Ask Richard: Four Atheists in a Family Coming Out to a Christian Mother

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.

Hi Richard,

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,
Camille

Dear Camille,

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.

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1646957751 Terri Garrett

    This response is as intelligent as it is compassionate.  Bookmarking it for when friends need coming out advice.  Thank you.

  • Santiago

    Darn it Richard, that’s good advice!

  • Anonymous

    Very thought provoking, and well spoken.  I am grateful that my parents were agnostics when I came out, so it was much easier for me.

  • David McNerney

    My wife is Christian and I’m not.  Recently my daughter made her confirmation, but at the same time announced that she is atheist.

    My wife tends to blames me (not in a bad way, and I didn’t really do anything other than support science and tell them my beliefs) – but I fear in the case listed here, the father, rather than being resented less, might be resented more – a lot more.

  • Lurker111

    “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.”

    I’m not sure about this.  If the mother is not spreading her belief to unsuspecting victims–evangelizing–then I think the ultimate law, “The infliction of unnecessary pain is evil,” applies.  I would not inflict this on the mother.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Since it is difficult for some religious people to accurately understand what it means to be an atheist, I sometimes advise to initially explain your lack of belief from an agnostic or Deistic perspective.  This might allow you to offer some explanations without her bringing to mind all the negative stereotypes she may have about atheism.  For example, from a purely agnostic position, you could say that you don’t believe any specific knowledge about supernatural entities is possible (or available) and that all written scripture on the subject is just made-up make believe and wishful thinking.  If there is a God, you probably honor Him/Her more by simply reveling in the majesty of nature, love, and human compassion and not worshiping any man-made institutions, books, personalities, or belief systems.   

    Perhaps at some later date, after she understand why you don’t believe, you could also mention, that you also don’t happen to believe that those supernatural entities actually exist.

  • ruth

    There was a similar experience in my family in that my husband is the only one who is religious.  Now that he knows none of us share his beliefs he has become even more religious and frankly disgusted by all of us.  He thinks we all patronize him.  I fear that the end result is that I will be divorced and he will be estranged from all of us. 

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      ruth,

      If patronizing is not what the rest of you feel about your husband, then tell him exactly how all of you do feel about him, and tell him what you fear will happen. Clarify for him how you feel, and ask him to reconsider his negative interpretation of whatever he is observing or simply assuming. 

      Estrangement begins before physically leaving, and it is accelerated when both sides begin to withdraw in reaction to the withdrawing of the other side.  As less and less accurate communication is exchanged, resentment begins to fill in the space.

      At the very least, he won’t be able to honestly tell himself that you and your other family members are not trying to keep him included in the family. I hope things improve for all of you.

  • http://www.galatianman.com/ Lance-artnewvo

    Hey Richard      You make the statement that atheists need “to protect people from the consequences of their own beliefs.” What consequences? Since life (according to an honest atheist) is nothing more than eating, sleeping, working, death, then worm food, why should anyone care about consequences? If life is totally meaningless (other than hedonism) and without any purpose (other than to merely exist and then cease to exist) then logically there aren’t any important consequences to any belief one has or does not have. You can “say” it is important, but that will only be a “belief” of yours based on nothing other than your own mind.

        You might say that the consequence is not knowing the truth and therefore the Christian is living a lie. In an amoral universe that would have zero consequences. In an amoral universe where all things are irrelevant what does it matter what anyone beleives. Live and let live. In an amoral universe their isn’t right and wrong, good and evil, etc…. In an amoral universe those who practice love and caring are no better than those who murder, rape, and steal. One is merely a preference on how to spend time while alive over the other preference. In the athesit amoral universe nothing matters at all. There is only matter and energy.

        But if there is a God and He has created a moral universe then ALL things matter. What you believe and “TEACH TO OTHERS” will have eternal consequences. I hope that you are 100% positive that there isn’t a creator of the universe. For you to know ALL things about everything in billions of galaxies throughout time and space, what is seen and unseen, is incredible for some advanced primordial slime who is less than 50 years old. I hope and pray that you are sure, otherwise, after your body dies, you will be wishing you had been merely worm food, because your invisible spirit will meet the Creator of the universe.

       

    • Reverend Joe

      You make an incorrect assertion that the universe is amoral to all atheists. Religion is not the gatekeeper of a moral life.


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