Ask Richard: Not Yet Out to Parents, Wants to Start an Atheist Club at School

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

Dear Richard,

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!

Sincerely,
Ashley

Dear Ashley,

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.

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.

  • ortcutt

    Tell them you’re an atheist.  If they are angry, mock them and challenge their beliefs.  If they hit you, call the cops.  It’s time for children to take a stronger stance against intellectually abusive parents.  That’s what religion is, intellectual child abuse.

    • 3lemenope

      Depending on the specific situation, this could be good advice or it could be horrible advice. Some people have the wherewithal to stand up to their parents, some don’t. Some abusive parents set things up so it is very, very difficult to get away from them or challenge them. Some parents are psychotic and giving this advice would actually put the child in really serious physical danger. Sometimes it is better for the kid to just suffer through it until natural emancipation and/or college. Sometimes there are more important aspects to the parent/child relationship than asserting independence of thought; some people are not ready to throw their relationship with their parents away simply because they are unreasonable about one topic of importance.

      Unless you know the specific situation, this type of response strikes me as irresponsible.

      And everything else aside, mocking your parents’ beliefs openly is not a generally winning strategy.

      • ortcutt

        My siblings and I mocked my parents’ religious beliefs relentlessly.  I remember when my mother said she thought ghosts exist, and we subjected her to withering examination for an hour.  We managed over 25 years to make atheists out of them but 20 years of Catholic indoctrination and pervasive religious culture took a while to overcome. 

        We’re in a strange period in history now because parents generally believe they know more than their children, but this is one of the first generations in this country that has had a reasonable chance to avoid religious indoctrination by reading things like God Delusion or r/atheism.  It just makes me angry when people suggest that parents with irrational beliefs need to be placated.  No, they don’t.  What if some parents were flat earthers and children were scared to join Geology Club because they don’t want to tell their parents they believe in a round earth.  Why do we tolerate parents putting their children in fear because they choose to use their reason to evaluate the evidence.

        • Pedro Lemos

          Because the point here is not only to discuss who´s right or wrong, atheists or theists. It´s about the quality of life this girl is gonna get after she comes out of the closet.
          So, she reveals herself as an atheist and start mocking her parents, as seens to be your genious advice. Though it would certainly satisfy your ego in this “who´s the smartest of all” contest, you forget she still depends on them financially, emotionally and in many other ways.
          Proving she is the wittiest person in the house won´t help her if her parents decide to outcast her (and my guess in this case is that some mocking would just increase their inclination to that). Just because your parents accepted being mocked, don´t assume every family is like yours.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          There are often better ways to make improvements on your home than by setting it on fire. There are often better ways to improve your relationships than by deliberately antagonizing  them and by provoking more irrationality rather than by appealing to their reason.

          I understand your frustration with society’s general attitudes,  and I understand your particular anger from your personal experience, but it’s easy to talk boldly about standing up to people with power if you’re not the one standing in harm’s way. Just because you did what you did with your parents does not mean it’s good advice for everyone, especially if it includes telling them to risk receiving physical violence.  Go provoke someone who is irrational, has power over you, thinks they have license to do to you whatever they wish,  and is one and a half times your size. Then after you recover, decide if that’s a wise course to recommend to a teenage girl.  There’s the principle of your rights and the rights of children, and the ideal of promoting rational thinking over superstition and all that,  and then there’s something else called assuring physical safety.  Solutions that accomplish all those things are preferable.

          • ortcutt

            We should be training atheist kids to audio and video tape their parents.  If they are abusive, they need proof that will stand up in court.   I’m sick and tired of old people like yourself standing up for these bigots.  Your generation is diseased by religion and you need to get out of the way.

            • 3lemenope


               I’m sick and tired of old people like yourself standing up for these bigots.  

              It’s sentences like these that might drive a person to the conclusion that you’re not reading what people are writing.

              Nobody here is standing up for bigoted parents, or any parent who would use emotional blackmail or much, much worse to control the contents of their childrens’ heads. 

              All people are suggesting is that there are prudential reasons not to antagonize people who are powerful in relation to yourself especially as a child (and thus deprived of nearly all power by the law and prevailing culture), and that sometimes–it depends on the individual situation–it may be that a different approach than a head-on assault is called for. Sometimes it is better to try to find a less antagonistic way of breaking into the conversation. Sometimes its better just to wait till you’re out of their direct power. Sometimes there are good sentimental reasons why the topic may not want to be broached; let’s say you really cherish the relationship you have with your parents but expect them to react to this news poorly?

              Are these irrelevant considerations?

            • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Felyx Leiter

              You seriously just made a sweeping generalization about an entire generation, calling them “diseased,” after complaining about bigotry?

              • Momma Jay

                Exactly. It doesn’t sound Ortcutt’s big on reasoning skills yet. He sounds like one of my old college roommates. He antagonized everyone around him because he was “smarter” than they are. 

                a) I’m pretty sure my old roommate has few if any friends. If he does he had to have gone out and found some really intellectually adept people

                b) He got kicked out of college for low grades after proclaiming himself a “frickin’ genius”

                c) The last thing I knew of him to do be doing was selling fireworks at a stand for part-time work

                Ortcutt doesn’t sound much different from the guy I know!

            • LesterBallard

              What the fuck? 

        • ahimsa

           ” I remember when my mother said she thought ghosts exist, and we subjected her to withering examination for an hour.”

          This makes me suspect you’re trolling, but in any case, your particular method of dealing with your parents may have seemed right to you, but it doesn’t have to be, and most likely isn’t, applicable to the situations that other atheist children and their families might be dealing with.

          I think Richard has provided a tremendously thoughtful, appropriately cautious, and encouraging response.

          Disagreements over religion within families can be contentious and divisive, especially when parents aren’t willing to be open-minded, but imho, we should try to preserve those relationships as best we can while remaining true to ourselves.

    • Ashley

      First of all, I’m not going to mock my parents. Regardless of their beliefs, I love and respect them both for various other reasons. Second of all, they would never hit me, because neither are idiots and would therefore never resort to such idiocy. They’re not abusive: only misled and prejudice- but as I said, I love both dearly.

      • Momma Jay

        Do you have some specific things about the Bible or their religion that you disagree with? If so, then maybe you can ask them about it and get the ball rolling from there. 

        Talk about your doubts. I think you’re “outing” can be a process if you want it to be and not a one time “HERE I AM!” event. Eventually though, if you still have the same doubts then you will have to come clean. But at least then I think you’re parents will be better prepare for it and will know where your decision is coming from. 

    • Momma Jay

      Yes, because mocking is the best way to help gain someone’s understanding and support. Ortcutt, really?

    • http://twitter.com/chanceofrainne Rainne Cassidy

      And if they lock her up, have her committed or kill her, then what?

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Assume that if you start a cub, your parents will find out. If you do start a club, keep in mind that besides identifying other people who share and understand your viewpoint, one objective should be to provide a positive example that people can be good without God. Perhaps start a Good Without God club…

    If you decide to take the plunge and you get some grief from your parents, perhaps you can play off the “it’s only a phase” angle and just tell them that you are only going through your “atheist phase”.  Of course, it might be a phase like the phase of your life with having your permanent teeth. 

    You also might think about softening the revelation by saying that you are agnostic meaning that you don’t think it is possible to have knowledge about God and that all scripture is just invented by man…  and the good parts you will agree with because they are good - not because they are part of scripture.

  • Ian Reide

    I don’t like saying this, but don’t tell your parents. They have control of you, legally and financially. They can make your life hell, and they probably will. I have a low opinion of the behaviour of xians, and this is how I predict they will act. 
    Lie to them, hide your beliefs, while doing you best to avoid as many religious activities as possible (save your time and sanity), and plan to leave “home” as soon as you can. A regrettable situation to be in.  Which ever course of action you choose, my best wishes for your future.

    • Ashley

      My parents have this horrid way of finding out things that I would prefer they remain ignorant of, but I may just attempt to keep it hidden for as long as possible

      • Ian Reide

        In another post you tell how your mother interrogates you about your religious beliefs, and how you have to lie to her. You also say that you love your parents and respect them. 

        I was in a similar situation when I was your age. My parents were wacko religious freaks. They made my childhood bad. After I grew up, moved out and got my own life, I spent far too many years trying to stay in contact, be friendly. After too long a time I realised that these were bad people, bigots, petty minded, hateful. They were a dead weight on my life. It would have been far better to cease all contact after my 18th. 

        I cannot speak for you, but are they really people you love and respect. If these people were not your parents would you respect them? If you cannot trust them enough to tell them the truth, then do they love you?

        Not an easy thing to say or do, but you need to think the consequences through. 

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/47IDX2QAR6VU6ZAILFU6I23ACQ Joseph

          It’s more complicated than determining whether religious parents are inherently good or bad people based on their behavior; I think we have to consider them the same way we would consider somebody with a mental illness.  I believe that most religious parents — even the most wacky among them — truly feel that what they are doing is in the best interest of their children.  Consider how difficult it would be for these people to reverse decades of indoctrination — that’s the only “truth” they have ever known, as crazy as it seems to the rational among us.  I don’t find myself angry at the parents, but angry at the religion that made them that way; I can only feel pity for the parents, who are victims in this situation.

        • Ashley

           My parents are good people. Both are loving and worthy of respect. My childhood was filled with love and joy. The only problem is that they tend to rely on emotion rather than reason, and therefore have emotional ties to religion that logic can’t seem to break.

  • Whitney J Currie

    No matter what happens, this is likely to be difficult for everyone involved.  My parents are very conservative Southern Baptists, and I still haven’t told them I’m not a Christian anymore.  Some of it is that I don’t see the need for them to know, some of it is because I don’t want to deal with the likely shouting match that would result.   Yes, I do feel that my parents wouldn’t love me anymore if they knew.  (Which makes me wonder how much they care now, but I digress.)

    My advice is this:  Talk to someone close to the issues.  This needs to be someone you really, deeply trust, and someone with very good judgement.  Online advice is helpful, but you really need someone more familiar with the situation.

    If you’re going to start a club, there is no getting out of telling your parents.  They’ll find out one way or another.  What about your boyfriend’s parents?  They may have some useful advice, or your guy might be able to tell you about how he handled telling his mom and dad.

    You might also want to be prepared to deal with whatever your parents will say when they try to reconvert you.  Let them talk to you, then you’ll need to explain why you disagree.  This means knowing why you, Ashley, are an atheist on a highly intimate level.  Christians have had centuries to get the conversion effort right, so this might be hard on you.  The Girl Scout Motto applies here:  Be Prepared.

    Best of luck to you no matter what you decide to do.  Take care of yourself, and please let someone know if you feel you’re in a dangerous situation.

    • Ashley

      My boyfriend has never been religious, so he never had to te his parents (who don’t care that he’s atheist anyway). Also, his parents only speak Spanish, so I cant exactly communicate with them.

      And I don’t “really, deeply” trust anyone, but thanks for the advice

      • Ashley

        Tell*

  • Ashley

    One huge issue is that when I answer their questions or attempt to correct their misconceptions, they either guilt trip me or completely refuse to accept my answers while relying on the Bible for support or “evidence”. For example, my mom actually did tell me once that she thinks my boyfriend has no moral compass because he’s atheist, so I told her that everyone, regardless of religion, has a different idea of what good morals are, and that they’re formed by our conscience, which we’re born with, and our environment, which we’re born into. Her response, and I kid you not, was, “I wont trust him unless he believes in god”. She’s asked me several times if I believe in god, and even more frequently if I’m “saved”. I always answer yes. But she then gives me a certain skeptical look (ironically) and tells me that I ask too many questions about religion, and that she blames my boyfriend for my doubt.

    • Namie244

      This was directed towards Richard. lol :)

    • Parse

      Hi Ashley,If your Mom repeatedly asks you about whether or not you’ve been saved, and if you believe in God, then there’s a good chance that she already knows (or at least suspects) you’re an atheist.  
      It’s hard to give good advice, especially since I’m not Richard (and haven’t been trained for this), but I can at least provide what knowledge I have:
      Until you decide that you want to come out, paranoia is your friend.  Assume that your parents are at least mildly technologically competent, know how to view internet history, and can bully their way into your email.  Maintain a second email address for posting on blogs or communicating with Richard.   Use (youremailaddress+a@gmail.com) for commenting on websites – it’ll still go to your email address, but it’ll disconnect those comments from your gravitar (if you choose to use one) or any other comments you make on non-atheist sites.  (I’ve done that to comment semi-anonymously [the site owner can still see the email address], when I talk about information that’s more personal than I’d want attached to this Disqus account).  Use Google Chrome’s Incognito windows to browse atheist blogs and access the secondary email address alongside regular windows for everything else, to avoid leaving suspicious windows of ‘blank’ internet history.  It’s your choice as to when and where (or if, of course) to come out; taking appropriate steps will help keep these choices yours.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, orphan

    ashley, i have to agree with the more cynical commenters here. don’t tell them. don’t start a public club. you’re too young, and the economy is terrible. you don’t want to be homeless. i say the same thing to kids in religious households who are gay. you’ve just got to wait. 

    if you don’t, i admire your bravery. just be prepared for what it could all really mean. 

    at your age, contesting with parents is instinctual. your body literally makes you want to do this; it’s part of the maturation process. forcing your parents once and for all to understand you are your own person probably sounds and feels really good to you. but the other side of maturing is understanding that we all have to make tough choices. sometimes, we can’t get or do what we want most. that’s life. 

    start planning now. think about ways you can take greater control over your own life. save money. get a job. learn about atheist groups that already exist where you live. find a way to speak with those people, if not meet with them. if you’re really daring, start an “underground society” of atheists in your school. one that isn’t public. it’s fun and revolutionary to have a secret society, and good practice for the future. 

    but recognize that your atheism is valuable to you, and that you can preserve it, and at the same time function in the environment in which you must currently exist. you have blogs like this one, you know you’re not alone. i am passionate about my atheism, very out about it with clients and friends, but i will say this honestly: that is because i am an adult and in the end i control my own life. if i did not, my behavior would be different. being practical is not a ‘sin’ even among atheists. when you’re 18, your life is your own, totally. just get there. 

  • Old Fogey

    OK, I live in the UK where this kind of problem is quite rare, and I certainly haven’t experienced it – if I was christened then that was the last official religious ceremony I have ever taken part in.

    BUT – I think there is something missing from the discussion here, and that is nuance.  All the talk (especially the more aggresive) is about whether or not to “come out” to your parents, as if it is all or nothing in one big statement.

    More practical, it seems to me, is to pick on a bit of doubt, say there is something in the Bible that you find wrong, or unrealistic, or uncomfortable. The only ones that spring to mind are the slavery and mixed fibre clothes, as I am not much of a student of these things. Best would be something that your parents ignore or go against in their own lives.

    This would be a slow process, but I think from what you say that they already have some idea that you are backsliding, and this could perhaps be built on in little tiny bits.

    Perhaps it would be possible to find a Bible study class that is not just indoctrination, and use it to find just such points to raise, then you could come home and say ” today we studied (xxxxx) and I’m having a lot of  difficulty with that).

    • Momma Jay

      I’m thinking there HAS to be a better way than this!

  • Momma Jay

    Why would a teacher tell her parents? That doesn’t make sense to me. I treat extra curricular activities separate from what happens in the classroom. During conferences, I only talk about what goes on in the classroom unless directly asked to talk about interactions otherwise (clubs, sports, etc.). 

    I don’t believe my fellow teachers are in the habit of saying, “Oh I just love having Johnny join us in the Gay/Straight alliance on Tuesday afternoons!” That just doesn’t seem right. Is this how you operate in your school?

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Hi Momma Jay,
      I’m assuming that your questions are directed toward me. I’m glad that you would not consider telling a student’s parents, and that you don’t expect that your colleagues would.

      Unfortunately, I have received several letters where public school teachers have taken the initiative to tell a student’s parents their suspicion or knowledge that the student is an unbeliever. Some do this because they think that “warning” a student’s parents about what they think is “bad behavior” is part of their role as a teacher, and some do this because they’re simply self-righteous, disapproving, meddling, pious busybodies.

      If a student were to apply to their public school’s administration to start an official club of any kind, I would not be surprised at all that the school would have a policy to at least notify the parents or even send a form to sign for their approval. I think that Principals don’t like to have irate parents in their office yelling, “How dare you let my kid start this awful group and use school facilities, and you didn’t tell me!” But I have never worked for a school, so I don’t know for certain if such cover-your-ass policies are as common as I’m assuming.

    • http://twitter.com/chanceofrainne Rainne Cassidy

       There are plenty of teachers who DO do just exactly that sort of thing.  Where I currently live, it’s a very small town surrounded by other very small towns where everyone knows everyone, and no one thinks twice about talking about everyone’s business everywhere. 

      Also, when I was growing up (in a larger city), we lived up the street from one of my middle school teachers and would often run into her in the grocery store or similar around the neighborhood.  There was never a question that if we saw Mrs D in the Kroger, my mom would stop to chat with her about what was going on with me at school, and that included after-school activities.

      So, yeah, it’s a distinct possibility that her parents would find out immediately-if-not-sooner.

  • Alfredahoward

    Hello are you located in Phila, PA

  • Hounddoggy

    Another way to look at this is:  Atheist (and many other things) is just a label for the outside world to get a quick snapshot of who you are.   And when you say that word it means different things to different people.  And the characteristics may be right or wrong in your situation.  So I would propose you just live your life without the label.  Do what you do….believe what you believe…..and you don’t need to label it.
    I’m 42 and expressing my atheism outwardly to people that I don’t know could hurt my business.  They don’t know me and I don’t have time to explain my beliefs.  If someone asks me directly, I tell the truth.
    Belief and morals and personality and so forth is just too complicated to be talked about in 5 mins.
    Atheists tend to think or say that it’s easy….no belief in a god.
    But a theist will have a lot more to say about it.
    Just drop the label and be.


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