Note: Letter writer’s names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’ve been an atheist for a few years now, and am thoroughly happy and at peace with this state of affairs. My wife, and various other family members who live nearby to us, know I’m an atheist, and accept my beliefs even though they don’t share them. My parents, however, who live halfway around the world, do not know. My father is a Methodist minister, and although he has such liberal views about religion that he himself verges on humanist (if not outright atheist) views himself, I strongly suspect that a confession of atheism would be quite a shock to him (and my mother). Having little opportunity to speak to them face to face, I have therefore put off telling them.
Here is the problem, though: I feel compelled to keep my atheism relatively closeted in the online social networking context, because I do not wish my parents to find out in some round-about way. (Also, I have been thinking for some time about starting a freethinking blog, and I’m loathe to do so under a pseudonym – if such a thing is even possible – because I don’t generally like shielding myself behind anonymity.) Finally, I simply feel that I’m keeping an important part of my life from my parents, something that could potentially be a normal part of conversation during our regular phone calls (my dad always enjoys philosophical discussions!). However, the last thing I want to do is jeopardize the wonderful relationship I have with them.
I realize my problem is not as severe as many who write to you, so I completely understand if you do not respond.
Thank you for being such an excellent counselor!
Firstly, whether or not your problem is less severe than someone else’s doesn’t matter. You deserve encouragement and constructive input as much as anyone else.
This may or may not apply directly to you, but one thing I think is important to say is that atheists don’t “owe” anybody a disclosure of their atheism. It’s private. One should never out oneself because of guilt. Many of us live in a very hostile environment where taking the risk of honesty is usually punished rather than honored. By preserving your own safety and sanity, you are not guilty of anything. If you’re going to do this, only do it for your own self interest, out of love for yourself and love for your parents, in that order.
That having been said, there are some encouraging things that make your situation more workable than many I’ve read. You’re an adult with your own marriage and independent life, and you’re already out to your wife and other family members, who are accepting. That greatly reduces the overall amount of loss you would risk.
One thing to keep in mind is that your openness to the other family members actually can make their lives a little more complicated if they have any contact with your parents, and they’re supposed to keep your atheism a secret. While they may be okay with that, it might lead to some delicate and tricky moments.
Aside from avoiding the inconvenience of having to cloak yourself in a pseudonym online, I get the impression that you’d really like to tell your parents and have a deeper, more open and free rapport with them. If your present relationship is as wonderful as you say, then it seems less likely that it would be seriously jeopardized by this disclosure about yourself.
You say that you “strongly suspect that a confession of atheism would be quite a shock” to them, and of course your impressions are more informed than mine. I only suggest that you consider all the things about them you’ve actually observed rather than your emotional reaction to the prospect of telling them. As mature and independent as you are, your old set of feelings from your childhood might be coloring your expectation. Children dread disappointing their parents far more than making them angry. Try to assess it as if you were an uninvolved person. From what you’ve in actual fact seen, is there a possibility they could react with surprise rather than shock, or even “Oh, we knew that.” rather than surprise?
Don’t refer to it as a “confession of atheism” even if that’s just a figure of speech. Confessions are for criminals and wrongdoers. If you resolve to do this, you would be sharing this intimate thing about yourself with them, honoring your mutual trust. Start by describing yourself as unconvinced rather than using the word “atheist” at first. It’s amazing all the bizarre connotations that people attach to the “A” word. However, from your description, your father or both of your parents may be more mature and well-informed than that.
Perhaps you could step by step build on your relationship’s strengths, and enrich it with a higher level of adult-to-adult respect, trust and candor about all sorts of subjects. Then if you premise the disclosure of your atheism with what you said here, ”Dad and Mom, the last thing I want to do is to jeopardize the wonderful relationship I have with you,” I think you’ll have set a tone that will help them want to preserve it too.
Your father sounds like an interesting and multi-dimensional person, with much more possibility for a positive and frank connection between the two of you than so many other parents I’ve heard described in similar letters. Once he knew, the two of you would certainly have some of those interesting philosophical discussions that he enjoys. There’s even the possibility that he’d be relieved to be able to confide in you his own doubts or ambiguous feelings about religion.
Trevor, whether you’re out or closeted, using your own name or a pseudonym, I urge you to start your freethinking blog. You can use it to chronicle your development from self-protecting, to self-reflecting, to self-revealing, to self-realizing, and finally to an interpersonal focus moving beyond self. Post after post, you can record your growing relationship with your dad and mom, and an important milestone will be when you put your real name at the top of the page.
Let us know when you first launch it, and I’ll be a regular visitor, not just to cheer you on, but also to learn from your insights.
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