Ask Richard: Young Atheist Out to Religious Parents, But Not to Religious Friend

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

I’m a sophomore in high school. I come from a very religious home, and I “came out” as an atheist to my parents early this year. They didn’t take it too well and are now convinced that I’m not really an atheist, I’m just mad at god. I can’t seem to get them out of this mindset. They still force me to go to church and the local youth group “to be properly educated” as they put it. I have told my closest friend about my atheism and she is fine with it. However another one of my friends is a preacher’s daughter and is completely against atheists, gays, and anyone who doesn’t share her beliefs. I wish I could tell her, but I don’t know how she would respond. We have been friends since birth, but I’m just too scared that she will hate me for it. Should I tell her and how? And also, how can I convince my parents of my beliefs.

Yours Truly,

Dear Colleen,

Your parents are resorting to a common defense mechanism I have frequently seen in this situation, denial. Denying that you are “really” an atheist and saying that you’re “just mad at God” allows them to continue their hope that you’re in a “phase” that will pass.

Try not to be too annoyed by their denial of reality or take it as a deliberate insult against you. It’s not. This is their phase that they must go through; it’s a difficult adjustment for them. Often religious parents think that they have somehow seriously failed as parents if their kids turn out irreligious. So they feel shame and disappointment in themselves as well as disappointment in their child. They might also have social shame, worrying about what the rest of the congregation will think of them if it gets out that their child is ooh, godless.

It can be challenging for someone so young, but now is the time when you need to marshal as much of your maturity as you can. Avoid getting into quarrelsome arguments with them that might escalate into shouting matches. Try hard to speak with patience and dignity whenever the topics of religion or atheism come up. Taking deep, slow breaths helps. It gets easier with practice. You must be the adult in the room during these discussions, even if they behave in less than fully adult ways. By “adult” I don’t mean cold, aloof, and uncaring. Keep clearly expressing your warmth and love for them even as you remain calm and composed.

To be an atheist does not mean that you abandon emotion like some kind of Vulcan, but it does mean that you strive to have reason and rational thinking be in the driver’s seat, with emotion sitting in the passenger’s seat.

Shift your focus from trying to convince your parents that you’re really an atheist to demonstrating for them that you’re growing into a fine and upstanding young woman. Apply yourself in school, and keep your grades up. Avoid alcohol and drugs, which are definitely not good for you either neurologically or socially. Follow a high standard of ethics in all that you do. Give them every reason to be proud of you, and although you can’t be perfect, give them very little opportunity to attribute your failings to atheism. Hopefully they will gradually begin to accept the reality of your disbelief even though they don’t like it, and the reality of your good character will be their consolation.

At your age, your parents can continue to force you to go to church and the local youth group. You can try reasoning and negotiating with them to let you stop, but that might not work. Angrily squabbling is even less likely to help, and it would undermine the responsible young adult image you’re trying to build. If you feel frustrated when you’re at church and the youth group, try something I’ve suggested to others in your situation. I call it the “undercover anthropologist” or “undercover psychologist” strategy, and people have reported that it can be helpful. Observing the church members and their ideas as would a scientist in the field might provide you just enough intellectual distancing to reduce your resentment and frustration to a tolerable level. It will give you a small sense of mental autonomy even while you are compelled to physically be there. Now that you’re standing outside of the belief system, you can see things that you missed when you were inside of it. Notice patterns of behaviors, and patterns of thought processes. It might even become interesting.

Your closest friend whom you told appears to be accepting and also discreet. She has apparently not spread it around, and has left it up to you how “out” you want to be. Your other friend, the preacher’s daughter might pose a risk about that. You’re not sure if she will be as accepting as your closest friend, but just as importantly, will she be as discreet? If she vents her unhappy feelings about you to others, it will quickly become widely known that you are an atheist. The consequences of that depend on your particular community and region. In some places it’s not much of a big deal, but in other places it can bring on serious difficulties. Think that out carefully and be prepared.

The truth eventually gets out. Even if you manage to postpone it for years, she will find out. It would be preferable for you to be in control of that rather than her hearing it through the rumor mill, full of distortions and exaggerations. If she learns of your atheism from a third party, she might add anger at you for deceiving her and keeping her in the dark to whatever else she feels about your atheism.

So you will have to carefully weigh all these factors with admittedly incomplete information: whatever are the social risks posed by the community, whatever are the risks to your friendship by keeping the secret, and whatever are the risks for telling her the truth. I wish I could give you a specific suggestion, but all I can do is to lay out the things you should consider.

When and if you do tell her, begin and end it with how much you love her and how much you care about your friendship. In between, use the skills at staying calm and composed that you have practiced with your parents.

However it finally happens, remember this. If she accepts you, what you’ll see is a happy demonstration of the power of your lifelong friendship. If she rejects you, what you’ll see is a sad demonstration of the power of religion to divide people. Whatever the outcome, it will not be a measurement of your character or your worthiness as a friend. It will be a measurement of hers.

Please write again to let us know what happens.

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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.