Ask Richard: Young Atheist Considers Leaving Church and Coming Out

Dear Richard,

I’m a high school student, and while my parents know this, my Christian mother insists on sending me to church Youth Group every Friday. It doesn’t really bother me, but submitting to church feels as though I’m submitting to my mother. She believes that this is a “phase” and that it will “disappear” if I keep going to church. Some of my friends know that I’m atheist, but my church friends/acquaintances have no clue. I don’t like telling people about my beliefs because of all their misconceptions and prejudices about atheism. I’ve been struggling with whether I should stop going to church.

I love being an atheist and I’m proud of my beliefs. I feel like I’m a coward for not coming out and continuing to go along with my mother, but being a teenager makes it difficult for people to take my beliefs seriously. I’m a bit scared of how my peers will react and how my mother will react. My church has “presentations” for the preteens, which I used to have to attend. They basically make atheists out to be people in denial who are in a conspiracy to fool the rest of the world into believing in evolution. Needless to say, I didn’t really want to come out then. My mother has always had a tight control on the big decisions in my life (I’m an only child) and I’m afraid that this might elicit a bad reaction from her. She makes it a point to pray for me, pointedly mention God and church in front of me, and leave Christian magazines around.

If I stop going to church, I feel as though I should come out of the closet, especially because I don’t want to allow my church friends/acquaintances to continue to believe that I’m Christian. I know that word of my atheism will spread throughout the church community and make my family “look bad” in the words of my mother. (My church community is very conservative, and appearances are very important.) I don’t feel that my church acquaintances will understand my beliefs and will either attempt to distance themselves from me after they fail to convert me or take me on as a project of sorts. My church also has a policy that you “cannot be good friends with atheists or gays” lest we “lead good Christians astray onto the path of sin”, so I am afraid that the adults in my church community will discourage their children from speaking to me or getting too close to me.

So my question is: Should I stop going to church? If so, should I come out?

Thanks,
Diplomat

Dear Diplomat,

There’s a familiar paradox in life, repeatedly portrayed in literature, poetry and song. Young people, who have a great deal of time before them, are generally impatient, in a hurry to get what they want right now, while older people, whose time is dwindling, are generally very patient, willing to wait for what they want.

I think that part of the explanation for this is that the older people have learned, often the hard way, that the consequences of getting something you want too soon can be worse than not getting it at all.

I have received many letters from people of high school age who are eager to “out” themselves to their parents and their communities. In so many of these letters, they build a very convincing case for the storm of fear, anger, hurt, accusations, slander, unwanted proselytizing, ostracization, persecution, abuse, and financial or even physical abandonment that they will bring down upon their own heads if they announce the simple fact that they don’t believe in the local god.

It sounds like really good reasons to keep their mouths shut, doesn’t it?

But on the other side of their quandary, they say things like, “It’s tearing me up inside to not tell them,” or “I hate feeling like a liar,” or similarly to your remarks, “I don’t want them thinking I’m still a believer.” They all share this burning impatience to get it out right now!

Stop for a moment, take a few deep, slow breaths, and take a long, skeptical look at this imperative urge to bring down the avalanche of trouble that you have so believably described.

From early childhood to around mid twenties, people go through a process called differentiation. Gradually, children discover that they are not just an extension of their parent’s bodies and minds. Step by step, they realize that they have their own bodies and minds which can move and think in different ways than those of their parents. In the teen years this becomes acute, and sometimes those young developing selves seek out controversial ways of asserting their independence just for the sake of asserting it. It’s natural for them to do this.

I’m not saying that your atheism is just a teenage rebellion. I’m sure that it is a firm and real part of your intellect. It’s the impatience and immediacy I’m asking you to question.

Given your mother’s heavy parenting style, I can understand your desire to be free, but don’t sacrifice wisdom in the headlong pursuit of freedom. Your differentiation is progressing along and is inevitable. There’s no need to get unnecessary bruises in a process that will run its course anyway.

Coming out as an atheist is what is called a precipitous action. Precipitous as in precipice, as in cliff, as in jumping off. You set into irreversible motion whatever consequences will happen. You’ll land safely or not, but the thing is done before you land.

Like those cliff divers in Acapulco watching the incoming waves, good timing can make a big difference.

Do you really need to take this precipitous step right now? To come out now, before you have enough financial, social, educational and personal independence firmly established, before you have resources upon which you can fall back, is like jumping out of an airplane without having completely strapped on your parachute or having learned how to operate it. The plane is not crashing.

Of course, every person’s situation is different, and so I’m not advocating a blanket “Wait!! Don’t do it!” response for all young atheists. I’m saying have your eyes wide open, and your mind very clear, and your feelings well understood.

Here’s the question you should ask: There are clearly bad consequences for coming out too soon. What would the bad consequences be, if any at all, for coming out too late? When would “too late” be, if ever?

It sounds like stopping church attendance is an option for you that will not result in much serious difficulty. If that is correct, then take it. Just don’t link that to coming out to the whole community as an atheist. There’s no logical necessity of the one requiring the other. If people ask you why you’re not attending, you need say nothing more than “It’s just not for me,” or “I’m not interested any more,” or “I’m done with that,” or “It’s time to move on.” Don’t give them any bait, and they’ll leave you alone.

As an atheist living in a hostile environment, you don’t “owe” telling this truth about yourself to anyone. You tell it if, when and to whom it pleases you for your own self interests, period. If someone assumes you’re a believer like them, so the hell what? If and when you want to face the slings and arrows that out atheists often do, then come out and kick ass. If you don’t want to, there’s no cowardice involved in using discretion. You’re doing nothing more than taking care of yourself, and no one can condemn you for the strategy that you choose, and you should not condemn yourself.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All 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.

  • Krista Yearwoood

    My father was a minister and my mother the church organist/choir director. I never felt like a liar or a coward by not publicly proclaiming my beliefs about religion. Church is just a big game… when you see the “behind the scenes” you realize it. So, I played the game until I was old enough to be on my own, and then I never went to church again. I’ve just recently made my beliefs clear to my parents (now that I’m pushing 40) because I was tired of listening to them harp on me going back to church. The first thing my mother said (with a gasp) was “But I thought you were smart!” LOL. I just ignore the constant push to be religious, and try to change the subject. My beliefs are my own. I don’t need to validate them to others, or wear them on my sleeve.

    Make no mistake, most Xtians believe athiests are just confused, or else the devil’s tool. Either way, you can’t win with them. They rarely want to hear your views unless it’s to use them against you. You’re better off just letting your close friends know, and not worrying about what the church folk think. Just play the game for now, before you know it you’ll be on your own and won’t have to appease your folks on the subject any longer. :)

  • Alan E.

    Thanks Richard. It’s easy to tell someone “just do it” without thinking of everything that surrounds their personal life. On the flip side, though, how does one reconcile the feeling of hypocrisy? I know I felt it through high school, and I sometimes wish I came out as gay, atheist, or both back then. I don’t think that saying

    nothing more than “It’s just not for me,” or “I’m not interested any more,” or “I’m done with that,” or “It’s time to move on.”

    will prevent people from trying even harder to get him to come back to church. Church-goers will notice that his mom is going to church without her son, and the rumors will probably still spread. Yes I know that high school doesn’t dictate the rest of a person’s life, but it can certainly be a precursor to how one lives his or her life: open and honest or closed off and hypocritical. We see the side effects of closed off and hypocritical too often in politics today.

  • DGKnipfer

    Diplomat,

    Your letter says that you are in high school but doesn’t say what grade. That is very important information. A 17 or 18 year old getting ready to graduate and move on to their own life in college or the military has far more options than a 14 or 15 year old freshman without a driver’s license. Until you can move on and support yourself, don’t sweat it.

    Stop going to church if it won’t start a holy war in your mom’s house, but other than that don’t worry about it. Being an atheist isn’t about proclaiming that there is no god. It’s about thinking for yourself and making your own decisions on what you believe. They’re your beliefs, not everybody else’s beliefs.

  • littlejohn

    You could start making you views clear, in a non-confrontational manner, at church functions. At some point either the church or your parents will urge you to stop attending.

  • http://www.givesgoodemail.com Givesgoodemail

    Richard’s advice exactly parallels that of Dan Savage when he is asked similar questions by teenage gays and bis about coming out.

    Youth is a very impatient time. Show your maturity, Diplomat. Wait until your financial and physical well-being is not threatened by coming out as an atheist, and then go for it.

  • Killer_Bee

    I don’t want to allow my church friends/acquaintances to continue to believe that I’m Christian.

    People are always down on hypocrisy. I don’t get it. So reality differs from people’s perceptions. Big deal. Arguably, that’s true for a great many other things your church friends think. Your personal opinions are none of their business and their assumptions are not your responsibility.
    If they pester you about not going to church just give them some bland non-commital answer. If you can find alternative plans for Friday nights or Sunday mornings that would be even better than just not going. You could even say you’re studying for a test. That’s a good excuse to just break the habit. All it takes is a few missed meetings and they’ll get used to your absence.

    I assume none of these church friends are more than just acquaintances. I tend to like to be honest with close friends who are trustworthy.

  • http://NoYourGod.blogspot.com NoYourGod

    Your mother states that your current beliefs are “just a phase”. Ask her “Mom – how would you feel if I told you that your christian beliefs were ‘just a phase, and that you will get over it?’”. Be very gentle with it – non-aggression is your friend here. The goal of asking is twofold: First, to show how condescending and hurtful that statement is; and second, to start a real conversation about beliefs.

    Right now, she is approaching you using the Matilda Rule (“I’m big, you’re small… I’m right, and you’re wrong”). Well, you are not small – you are able to think for yourself. On top of that, the “I’m big and right” is pure, unadulterated baloney. This could be one of those steps where, by approaching her as a full person capable of real thoughts, she can start seeing you as something besides her little boy.

    Good luck to you, regardless of how you approach it!

  • Thegoodman

    I agree with the first post that Diplomat should not feel like he is hiding something be attending church. The good news is that he is nearly ready for college where everyone stops going to church weather you are an atheist or not.

    Diplomat, my advice (probably worth nothing to you, but ill give it anyhow :) ) is to not let your atheism define you. Its not good for anyone to be defined for what they are NOT. Atheism doesn’t provide the blanket that theism provides and will not keep you warm at night. You need to define yourself with your career, or your political stances, or by just being a kind and loving person. Atheism will only describe your opinions about a relatively small matter; let your virtues define you.

  • llewelly

    Gradually, children discover that they are not just an extension of their parent’s bodies and minds.

    Now that’s sarcasm.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    There are many options. Some black, some white, many gray.

    You could always tell your parents that you would fit in better at some God forsaken mainline protestant church like the Methodists or Episcopalians. For that reason you want to stop going to your parent’s church. (I’m assuming it’s not Methodist or Episcopalian). That would start the separation from your parent’s church without having them go nuts on you. That is unless your parents are like some Baptists I know who think all other denominations are dead wrong and are going straight to hell.

    At worst, you would attend a different church for a year or two, then just stop going altogether when you are on your own.

  • JJR

    Diplomat could also ask to investigate a Unitarian Universalist congregation is there is one in his area (might not be); UU congregations sometimes make great hiding places for atheists, if you can tune out the New Agey woo-woo.

  • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless Monster

    @llewelly,
    How was that statement sarcasm?
    TGM

  • Claudia

    Diplomat, you’ve taken the most important step by being out to your family. If it won’t get you disowned and kicked out, stop going to church. Whether or not you’ve stopped going to church because you’ve come to your senses or are just lazy is frankly none of anyone’s business. Surely life in a conservative church has taught you how to effectively stonewall discussiones you don’t want to be involved in?

    You’re in high school, which means, worst case scenario, you have 4 years of this nonesense left. After that be sure to get into a college out of state. Endevour to be as financially independent as possible so you can come out and your family cannot hold your education as a hostage against you. Good luck!

  • Miko

    There are moments in our lives when we need to leap without looking and trust in ourselves to land on our feet. How common these moments are varies from person to person. With honest reflection and careful consideration, these moments can be highlights of life and help define who we are. Without such reflection and consideration, we become daredevils who don’t live very long.

    One thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I really don’t care what casual acquaintances think about me. On the one hand, this means that I’m more than willing to tell them that, for example, I’m an atheist, consequences be what they may. On the other hand, this also means that I don’t feel the pressing need to tell them out of fear that they’ll mistakenly believe that I’m a theist.

    littlejohn: You could start making you views clear, in a non-confrontational manner, at church functions. At some point either the church or your parents will urge you to stop attending.

    And this would be better than a sharp break how? If the parents are already upset about Diplomat being an atheist, are they going to be mollified by having Diplomat publicly kicked out of the church?

  • Richard P.

    Often we feel the need to be vocal about our stance on god. That knowing people think things about you that are not true is unbearable.

    My question is, does it really matter what they think?

    Instead of outing yourself, and turning people against you. Live your life to the higher moral standard you have selected for yourself. Show them through your actions what you dare not say with words.
    Look at the reasons why you chose not to believe and don’t conform to the actions of those around you that compromise your beliefs.

    If it is bigotry against others, don’t partake. If it is wasting time at church, don’t. Go volunteer at a animal shelter or find something that interests you and spend your time doing that. Align your actions with your values. This will also open up the amount of social network around you so your more likely to find people that you can relate to. When you find yourself distanced from those you have called out for their hypocrisy, you will have other options to fill the void.

    My aunt is a full gospel christian, I have never told her I am a non-theist. I do not hesitate to challenge her when her actions don’t conform to her beliefs or when those beliefs don’t conform to human decency. Makes for some great entertainment.

    Remember not to take anything personally, their just reacting to their programing and their is little else they can do.

  • Carlie

    Given how few years exist before you leave home and can do whatever you want anyway, and especially given that your mom already knows (you’re being honest with her), why not go ahead and make her happy by going? She’ll be happy that she’s doing her duty by having you learn about her faith. You’ll learn more about what makes your mom tick and where she’s coming from. Don’t worry that you’ll be fooling anyone at church into thinking you’re a good Christian; they’ll be able to tell that you aren’t really “into” it. I’d look at it as a valuable chance to really study what Christianity is all about, so that no one later can claim that you’re just ignorant of the love of God and what the Bible says and whatnot. Think of yourself as an anthropologist living amongst the natives, studying their habits and rituals for later analysis. Just be sure to demur whenever you’re asked to lead prayer or give testimony, and you can keep your conscience clean.

  • Ron in Houston

    Eh, tell em you’re a UU – a unitarian universalist – that could mean anything.

  • Houndies

    This is a difficult decision because you are still in high school, but here’s my two cents. I think you shouldnt hide from who you are. If you truly believe, for good reasons that you have established on your own, that you are an atheist then you should be proud to say so. On the other paw, as many here have pointed out, this could mean harsh social consequences. If people are only your friends because of where you go to church, then they arent really your friends. Without them you will find better friends who love you for you. Being younger though it can be harder to deal with social rejection so waiting til you are older could help in this regard.

  • jose

    “I know that word of my atheism will spread throughout the church community and make my family “look bad” in the words of my mother. (My church community is very conservative, and appearances are very important.)”

    This community thing that keeps people from being how they want to be makes me puke. I’m sure gay people will look bad, too. Fuck them, man. That’s not a community, that’s a totalitarian state. Oh yeah, I forgot- we’re talking religion here. Of course it’s totalitarian.

  • http://backwardsbuddhist.com Backwards Buddhist

    Richard has said it all very well. He is much closer to your age than I am, but I would offer the same encouragement to exemplify your beliefs in how you feel life should be lived, but that’s because I have never been an in your face kind of person. Confrontation is the way some choose to approach conflict resolution. Over my decades and decades and decades, I have not found confrontation a particularly successful tool for resolution. It is great at stirring things up, increasing the amount of attention paid by others to the issue, but resolution and increased understanding, tolerance and acceptance are in my experience more surely advanced by less aggressive means. Living a life of integrity does not require full disclosure. Do you let everyone know your bank balance, debt/equity ratio, credit score, grades, weight or sexual encounter tally? These are not the business of anyone but you, ever, unless you are seeking entrance to a university, going for a loan or getting married and know you have been exposed to STD’s. Privacy is not dishonesty, it is simply not telling anything about your personal views or preferences that you consider to be your personal business at any point in time. Contrary to what you may think, no one can get inside your head but you unless you feel some need to “confess” a perceived “sin”. Words can never be taken back. Once uttered they are out there forever. Discretion and integrity trump aggressive honesty every time.

  • Ex-Baptist Daughter

    Ideological arguments aside, I thought I should give you some practical tips from my being an atheist in a horribly closed baptist community.

    First of all, the easiest way to get out of church on Sundays is work. If possible, find a job that requires you to work on Sundays, preferably at a place that no Xtian could think shouldn’t be open on Sundays–a nursing home, Walmart, etc.

    Secondly, bring a notebook every time you must go to church. Take notes on all the ridiculous claims your pastor and youth pastor makes. This will prevent you from showing your disgust while giving you a record to share and laugh with your atheist friends. I got this tip from another atheist here at college and I’ve used it ever since. We now go to other religious meetings with our notebooks for fun.

    Third–a quick but dirty one. Keep your eyes open during prayer. You might find some other free thinkers, and it’s a good way to silently protest that prayer actually does anything.

    Final tip–live your atheism, don’t tell it. Showing people that you can be “good without god” is worth ten heated debates. Plus, people who might ask about it are probably looking to convert you. At least that’s my experience.

  • Richard Wade

    Ex-Baptist Daughter,
    Thank you! Those are excellent practical suggestions. I’ll remember them. Not being from your background, I could not have thought of them.

    This is why the comments sections of these advice posts are so important. Some readers offer encouragement, some offer a wider perspective, some offer a new angle, and no matter what the problem, somebody has also been there and done that, and they have what works right at hand.

    Thanks again.

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