When young people consider coming out as an atheist to their parents, they usually face two main challenges. One is the financial and physical dependence on their parents they may still have, and the other is their unfinished process of differentiation from their parents, where they still feel an obligation to please them and an overpowering aversion to disappointing or upsetting them. Some have mainly one or the other issue, but more have a mixture of both in varying proportions.
This letter is paired with another letter that was published last Monday. Today’s letter is from someone who is apparently financially self-supporting, but is still hampered by a blurring of the boundaries between his emotional needs and responsibilities, and those of his parents. Monday’s letter was from someone of about the same age who seems to be mostly complete with her emotional individuation, but she is still depending on her parents for financial needs.
Young atheists who are approaching the coming out dilemma should read both of these letters for a more complete picture.
Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am one of the many people who have yet to tell their parents that I am an atheist. Im 27 now but I was brought up in the church and believed in god up until i turned 18. I used to go to church every sunday, as was required of me, but since i became an atheist, i have yet to go back. Im unsure if my parents are aware of my absence in going as well as i am unsure if they even are wondering what i do still believe. Like everyone else that are in my shoes, i am worried that they will be discouraged and disappointed in me (and create awkward situations every time i go to visit them).
Disappointed in the sense that they would hope that “im better than that” or that they are concerned more for my soul rather than for my mental health. My mother has already shown in numerous occasions that she holds the teachings in the bible higher than her own flesh and blood.
Her reaction to me telling them that i dont believe in the same things they do anymore is my biggest fear. The idea has been a point of stress in my life and i want to get rid of it. I want to keep a strong relationship with my parents but at the same time i want them to understand that i am an adult and im not THEM. Are there some ways that you feel that are the best for bringing up the topic and finally letting them know? Any advice would be appreciated!
All the best,
You’re not living with your parents, and I’m assuming that you are not financially dependent on them. So your difficulty is about an emotional conflict rather than a material conflict.
I think you’re struggling with the unfinished process of differentiating or individuating yourself from your parents. The first stages in early childhood involve simply discovering that we are separate individuals, not physical extensions of our parents. The later stages, seeing that we are not psychological or emotional extensions of our parents, take longer and can have unfinished bits and pieces that extend into our adulthood. Many people are still working on it in their late twenties. It is almost always a difficult and uneven process.
It is not a shameful thing to be still resolving this later than others; it is simply a variant in how people grow up. Apparently, the time has come for you to finish this. You are ninety percent of the way to being thirty years old, and you have been an atheist for the last third of your life. You say that you want them to understand that you are an adult, and you are not THEM. But it’s really about you. You must first deeply understand that you are not them.
The boundaries between you and them seem to be blurred in some places. You seem to be not entirely sure on a deep level of four things:
1. that your parents’ opinion of you is separate and independent from your opinion of you,
2. that your parent’s opinion of you is separate and independent from what you really are,
4. that your parent’s feelings and reactions are their responsibility, not yours.
You sound like a decent person, and I’m sure you would not want to deliberately discourage or disappoint your parents, BUT if you are going to finally be your own person, you cannot behave as if you must protect them from their own feelings or their reactions to the decisions that you make. You do not have to be unnecessarily harsh or hurtful to them, but you must be true to your own needs and your own principles, and you must follow your own path. Otherwise, you will still be functioning as if you are an extension of your parents, and that will become increasingly problematic as you get older.
The religious issue may be only one of several that you might need to explore in your individuation and emotional autonomy. Their opinions of many things about you may still be blurred with your opinions about yourself. Think long about this with a compassionate attitude toward yourself, rather than a self-critical attitude. Find those overlapping areas in your mind, and clearly see the line where your parents stop and you begin. What they think of you is not you!
Chuck, you would know best exactly how and when to tell them that you don’t go to church or believe what they do. What you hoped I would tell you is a way that will not produce the emotional reaction in them that you dread. But that is not the point. As long as your method is respectful, gentle and honest, their reaction is their responsibility, not yours.
As I’ve often said before, atheists do not owe anyone their “outing” themselves, especially when people can react extremely negatively, with attitudes that are unworthy of the courage that it takes to risk such candor. They should reveal this for their own purposes, period. So pick the time and method that benefits you, rather than them.
I will suggest this much: Have a casual sounding, but well practiced brief statement ready for when and if the subject comes up, and the mood does not seem excessively tense. The bigger a deal you make in your presentation, the bigger a deal you may get from them, so try to keep it light. Something along the lines of, “Oh I haven’t gone to church for a long time. It’s just not for me. I’m concentrating on being the best person I can be in the here and now.” With highly reactionary parents, a gradual, step-by-step clarification over weeks or months seems to sometimes work better for the atheist’s purposes than using the ooh, scary “A” word right at the start. There are no guarantees, of course.
You said that your mother has repeatedly shown “that she holds the teachings in the Bible higher than her own flesh and blood.” If she treats you accordingly, that will be sad for her, but if you have successfully sorted out you from them, it does not have to be sad for you. Shrug your emotional shoulders, and love her from your independent heart. You can hope that some day she’ll soften and relent, but you must not let her treatment of you dictate your opinion of yourself, or the direction of your life. You can still treat your flesh and blood with love, respect and patience, and minimize absorbing any hurtful or abusive treatment from them.
I have one other suggestion. When you type a message of any kind and you use the first person pronoun “I,” always capitalize it. Go to the trouble of shifting to the upper case every time, and let the word that stands for you be one that stands up tall, strong and proud: I. You deserve respect, and it starts with the effort you put into respecting yourself.