I get hundreds of letters, but I don’t often get feedback from the letter writers after I’ve offered my advice, and even less often any updates about the outcome of whatever the person tried to do. This letter is a follow-up to a previous letter published on April 9, 2012 where a young woman was approaching the delicate matter of coming out as an atheist to her mother, who is the only Christian left in the family.
Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Just wanted to update you, I spoke with my mother a few weeks ago about my lack of belief, and it went surprisingly well! I opened it up with “How do you feel about me not going to church anymore?” She said it upset her, but that she understood that I was old enough to make my own decisions. I was then able to talk about some of my reasons for no longer participating in church – I never explicitly said “atheist”, because I felt that the use of that word could have inflamed things more than necessary. I gave examples of why I needed to distance myself from the church, while making sure she knew I didn’t regret the time I spent there. I pulled quotes from posts on Friendly Atheist and the “coming out” episode of the Thinking Atheist. I made sure my mom understood that I still respected and loved her. I also clarified that she would be ok with my boyfriend and I getting married in a non-religious wedding and ceremony, and she said I could do whatever I wanted to, she just wanted to know when the wedding will be!
It’s such a relief to have her know this part of me. We’re at the point where if we never talked about religion again, it would be ok, we’ve said all that we need to say. We shall live and let live and love. I will show her love and support in my secular ways, and she will let me live my life by my standards and rules. I’ve proven that my standards and rules are just fine without god, and I can be a good person without the church. My boyfriend is relieved to know that our eventual children will not be pressured into Sunday school at a young age, but we agree that they can go when they’re old enough to think critically (kind of like an anthropological learning experience, so they understand where so much of our culture comes from, but can look at it without rose colored glasses”.)
Anyways, your encouragement and advice helped me figure out what to say in a tough situation, and I managed to pull it off with no love lost, and we’re happier than ever
Thank you very much for the update and feedback. You handled that situation very skillfully and thoroughly. The outcome is as good as could be reasonably hoped for, and as good as I’ve heard.
Your experience illustrates a point that I often stress when advising young people who are considering “coming out” to their parents, that picking the right time can be even more important than picking the right words. Your mother said that you’re old enough now to make such decisions on your own. If you did not have the history of the last few years of having lived on your own, taken care of yourself, completed your education, and formed a long-term adult relationship, then she very likely would have reacted to you as a defiant and misguided child rather than as a thoughtful and self-reliant adult.
That time and experience also helped you to become more self-confident and more emotionally independent, so you could hear about her disappointment without feeling guilt. You were better prepared to accurately describe and explain your viewpoint, your reasons and needs, and to assertively set the boundaries that you expect her to respect in your relationship with your husband-to-be and future children. You also were able to establish an honest but still loving relationship that you can continue with your mother.
I think that all of that probably would have been much more difficult to do and less likely to be successful if you were just three or four years younger. Gaining financial independence is often the reason for waiting to come out that gets emphasized, and in some cases that is very important, but sometimes the primary benefit of waiting is to gain maturity and knowledge so that the person can come out and still preserve the loving and respectful relationships.
I think your approach of describing your views without immediately using the word “atheist” was wise, because it unfortunately has become so emotionally charged with scary misconceptions among believers. After she gets used to you having these viewpoints and sees that you continue to be an ethical, caring, happy, and upstanding person, she can gradually realize that the word “atheist” applies to you, but that word does not mean all the awful things she once assumed.
You have built a good foundation of respectful and loving honesty for your present family and the family you are creating. Thank you again for this uplifting update.