. As a result, I don’t remember ever feeling like my atheism was a secret or was supposed to be a secret. I can’t remember one particular instance of telling my parents, and I certainly didn’t sit down and give a great deal of thought to the matter. I probably just mentioned it casually at some point in middle school or high school, and their response (if they had one) must have been a complete non-issue. But I’m a lifelong atheist who was raised in a secular home, so my experience is bound to be different from the experiences of people whose families taught them to believe in a religion and expected them to follow it.

  • http://infalliblefailure.blogspot.com Jeff Satterley

    Valdyr: Being an out atheist is not about running around explicitly saying “I’m an atheist, yippity ya!” Be yourself, and stand up for your principles. If religion never comes up, there’s no reason to bring it up. If it does, then be honest, but it still doesn’t have to be a big deal.

    I agree with Otto. Making coming out as an atheist a bigger deal than it is often is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you tell someone “I’m an atheist,” and close your eyes waiting for the explosion, its more likely to happen.

    Maybe its because making a big deal of it makes it seem like a conscious decision you made, that affect who you are. Whereas if your just being yourself, then it just comes across as part of you, just like the parts of you that are kind and compassionate. Or maybe making a big deal out of coming out seems more like an admission of guilt. I’m not sure…

  • http://olivenyc.wordpress.com/ Olivia

    Yes, our (lack of) beliefs are personal, and there’s no mandate saying that all atheists must “come out.” But if a person does want to do so, it’s not our place to say, “No, don’t do it. It’s not *supposed* to be a big deal.” For some, like Trevor, it is a big deal, and I commend Richard for his advice.

    Trevor, using the “I have a friend” schtick shows that you value your grandparents’s opinions, and you’re not “coming out” just for the sake of doing so. I think that saying, “I’m an atheist, so deal with it,” you’d be setting up a barrier of communication. Using Richard’s recommended approach, hopefully your grandparents will realize that you still want to keep those familial ties.

  • littlejohn

    I vote against coming out. He’s in the 9th grade, so his grandparents are probably at least in their 70s.
    There is a difference between lying and not volunteering information. I’m guessing the kid’s about 14. Does he up and tell them how often he masturbates? Of course not. They don’t want to know and it would only upset them.
    Same thing here.
    Enjoy your grandparents while you’re a teenager, and indulge whatever seems old-fashioned about them. They won’t be around much longer. My last grandparent died right after my 18th birthday.
    We never discussed anything that might have upset her, and I’m glad we didn’t.
    Ask them about their parents and life in the old days. They’ll be happy to talk about it, and someday you’ll realize that stuff is actually pretty interesting.

  • Polly

    You’d think we asked for this trouble of having to “come out.”

    It IS very different when you’re brought up as a believer and, even worse, you’ve been a believer all along and that’s considered by you and your immediate family to be the most important thing in all existence.

    Not declaring your atheism is to wind up having to lie about virtually any subject beyond your favorite ice-cream flavor because everything else is tied into religion.

    I admitted I was an atheist because I refused to continue giving verbal assent to such gold nuggets like:

    Jesus is coming soon.
    The world is going to end.
    The rapture is going to happen any day now. Are you ready? huh? Are you?

    Obama is a Msulim out to establish Islam in America and persecute Christians.

    teh gayz want to molest all the children

    Palestinians are on the side of the Devil against God’s chosen people and Plan.

    We’re all going to have to resist getting microchips installed in our foreheads/right hands.

    Note, I merely withheld enthusiastic endorsement of these notions and was questioned point-blank: Are you even still a Christian? (not rhetorically)

    What the hell am I supposed to do? Lie AGAIN? That was the second or third time. It’s tiring to keep on lying.

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    @Polly. Oh shit, I’m catching…and the doc said that cream would fix it. I’m going to have to get a refund ;)

    IRT current topic, Trevor, in the spirit of cliches, I think you should take a different approach. Find out what they REALLY hate (gays, different races, liberals, Nancy Pelosi etc) and proclaim to be all of these (well, I guess it may be hard to claim to be Nancy Pelosi, but you could talk about having sexual dreams about her..on second thought, go ahead and claim to be her, it’ll just make the punch line that much better) and then, just as you’re being called upon to screwing a bottle of aspirin for their impending heart attacks say, “Ha,ha, I’m just kidding. Now, don’t you feel better that I’m ONLY an atheist?”

    Fun for the whole family and a great story for upcoming reunions.

    gl.

  • Tom Woolf

    I would not tell them unless asked directly. I do like Trevor’s answer to their religious wishes of well-being: “thank you”. There is no hypocrisy nor issue in thanking somebody who is wishing you well. I used to take offense at cashiers who would wish me a “blessed day”, but I got over it once I realize they were simply wishing me well in their own harmless way. (Now, if they were to say “Heil Hitler”, or “White Power”, that’s a different creature…)

    Trevor, only being 14-15, should not feel the need to tell his grandparents. Even with Richard’s fishing trip, it might lead to bad feelings. Foolish bad feelings, but bad feelings nonetheless. If Trevor is asked to go to church and does not want to, then he should decline. But the reason behind it is his own.

  • JD

    I’d say let them be. You never know if that knowledge would cause them a sudden bout of needless stress. They only mean well.

  • http://askepticbiblestudy.blogspot.com Nora

    I think it’s perfectly natural for an atheist to want to “come out.” As someone who was raised in a very religious but not fundamentalist family (ie church and sunday school every sunday without fail, youth groups wednesday night, but not being homeschooled through high school kind of thing), it was something very important about me that changed. Why wouldn’t I want my family to know? I mean, I didn’t make a big scene out of it, but I did fret about how they were going to react (ended up not being too bad). I’m glad that I told them, because I do not have to pretend to agree with them or put up with the guilt trips about what movies I was seeing or whether I was attending church regularly at college.

    I can see how for someone who grew up rather indifferent to it or whose family was rather indifferent to it, “coming out” isn’t a big deal. But I think for those of us that have that stronger religious history, it was a significant change that we wanted to inform our families of. And waiting for it to just come up doesn’t necessarily create a good time, place, or atmosphere to the discussion, so I think there is a lot to be said about planning a bit beforehand.

    As far as those not my family, yeah I never “came out” to them, I just changed my religion listed on facebook (I am truly a 90′s child!) and said “Yeah, I am,” when anyone asked me if I was an atheist. But I wouldn’t have wanted my family to find out that way.

  • Demonhype

    I, for one, get tired of hearing all about Jesus and praying from everyone and everything. I’m lucky and only my mom has much faithiness to speak of (and isn’t insane about it), but everything and everyone else seem to spew religion and faith like it’s their job. Talk to most people and little “praise God” or “I’ll say a prayer for…”, even when they’re not being overtly evangelical it’s all these little barbs of faith thrown out so casually they dont’ even seem to realize it. You see it on billboards and on walls and on TV. You see co-workers spaces encrusted with Jesus memorabilia. And you are automatically assumed to be Christian yourself, or at least to believe in “something” (provided that something is implausible and imaginary). Even at home, you can’t escape the faithiness–not if you want to watch TV or follow politics or have any knowledge of the world outside.

    Atheists have not done this. Religious people have done this. They have made faith a public matter by their very handling of the subject. I can be accosted by people’s personal faith on a regular basis in every format available, and even have laws dictated to me by a politician’s personal god-belief, and I can be automatically assumed to be religious–and by that, have any good I do be tallied up on the Jesus-side of the argument–but the moment I come “out” (because, amazingly, being honest about who I am is an important principle to me), however gently or unobtrustively, I suddenly become the big obnoxious problem.

    I’ll care about accomodationism and “shutting up” and keeping faith private when the faithful do. Call me when there aren’t about five or six Christian networks and hundreds to thousands of Christian radio channels, for example, while there are zero atheist ones. Call me when a significant percentage (possibly a majority) of Christians don’t feel the need to express their faith in every casual conversation, or make Christian laws, or revise history to reflect Christian prejudice and lies, and the list goes on. Then maybe I’ll be able to work up some concern about the obnoxious atheists who don’t coast along pretending to be Christian so as not to upset the tender-hearted faithful.

  • paula

    Otto, et al - ‘coming out’ as an atheist can be a big deal if you are part of a very religious family – sometimes the angst caused is not worth it (for anyone). When I told my mother casually I was no longer going to church I wasn’t able to turn casually back to watching the tv. I endured a crap load of …well…crap about god. I didn’t even bother mentioning the A word (gasp) until I had kids of my own and she was bleating about them going to hell if I didn’t get them baptised – then the ensuing angst was worth it because I was trying to save my kids from the religious torment.

    Trevor: I think you are very kind to consider your grandparents feelings in this regard but personally I wouldn’t tell them unless you feel it is going to make a difference in your life. If you feel hypocritical , or uncomfortable with talking (or being talked to) about god with them, then’take therisk’ and talk about your atheism, but if you think it will ruin an otherwise good relationship, and their religious beliefs dont worry you – let it slide. I never told my grandmother i was an atheist and i dont regret that, because it would have caued a rift, and would have upset her very much – much more than her saying ‘God Bless’ etc upset me.

  • me

    America is just depressing. Americans are treating atheism as a decease. It’s weird . I think my whole family is atheists. We don’t care about religion here(Just funerals and weddings.)

    When we think of America. The first that come to our minds are churches and super strong Christianity .. It is just weird.. Our culture and language are not based around Christianity, so i guess that’s make atheism something normal and accepted

  • Thegoodman

    I think that the world in general is not good at looking at situations from a different angle. While we atheists certainly know that religion (or lack thereof) is a personal choice, many religious people; particularly older ones, do not see it that way.

    Just a few short generations ago, you were born into your religion and that was that. There was nothing to consider or question because it was all fact and it was all true and to say otherwise was not only wrong, it was STUPID. How could you deny truth? Why would you be different? Why make grandma upset?

    Now consider the perspective of the highly religious grandparents. They likely have done little questioning of their faith and they consider their faith the pillar that holds them up in the difficult time that is their golden years. Then in trots a snot nosed little kid (I know a 15 yr old is not a child, but try telling a grandparent that) and he says that everything they know to be true and everything they revolve their lives around is wrong and he doesn’t accept it. Not only does the kid look like he doesn’t know what he is talking about (from there perspective, he doesn’t know ANYTHING) and insults their way of life. Grandma and Grandpa may love you very much, but telling them that you have learned something in 15 short years that they have not figured out in 140 years combined is in fact insulting.

    My advice: leave it alone. Keep your grandparents happy by saying “Thank you” when they say god bless and completely avoid the topic of religion all together. The fact is that they are old and will likely be dead before you have children of your own and having them know you are not like them in any way won’t make you feel and better and it certainly won’t make them feel any better.

    Tell your parents, tell your friends, tell everyone in your family. If they choose to run off and tell Mama and Papa, so be it, burn that bridge when you get there. In all likely hood, unless your family is insane, it will never be a topic of discussion amongst your family members and they will go to their graves happily knowing that they have done the work of Jesus (that is obviously important to them).

    I know many of you are very militant and think you should verbally punch every person in the face with your lack of belief, but pacifism works wonders at avoiding conflict and conflict between grand-parents and grand-kids is never productive.

    Trevor, this has nothing to do with you growing into a man. But it does have a lot to do with you acting like an adult. While I admire your desire to be honest with your grandparents, it just isn’t realistic. Are you going to talk to them when you start having sex? What about if you try some drugs or start underage drinking? How about if you cheat on your girlfriend, will you discuss this with them as well? Of course you won’t. These things might seem wrong in the biblical sense (ha!) but the fact is that most of us grow up learning things the hard way by doing things we shouldn’t. If you are not telling your grandparents every detail of your life, leaving out your lack of faith won’t hurt anything.

    Again, this is special advice for grandparents and doesn’t really apply to anyone else except perhaps your mother if she is particularly nuts.

  • Thegoodman

    @Demonhype

    This kid’s letter isn’t about some political rally he is attending. It is about a very personal conversation with his grandparents.

    What you call “accomodationism” I call being a nice family member. Alienating your entire family because of their beliefs sounds like something a religious fanatic would do and its unbecoming of an atheist and imo doesn’t really align with my own atheistic goals of acceptance and mind-your-own-business-ance.

  • Vas

    I agree,(very strongly) with Valdyr for most situations… However with old folks I will tend to make an exception, for me they are in the lost cause category. They are from another time, and it may as well be a different planet in many cases. I’m with Littlejonh in this situation, enjoy them while you can, use them as a bridge to your past, maintain your good relationship with them, their bigoted attitudes, (if they even have them) will die with them and pose little threat to modern society. Otto said in an earlier post that, “Attitudes toward the non-religious *WILL* change. Why? Because the trend is increasing and pretty soon religion will be in the minority.” I believe that the reason for this is precisely because atheists are increasingly unwilling to keep a low profile, unwilling to sit down and shut up. I think this change is happening in large part because of young people like you who are willing to speak out and I think your actions help all atheists and I would like to personally thank you for standing up and being counted. I would also heed Polly’s post and not fall down the rabbit hole of lying to appease xtians, it’s a downward spiral of deceit, but it sounds like you already know this and are just seeking advice about a very particular situation. Cut the old people some slack, let the sleeping dog lay, continue to use your voice as an atheist where it can do some good.

  • Darric

    “Trevor, I know you love your grandparents, and when you say “I love them both and they deserve to know the truth,” I say they deserve your kindness and respect.”

    I must disagree with this statement. If they are the kind of people who will react badly to the fact that you don’t believe in a god then I am of the opinion that they do not deserve your respect.

    Family shouldn’t be given any special privleges in regards to how you feel about them. They need to earn your love, respect, etc. Just as you should earn theirs.

    For example: I love my mother as she is a good person, but I still think she is an idiot for believing in ghosts and I don’t have a problem with her knowing it.

  • JulietEcho

    I agree with Polly – that, depending on whether you grew up in a very Christian environment, “coming out” means something different. In very religious homes/settings, there are hundreds of tiny ways in which you’re expected to acknowledge that you’re a Christian. You have to give the right responses to questions and proclamations, celebrate holidays the “right” way, attend religious services, avoid any behaviors that are considered sinful, etc. The burden of staying “in the closet” can be huge, and amounts of a lot of acting, omitting, and lying. In short, it’s demoralizing and lonely.

    I like Richard’s advice to Trevor, and I think the fact that he gave Trevor some options to consider (and some fishing advice) shows his professionalism. One size doesn’t fit all, and so all these generalizations about why atheists “come out” and whether or not it’s appropriate are inexact and unhelpful, IMO.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Why are so many people assuming that the grandparents are at death’s door? The letter writer is only in the ninth grade. It’s perfectly conceivable that his grandparents are in their early sixties, or possibly even younger. They’re not necessarily extremely elderly or from an inaccessible “different time.” There are lots of atheists in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, too. Of course, depending on the grandparents’ circle of friends they might not have been exposed to many atheists, but this is also true for younger generations.

  • JD

    I understand that one doesn’t want to feel like they’re lying to their family, and I understand not wanting to hear all sorts of Christian talking points, but then, you really need to consider that there’s a good chance that they will react incredibly negatively to any declaration of difference in belief. As it is, I don’t think it makes sense to let family know about your different beliefs until you’re out on your own or able to do so in short order.

    Let’s face it, you declare a different belief from your family, fill in the blanks on what the beliefs are, you risk being subjected to very hostile psychological warfare. Even if you’re talking about grandparents, because if your grandparents react negatively, they will tell your parents. So tread very carefully until you can fully separate from the family and escape them if necessary.

  • Derek

    Thank you for asking this question. I have pretty much the same dilemma and I’m glad to have some suggestion on how to handle my own situation.

  • Matt D

    for Trevor,

    i hope you get to read all these comments and can appreciate how genuine we all are in trying to help you thru this conundrum.

    Sometimes you can get too much advice. you’re a smart guy and you’ll figure it out.

    Just remember that you are really lucky to have grandparents, and they are at least as entitled to their views as you are to yours (probably more so).

    Love them, cherish them. you’ll come to realise just how short is your time with them. Go with the flow – there’s plenty of time to be your own and man and make your mark in this life.

    In a sense you need to be the adult here. It’s probably best to be selective with the the information you offer (i dont suggest you lie).

    good luck!

  • Zy

    Trevor,

    As a nine year old you have the opportunity to establish a personal philosophy that may carry throughout life. Myself, and only myself, I believe it is always best to be honest, even at the risk of temporarily disappointing someone. Establishing yourself as one that can always be trusted will eventually garner respect from those you love and care about. If they would expect you to betray your devotion to honesty by holding you an emotional hostage, then that is a flawed relationship at it’s foundation.

    Richard’s intentions are well meaning. It is from the school of situational ethics, which can be legitimately debated. To me, again only from my personal perspective, the slippery slope of lying to preserve the feelings of another leads to endless, unnecessary judgment calls that can exhaust your person. I would suggest you strive for honesty without being provocative or obnoxious. If your intent is honest and true, then it will radiate from your core and serve you well.

    The beauty and peace that comes from honestly admitting to being a non-theist is the freedom from having to fudge your true beliefs so as to appease social norms. It does not have to be obnoxious. It is a personal matter. Your grandparents may feel “obliged” to try and save your soul, as they’ve been ‘conditioned’. But any stress they impose would be of their choosing. You should not live your life altering your beliefs so as to appease someone else’s personal choices.

    If you truly love your grandparents, you can give them no greater gift than your honesty if you feel the subject must be addressed. There is nothing dishonest about not offering your personal beliefs if it has not been brought up.

    Good luck. You are a lucky individual to have the freedom to pursue life without myths and fairy-tales distorting the data you will rely upon to make life’s choices.

  • Rick M

    Trevor – You don’t say how much control your gp’s have in your life. Do you see them a lot? Do they push their political beliefs on you? How do they react if your parents disagree with them over some subject? Do they bully them or threaten to withdraw emotionally? Are they pushing you to go to religious services, constantly giving you books, forcing you to pray or make religious statements etc. Are they generally supportive of you in other areas of your life, your education, sports, social life? Or are they opinionated and dismissive of your thoughts or actions in these areas? Are they Hellfire and Damnation Christians? Do they get any apparent comfort out of their faith? Is that something that the genuinely want for you? Will you be able to be respectful of their religious views? I’m not saying you have to be. Some religious views are intolerable to accept.

    I’d suggest you do a little quiet investigative work first. The “my friend has this problem…” fishing expedition is pretty transparent. You might try sounding them out on other non-religious issues that you disagree about.

    I get that it is important for you to establish your own personality separate from your family. It is an important part of maturing. Be aware that there are many adults who never succeed in this process because they are afraid of family rejection. Some people can only accomplish this by creating a permanent divide between them and their families.

    You write, “It’s more likely that they’ll accept and respect me…” This sounds to me like you have a pretty good relationship, you feel supported by them generally. If you do have a good relationship with them then they may be an important ally for as long as they live, no matter what their religious beliefs are. If the “worst” thing they do is tell you that they pray for you then get used to it – you’re going to run into well-meaning folks like that.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Trevor,

    I was fortunate to grow up in a secular household and never had to face such a dilemma. Hopefully your future kids will share my experience.

    It seems like you have basically 4 choices.

    1. stay closeted to them
    2. come on out as an atheist
    3. use the “I have a friend who…” angle to feel them out
    4. partly come out by saying that you are “just a bit of a doubting Thomas”

    You will have to make the decision. Note that your grandparents might define “atheism” more narrowly and have a very negative opinion of it whereas they might at least understand “being a bit of a doubting Thomas”. It all depends on what flavor of Christian they are. There also may be a chance that they already know you are “out” and saying “I have a friend who…” won’t fool them. They will know you are talking about yourself. But on the other hand, perhaps that will allow both you and them to broach the subject while play-acting that you are talking about someone else.

  • http://adoubtersramblings.wordpress.com/ cj

    I’m with Polly!

    I find myself completely surrounded by friends and family who are fundamentalists. I’m a bit of a facebook junkie and it seems that 90% (I love making up statistics on the fly! LOL) of my friends status updates have some kind of christian spin. there’s one of my mothers friends that finishes EVER post and comment with ‘Jesus Luvs You’ (complete with the cute little misspelling). All day long it’s:

    God Is good.

    He’s coming back soon…are you ready?

    This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it!

    I usually just leave thoses comments/status alone. But they can’t help but come to me and post on my stuff when I post a Carl Sagan or Bertrand Russel quote that I like.

    So, for me, it’s almost always a case of them seeking me out, and not so much me thrusting my atheism at them.

    just my 2.5 cents worth.

  • muggle

    Anna, thank you. As a grandmother, I was growing somewhat resentful at all the grandparents are at death’s door horseshit. I’m 46 years older than my grandson; when he’s 14, I’ll be exactly 60. Hardly at death’s door. (I hope.) :)

    I’m also disturbed by all the why stress out the elders? Am I the only one who notices all the stress put on Trevor? People, he was stressing enough to write Richard. And I’m betting if his grandparents have that much religious imagary around, they are god this, god that a lot.

    I also can’t believe how cowardly so many are about mentioning their nonbelief. Yes, mentioning. Because religion does come up so if you don’t at minimum shrug and say I don’t really believe that, there’s only one reason why — you’re afraid of the reaction it will illicit. I can’t imagine why. /snark

    Trevor has some tough decisions to make. Only he can judge, in the end, how to handle his grandparents whether they be at death’s door or not.

    Given that, Richard’s advice is very sound. He’s obviously very unsure of how they’ll react so sounding them out is the way to go. Once he can get some idea, some judgment on their reaction, then he can handle how to judge handling his disbelief with them. It’s his personal relationship and he’ll have to do that when all’s said and done.

    As for coming out, in general, would that it wasn’t necessary. But even the fact that fellow Atheists are pointing accusing fingers at other Atheists for doing so is very telling in exactly why it’s important to be open about it.

    Question, Otto: how is this mysterious acceptance and turn in the tide “miraculously” going to happen when everyone is going about letting themselves be assumed the majority religion of their country or the religion of their family instead of openly saying well, no, I don’t believe that to the kind of every day remarks even mentioned above because they don’t want to hammer people over the head with it? Ridiculous.

    And, yes, I’m insulted when a cashier says have a blessed day. It’s not sincere or they’d merely say have a good day or have a nice day. Changing it to blessed is an attempt to promote religion and they’re an ass for so doing and deserve my glare.

    Frankly, in the wake of 9/11 and all the God Bless, America nonsense, all I could say to that is he’s definitely not.

  • ANTZILLA from Australia

    This an example of evolution, people have been forced belief system. Over time “faith” adoptations/traits have been passed down the generations. My advise would be to make sure your children have a proper education and are free to explore there own idenity.

  • http://weirdsanctuary.blogspot.com rodiel

    If you are worried about the consequences, wait until you are financially independent. Then rub it in their faces with a vengeance for the selfish and cruel act of bringing you into this world.
    Honesty is the best policy, but only from a safe distance.


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