Ask Richard: When “Coming Out” May Affect Others

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 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.

Louis

Dear Louis,

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.

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.

  • Nikki

    The fact that he’s already told a few people about his atheism means that it will get back to his parents sooner rather than later. At least if his mother knows, she’ll be better prepared when people come to tell her what her son has been “up to.” I think he should tell her for HER own good – the best defense is a good offense and all that.

    As far as starting a group at school, after telling his mother and gauging her reaction, I’d say go for it! We need all the positive support we can get, as soon as we can get it.

  • Claudia

    I’m a little unsettled by the advice today, I wasn’t expecting Richard to advocate (however weakly) keeping your head down. I respectfully disagree.

    First telling your parents. If they are in fact liberal and you feel they will react well then you should tell them, preferably soon. Your mother is a teacher and you are out at your school in a small town in the Bible Belt. I’m surprised the news hasn’t reached her already. It will, eventually, and I’m sure it would be much better for all involved if the news came from you, on your terms.

    Then, depending on their reactions, you can decide about a secular students club. If they react badly, I’d wait for college to join or start one on campus. If they are understanding (here’s hoping) then talk to your mother about your interests while explaining that you don’t want her to be harmed. Ask her advice on the matter. She’s a teacher, she will know better than you if she could suffer bad consequences from your activities.

  • http://findingmyfeminism.blogspot.com/ Not Guilty

    I agree with Claudia. I do not think it is the “job” of a 17 year old to save his parents from trouble. He is an atheist, not an axe murderer. I think he should sit down and tell them and already have a plan for starting the society at school. Having the support of the group will likely be helpful. And if the shit hits the proverbial fan, at least college is nearing. It is better to tell his parents then them find out through school. If he has told people at school, one is likely to tell a parent, who may in turn tell his mother. Then he is unprepared for the discussion.

  • Richard Wade

    Claudia,
    I don’t see where we disagree. I’m not advising Louis to keep his head down, I’m suggesting that he keep his head up and look all around, being circumspect about the collateral effects, and so take it one step at a time in the right order. You spelled out that order very concisely.

    Aside from the possible trouble from his mother’s co-workers, Louis is concerned about damaging his relationship with his parents if their reaction is similar to what he’s seen happen to his friends and their parents. So I gave the advice about feeling them out as the first step.

    I hope Louis can come out to his parents soon, that they take it well, that his mom feels confident that her job or friendships won’t be put into jeopardy if he starts a secular student group at school, that he successfully starts the group, and that it prospers and helps people.

    But there are several possible outcomes at every one of those steps, so he should take each step according to the results of the previous step.

    In some families, in some towns, in some situations, coming out is like defusing a bomb. Do it, but do it carefully and in the right order and at the right time. Knowing all that takes quiet, careful investigation. What I don’t want is to get another letter from Louis describing the shit tornado that struck his home because things didn’t go well.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I would advise telling your parents but in a very non controversial and non-threatening way. Use some hedging language like you seriously doubt the stories in the bible concerning heaven and hell are true. No sense getting into a heated argument over an abstract “God concept”. Some liberals hold Deism very close and near so why fight that battle. Just say you don’t believe in heaven and hell and you plan on living your one life as well as you can. They might be quite happy to hear that.

    IMO, small town bible-belt high school may not be the best place to start a atheist/agnostic/secular humanist organization. You might want to wait for college for that.

  • Derek

    I’m also 17, and I started an atheist group at my high school. My parents tend to be more conservative, but I went ahead and told them that I was an atheist because I realized that they weren’t insane or illogical, they would have to accept me. When I told them, they were a little bit unhappy, but that eventually subsided the more they learned about atheism. I don’t live in a small town, but it is definitely a very religious area. I haven’t had any major problems with my parents or my club and I would encourage you to tell your parents and start a club.

  • Trace

    Louis.

    You decide about your parents.

    However, given your town’s size and geography, I believe that you may want to wait till college to start/join an A club. Small towns have long memories.

    Of course, I have been known to be wrong so…. :)

    Best of luck.

  • Michael

    I live in a small town and while I don’t necessarily hide my atheism, I don’t broadcast it either. By that I mean I don’t aim to be the lone voice challenging the school principal when he decides to pray during school programs, not matter how wrong it is.
    I’ve tested the water by submitting comments to the local paper about various state/church issues, all of which have been ignored. Given that it is your basic hypocritical bible thumping small town I’d rather not causing my daughter, wife or her family trouble in the community.
    I saw the reaction in town to the people who came out as Wiccans a few years ago. The poor people received treats, though I don’t know if any actual violence occurred, but I haven’t heard a word from them since. They were a group of individuals and I’m all alone. Not ready to take on a bunch of bible thumping, gun toting rednecks all by myself.
    I agree with assessing the environment and considering the potential fall out before making drastic moves.

  • Nat

    Wow, I knew small towns sometimes breed small minds, but I didn’t know the problem was this bad. No wonder my mum left and moved to London the first chance she got!

    I agree with Claudia. Tell your folks and ask advice. They *should* respect you for being honest with them, especially if you lay out your reasoning, and treat you like an adult when discussing the club.

    I guess in small religious towns you are always going to have idiotic bigots who try to make your life misery, but if the school board does try to discriminate against your mum because of *your* atheism I would think she’d have a case for a discrimination suit.

    I hope it goes well!

  • GentleGiant

    I say go for it! Tell your parents first, if they truly love you (and isn’t that what being a parent is?) they’ll accept you for who you are.
    Second, start the organization up too. If people don’t like it, it’ll only expose them for the bigots they are. You’ve already said that you weren’t alone in school with your atheism, so you’ll have people on “your side” in any conflict that might arise.
    One can only fight bigotry by confronting it and I think it’s extremely courageous of you to want to start up such an organization in a bible belt small town. If there’s ever any place that needs it, it’s these places.
    If people shun you and your family over this it’ll truly show what bad people they are and why neither you nor your parents should associate with them in the first place. But we all know how hypocritical “good Christians” can be in these situations.

  • Mike

    It’s great to see such encouragement and sympathy for this young man, who is obviously in a difficult situation and is struggling between being open about his beliefs and not hurting his parents.
    Interestingly, there was almost no sympathy at all for the atheist husband become closet Christian from a post 4 days ago.

  • MER

    I say go for it. Be nice, be respectful, be non confrontational. There’s nothing wrong with you.
    If someone is so small minded that they’d hold it against you, is that really the kind of person you want to associate with anyway?

  • Claudia

    @Richard, I suppose I could have read more caution into your advice than there actually was. If so my apologies. I do think though that its important to note to the young man that if he’s out at school in a small religious town with a mother who is a teacher she is bound to find out sooner or later, so getting ahead of the curve in telling his parents is probably a good idea.

    @Mike, I was more than a little disturbed by the double standard in that thread. The nuance, conflicted interests and complexities involved in coming out seemed totally thrown to the wind for some when the person in the situation was a Christian and not an atheist.

  • Quester

    @Mike, Last time I had read that thread from four days ago, there had only been 10 responses. I’ve now gone back and read the rest. Wow.

    Still, what most people seem to be upset about is the husband keeping secrets, more than his converting. I think this just underscores how important it is for Louis to come out to his parents, in his way, before they find out from someone else. Since he has come out to friends, it is only a limited time before they find out. At least if they find out from him, there might not be the accusations of “deceit” and “betrayal” that were in that thread,

  • Pingback: When Coming out as an Atheist may affect others « Humanist Association of Ottawa

  • Demonhype

    About the atheist husband becoming Christian–the thing is, he wasn’t facing threats to himself and his family from the entire community if he “came out” as a Christian. Seriously, coming out as a Christian is not the same. Becoming a Christian in this country tends to open doors and expand an individual’s perceived human value in society. Coming out as an atheist tends to slam every one of those doors.

    In fact, the only concern he might have involved his wife having been FREAKING ABUSED by a Bible-verse-spouting godbot father and that fact having a potential to alienate her–not exactly common circumstances in his case. One person in his life might possibly shut a door on him, and that one person is the victim of direct religiously-motivated abuse–not precisely the standard situation for most people at all.

    If that atheist-turned-christian had to worry about what this guy (or those Wiccans)in a small Bible-belt town has to worry about (threats, alienation, risking the safety, well-being and employment security of his loved ones, etc.) rather than his non-standard situation that a single person in his life might leave him due to a serious psychological issue, then it would be parallel. When that happens, I’ll be the first to call the double-standard.

    Just to reiterate: Potential loss of one person due to her explicit psychological connection between your new religion and her scarring experience of religiously motivated abuse DOES NOT EQUAL the potential destruction of yourself and your loved ones by an entire community of angry bigots who are pissed entirely because you disagree with them about God OR the potential additional loss of your entire family. The two things are not the same.

    If I was dating a guy and he found out I was an atheist and happened to have been abused by parents who spouted explicitly atheistic justifications while raping and beating him and broke his jaw any time he mentioned anything religious and due to that scarring experience he was not comfortable dating an atheist–I would completely understand. I would be disappointed if he was a great guy, but I would definitely understand. That includes being married, but I’m already an atheist. If I found myself in that same situation years later, turning Christian while married to a man who had the above mentioned experience, I would still understand why he feels that way about me. I have a few panic-attack inducing issues with my past that are extremely involuntary and hard to overcome or control, and none of them involve even close to that person’s level of abuse, so I would be hard-pressed to tell that person to just “get over it”.

    If, on the other hand, I’m dating a guy who finds out I’m an atheist, dumps me promptly due to bigotry alone, and then alerts the whole damned bigoted town so they can run me out on a rail….well, that’s something different, isn’t it?

    Same thing. If the atheist wife did not have the abuse experience she has had, I would say “well, he’s a great guy, right? You’ve been married 20 years and all, right? Okay, maybe he shouldn’t have hidden it for so long, but maybe he just wanted to be sure or explore it on his own, and that’s not a good enough to drop everything. If he’s still the same great guy, only including religion, and he gives you equal respect and doesn’t start denigrating your atheism or plaguing your existence with conversion attempts, then he’s the same great guy, period. He might turn into a douchebag later because of his religion, but that’s not even close to a given, so just give him a chance and see what happens. Lots of really nice people are religious without being douchebags!” The abuse thing, however, kicks it into an entirely different area of discussion.

    You’re equating a Christian town’s hostage situation (you want to have a job tomorrow, be able to feed your kids? then you damn well better profess faith in Christ!)with an atheistic woman struggling with the very real and very involuntary scars of abuse. You’re equating genuine bigotry with an abuse victim’s lingering psychological distress. I just don’t see the equivalence between the two situations.

    You might as well say that the survivor of violent sexual assault who now distrusts and dislikes all males is exactly the same as a man-hating feminist amazon who simply hates men due to mindless bigotry. Certainly the former situation is irrational and her experience is not representative of all men and it would be a good thing for her if she could succeed in realizing that, but few people would equate her distrust as simple bigotry that she needs to get over, and few people would claim that such an experience is easy to get past at all.

  • Claudia

    You’re equating a Christian town’s hostage situation (you want to have a job tomorrow, be able to feed your kids? then you damn well better profess faith in Christ!)with an atheistic woman struggling with the very real and very involuntary scars of abuse.

    No, I am absolutely not doing that. The situations are indeed different. What I am saying is that in the previous case the fact he hid his religion from her was considered damning wheras time and again when an atheist hides their atheism from their own families under all sorts of conditions, we find sympathy. A cursory reading of the thread reveals that if in fact the roles had been reversed and the husband was a new atheist and the woman a Christian the reaction would NOT have been the same. Of course its understandable that she freak out considering her deep scars, but she was being encouraged to “dump him” (her husband of 20 years, the father of her children) because of the violation of trust for having lied to her (and badly disguised insinuations that his Christianity would make him morally inferior) while whenever there’s an atheist in a closeted situation they find nothing but support and sympathetic ears.

  • Ben

    @Louis:

    I think, it is pretty easy to decide how to go about this: Tell and trust your parents.

    Don’t wait for the news to travel on their own, that’s just awkward. Your parents will be mildly surprised at worst, that’s it.

    Next, allow them to adjust to the new situation for a day or so, and then follow their lead on starting a group at school. They can size up possible repercussions within your community so much better than you can on your own. They will know what to do.

    If a highly visible school organization turns out not to be the way to go, you can always do that later in life.

    Cheers,
    Ben

  • http://pandasthumb.org RBH

    Writing as the husband of a teacher in a small-ish district, that horse is long gone, Richard, because other kids know. No amount of easing shut the stable doors is going to get it back. It’s single digit days to a couple of weeks max until his mother hears about it. Best advice is for him to speak gently but openly to his parents ASAP so his mother doesn’t get blind sided in school.

  • Richard Wade

    RBH, I agree with you, and thank you for sharing your experience. Louis has been deliberating about a late step, the secular club, but because he already took a middle step, outing himself at school, word getting to his parents is likely imminent. So now he needs to take care of the early step of speaking with them ASAP.


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