How Do You Tell Your Parents You’re an Atheist?

I’m working on a project with a local professor called The Atheist Voice in which I tackle some burning question people often ask atheists… It’s more or less off-the-cuff, so you’ll have to forgive me if I missed saying something totally obvious or repeated myself, but we’re experimenting with this so you can be the judge of whether or not it’s useful.

The video below answers the question: How do you tell your parents you’re an atheist?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

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.

  • WallofSleep

    Like the video, but I have little to offer in the way of coming out as an atheist. I’m still in the closet where most of my family is concerned, mostly because my grandma is pretty old (88) and ailing, and I don’t want her spending her final days fretting over the fate of my eternal soul.

    • http://diehardgamefan.com/ Crystal Steltenpohl

      I am in practically the same boat. Add to that the fact my uncle is a deacon and that’s pretty spot on. I’m already uncomfortable around most of my family… I’d really rather not add to the list of reasons for that.

    • Randay

      I have a similar situation with my elderly devout mother. My brother, my sister, and I are all atheists but have never used the word with her. We all had non-church marriages. No use in directly disappointing her further. My parents likely knew that along time ago when I left home at 18 and was estranged from them for years. We tacitely agreed not to bring up the subject.

      Now as she nears her end, she talks to us more and more about the Bible and it becomes harder to side-step the issue. She once even asked me if I had spoken to my nephew about religion, to which I told her no as it wasn’t my business. She was relieved and now happy that he has married into a Christian family. But my sister and I have decided that soon we may just have to tell her, not that we are atheists, but that we just have different points of view.

      I really don’t want to trouble her as she is the most honest, decent, and tolerant(execpt for this) person I know. She is white but has no racial or ethnic prejudices and brought us up that way. Some of the marriages in our close and extended family are multi-ethnic.

      • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

        I’d be very careful in your motivations for telling her. Will it make her life better in any way if you do? Will it improve your relationship in any way? Usually telling your parents avoids years of living a lie, but as you said “nears her end”, it sounds like that’s not the case.
        The closest comparison for me is my elderly aunt and uncle. I never told them, and now that they have both died, I’m glad I didn’t. But I don’t think they were quite as devout as your mother appears to be, and I was not with them nearly as often, so it didn’t really have time to come up as much.
        Think hard about what harm and what benefit there is in telling her before you do it.

        • Randay

          Thank you for your considered response. “Will it make her life better in any way”. That is why my sister and I have talked about how to respond to her stealth questions about our opinions and trying to lead us on the “right” path. She is smart and lucid and probably can tell if we tell an outright lie. But neither of us will ever mention atheism.

          It is a difficult situation. She must know, for a long time now, that we are not believers, so she is using her time left to convert us. We are not living a lie, but it is a heavy load to avoid a direct conflict. It is not about our motivations, except as I said it is more difficult now to avoid a response. The best I have been able to do is reassure her that I have read the Bible, and many passages often more than once.

          There may be a harm that we cannot avoid. It is strange because she seems to have no problem with my sister-in-law who is Buddhist. Believe me, my sister and I are looking for a solution.

  • Tina Schmidt

    I’ve seen some “horror” stories on reddit. Over there, we advise anyone who is still financially dependent on their parents, unless they absolutely KNOW their parents would be fine with it (such as agnostic parents), to wait until they are financially independent, can or have moved out, etc. I’ve seen stories of 17 year olds kicked out of the house, a daughter in a Quiverfull household not only shunned, but her parents refused to help in getting her college education – to the point that they would even sign a FAFSA. Well, that girl, I’m not even sure she was an atheist, but she turned her back on the Quiverfull movement, and decided to educate herself, which included remedial classes to get her education up to where it needed to be to even ENTER college. It took her until she was 20 to even reach that point.

    • WallofSleep

      Something similar happened to a former girlfriend of mine, except rather than coming out as a atheist, she chose to move in with me and live in per-marital sin. Her folks didn’t shun her, but all help for college or anything else was immediately cut off.

    • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

      The only way these cults can keep people loyal to them is to make it as difficult as possible to get out. It shows how much power religion actually has in society that they are able to get away with this kind of behaviour.

  • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

    Can’t wait to watch. With a gay brother, it was easy to come out ad an atheist myself, and I did this years ago, however the new problem is how to get them to accept it. Didn’t see such blatant offhand denial coming from my lapsed catholic, practically agnostic parents. Love videos like this cos they make me feel less alone. Thx.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    I believe my parents are already aware that I’m an atheist but I don’t think they can handle me telling them that I’m also a humanist. For some reason they believe that humanism is about persecuting Christians and that it says that people can evolve into omnipotent beings because they believe that’s the message that Gene Roddenberry tried to send with his creation of the character Q.

  • Arrakis

    The “dropping hints” thing is what I’ve been doing. I’m still “in the closet” with my parents,but most of my friends already know even the ones I went to church with.

    • David

      It was actually the opposite for me. My Christian friends were so judgmental that I knew if I ever came out to them they would try and convert me back. And I really didn’t want to here that considering I spent the first 18 years of my life hearing it.

      • http://diehardgamefan.com/ Crystal Steltenpohl

        I have no problem coming out to friends. I have no issue with being friends with religious people. If they have issues being friends with atheists, then we do not share the same values and I have no need to spend time with them.

        That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to lose a friend over religion… Just that it’s probably better off that they don’t like me for being atheist than liking me for something they assume about me as a person.

  • Warren Senders

    My situation was the opposite…I was raised atheist. I wrote about that here: http://www.warrensenders.com/journal/?p=4

    • Mario Strada

      Wonderful Article. I was really impressed and sad when I finished reading it. So I read it again :)

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

    Coming out as an atheist again just shows how screwed up religion really is. That a family can discard their children based on religious ideologies is disgusting. It raises the question if these people should be allowed to have children in the first place as this could be likened to child abuse. It makes you wonder what goes on in these houses that we are not aware of, like the threat of hell its abuse and should be stopped.

  • allein

    I haven’t. But neither do I pretend to be religious. I was raised Methodist, but I stopped going to church on a regular basis in high school (because my parents stopped going, though they’ve since gone back), did Christmas/Easter for a while, through college and maybe for a few years after, then just stopped going altogether. I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I went to church for something other than a wedding/funeral/baptism (just went last Sunday for my friend’s daughter’s baptism, and she told me they were really only doing it for her mother; they don’t even go to church themselves). Some of my friends know I’m an atheist, but for the most part it’s not something I discuss. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m “out” but I’m not really “in the closet,” either. It’s really a non-issue in my everyday.

    The closest my parents have come to asking questions was the Christmas before last, when my mom asked if I wanted to go to church with them on Christmas Eve, I said no, and she asked “why not?” I just said “I don’t want to” and she dropped it. She usually asks every year and we say no (I’m pretty sure my brother is an atheist as well; he said so once when he was in high school and I’ve never seen any indication that’s changed) and she doesn’t pursue it at all. I don’t know if they assume I’m an atheist, and if they asked I would tell them the truth, but I don’t really see any need to “come out” to them. There’s varying amounts of religiosity in my extended family but it’s not really something that comes up outside of grace at Thanksgiving dinner.

    I usually say religion was something we did on Sundays, and while I was involved in some other church activities, I didn’t really see them as “religious” activities (not even Confirmation classes, really). When I got older I just sort of fell away from it, and it was never a big deal to me. When I started actually thinking about it (maybe 7 or so years ago), it was just a realization that, yeah, I guess that’s what I am, and I went on with my life. Reading stories here, I realize how lucky I am in that.

  • Tobias2772

    I just waited for my mom top go on about some jesus thing or another (i didn’t have to wait long) and then i just said “i don’t believbe in all that stuff so i won’t be participating. I got the whole – oh my reaction, but it really wasn’t too bad. Now my family avoids the conflict because they don’t want to argue rationally avout it and they know it. Pretty painless all around.

  • Puddinhead

    Ha! I’ve followed you for over 3 years. In my head your voice was very Bill Moyers. Very slow, low, scholarly. And you’re like all EXCITED! And energetic! It’s awesome!

  • Rain

    Excellent videos although the audio is “clipping” a little in some places. So maybe turn down the input level and then turn it back up some more in the editing stage. Or maybe even put a limiter or compressor at the input stage. I know from experience people usually think I’m an “ass” when I say that but I can assure you clipping does bother people. http://avp.stackexchange.com/questions/446/what-is-clipping-distortion-what-causes-it-and-how-to-avoid-it-when-recordin

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I viewed all five of these, and they’re all excellent. I really like your casual demeanor, and the brief, general responses, not getting bogged down in all the possible situational details. I’m so glad that you’re doing these. Every one is a message of hope and encouragement to young or new atheists. Please continue.

  • Anna

    My parents aren’t atheists, but they never talked about religion when I was growing up. I had no idea what they believed for most of my childhood. I never considered my atheism something I had to “come out” about, though. I suppose I must have mentioned that I didn’t believe in a god at some point, certainly by middle school at the latest, but I don’t remember it as a revelation and can’t imagine that it would have sparked much of a conversation.

  • WillBell

    My coming out experience was a little normal and a little odd. I am deeply ingrained in the internet age so that helped a lot, I discovered internet atheist websites mostly through my internet evolution websites (I was big into science), I would say that even by then I was sort of an atheist (although I’d say that I did not know that myself). I realized what I was, started to become active on the internet, certainly dropped some heavy hits, and then accidentally told my parents I was an atheist. I had a couple although now most of mine are so its sort of a ‘whatever’ issue, I’m the most vocal anti-theist among them. Most people who have meaningful interactions with me know/could guess I was an atheist, a couple uncles/many cousins, my 95 year old Catholic Granny, and some people who I meet in very secular settings (aka where religion is not brought up) do not know but that’s it.

  • Philip Fowler

    For years I didn’t speak with my father – a minister/seminary professor/Christian author – and avoided the rest of my family. I still remember how hurt I was when my father told me that my bachelors degree in science was a mistake. The argument that followed included a statement that judgement day would be a warm day for me. Oddly enough, at that time I did not fully embrace atheism; I just found science to be fascinating. Nearly a decade later, while I was working on my doctorate in Geology, my father had a heart attack. By this time I definitely considered my self an atheist. Somehow the heart attack changed our relationship; and, we talk today. However, the topics of religion and politics are avoided. He seems to have resigned himself to my atheism; and, I make sure not to challenge his religious beliefs. It isn’t really acceptance; however, it is a truce that is the best that I feel I can hope for.

  • tinker

    I said, “I’m an atheist.” Really that was the entire discussion. Now my Mother is coming to me and asking questions about it. She read The God Delusion and I think that she is still on the fence but she is now seeing that atheism makes more sense than the LDS that she was raised with. My Father is still a believer, but I don’t think that he has much use for organized religion anymore and laughs at my jokes about Xtians.

  • Makkuro kurosuke

    I “came out” after 2 years of hiding my atheism. I hid it because I knew my mom would “punish” me by forcing me into bible studies and my parents would force me to go to church and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want constant lectures on how I was wrong, and since I was a minor, I felt it best to play along and say as little about religion either way.

    I came out by accident. It was after a program on tv that I wanted to discuss with my mom and she said “Well, you DO believe in God, don’t you?” and since I’d never been asked that question so bluntly, I went ahead and said no. My mom gasped. She viewed it as a failure on her part and my entire family thought it was a phase. My dad’s response was to never speak of it to me, and I’ve only ever purposefully pushed buttons a few times in the 15 years since I became an atheist (with understandable consequences).

    I was lucky that my parents didn’t disown me or kick me out of their house. But they still don’t like it; I doubt they’ll ever be in a good place about it. I have had to tell my mom that it was never a failure as a parent that lead me to this but as one of the things she did right in raising me to never be afraid of asking questions and in being honest with who I am as a person.

  • EuropeanCommunist

    All of those coming out stories are really fascinating to me because I never actually had to go through any of this myself.

    I was born in one of the most irreligious countries in the world – Czech Republic – to atheist parents. I guess you could say that the moment I officially became an atheist was Christmas when I was about 6 years old. Christmas are actually widely celebrated in the Czech Republic, though very few associate it with religion (the fact that the Czech term for Christmas – Vánoce – has no apparent connection to Christ helps). Even so, the tradition is to tell your children that “Little Jesus” is the one who brings all the gifts. Well, being a curious child, that Christmas I looked into the closet to find the gifts there. At that moment, in the closet, I lost the only bit of spirituality I had believed in. And I was better off.

  • MD

    Telling my parents I wasn’t Catholic and refusing to get get Confirmed was the biggest battle. It happened when I was 14, and for my mother is was a personal rejection: of her values, of our cultural identity, of my upbringing. Huge drama. They stopped forcing me to go to church (even though they were twice a year Catholics anyway) when I turned 18.
    When I was in university I told my father I was exploring other religions and he said, “as long as you’re not an atheist.”
    And 15 years later I told my father that, yes, I am an atheist, and by then it wasn’t a big deal. I’m the chid that has given him relatively little trouble, am raising my kids well and a generally happy life.
    The subject of religion is not discussed with my mother. Period.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I thought Hemant gave some good advice. I was fortunate with my parents because my father was a life-long atheist himself and there was no coming out necessary. Atheism was simply the default position. The null hypothesis. I do have three other coming out stories, though.

    1. I came out to my high school (late 1970s, red state) by wearing an atheist tee-shirt. That caused quite a stir at school and I experienced quite a bit of shunning from many of my classmates. In those years, atheists were very socially isolated. I sat home the night of the prom.

    2. At age 31, I was entering a serious relationship with a woman from a very traditional conservative family. Her parents were coming to town so they could meet me for the first time. She was open minded and did not have a problem with my lack of belief. She kind-of hinted, though, that I would need to tread very carefully about religion with her parents. Technically we didn’t need her parents blessing, but we wanted it. My approach was a bit different than when I was 17. I could reflect back on all my prior interactions with religious people and avoid pushing their buttons. I never actually used the word “atheist” because it is a loaded term for so many people. I never attacked the institution of the church in the conversation. I highlighted the positive moral standards that most religions share with humanism and communicated that they were important to me. I acknowledged that church can function as a meta-structure to help people adhere to these moral principles but the important thing is to have the moral principles themselves. They seemed to be fine with that. I married their daughter a couple of years later and have had a good relationship with her parents.

    3. Years later my wife did eventually feel she wanted to start taking our children to church. I agreed since we had not previously been going to church and marriage, being a partnership, requires some give and take. I found church to be interesting because I had never actually joined one and actively participated before. I never personally believed in what was said about God and all but viewed it as cultural anthropology. After a couple of years, though, I had heard all I needed to hear and decided to stop going. My kids wanted to stop going as well and my wife quickly gave up the fight and stopped going herself. The pastor wanted to meet with me to discuss things. Since I had nothing to loose, I invited him over to my house and we had a nice conversation. I told him unabashedly that I did not believe in the supernatural aspects of Christian belief. Interestingly, he admitted to me that he was more progressive in his Christian beliefs than the congregation but needed to give the congregation what they wanted to hear. I guess we both kind-of came out to each other in our own way.

  • David

    Wow. I had a way better experience. It may be my personality, but when I decided I no longer believed in god when I was 18, I just came out and said it. My mom cried but then got over it like two days later and my father didn’t care because “it’s his life to live”, and my grandma (the only person’s opinion I actually cared about) said the same thing as my father. Although I’m pretty sure that my parents are fairly confident that I’ll convert back to Christianity. FYI, I won’t

  • Scarlet

    I found this video to be rather helpful in my exploration of deciding whether or not to ever tell my parents that I am Atheist. There were a lot of examples he made in the video that are applicable to adults and teens alike. My evolution from belief to not believing has been a decade plus in the making. Marring my Atheist husband definitely helped cement my choice and thoughts on faith. However, we have never felt it necessary to express our beliefs to the rest of our respective families. I have always felt that it was a personal matter that did not need to be shared with everyone. I also feel that people of faith who do proclaim their beliefs for all the world to see and are hiding something and therefore are hiding behind the veil of religion in an attempt to bury an indiscretion.

    That said, if I ever feel the need to tell my parents about my Atheism, I know they will accept it and life will go on and that they do love me unconditionally. My heart does go out to those whose parents have set conditions on love. Thanks, Hemant, for the video!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Thank you for sharing that!


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