Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m an “in the closet” atheist, but I want to start an atheist club at my school. Unfortunately, both of my parents are fundamental Baptists and, frankly, not rational when someone targets their beliefs. I really want to tell them that I don’t believe in god anymore, but I fear their reactions. When they found out that my boyfriend is atheist, they began treating him differently, and frequently urge me to leave him because they believe that he has no morals. While I’m aware that their reactions may differ if I tell them that I’m atheist, I fear they will blame my conversion on him (as if I can’t think for myself).
Meanwhile, I want to start an atheist club at school simply so I can meet people who understand my perspective.
Should I tell me parents that I’m atheist now, or wait until I’m independent (which will be years from now)? Should I start an atheist club at the risk of my parents finding out my secret incidentally? If I do start one, what type of activities do you suggest I do? Your advice would be much appreciated!
Coming out to your parents and starting an atheist club at school are two separate but related issues. One will affect the other, and timing and preparation are very important.
If you start an atheist club or even just become a member of one that someone else starts, you should assume that your parents will find out almost immediately. Atheist clubs are usually controversial at high schools, and are often controversial even at colleges. Word spreads quickly. A teacher, a student, or a student’s parent will tell your parents.
If you are going to be “outed,” you might prefer to be in control of the process, rather than have them find out in a way that includes misinformation supplied by others. They might feel socially embarrassed that they were unprepared when they found out from someone in the community, and they might feel resentful and hurt that you had kept a secret from them rather than telling them. So you probably should not start a club until you’re fully prepared to come out to them under controlled conditions first.
I know that the prospect of keeping this bottled up for a few years until you’re more independent of them seems like a difficult option.
The other option includes the possibility of disappointment, fear, anger, recrimination, guilt trips, heated quarrels, insults, intrusions into your privacy, censoring of your reading materials, restrictions on your friendships, curtailing your privileges, involvement of extended family members or outsiders in attempts to reconvert you, being forced to attend more church activities than before, siblings turning against you or siblings coming under increased parental scrutiny, parents emotionally disconnecting from you, stopping all but essential communication with you, shunning, refusal of financial support or threats to do that, turning you out of the home or threats to do that, and even physical abuse.
I strongly emphasized the word possibility in that long, scary sentence because many of the hundreds of letters I’ve received have described these, but it is also possible that none of them will occur, or if some do, that they will be not very severe.
You are the one who has the most knowledge about how your parents might react, but even so, that might be difficult to predict. Yes, their reaction will probably be different from what they have displayed toward your boyfriend; it will be much more complicated, laced with much more conflicting emotion, but it is hard to know if overall it will be better or worse. Some of that depends on their level of maturity, and some of it depends on your level of maturity, and your preparations.
Coming out is generally an irreversible action. It’s likely there’s no going back. So you should take some time to think this over very carefully. While you’re doing that, you can use your boyfriend as a very useful asset to help you start gently educating them about atheists and atheism. This would not be to persuade them to become atheists, but to persuade them that they need not have fear or hatred of atheists.
When they make remarks about your boyfriend, take the opportunity to talk about his moral and ethical behavior. Your purpose would be to emphasize that morality is defined by behavior rather than by beliefs. If they ask things such as, “But where does he get his morals?” You could answer that he probably gets them where everyone else gets them, from his parents, peers and society, but more importantly you can stress that regardless of where he gets his morals, his behavior shows that he is a good person. This avoids a philosophical discussion about the source of morals that is probably not very useful in this situation, and focuses on the pragmatic reality that he consistently behaves in moral and ethical ways. Be prepared with specific examples of behaviors that show his good character.
You can also use discussions about your boyfriend to discover and dispel other common misconceptions that your parents might have about atheists, such as that atheists want to take away the religious freedom of others, or that they hold all theists in deep contempt, or that they’re depressed, or unpatriotic, or dozens of other absurd stereotypes.
It is essential that you keep these discussions polite, relaxed, and cordial. When you’re dealing with people who have power over you, and they are not necessarily rational about the topic being discussed, control of your manner and tone is crucial. You’ll lose ground if you lose your patience and add your anger to their anxiety. Preface your responses to their remarks about your boyfriend with, “Oh I’m glad you mentioned that, so I can help you understand.” Then patiently but not condescendingly give them the correct information. It’s also okay to take time to think about their expressed misconceptions and to come back later with, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said about my boyfriend yesterday, and I think this might clarify things…”
You can also have your boyfriend respond to their questions if he feels comfortable doing so and if he is articulate enough to help them understand, but only if he can remain congenial in his manner and tone.
All of this will be laying the groundwork for you to eventually come out to them. Every myth that you dispel about atheism in general by using your boyfriend as the focus will be one less point of fear and loathing that you’ll have to deal with when you finally tell them about your own lack of belief.
With all this talk about your boyfriend’s atheism, your parents might confront you, asking you directly if you believe. Then you’ll have to make a decision to answer truthfully or not, based on the insight, if any, that you’ve been gathering about how they will react.
If you come out to them and you then decide to start the club, consider asking for the guidance and support of the Secular Student Alliance. They have a great deal of experience in helping students start atheist groups and clubs, and they can suggest ideas for club activities. I suggest two main kinds of activities:
1) Positive and constructive community outreach efforts where you and your fellow atheists are making some kind of helpful difference in the community. Clubs that are built around service are fun and satisfying.
2) Use whatever difficulties that you face from your parents or other people to build a supportive group for all students who are struggling with this conflict with their families and friends. Adversity drives us to find solutions which we can share with our comrades, and that improves and strengthens those solutions. Helping your fellow atheists will help you to feel less alone, helpless and frustrated. They in turn will share their ideas and caring to support you.
I wish you well in facing these challenges. Please keep us informed about how things continue to develop.