Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
For any number of reasons, I am unable and unwilling to be open with most of the people in my life about my atheism. This includes both my family and my coworkers. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home. My parents and extended family are deeply committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible and to extremely conservative social and political views (think of James Dobson; not Fred Phelps). I have always had a shaky relationship with my parents, and their acceptance of me is dependent on their thinking I’m a Christian. Although I’m financially independent of them at this point, I don’t know if I’m ready to be disowned completely.
As for work: I recently graduated from college, and the job market being what it is, I work two part-time jobs which I was able to find through family and friends. Both businesses happen to have “Christian” in the name. If anyone I work with found out that I was not a Christian, I would lose my job. I have negotiated this so far by claiming to belong to a fairly liberal Christian sect with no local congregations (so no one can ask to visit my church).
My problem is that I’m coming to feel very isolated. I feel that I can’t have real relationships with people. I feel that nobody can know who I really am. While religion isn’t that important to me (I like most religious people), I know that they wouldn’t be as nice to me if they knew I was an atheist. Some of them wouldn’t speak to me at all. The constant fear of discovery keeps me from forming close friendships with my coworkers – many of whom I would love to get to know better.
Also, lying to people everyday bothers me on a moral level. I pride myself on being an honest person, and I cannot justify this in my mind. It would be different if the topic never came up and I could simply let people think what they wanted, but I have to actively lie about my beliefs, sometimes multiple times a day.
My question is, what should I do? I know the courageous thing to do is to tell people the truth and face the consequences, but right now, those consequences would be devastating to me. I don’t know what to do. Richard, do you have any advice on my situation?
Lying about your atheism is making you lonely. Telling the truth about your atheism would clearly make you even more lonely, and also unemployed. Let’s look for other solutions.
Regarding your family: You say that you have always had a shaky relationship with your parents, and their acceptance of you is dependent on their thinking you’re a Christian. That of course means that you don’t really have their acceptance at all. They are accepting a false impression of you, an illusion, not you.
Even if you were a Christian, their acceptance would still not be worth much, because it is so narrowly conditional. One has to kowtow to their strict stipulations for their tolerance. That’s not family acceptance, that’s qualifying for membership in an exclusive yacht club. Get out your captain’s cap and your becrested blue blazer.
Telling anyone the truth about your atheism is not a free-floating ethical requirement with no regard to the persons involved. The ethic of your being truthful with your family exists within the context of your relationship with them. Making it safe for others to be frank and truthful is a back-and-forth, mutual, shared responsibility in such relationships. If they do not provide that unconditional or at least condition-minimal safety, then they have not earned learning this truth that you would share. They would not treat it or you honorably. They are not worthy of knowing that truth about you, and you do not deserve the abuse and abandonment that you would receive for your efforts.
I can understand your not wanting to be “disowned completely.” Your emotional needs for love and belonging do not just evaporate in the light of rational thought. So until one or more of them demonstrate that they are trustworthy and would handle this particular truth with compassion, respectful treatment, and a genuine desire to understand, you may have to satisfy yourself with that part left unspoken and incomplete.
Remember, there are several other important things about you besides your atheism. It does not define you. Find your solace and sustenance from your family in your shared joy about some of those other things. It may not be full, free and complete, but it’s better than nothing. They are not perfect; neither are you. So your relationship isn’t likely to be perfect either.
As for your two part-time jobs with “Christian” in their names: Having to lie and fake a religion where you’re working now, you are like a spy in a dangerous country. That cannot be healthy for you. Take care of your health, inside and out, but take care of your financial needs as well. Currently, you’re caught between the pragmatics of keeping your job and the ethics and guilt of lying to people. Rather than getting yourself fired in a hara kiri of honesty, find your way out of the bind on your own terms. Look for other work.
In a robust economy or a stagnant one, people should always be looking for better jobs. It’s a good habit. Just keep quietly looking every day. The looking, as fruitless as it might be for the time being, is an important gesture to affirm your self esteem, and a guard against resignation and what follows, depression. You deserve a better work situation. Find it.
Hopefully, you’ll eventually find work where nobody cares about your religious opinions. You won’t have to lie because nobody is interested. They’re interested in getting work done.
In general, I do not think it’s a good idea to form close friendships with coworkers even in less risky circumstances. Dual relationships so easily become conflicts of interest: If you and your close friend at work compete for the same desired assignment, the personal information you both have becomes a weapon. Its use can hurt very deeply. If you or they promote, one is now over the other, and the awkwardness is just the beginning of conflict.
Best to keep your friendships and your working relationships separate. The playroom and the workroom should not be the same room.
As for your feeling that you are lacking courage, that is an unfair and simplistic assessment. There is a balance between courage and wisdom. If you would not be harsh and unforgiving to another who was in your predicament, then don’t be that way to yourself. Show compassion and patience to yourself just as you would to others.
Disabuse yourself of notions about “courage” that sound like they come from a book I read as a child, A Boy’s King Arthur. You have already shown great courage to face your own doubts and to free your mind from the shackles of your childhood indoctrination. That is rare, it is usually scary and uncomfortable, and it is very tempting to just accept things without question. Such is not the act of a coward.
On the other hand, telling the wrong people at the wrong time something that they don’t need to ever know is not the act of a hero. As I said before, the ethical requirement of being forthcoming with a truth depends on the relationship you have with those whom you might tell. For instance, nobody needs to or ought to hear about your intimate sexual fantasies and appetites except your lover or your psychologist. You’re not being “dishonest” by keeping that private from others.
I suggest that you find friends completely separated from both work and family. Cultivate more than one group. Join a group of atheists, or humanists, or skeptics, whatever you can find. Be willing to travel some distance if you must. The impression I get of your level of loneliness sounds serious, and it could turn into a paralysis of despair. Also, join a group of people who have some other aspect, interest or love of something in common with you. Have several resources, so you always have someone with whom you can talk, someone with whom you can play.
Your friends will probably share some but not all of your interests, and so you’ll tell them things about yourself according to categories. People who can accept everything about you are a little more rare. If you are lucky, there will some day be one person who can hear and honor all of the true things about you. I hope you find each other.
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