In the letters I receive that deal with “coming out,” usually the atheist is alone in a religious family, and must delicately weigh the possible consequences. These can include the possibility of shunning, abuse, loss of financial support, or even being kicked out of the home. Often he or she is also concerned about reducing the anxiety or hurt feelings that family members might suffer, not just the difficulties he or she might face.
In this letter, it is a daughter, her father, her brother, and her boyfriend who are the concealed atheists, and the feelings of a lone Christian, the mother, are the focus of the daughter’s concern. Instead of a dilemma between truthfulness and self-protection, this is a dilemma between truthfulness and compassion.
Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I was raised in a somewhat Christian home, my family went to church together for a few years, then my father abruptly stopped going. I was active in youth group, but once high school ended, my enthusiasm waned. My wonderful boyfriend asked deep, thought provoking questions about my faith, and I found that it didn’t hold up to even the simplest scrutiny. I have since embraced science and critical thinking, and atheism as well. One of your previous posts actually prompted me to ask my father about his “faith”, and to my surprise he is also an atheist! As is my younger brother! Here’s what I need your help with:
My father has decided that we eventually all need to tell my mother. She knows my father is not a believer, and that has caused them some amount of strain in their 27 years of marriage. I think she thought she could convert him. My mother thought I kept going to church when I moved out with my conservative Christian room mate a few years ago, as I cited my lack of a vehicle as a reason why I stopped attending her church. She likely knows I have stopped going to church since I moved in with my boyfriend over a year ago… that confrontation was not pretty, she actually wrote me an e-mail on moving day about how my cohabitation was an affront to god. I am not keen to tell her about my apostasy, especially if it happens at the same time as my brother reveals his lack of faith. She has a VERY good support system in her church friends, but I wonder if maybe she won’t turn to them out of shame in what we have become. How can we cushion the blow if she thinks that her entire family will go to hell?
Thanks for your help,
Firstly, I commend you for your compassion and sensitivity for your mother’s feelings. You are a good example of how reason, rationality, and critical thinking do not banish loving kindness from a person’s heart. Things might be easier for you if they did, but then you’d be less the humanitarian and less the person that you are.
There are limits to what we can do and what we should do to protect people from the consequences of their own beliefs. The situations in each family differ, and so there is no set “best” way to handle predicaments like this, but if everyone continues to live a lie and play a charade to prevent one family member from being sad because of her religious beliefs, that is not going to last. The truth will come out in some uncontrolled way, and that will only result in worse emotional repercussions.
The four of you should take the time to discuss this carefully before you disclose your atheism to your mother as a group. One or two of you might not be as eager or as comfortable with the prospect as others. Give everyone a chance to express themselves, time to consider it, and to work past at least the worst of their hesitance. If someone is simply not ready, they should not be included in the disclosure. No one should be outed against their will if it can be avoided. Work out what you will say about each other to preserve their privacy.
The “blow” your mother feels at first might not be so much about the prospect that you’ll all go to hell; she might first suffer the impact of abandonment and loneliness. It sounds like she probably already feels alone in the family as the only practicing Christian, and this multiple “outing” will probably make her sense of isolation worse. Encourage her to continue with her good support system with her church friends. Assure her that you, your father, your younger brother, and your boyfriend will not do anything to discourage her beliefs or her personal religious practice, and you will not mock or ridicule her. You’ll all follow a live-and-let-live policy in the family. Gently make it clear that in return, she and her friends should leave your viewpoints about religion up to the four of you. Attempts to proselytize will not be welcome.
If she has considered it her task or duty to raise Christian children and possibly to convert her husband, then she might also feel the pang of failure. Emphasize her success in raising you to have integrity, to be honest, and to be caring. You’re demonstrating those character traits right there in the conscientious way you are trying to handle this situation. Don’t be shy about saying so, because you’re describing her good influence.
Regarding your mother’s fear that you’ll all go to hell, it’s probably best to avoid getting too deeply into a discussion of her beliefs, but you might suggest that the god she believes in does not have to live up to any human’s predictions. He is not bound by his own promises or threats; he can do whatever he wants. Suggest to her that the deepest and most complete faith she could practice would be to leave your fates up to her god, since within her belief system, your fates have never been up to anyone else anyway.
Frequently warm your dialogues with “I love you,” so that it is an explicit part of everything you tell her. Listen to her attentively, and interpret all of her worry or anguish as expressions of her love for you. Sincerely thank her for those every time.
Once the four of you are free of the veil of secrecy, it is natural that you’ll enjoy a relaxed camaraderie together. That is good, but be careful that it is not subtly exclusionary, giving your mother a sense of being left out or shut out. All of you should increase your efforts to involve her in family activities, going places, and fun times.
Although there will probably be some initial tension and tears, I think that in the long run, a caring honesty in place of pretense and secrecy will make it easier for everyone in the family to be themselves, and will promote a healthy flow of mutual love and respect. I wish all five of you well.