Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
I am about to turn seventeen and have been an atheist for about a year. I grew up with very liberal and easygoing parents, though they did raise me to be a Christian. I have been trying to decide if I should tell them that I do not believe in god for several months. Part of me wants to tell them now, so that I can stop deceiving them, but another part of me wants to wait until after I’m in college. I think my parents would be pretty understanding, and I am probably worried about nothing, however, the negative backlash I received from my peers at school when they found out about it has me hesitating. I don’t want this knowledge to affect my relationship with my parents like it did for several of my classmates at school.
To complicate things, when I told people at school that I was an atheist, I learned how many people were hiding the same secret. Despite being situated in a small town in the bible belt, I’ve met a number of students who are also nonbelievers, including my best friend. He and I are considering starting an atheist/agnostic/secular humanist organization at our school. If this were to happen, my mom would almost certainly hear of my involvement, as she teaches in the district. I was wondering if you had any advice concerning this predicament. Thanks.
When young people become eager to tell their parents about their atheism, they usually have a variety of motives. Often part of it is from respect, wanting to be honest and genuine with their parents. Sometimes it is partly about self-expression, wanting to simply get it off their chests. Occasionally it is in part an attempt to gain some control in their lives, such as no longer having to attend religious services. Once in a while it is partly motivated by a desire to assert their independence from their parents, to plant a flag in effect and say, “I am my own person, not an extension of my parents.”
All of these motives are completely understandable. They are a normal part the process of maturing into adulthood, and they can all be in the mix in differing amounts. Combined, they can create such a burning urgency to come out that some young atheists don’t stop to consider all of the consequences. They usually weigh the possible consequences to themselves, such as repercussions from the parents, the loss of friends, and the shunning or persecution by others, and they may decide to take the risk anyway.
But innocent people can be affected too.
In their eagerness to get it out, sometimes young atheists don’t stop to consider the effect that coming out will have on others who will be affected collaterally. For instance, younger siblings may have to face increased scrutiny and grilling by their parents who will be far more suspicious and reactionary, trying to prevent them from becoming another atheist like their wayward elder sibling. Friends who may be fine with the atheist’s lack of belief can be harassed by other friends who disapprove of their friendship with the atheist.
And in your case, your mom teaches in the district.
In Bible belt small towns, there is very little privacy, and there is a great deal of judging of others. Parents can be harshly judged by others because of the conduct of their children. It is usually very unfair, but it is common.
As you have discovered, atheism is seen by some as an evil thing. If you decided to start an atheist group at your present school, you might be willing to face the mistreatment that you’d get from some Christians who are bigots, but you might not be comfortable seeing your mom get mistreatment from her fellow teachers and even her principal, and perhaps from the larger community. She might face pressure to “do something” about her atheist son, since she’s his mother. To make matters worse, he’s an activist atheist who has started a group of them at his high school. If his mother simply accepts him as he is, people may wonder what does that imply about her own faith, and if her faith is questionable, what kind of influence is she having on the children she is teaching?
It can grow like a snowball of paranoia through guilt by association. The smallness of small town minds can be dismaying, and the social and emotional blackmail can be appalling. Things could become very difficult for your mom. Harm to ourselves we might shrug off, but risking harm to our loved ones can make us think twice.
I don’t want to completely discourage you from starting a secular students group at your high school; it sounds like it is sorely needed. If no one else was in harm’s way, and if you were willing to take the heat, then I’d say go for it!
My point is for you to consider ahead of time the effect your actions might have on your family not because of their own intolerance, but because of what adversity they might have to face from others. These possible consequences may not be enough of a reason to hold back in your case, but it would seem only fair to talk it over with them first.
Only you can know when and if you should tell your parents about being an atheist, and you’ll be making an educated guess at best. As you are considering, many young people find that waiting for the increased independence that comes with college makes it easier to be open about this.
However, you’ve already revealed to school peers that you’re an atheist. You found several fellow non-believers including your best friend, and you found a few foes. In a small town, word may spread until it reaches your parents, so if you want to tell them in a controlled manner, you should be rehearsed and prepared to do it at a moment’s notice if they hear rumors. If you have such information on a Facebook page, consider removing it until you have talked with them.
While there are important differences, there are some useful parallels between the gay and lesbian community’s struggle for social acceptance and that of atheists. It’s not a perfect indicator, but if you know how your parents feel about the issue of homosexuality, you might have some insight about how they would react to your atheism. Have some light, casual discussions about current events, politics or religion in general terms, and try to get a sense of their attitude toward people who are different from the majority.
It could be that your initial thought about your parents is correct, and that they will be understanding and accepting. Or they might be upset at first, but in time they will realize that you are not an ogre, you are still the intelligent, loving and loyal son they have raised.
Keep your grades up, stay away from drugs and alcohol, (you need every single brain cell) and be a diligent participant in your family’s welfare. That way, nothing negative can be attributed to your atheism, or used to discredit your validity as an independently thinking young adult. Also, those good habits will help you develop into a healthy and positive person, whether you’re an “out” atheist or not.
I wish you the very best of outcomes for both you and your family.
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