I receive hundreds of letters, far more than I could ever answer even privately, and that is a constant frustration for me. So sometimes I try to answer those letters which come close to representing an issue common to many, hoping that the people whose letters I could not answer might gain something from my response to a similar letter.
The largest category of presented problems is young people who are worried about the prospect of coming out as atheists to their parents and family. Most of them are mainly concerned with the consequences that will come down on them when and if they do reveal their atheism, and those repercussions can be serious and intimidating. But a large minority of that category are primarily concerned with the emotional consequences to their parents and family, rather than what they themselves will face. Here are two letters with this dilemma. I’ll respond to them individually and together.
Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Hi my name is Elliot, and I’m a high school junior in Texas. Here is my problem in a nutshell. I’m an atheist. I have known for quite some time. The issue is my parents, a common one. My dad is the preacher of the church and my mom was raised in a small town church that taught her strict “values”. I also have two brothers, both of whom are older than me and they are both atheists as well. Only one of us has told them, and they didn’t disown him, but it broke their hearts, and I don’t want them to go through that two more times. The way they acted made my brother feel like he let them down and that they felt like they failed as parents. I don’t want them going to their graves thinking that. But also when I go to college I have the choice of going to a Christian school or going to a school with a strong Christian program nearby that I would have to sink my life into. So that’s about it. I would love to hear an educated opinion on the matter thanks.
There’s an old saying, “The truth will out.” While secrets can be kept, the truth has a tendency to find a way out. Keeping it contained takes work. Unless you are able and willing to put forth many years of effort to maintain an intricate deception, it’s likely that sooner or later, your parents will know the truth about all three of their sons. It can come out on your terms, or it can come out in an uncontrolled way. Generally, when it happens is more important than how it happens. Too soon, and you’ll not be prepared for the consequences. Too late, and you will have to do many things that conflict with your personal convictions and that do not best serve your personal needs.
For example, having to attend a Christian college or a college with a strong Christian program would require you to keep up a deception which would isolate you emotionally and therefore socially from your peers. You would have to lie in class discussions and lie in many of your written assignments. Being free of this deception would bring you more options in your education. Without having to include Christianity as one of the educational criteria for choosing a college, you would have a much wider choice of colleges or universities that might be more beneficial to you in your career. You would also avoid having to waste money and time taking several religious classes.
I have more to say to both you and Formerly OJ at the end.
I am a 17-year-old atheist who formerly believed in Orthodox Judaism. I live with my mother and 90-year-old grandmother who are both pretty strong believers in the religion. I have read several articles telling people my age to just grin and bear religiosity in order to avoid confrontation, but my situation is slightly different. I am still stuck practicing Orthodox Judaism while at home, which is driving me insane. In addition to prayer and synagogue and all the regular jazz, I have to do such things as observe the Sabbath, a day on which use of electricity, among other things, is forbidden for a whole 25 hours. In addition, I am forced to keep kosher, wear religious garments in public, pray 3 times a day, etc. There are also certain fast days and holidays where the electricity ban can extend up to a 3 day period, which is absolutely unbearable. However, I’m afraid to tell my mother that I’m even just not religious, based on previous comments about how she has “nothing to live for” and other such blackmail. She already suspects I’m not religious, which is already creating tension in our household, and she’ll flip out if I stop keeping the Sabbath or something like that. I’m also afraid that my grandmother may react poorly and have a heart attack, which I’d feel very guilty about if it happened. Unfortunately, the college I’m going to next year is very close by and I’ll be forced to stay at home, leaving no avenue of escape. Should I keep putting up with these crazy religious rituals and Amish days, or bite the bullet at least tell her I’m not religious and no longer practicing.
(P.S. She seems to be lightening up recently on certain things, like letting me bring a regular book to synagogue, but I’m still afraid of her response if I stop practicing)
Dear Formerly OJ,
To be fair, not all religious parents’ sadness from learning their child is an atheist should be characterized as emotional blackmail, but melodramatic remarks like “I have nothing to live for,” or encouraging you to think you’ll somehow be responsible for grandma having a heart attack certainly smacks of manipulation. I’m reminded of Redd Foxx in the TV series Sanford and Son grasping his chest in feigned angina and crying “I’m comin’ Elizabeth!” whenever his son refused to do what he wanted.
If it’s a guilt trip, don’t buy the ticket.
As with Elliott’s situation, the truth will probably come out anyway, and it sounds like in your case it’s already halfway out. So postponing telling your mother and grandmother the truth will just prolong your having to continue the charade of these rituals and customs that you find to be such absurd impediments. When you go to college, some of them could become downright handicaps. It could be a serious challenge to pass your classes if you can’t use your computer whenever you need to because of an injunction against using electricity on the Sabbath or other special days. College is much more demanding than high school.
For both of you, Elliot and Formerly OJ, there are no completely painless solutions to this. Think carefully about what consequences are actually likely to affect your own welfare and well-being. The emotional, social, and financial punishments that highly religious Christian and Jewish families sometimes inflict on their own atheist children can be brutal. But if you think that those will be of an acceptable level, then ask yourselves these questions:
Whose life shall I live? Shall I live to fulfill my physical, mental and emotional needs, or neglect much of that in order to protect my parents’ feelings from their own beliefs? They’re not yet feeble and incompetent in their old age, but am I already starting to play the role of their protective parent? Am I in a confusing mix of roles, being the protected child yet also being the protector of their illusions about me? When is the right time for me to assert and affirm my ownership of my life, my adulthood? When shall I accept complete responsibility for all of my decisions and actions, as well as all of my own feelings, and respectfully hand back to my parents their responsibility for their own feelings?
I think if the threshold of college isn’t the exact right time, it’s soon.
Please read this related post. It has further advice about including love in all your interactions with your family during the period of upset that will soon come:
Ask Richard: The Risks of Telling the Truth and the Costs of Keeping Secrets About Your Atheism