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,
Colleen

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.
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.

About Richard Wade

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

  • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

    I have sort of a similar situation with being out to my parents (and I’m a PK, to boot) but to one of my oldest friends (another PK), but the biggest differences are 1) I’m not in high school and 2) the friend lives in another state, and we don’t talk that much (although I did attend his wedding last year). This might just be me, but I think there are some times where it’s not absolutely necessary to come out to everyone. If it comes up (e.g. “Where are you going to church now?”), you need to know how to address it, but I’m not sure there always needs to be an effort to do so.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      What’s a “PK”?

      • Myrmidon

        Pastor’s kid,

      • Jinx

        PK= preacher’s kid

      • snoofle

        Ha, I read too much sci-fi – my first thought was psychokinetic! Then I googled it and came up with Promise Keeper. Preacher’s Kid makes more sense, though.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          Mine was ‘player killer’ from MUD days. I don’t play WoW etc, so I’m not sure if the term is still used.

        • Georgina

          You read too much sci-fi? Isn’t that like being too healthy or having too much money.

          p.s. when you run out of Asimovs and Heinleins, try early Ron L. Hubbard, very funny – and a wonderful tool against scientologists (What, did you really think his sci-fi was true?).

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            “Battlefield Earth” was hand’s down the worst book I couldn’t put down.

    • Lurker111

      “Where are you going to church now?”

      I just say, “Landover Baptist. We have a site on the web.”

      ;)

      • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

        I like that answer, except that I think that would actually make people ask more questions, ha.

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

    richard is always so kind and generous and hopeful. i, on the other hand, am not.

    you want the harsh truth? there’s a good chance your parents will fuck you over, and disinherit you, like my mom did (atheist homophobes, how they suck!). there’s a good chance that your close lifelong friend will also totally abandon and disclaim you, as has happened to so many out gays and atheists that i know. the reality is that lots, and lots of “nice” people really do care more about their imaginary friends and sky fairies and the like, than they do their own flesh and blood/friends since birth.

    it hurts. a lot. and the only answer is: buck up, and deal with it. and maybe move. i don’t know where you live, but there are better parts of the world where this sort of shit is not a problem for normal, decent, sane people. europe is a wonderful place. people like me can help you find a scholarship or internship to get over there, funded. the US northeast is another great place to escape the tyranny of religion; pretty much all those states have great colleges and communities where your story would be viewed as a horror show and never repeated.

    i know regionalism and ageism are wrong, and i try not to participate in them. but with stories like these, i feel compelled to state the truth. which is simply: it’s not going to change soon where you are, and you should get the hell out. tell your family “i love you, goodbye.” and find a new place, a new school, a new job. craigslist is your friend; you can find all of those and more using it in urban northern markets.

    millions of people migrate every year, in “third world” countries. they sacrifice everything to escape to post-colonial nations like england and france. for a reason. it’s only lately that a lot of US citizens are realizing: they have to make the same choice, for similar reasons.

    sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but leave. plan for your escape today, and recognize you have a whole world of internet friends and advisers who are willing to help you, if only with words (but sometimes also opportunity).

    i’m so tired of reading repeated versions of this letter, richard. i’m not complaining; i’m glad you post them. but it depresses me. i was raised in a rural, highly religious area by atheist parents and back then (the 70s) it was no big deal. these letters break my heart. i have my issues, but feeling good about the fact that i’m an atheist? not one of them. i so very much want other young people today to have that experience, and it seems like that they cannot.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Weighing both pieces of advice, you might want to err on the side of caution until such time as you have more ability to become financially independent. It’s not completely impossible, but extremely difficult as a minor. Your options improve a lot once you hit 18.

      But as you know, as soon as you’re out to someone, that cat isn’t going back into that bag.

    • jenprohaska

      My heart breaks when I read stories like yours. Most of my family and friends haven’t really cared. They treat me the same. I’ve only had one friend who told me he couldn’t be my friend anymore when he found out, and then he apologized a couple years later and asked to be my friend again. I accepted him because his friendship is worth more to me than his mistakes. But I agree that you have to be very careful who you come out to. There are people whom I just wouldn’t bring the subject up to because I don’t think they could handle it.

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

        i’ve actually had it pretty easy, compared to many of my peers.

        it’s even harder when you add “black” to the atheist label. fun for all, as it were. no one hates black atheists more than other black jeebus worshippers, trust me.

        i’m also from communist red diaper baby stock, lol. so you can prolly guess how hard my life has been, as a Reagan generation teen. lolz. satan is my boifriend, or something.

    • Isilzha

      Or, if not outright disowned, your family treats you like the devil incarnate. If you spend too much timing in contact with horrible people like that it can start to affect your perception of yourself. That’s one reason I live hundreds of miles away from my family and haven’t seen most of them in over a decade.

  • Randomfactor

    The “religious” aren’t REALLY religious, they’re just infatuated with this “god” idea. It’s a phase they’ll grow out of.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

    This teenager’s ability to make objective comparisons between multiple responders to their “outing,” with-out getting too caught up in the drama that usually follows, tells me they have one leg up in the game already. Their desire to find advisement to deal with said drama also shows they have the capacity to see themselves to the other side.
    If push comes to shove with the parents they might consider divorcing or becoming legally emancipated from them, although this is an extreme action to take, religious persecution and lack of acceptance by the parents might be grounds enough to define a case for child abuse. As much as I know there has been no precedence for this type of case but man it sure would send warning shot across the bow of parents willing to re-indoctrinate their child at any cost.

  • Jinx

    Colleen:

    Unfortunately, you will find that you are putting yourself at a greater risk every time you “come out” as an atheist to more people.

    Telling your parents that you no longer believe in God was a very risky move. Maybe you were tired of pretending and felt that the only way to be honest with yourself was to be honest with those who you love.

    Unfortunately, this can backfire. Your parents now know that you are not a Christian; while they may be in denial about your lack of faith, their denial will not prevent them from trying their very hardest to get you back to Christianity. As their efforts (i.e. dragging you to church, pleading/begging you to reconsider, consulting the pastor to have conversations with you) fail, they may grow more desperate. It is unlikely that you will be disowned (although it is a possibility); instead, it is very likely that your parents might refuse to pay your college tuition unless you reconvert and maintain regular church attendance.

    Your situation is somewhat unfortunate, but nothing can be done about it. The best advice that I can give is to enjoy life, strive to get into college (most major universities, regardless of location, are friendly places for nonbelievers because of the sheer diversity of the student body), avoid pressing this matter with your parents (since they believe that your nonbelief is a phase, play along with their delusions as best as you can), and be very careful about revealing the truth to your friends.

  • Seeker Lancer

    There are people I just don’t talk about being an atheist to for these reasons, and frankly it’s none of their business anyway.

  • smrnda

    This is what I would advise.

    First, getting ahead in the world requires an education, and educations cost money. Parents sometimes become unwilling to support their children financially, emotionally or any other way once they realize their kids won’t parrot the appropriate beliefs. You can really find yourself in a bad situation with no options if your parents decide they don’t like the fact that they didn’t brainwash you properly.

    So, her parents think it’s a phase. Well, if your parents won’t respect you enough to take you at your word when it comes to convictions, then I’d say they don’t deserve to really know what your real convictions are, and instead, you should maneuver carefully, with a clear idea as to what is beneficial to your future and what is not.

    Don’t argue. If anything, quit telling your parents what you think and think of yourself as some kind of secret agent. Put on a good show. Why? Because you might want to go to college and college costs $$$, and unless you get shipped off to some religious clown college, your parents will be totally unable to control you there, and provided you get good grades and don’t get arrested, they’ll have no real idea of what you believe. If anything, going with the flow and appearing moderately okay with religion (even when you really aren’t) might at least keep them from making college funding dependent on say, attending Bob Jones university.

    I’m sure someone is going to tell me this is dishonest and sneaky. However, parents owe their kids certain things regardless of the kid’s religious beliefs, and so its only right to get what you ought to from your parents. You have a right to want to survive and get ahead, and don’t feel guilty. If your parents might make college funding or other ‘launch support’ conditional on you believing in their religion, they don’t deserve honesty.

    And as for friends, if your friends are religious, this is going to be a problem. Keep a low profile and once you’ve attained more independence, you’ll be able to make more friends.

  • John_in_Vegas

    Richard, if Colleen’s parents were able to attribute their daughter’s atheism to simply being mad at God, wouldn’t it imply that she didn’t effectively explain her reasoning?

    The religious rarely offer more than ” It’s true because I believe it’s true.” as their explanation for holding on to God. It causes non-believers to simply roll their eyes and shake their heads. It appears that your writer said little more than that to her parents or they would not have concluded so quickly that their daughter was “just going through a phase”.

    There are volumes of books written by educated and respected authors (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris quickly come to mind) that are easily accessible to high school kids. From there she will find more authors and books. Tell her to read them. Armed with information, she will be able to respond to her parents and question them intelligently about their ideas. Who knows, she may inspire them to question their own beliefs.

    Regarding the preacher’s extremely bigoted daughter, You seem to advise her to proceed with some intrepidation. She must appear as a confident adversary when she faces that inevitable conflict. If she is armed with her informed reasoning, she has nothing to be afraid of. If she remains respectful, others will respect her also.

    And finally, please tell her that there is no shame in educating herself and asking questions. There is also no shame in searching for enlightenment and proudly claiming it once it is found. It is religion that places atheists in a negative context socially, and only because we let them. We must be confident and proud of our convictions as atheists or we will never get rid of the stigma.

    • Helanna

      About her parents thinking that she’s ‘just mad at God’ –

      It probably doesn’t have anything to do with how she explained it. There are a *lot* of Christians who believe that atheists are just mad at God, or just don’t want to have to face punishment for their sins, or are just in denial. You really can’t argue with these people, they are *convinced* that deep down, atheists know about God’s existence and are just denying it. They really can’t conceive of someone simply not believing.

      And as Richard said, it’s part of the coping mechanism of denial. Having a daughter who doesn’t believe in God would make them a failure. Having a daughter who’s going through a phase where she’s denying God is a lot better.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Hi John,

      All Colleen has said is that she “can’t seem to get them out of this mindset.” That does not describe what she has tried, or what she has not tried. She might have given very cogent arguments, or just repeated declarations of disbelief, or something in between. We don’t know from the letter.

      Your suggestion of her reading Dawkins, Harris, and others is a good idea, if only to help her clarify her thought processes and views for herself. That might help her with negotiations with her parents, but there is no assurance that it will sway them at all toward accepting the reality of her disbelief, or improving their attitude toward her.

      Denial is a powerful irrational process where emotional motives overwhelm rational thinking, and can even override sensory experience. As you correctly observed that religious people often say, “It’s true because I believe it’s true,” I have also often heard them say, “It’s not true because I believe it’s not true” when faced with the prospect of their child being an atheist. They can be just as intransigent and immune to evidence and reason in their disbelief of their child’s atheism as they can be in their belief in their own religion.

      If things are going to improve with her parents, I suspect that it will require a long process of emotional adjustment and relaxing of fears more than it will require intellectually persuasive rational arguments. Those might help a little, but they will not be sufficient by themselves.

      Regarding the preacher’s daughter friend, I advised Colleen to handle the conversation, whenever it happens, with sincere caring for the friendship, and with a calm and collected demeanor. Having clear arguments a la Dawkins, et al might help, but I doubt it with such a girl as was described. The reason I advised Colleen to proceed with caution was because her friend might vindictively “out” her to the whole community, and there is a very real possibility that she could face serious mistreatment from many people. I don’t want Colleen to go through what Jessica Ahlquist did unless she is very willing and very prepared.

      “If she is armed with her informed reasoning, she has nothing to be afraid of” is a reassurance that would only apply if she were in a formal debate at a university, attended only by civil and well-behaved adults. In the near-anarchy that is the reality of American high schools, she might have much to be afraid of. Ahlquist’s experiences of vile defamation, shunning, harassment, and threats of violence and death were sensational, but they not uncommon. They are experienced by many young atheists around the country.

      Thank you and amen for your last paragraph. I fully agree that Colleen will benefit from developing pride and confidence in her views and in the rational method by which she comes to her views. I only add that she, as a 15- or 16-year-old with considerable vulnerabilities and limited resources, should balance that with prudence, pragmatism, and common sense. Let us, the adults who can better defend ourselves be the ones to face down the bigots, fight back against the abuse, and thereby get rid of the stigma, so that the future young Jessicas and Colleens won’t have to.

      • John_in_Vegas

        Thanks for responding, Richard and happy new year to you.

  • RickRay

    Why I don’t believe? 3 words. CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS.

  • http://twitter.com/Outcast_Kyle Edgar

    Easy to solve. Just tell her everything. If she doesn’t accepts you, then she’s not your friend and it’s not logical to keep in touch with people like that. Luckily, friends are replaceable. You can get other friend that are more accepting and useful.

  • Jerry Brown

    After reading article, and many comments I think something important is being left out. This young lady is probably an agnostic rather than an atheist. I would guess her parents would see it much differently if she was. Perhaps she has never really thought about the difference between not believing there is a god, and knowing there is no god.


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