Parents React to Atheism

… or just not going to church anymore. In their minds, it’s all the same and it’s all a slap in the face to the way they raised you:

What they don’t understand is that the ethics and values they raised you with haven’t changed. You’re just substituting their truth for your own, one that’s based on what goes on in your head instead of in your heart, one that’s far more reliable and honest.

(via nakedpastor)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • C Peterson

    The weird and somewhat paradoxical thing is, when kids become atheists (or even just stop attending church), it demonstrates that the misguided parents apparently still did something right.

  • Pugethiker

    I fortunately didn’t have such an extreme example for my “coming out”.  My grandfather (who raised me) was a pastor and wanted to learn more and talk.  On the other hand my grandmother was more in denial because she could not fathom a life without belief.  Still is like that today but at her age I don’t bother with fighting going to church with her on occasion like I did when I was younger.  It just makes her happy to have me with her there believing that I may still believe.  :)

  • Octoberfurst

     Unfortunately some parents think that if their child becomes an atheist that means that their child has rejected all decency and has become an immoral monster. Sad but true. It also means, in their minds, that they have failed as parents.  That they must have done something wrong.  It never occurs to them that their child made the decision not be believe due to logic and reason.

  • Garren

    My parents (and my Christian sect) raised me to believe that truth is more important than peer pressure, that (other) churches use music to sell falsehoods by appealing to emotion, and that there’s no reason to be a Christian unless you accept the whole Bible including Genesis as historical fact.

    Add a college education and my atheism was pretty much inevitable.

  • ortcutt

    “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Matthew 6:5-6

    Churches don’t like private prayer though because if you pray in private, no one gets to make a buck.

  • Deven Kale

    I didn’t have anything like this happen when I stopped going to church. I don’t know if this would have been better though, because when I stopped going to church, my parents basically gave up completely. I haven’t felt any sort of emotion but disappointment from them. Not even now, 20 years later.

  • TCC

    My experience is quite the opposite: when kids become atheists, they often do so despite their parents’ misguided actions.

  • TCC

    In some cases, choosing not to believe based on logic and reason is a reason that parents think they failed.

  • C Peterson

    Well, that’s what makes it paradoxical! The fact that the kids are able to reason past their parents’ direction means the parents did something right in raising them, perhaps inadvertently.

  • Richard Wade

    This cartoon is not an exaggeration. Often ten seconds after this kind of melodramatic wailing comes the lunatic level of angry outrage, with bizarre and completely unfounded accusations of criminal or demonic behavior.

    Then come the ridiculous attempts at extortion, such as threats to take away privileges, contact with friends, money, college funding, confiscating books, music, threats of kicking them out entirely, anything at all to coerce the young person back to the loving arms of Jesus. 

    I’ve never seen it work. It backfires in a big way. If the child is especially vulnerable, s/he might pretend to comply, attend church, say all the right things, but blackmailing them for God is a permanent deal breaker. Their doubts are dispelled, and they know the whole thing is a sham built on fear, guilt, and fantasy. Years may pass, but the moment the young person is no longer under their family’s financial or emotional thumb, they’re out of the house, out of the church, and often out of their family’s life.  It’s so sad and often so unnecessary.

    This is why my central advice to young people who are considering coming out is timing, timing, timing.

  • Mary

    Ouch. This is almost exactly how my own “coming out” went. “Where did we go wrong?” still hurts a bit.

  • NewDawn2006

    My mom decided that she was going to blame her anger with me on something else, totally overreact to that something else, act like a 3 year old throwing a temper tantrum telling me all the wonderful things that she did for me while I was growing up, and then telling me how ungrateful I am to her for all of those things (that any decent mother would do anyway…).  At that point I stopped talking to her.  If she couldn’t do the one thing that any decent mother would do, love her child regardless, then I found little point to continuing a relationship where I would be subjugated to her nastiness every time we talked.  Sad, and an all too common story I am afraid.  At least I was very much on my own by that point.  I can’t even imagine if I had figured all this out while I was still under her roof! 

  • NewDawn2006

     First in my family to graduate from college.  First person to be an atheist.  Coincidence?  I’m thinking no…

  • TCC

    I’m not going to presume to speak for other people, but there is little that I can attribute to my parents that contributed significantly to my deconversion. If anything, the indoctrination I received was the greatest impediment; my parents certainly didn’t teach me how to think critically. The only thing I can say about my parents is that they provided an environment that valued literacy and education, but that doesn’t inevitably lead to atheism. If my parents had been the greatest influence on me, I likely wouldn’t be an atheist today, so I have a hard time giving them much credit for it.

  • TCC

    I’m going to take a different direction than most here and note that for a parent whose goals include making sure their child is raised in their faith (for Christians, the epitome of the admonition to “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it”), hearing that their child has rejected not only that faith but any faith at all can be incredibly devastating. When I told my mother – and admittedly, the timing was not great, but I felt pressed to take care of it when I did and had to do it over the phone rather than face-to-face – she actually went and threw up after our conversation. She has gotten over it much better than I would have ever anticipated (we’re driving down to Springfield, MO, for me to attend Skepticon [!!!]), but I have some sympathy for her because of what kind of a shock it was for her to hear.

    Now, a sustained reaction in this vein – totally unacceptable. But I can understand how a parent could react this way in the moment. A parent who would reject or shun their child for this in the long run, though, is not a person I could ever respect.

  • m6wg4bxw

    I’ve been an atheist very nearly ten years. At thirty-five years of age, my mother still makes statements about how she failed as a mother. She wonders what she did wrong that led to me being an atheist. The good news part of this is, she thinks I am a wonderful person.

  • C Peterson

    Something in your upbringing (and I wouldn’t dismiss a value on literacy and education!) allowed you to become a person who could think for yourself, and rise above childhood indoctrination. What do you think that something was?

    While literacy and education don’t guarantee somebody will become an atheist, they are an important component of that process.

  • TCC

    What helped me rise about childhood indoctrination and think for myself? Being exposed to viewpoints other than my parents, principally, as well as being a fairly introspective and analytical person by nature (and that, I promise you, I did not get from either of my parents).

    I think you are reaching a bit to attribute deconversions to some paradoxical effect. Are there conceivable situations where a parent could have a direct impact on their child’s eventual non-belief? Sure, but I hardly think it is universal or even necessarily commonplace. We might have to agree to disagree here, though.

  • viruzz

    Lucky me I never had any issues and I actually mock my father because he against mocking of religion, says it just provokes them and should be outlawed (Things like the cartoons and raging Muslims or the Pussy Riot in Moscow Church)

  • Anonymous Atheist

    The “never did anything to hurt you” line sure wouldn’t have been true for my parents…

  • Guest

    yep, when I told my mom she said “that’s unfortunate” and then “don’t mention it ever again”. She would have had less problems if I had told her I was gay.

  • allein

    I stopped going to church at around 14-15 (not long after my confirmation, actually) *because* my parents stopped going. I later volunteered in the church nursery for a couple years and we did the Christmas/Easter thing (or the Birth and Resurrection Society, as my friend puts it) for several more years…maybe a until few years after I finished college. I’ll be 37 tomorrow and I haven’t been to a church service for anything other than a wedding/funeral/other special event in at least a decade or more. (The last time was my friend’s daughter’s baptism in April.) My parents went back at some point and they go most Sundays, or at least my mom does, and she usually asks if we want to go on Christmas Eve, but they don’t make a big deal about it when we say no (my brother stopped with church even before I did; he was never confirmed and my parents didn’t push it). I’ve never felt the need to actually explain my religious leanings (or lack thereof) to them. I honestly don’t know how they would react if I told them I’m an atheist but I don’t think they would make a big scene about it.

  • machintelligence

    The subtext here is that some of the things they taught you were that they are always right (they are your parents, after all), and that you should always obey them. Now you are disobeying them and implying that they are wrong.

  • amycas

     My mom taught me critical thinking skills while at the same time trying to indoctrinate. The critical thinking skills won out in the end though.

  • amycas

     My mom seems to think I have become an immoral monster because I support lgbt rights.

  • joeclark77

    How old are you, 18? 20? Privileges, college funding, a room in mom and dad’s house, etc., are not “entitlements” and it is entirely their right to withdraw them.  I think your prediction about children holding a grudge as “years may pass” and disowning their parents is a ridiculous fantasy.  (And I would think so regardless of whether you were talking about atheism, or vegetarianism, or the Edward-vs-Jacob debate, by the way.)  I think most adults are able to reconcile with their parents over the taking away of an iPod, and start coming home for Thanksgiving again, by the age of 30 or maybe even 25.  I think my central advice to young people who are considering “coming out” is wait until you grow up.

    Mark Twain’s quote is apt: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my
    father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when
    I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven

  • C Peterson


  • ZenDruid

    My thought is that the typical Catholic mother has been coached and drilled by the priest to regurgitate a standard doom-fraught guilt trip when she encounters filial apostasy.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Joe,

    I’m 62. I’m describing a pattern I’ve seen in not all such families, but in many hundreds of families based on the letters people have sent me for my weekly “Ask Richard” advice column I’ve written on this blog for over three years, and the stories they’ve told me in person, and the stories people have shared on sites like this.

    Yes, I agree that anything beyond what the law requires parents to give their children under the age of 18 is not an entitlement, it’s a gift.

    I’m saying that when parents try to coerce their children into believing what they can no longer believe by taking away these gifts which have nothing to do with the beliefs in question, they cheapen it all. They cheapen their religion, and they cheapen and sully their child’s budding integrity. They show their religion’s inability to keep a member by its own merits. They show their love to be conditional on conforming to a set of beliefs that the child has found to be alien to him or her. Despite years of the child’s loyal and respectful behavior, the parents sometimes suddenly treat their child as if they are vicious, treacherous, dangerous demons.

    The hurt is deep. The child often feels betrayed and abandoned when they most need support and acceptance. They often feel forced to lie and to fake, putting an emotional distance between them and their parents. They’re painfully torn between their natural love for their parents and their natural need to be true to themselves. A price has been placed on love from their parents: They must conform to something that has nothing to do with the love that should freely flow through the family. But they cannot be their parents’ clones. They are similar, but they are also unique.

    Yes, many, perhaps most families with this conflict eventually reconcile, but sadly not all. It takes both sides to do that, and I think you may be surprised to find how many of the parents are the ones who refuse to re-open their hearts and their doors. It’s astonishing and chilling to witness the power that religion has to override our natural instinct to love and want to be with our children. I always try to help both sides to find a way to build a bridge, to keep their side of the door unlocked, to keep offering love as long as no one has to live a lie, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

    Ask around. Their stories are everywhere.

  • Richard Lucas

    The cartoon really rings true.  I work at a community mental health center and sadly, we see this dynamic constantly.  Extortion and betrayal are absolutely corrosive to any relationship, much less the relationship between parents and children. I would like to think that the damage done by this kind of action is fixable, but the reality is not so rosy.  Violence is violence, and it doesn’t matter if it’s physical or emotional.  

  • Glasofruix


  • RobertoTheChi

    I know of quite a few people that have been through things similar to this and they have done exactly as Richard has described. Richard is right on point with what he said.

  • Nude0007

    What strikes me about this is if the child was a murderer, the parents will still support them. Watch any murder story or read any newspaper story about a murderer. It’s true, but become an atheist, and BAM! you’re cut off. People here are right, though, there is no law that says parents HAVE to love their kids and give them things like food and shelter, oh, wait…

  • C Peterson

    I think you might be reading a little too much into my simple observation… :)

  • Adam

    My parents weren’t upset when I told them, although I’ve seen this scenario played out plenty of times amongst my friends.

  • Mistletoe Ethaniel

    If you’re mistaking “Ask Richard” Wade for a college student, I assume you must be new here.


  • Mistletoe Ethaniel

    My mom’s a kind of walking contradiction at times.  I “came out” to her in my 30s and only as a result of a direct question.  On the one hand she will say how proud she is of me and even publicly call me the most honest person she knows.  Then on the other she’ll say she wishes I’d just give Christianity a sincere try (because my entire childhood wasn’t sincere enough apparently) or that (and I quote) “This is a Christian nation and anyone who doesn’t agree should just just leave.”

  • asmallcontempt

    Yeah, I got this, too, and it is one of the most painful and nagging issues I have with being out with my folks.

    I have two problems with the statement – one, it puts the responsibility on the parent(s) for “creating” the atheist, which is insanely frustrating when you are attempting to explain the rationale for the decision. Two, it automatically puts the kid in the position as a “failure” since it’s very un-subtle about the fact that the outcome isn’t desirable. I just hate the amount of blaming and shaming that goes on in this statement – perfectly demonstrates why I cannot have a calm conversation about faith with my folks.

    Yep, I am a giant let-down in my parents eyes, and it’s all their fault (somehow)!

  • julie

    Why my dad found out that my older sister smoked pot, he wouldn’t let her keep in contact with us. We didn’t see her for two or three years (he died, he didn’t change his mind).
    Another older sister was kicked out when she turned 18 because she had a boyfriend.
    Sure, they’re not legally required to provide you with a home once you turn 18, or help you out in any way, or you know, talk to you and let you see your family. But I wouldn’t consider someone to be a whiny teenager for wanting those things.
    Especially at age 18, you’re legally able to be on your own, but there’s no guarantee that you are financially ready. You can have a part-time job while you’re in school and save up what you can, but it’s not going to be a lot. And in the case of my siblings, they were required to give my parents a portion of their earnings to help support the family my parents couldn’t afford.
    But yeah, they’re totally just upset because their iPods were taken away. That’s all emotional, religious abuse is, right?

    And as a 20-year-old, I find you to be incredibly condescending. There are plenty of immature people my age, but there are immature people of all ages. You could have asked Richard about his experience with this subject in an honest effort to learn more, but you just assumed he was a bratty kid because you obviously don’t have much experience with this.

  • Arthur Byrne

    In Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion, the authors suggest (pp 118-121) a possible not-quite-universally common element with paradoxical effect: that religious parents teach their children to value Truth, regardless of its personal cost.

    They do suggest intellectual ability also increases the ability
    to spot the flaws. However, the GSS data on WORDSUM vs. SCITEST4 (an evolution acceptance question) for
    BIBLE=1 (inerrancy) suggests that higher intelligence may also allow
    developing more sophisticated rationalizations to help sweep flaws back
    under the intellectual carpet. As such, that’s probably a mixed blessing.

    Someone analytical, introspective, and exposed to other views who lacks this value might decide that given the personal benefits they get from religion, the other views are not deserving of the effort of one’s analytic abilities, and simply remain a religious believer by giving doubts about Truth no attention.

  • BeasKnees

    Same situation for me.  My mother actually tries to make me feel guilty at times for going to college because they have obviously “brainwashed” me.  

    I normally just try to change the subject of the conversation.

  • Ellie

    My mother-in-law called my parents before the wedding to ask “what happened to me?”  My mother called me weeping, and I’ll probably not have a good relationship with MIL for a very long time.

  • Anna

    My parents aren’t atheists, but they did raise us in a secular home. We never had a conversation about religion until I was in college. I suppose I must have mentioned that I was an atheist at some point (early teens?) but I don’t remember it, and I can’t imagine that their reaction would have been anything other than neutral. In our family, religion (like sex) is considered more of a private matter. Since my parents’ supernatural beliefs are warm, fuzzy, and benign, I don’t bother trying to deconvert them, and they don’t bother me  about my atheism.

  • Robyman4

    Mom was the only religious parent (it’s her #1 priority in life), so when she found out I was no longer a believer (my brother was the one who told her), she was shocked but she didn’t have a meltdown. That was 13 years ago, and I’m 36 now: in that time span she has acknowledged more than once that despite my lack of faith I’m a steadfastly moral, mature and responsible person. We have occasional disputes, some of which she’s honestly had no answers for, but it doesn’t put a strain on our relationship.

  • joeclark77

    Sounds like the sister could have given up the pot, and the other could have given up the boyfriend, just as easily as the parents could have given up.  When neither side is willing to give ground, why is the default assumption that the (older, wiser) parents are more to blame for the impasse?

  • joeclark77

    Sounds like the sister could have given up the pot, and the other could have given up the boyfriend, just as easily as the parents could have given up.  When neither side is willing to give ground, why is the default assumption that the (older, wiser) parents are more to blame for the impasse?

  • Guest

    The young will soon learn when they grow up and their children turn against them…with a vengeance. And when they grow old, they will realize the folly of youth.

  • 3lemenope

    If parents are supposed to be the more mature ones, then why are you defending them acting petulantly?

  • NewDawn2006

    Actually it just means that you are gay, whether or not you are actually gay… Well that’s what the yelling preacher that used to come to my campus told me when I stood up for lgbt rights.  Couldn’t mean that I just want equality.  Obviously he is totally right about that and that his wife belongs in the kitchen, everyone who doesn’t believe like he does is going to hell, and it is totally cool to call people names and judge them as long as you are doing it in the name of JESUS!  He’s now my role model.

  • Atheist Slut

    My parents taught me to use my brain and reason through my life decisions, all the while trying to indoctrinate me. The reason overcame the rest in the end, but its still fascinating how much this cartoon resonates. You’d think I told them I skinned kittens for a living!

  • Joan the Apostate

    Couple of things really resonate here– 1) the contradictions:  I was raised by Vatican II Catholics who talked a good game about respect for other beliefs and the primacy of conscience– but their own flesh and blood, an atheist?  Suddenly, respect goes out the window and it’s all about manipulation; and 2) it’s as though the 30 + years I practiced it and even taught about it just went out the window; now I get lectures that sound as though they think I’d never given any serious thought to questions of belief vs nonbelief before.  It’s just bizarre.

  • Joan the Apostate

    Thanks.  I think I would have been able to hear my father’s feelings about this, if he had led with that; instead, he’s chosen the route of attacks on the people I read, expressing pity for what I’ve “lost,” and sending me arguments against atheism.  I’m the one who has cut off the contact for now, and I know he sees me as the aggressor; and I can partly understand that, after some of the things I said when we had our big blow up about it.  But if he had been willing to show my beliefs a little of the respect he expects for his, I think the whole thing could have been avoided.  

  • Richard Wade

    Don’t give up. If you see what looks like his anger, and you realize that it’s probably his hurt and fear disguised as anger, you will feel less compelled to react with your own angry defense.

    You have embraced rationalism. That doesn’t free you from your emotions, but it can free you to rationally examine and question your own thoughts. If you can see where any of your thoughts about his attitude toward you are either fallacious conclusions or are unfounded assumptions, then when you discard those conclusions and assumptions, your painful emotions that have been springing from them will gradually evaporate. 

    With a little gesture on your side that is not a concession but a simple statement of love, an apology for your action rather than for your position, one that does not require him to reciprocate immediately with his own apology, but just makes it safer for him to follow your lead, then slowly, cautiously at first, you and he might be able to dismantle the barricade between you without either of you selling out your integrity. 

    “We disagree. Yeah, yeah, and what’s far more important is that we love each other.”

  • Joan the Apostate

    Good advice–  thanks.