Ask Richard: When Coming Out Will Expose Other Atheists

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I have currently been in a relationship with my girlfriend for a little over a year. We both are still in high school so we both live with our parents. When we started dating I was an atheist and I still am. My girlfriend was a Christian but now she is an atheist also. Her parents are very Christian and only support her dating white Christian males. Well I fit that except the Christian part.

I quickly figured out that if I wanted to be in this relationship I would have to cover up my beliefs to her whole family. So I did and I have up into this very day. Lately I have been feeling that I am tired of hiding my beliefs to her family and I would just come out and let them know I am not Christian. This would have a huge back lash as her whole family likes me because they think I share their beliefs. I have thought maybe they would accept me just for being a good kid who respects their daughter. I fear that them knowing the truth would bring us back to never seeing each other like when they thought I was atheist when we first dated. Hiding my beliefs just doesn’t feel right but sharing them would end my relationship with my girlfriend.

If they knew she was atheist she would not be allowed to do anything with friends. She would lose all freedoms like her phone, Facebook, etc. She could only be with kids at their church and only be with them at church.

I would like your advice on what to do with her parents.

Thank you for your time,
Derek

Dear Derek,

I can understand getting tired of pretending and faking in front of your girlfriend’s family. It’s a pain in the neck. But you need to be careful how you ease your discomfort, and I’m sure that wanting to be careful is why you wrote for advice.

As young people mature, their growing independent sense of self begins to chafe at having to play the roles their elders expect, but they are still physically, financially and emotionally very dependent on their elders, and so they have to endure the conflict between what they are becoming and what they must pretend they still are. It can be very uncomfortable, and sometimes they impulsively take action to break away from their constraints.

But we do not live as independent islands. We live in a complex web of interconnected relationships. So when we take an action, we are hardly ever the only one who is affected by our action. Many other people may be affected, especially those with whom we have strong and close relationships. Even though we hope our action might benefit us, there is no guarantee that it will benefit others. Sometimes it can cause them harm that we did not intend.

We may be willing to bear the harsh consequences of the actions that we take, but we do not necessarily have the right to blithely expose others to collateral damage because of their proximity to us. So we should be mindful of their needs and rights.

Going by your description of your girlfriend’s family, I can’t think of a way that you could present your atheism to them that would not result in the poop hitting the propeller. It seems highly likely that regardless of how good and respectful a kid you’ve been, they’ll instantly and permanently shut down your relationship with her.

But as you have also described, that’s not where it will end.

After you have been shown the door, one of the first things her parents will do is to ask her if she is still a believing Christian. Unless she is ready and willing to face all the consequences that you have listed or worse, she’ll have to lie directly to them about that, and she’ll also have to lie about how she didn’t know that you are an atheist. She’ll have to pretend that she’s shocked and dismayed to learn this.

At first they might believe that she’s still a Christian, but they probably won’t buy her story that she didn’t know about your atheism. You said they briefly thought you were an atheist when you first started dating her and they almost stopped you, but you quickly got that covered up. So now her denial of knowledge probably won’t work. They’ll be angry that she deceived them about you and went against their wishes for her to only associate with Christians. They’ll clamp down tightly on her, and as you predict she’ll suffer severe social and communication restrictions long after you’re gone. If she gets to date at all, she won’t be dating anyone not closely pre-screened by them.

They’ll probably question her further, and they might wear her down until she acknowledges that she also is an atheist. If so, they’ll learn that she changed her beliefs after she started dating you. Although that might not have been the cause, they will probably assume it is. They’ll blame you for corrupting their daughter.

She has the right to make her own decisions about if, when and how she might reveal her atheism to her family, and about facing all that may happen as a result. She has the right to make those decisions on her own time and without pressure from other people’s desires, and I’m sure that because you care about her, you wouldn’t want to unintentionally force her hand.

I really wish I could suggest some presentation to them that would soothe their fears and allow the two of you to be openly yourselves and be together too, but I don’t think anything would presently work with this bunch. As I see it, you have the choice between two difficult options. Difficult, but not horrible.

1. Both of you learn to live with it, bide your time, play the family’s game and enjoy each other’s company. Don’t talk about it with others on Facebook, Twitter, or any other privacy-obliterating media. Decide that at the present time, “being real” about this one issue isn’t really worth the pain. Eventually the situation will change. Perhaps their prejudice against non-Christians might relax, but don’t count on that. In time both of you will become financially and emotionally independent of your parents, and if you’re still together by then, you can mutually agree on how you will handle it.

2. If you really, really have reached the limit of your willingness to hide your beliefs, then explain it gently and honestly to your girlfriend and break up with her without revealing anything about your beliefs to her family. I know it seems cold of me to suggest this option, but if you absolutely can no longer stand the hiding, it’s the more selfless way for you to end your discomfort. You won’t have to pretend to them, but you will not be with her. That outcome is exactly the same as if you were to tell them that you’re an atheist, but it does not include harming her, and it respects her right to make her own decisions about coming out.

Derek, starting right now, the most important thing to do is to talk about all of your thoughts and feelings thoroughly with her, and make it easy for her to talk about all of her thoughts and feelings thoroughly with you. Because your decisions affect each other, keep your decisions mutually agreed. Take your time with this and other considerations. You have so much more time ahead of you than behind you.

Always be a friend of truth.
There is no worse enemy.
In careworn age or carefree youth,
Let it keep you company.

But also walk with kindness too
And listen to its soft appeal.
Find the balance of the two;
Know what’s loving and what’s real.

So be truthful, yet be kind.
Let these two friends on each side
Counsel both your heart and mind.
Wisdom then will be your guide.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • jolly

    Since you are pretty sure the truth will have negative consequences and you both are in the physical control of others, keep it hidden. There is no rush to tell anyone the truth since it won’t really help anyone.
    It would be a different picture if you were an adult. I think Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a good rule in this instance.

  • Claudia

    Her parents are very Christian and only support her dating white Christian males.

    I would like to briefly put in a defense of decent Christians everywhere and correct you. They aren’t just “very Christian”, they are bigoted homophobic racist Christians. You can be very Christian while lacking any of these. In fact, a lot of Christians would argue you are more Christian when you lack all three.

    Besides that I agree 100% with Richard. Revealing your atheism to her family is equivalent to breaking up with her and then trashing her life as you go. Imagine you were a girl and your girlfriend a lesbian. Would you come out to her family, thereby outing her and putting her in a world of hurt? Don’t do that shit. I can understand not wanting to be in the closet, and if being an out atheist is the most important thing in your life right now, break up with her explaining your reasons.

    However bear in mind that you are in High School. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but this time will be over in a flash. Before you know it you’ll be off to college. It’s quite possible you go somewhere different to your girlfriend, in which case the chances of survival for your relationship are slim. Why not enjoy your time together now? If you’re very lucky and you are still together in your adult lives, you’ll have plenty of time to come out to her parents at the same time as her and let the chips fall where they may.

  • Miko

    Lying to authority figures is an inherently good thing and should be practiced as an end in itself even when it doesn’t serve a greater good. In cases like this, there shouldn’t even be any question about it.

    When we started dating I was an atheist and I still am. My girlfriend was a Christian but now she is an atheist also.

    Is their causality there? A certain type of person (especially a young woman who grew up with authoritarian parents that conditioned love on conformity of belief) is likely to say this without meaning it for the sake of social harmony. Could be that she’s back to being a Christian the day after the relationship ends.

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com David McNerney

    Atheism isn’t worth it. It’s not even a real belief system – because we don’t believe in anything (in the context of religion etc).

    Other things – like equal rights or the correct teaching of science – which maybe go hand in hand with atheism are worth suffering for, but not the atheism itself.

    And when presenting an atheist point of view – the only thing you can say to someone is “Hey your beliefs are stupid”. And, you know, that’s just mean (even if it is true).

    I don’t think anyone should jeopardize a possibly happy life with a potential “soul-mate” just for the sake of a non-belief. You have plenty of time.

  • Nakor

    I love the poem at the end. Google finds no mention of it; did you write that yourself Richard?

    PS: As usual your thoughts on the writer’s problem are brilliant.

    [Richard says: Yes, I wrote the poem. Thank you.]

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    If this were the other way around and my daughter were dating a secret Christian then I’d be concerned. Oh wait, no I wouldn’t. I care more about what people say and do that what they profess to believe. I’d be concerned about the lying as I don’t approve of deceit. That is assuming that any lies actually took place. There is a world of difference between allowing someone to believe something that isn’t true and telling them something that isn’t true.

    Anyway I agree with Richard. However don’t lie. Let them believe what they will and dodge questions of faith rather than lie. Lies are too much trouble. They are difficult to remember and have a tendency to bite you on the arse when you least expect it.

  • Jezzi James

    Derek, it’s unclear from reading your letter whether her parents are ‘expecting’ you to participate in their religion.

    Do they question you to affirm your beliefs? Do they ask you to say the ‘blessing’ when you eat with them? Just having to be in the room when they pray or do their holy mumbo-jumbo should be looked upon as a chance to become a more tolerant atheist [do not expect from others what you are not willing to do yourself].

    However, if pretending has meant that you have been attending church with them and participating in their woo, then perhaps your family is “missing Sunday fellowship” with you and have requested alternate Sundays [this won't work if you've been complaining about them though]. Slowly removing yourself from their thumb, and with any luck occasionally taking their daughter with you might be just the break you need to continue on with the charade.

    I am not closeted in my atheism, however [as a single parent who made the error of getting involved with someone from a religious family] I refuse to discuss religion with the in-laws. I have done this from the beginning with them which set the tone for a lack of religious discussion… when they wish to pray, I sit silently and look to see if anyone is secretly peeking… it is the respectful to do when I am in the home of any religious person.

  • Deepak Shetty

    @claudia

    They aren’t just “very Christian”, they are bigoted homophobic racist Christians.

    It isn’t out of the ordinary for even liberal to moderate religious people to prefer their children marrying within the religion. In fact it’s my measure of how liberal or reasonable or non discriminatory a religious person actually is(as opposed to what he/she says) – whether he/she objects to his/her children marrying someone from a different religion(or none).

  • Deepak Shetty

    hoverfrog

    I’d be concerned about the lying as I don’t approve of deceit.

    No one approves, but we have all done it :) . I married a catholic so both of us had to well fudge the facts a little (but yes we had our version of dont ask dont tell instead of outright lies – but the intent is the same).

    Let them believe what they will and dodge questions of faith rather than lie.

    Easier said than done. If you are asked why don’t you go to church – you either have to tell the truth or lie.

  • ACN

    deepak has a point here I have friends whose families are very liberal jews, they have few if any supernatural leanings at all but it is still very important to them that their children marry other jews.
    Similarly I have members of my own extended family who are very moderate to liberal presbyterians who give my brother a very hard time about his girlfriend’s catholicism, they say he needs to find a REAL christian girl to date.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    The term “atheist” means different things to different people (as does the term “Christian”). I suggest that you play upon the ambiguity in the meanings of these terms. If they ask you if you are an “atheist”, they may really be asking you if you are an immoral, hateful, disrespectful person. Say “no”. If they ask you if you are a “Christian”, they are probably really asking if you are a caring, thoughtful, respectful person. Say “yes”. Then continue to enjoy dating their daughter. :)

    If you want to “take one for the team” as it were and sacrifice your relationship with your girlfriend to prove a point with her parents (or just go and date someone else), then I agree with Richard that it would be best to end the relationship in such a way as to leave your girlfriend some options with her parents… which may preclude being able to prove a point at this time.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Deepak Shetty

    we had our version of dont ask dont tell instead of outright lies – but the intent is the same

    I respectfully disagree. An unspoken truth is intended to protect your privacy and their feelings. A lie is intended to deceive to make your life easier.

    If you are asked why don’t you go to church – you either have to tell the truth or lie.

    “I haven’t found a church that suits me.” That is entirely truthful.

  • Claudia

    I’m afraid that however liberal they may be in all other respects, a family that will not allow a child to be romantically involved with someone of a different religion is bigoted, period. Oh I can understand having something of a preference for cultural reasons because you want to maintain a cultural tradition. That’s fine. However the minute your preference translates to nonacceptance of your child or their chosen partner based purely on religion, we’re talking bigotry, even if they are huge gay-lovin’ organic food eating Kusinich voters.

  • Happy Misanthrope

    I have thought maybe they would accept me just for being a good kid who respects their daughter. I fear that them knowing the truth would bring us back to never seeing each other like when they thought I was atheist when we first dated.

    Johnny Cochran has a nice little catch phrase for situations like this:

    When in doubt
    Don’t come out

    This case is a no-brainer – past experience already tells you how her parents will react. It’s not even a hypothetical!

    Being a good kid who respects their daughter won’t mean jack shit to them. Remember, people are naturally assholes by default. There are exceptions, but that’s the rule.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I respectfully disagree. An unspoken truth is intended to protect your privacy and their feelings. A lie is intended to deceive to make your life easier.

    @hoverfrog: So sins of omission are better than active sins, even if the end result is the same?

    ‘I haven’t found the right church yet’ is honest? That’s rich! So if a gay guy says he hasn’t found the right woman yet, that’s honest too, huh?

    You betray your own position. Lie to survive, period. Even you think so, despite yourself, else you wouldn’t be parsing words like Bill Clinton disputing the definition of ‘sex’.

    You’d make a great doublespeaking spokesman for the fuck yourself overOut Campaign. Now go collect your award.

  • MV

    Whatever happened to the phrase “My religious beliefs are private”? Just because someone asks does mean you have to disclose information. It also solves the lying issue. And possibly teaches some manners.

  • Nakor

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that probably any parents who refuse to let their daughter see anyone but Christians is probably not going to a accept “my religion is private” in the first place. Besides, the term pretty much implies that you’re using it because your religion is something you expect would be disapproved of. :/

    As for him telling the truth here, it would be the greater evil. Moral issues are rarely black and white. Just because lying or dishonesty are typically bad doesn’t mean that occasionally they aren’t the right choice. One needs only to look at the harm he could do to his girlfriend – and I don’t mean their relationship, but rather her herself – and realize that continuing his deception is the far lesser of the two evils.

  • AxeGrrl

    Claudia wrote:

    I’m afraid that however liberal they may be in all other respects, a family that will not allow a child to be romantically involved with someone of a different religion is bigoted, period. Oh I can understand having something of a preference for cultural reasons because you want to maintain a cultural tradition. That’s fine. However the minute your preference translates to nonacceptance of your child or their chosen partner based purely on religion, we’re talking bigotry

    Claudia, I’m not sure I’m interpreting your comment above correctly, so I’ll a question….

    Are you saying that a family that doesn’t allow their child to become romantically involved with someone because they want to maintain a ‘cultural tradition’ isn’t bigoted?

    I guess I’m just not getting the differentiation between motivations based on religion and motivations based on ‘cultural tradition’.

    To me, not accepting a child’s romantic partner based on religion, gender, cultural tradition, race ~ or almost anything other than character (and that person’s ability to make their child happy) ~ is ‘bigoted’.

  • Claudia

    Are you saying that a family that doesn’t allow their child to become romantically involved with someone because they want to maintain a ‘cultural tradition’ isn’t bigoted?

    No, I’m saying the exact opposite of that, in fact. All I’m conceding is that people are allowed to have a wish to continue cultural traditions, just like they have a right to wish for grandchildren or the right to want a girl instead of a boy. You can have superficial preferences, if they are based on something positive and not the rejection of “the other”. You can want a girl grandchild if you only had sons and missed the chance for a girl, not because you reject males. However the very instant this preference translates to lack of acceptance for other options, it becomes bigotry. Being happy your Jewish son is involved with a Jewish girl so he will continue cultural traditions is ok I guess. Rejecting your Jewish son and/or his Christian girlfriend is anything but ok, even if you are liberal in all other respects.

  • AxeGrrl

    Claudia wrote:

    All I’m conceding is that people are allowed to have a wish to continue cultural traditions, just like they have a right to wish for grandchildren or the right to want a girl instead of a boy. You can have superficial preferences, if they are based on something positive and not the rejection of “the other”. You can want a girl grandchild if you only had sons and missed the chance for a girl, not because you reject males. However the very instant this preference translates to lack of acceptance for other options, it becomes bigotry

    Thanks for clarifying Claudia :)

    I think you’ve expressed the point perfectly with this one sentence:

    the very instant this preference translates to lack of acceptance for other options, it becomes bigotry

  • Silent Service

    Derik,

    Richard is right in his advice. If outing yourself as an atheist will mess up your girlfriend’s life, then any reasons you might have for wishing to out yourself must not be self serving and must be considered against how such actions will affect other people’s lives. That alone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t out yourself, but I have to ask, what do you have to gain, and what does everybody involved have to lose?

    It’s time to make a grown up decision. If you really love and care for your girlfriend then could you possibly consider doing something that would mess up her life? I doubt it. You’re reaching the point where you have to consider what your actions will do to others and not be selfish in those actions. Your being quiet about your lack of religious belief does not harm you, but being public about it would harm your girlfriend. That would be a both wrong and self-serving. You can and should be better than that. Your day in the sun will come once both you and she are no longer under parental control.

  • Robert L.

    Deal with it, until both of you get jobs or get married. Get her to convince her parents to give her certain things that she would have trouble buying were she to be cut off from them, or get them to put some money in a trust fund that they can’t touch (now I strongly suspect this can be done). Then, get your girlfriend/future wife’s support, break the news and skip town/state/country, even. If she doesn’t agree with this plan, then break up with her and find another girl.
    It is not worth it to live with bigots, it is not worth it to feel a single ounce of pity/sympathy/love/care for bigots, and it is not worth it to live with a woman who won’t turn her back on bigots when it is needed. Bigots deserve what they get, so don’t feel guilty because they’re just fools who can’t see beyond their own blinkered religious worldview and accept others as they are.


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