She Hasn’t Come Out to Her Family Yet… Should She? April 16, 2008

She Hasn’t Come Out to Her Family Yet… Should She?

Sondra, an 18-year-old college student, posted this comment on the Friendly Atheist Forums:

I was raised Catholic. Very Catholic. You’re-going-to-hell-if-you’re-not-Catholic-Catholic. I was also homeschooled, and didn’t really have much social interaction as a kid. I spent a lot of time in the library, and I liked it that way. My parents decision to homeschool was partly due to my older sister getting picked on by some of the girls in her grade — my dad stated often that he wanted to keep us away from the Public School Kids.

Years later, I remember a time when my dad found out that my sister was skipping church on Sunday afternoons, driving to a convenience store or some other place instead. She was 18 at the time, and he threatened to kick her out of the house, in all seriousness.

I am waiting until I graduate from college and move into an apartment with some friends of mine before I tell my parents about my atheism. And I feel like I have to tell them. I’m expecting them to cut off all contact with my at worst(worst for me? probably not.), and at best they will tell my I am going through a phase and get the whole family praying for me, trying to convert me.

I would appreciate thoughts on my situation… Has anyone else had parents that aren’t understanding and able to respect their decisions? Maybe parents who were really strict but somehow took the news well? Is there ever a “right” time to break the news to religious parents?

If you have any advice for Sondra, feel free to leave it here or directly on the forum thread.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • DSimon

    I’m not sure my experience is totally applicable. I am an atheist and my mom is religious, but our relationship is still pretty good, as long as we stay off that subject. From the way you describe it, that doesn’t seem to be the likely outcome of you coming out to your parents…

    However, just because my advice probably won’t be helpful has never stopped me from giving it before. 🙂

    I would say, since you feel like you have to tell them, then you’d just better go ahead and do it. It can be agonizing keeping secrets like that. When you do, though, try to keep the pressure low and the atmosphere civil. Almost certainly, they’ll interpret it as an affront to the way they raised you and to their beliefs, but try to minimize that impression as much as you possibly can. Keep everything as cordial as possible, and maintain an atmosphere of respect for their beliefs (even the really stupid ones).

    The goal isn’t to try and be completely open with them about what you think, but to get the issue off your chest in a way that will keep the relationship working. It’s like an interview; phrase everything you say in terms of how well they’ll take it, and play the conversation by their rules.

    And, if worse does come to worst… Well, even if they do blow their tops, I wouldn’t lose hope of restoring contact with them later, once the situation has cooled down.

  • Ron in Houston

    I hope that I have some very practical advice. I wouldn’t even bring up the atheism question at this point. The first thing you need to do is establish some distance from your parents and make them respect your boundaries as an adult.

    If they can’t accept your boundaries as an adult, they certainly won’t accept your profession of atheism and you’re just setting yourself up for grief.

    To me, it’s a matter of priorities, first get them to respect your normal boundaries as an adult. After that you might be able to get them to work on respecting your lack of belief in a deity. The odds are they will never accept that, but first make them respect you as an adult human.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Sondra, your situation is one that we have heard about here many times, and several people have personally gone through. I’m sure you’ll get far more advice than you’ll know what to do with.

    I think it would be useful for you to look at your statement, “And I feel like I have to tell them.” Is that imperative to tell them going to do something for you, or for them, or what? What I mean is are you thinking, “I must tell them in order to be true to myself and to be real with them regardless of their reaction,” or is it “I must tell them because I must always tell the truth to my Mom and Dad,” or some other source of that “must” feeling about the whole thing?

    I don’t minimize your intelligence or your maturity, and I’m sure that you are already a person of conviction and principle. At the same time, being 18 is still really really young. I’m more than three times that old and every time I have thought “well now I’m grown up,” I’ve discovered to my chagrin “well, actually there’s more for me to learn and more for me to think over carefully.”

    Give your thoughts time to gel and develop depth about your atheism before you start with your family what others here have found can be a painful gauntlet through which to pass. Your atheism as it is now may change and grow, or it might stay as it is for a long time. It might be a simple state of having no belief in your parent’s faith or it might involve complex thoughts and principles that you have developed. It’s about this tricky time in your youth. You’re old enough that you could have your own fully developed and complex opinions on this, and you’re also young enough to (please, with my complete respect) not really know what the heck you’re doing yet.

    Telling your family will certainly change forever your relationship with them. In my opinion, doing it too soon will make things more likely to go poorly. You will have few seasoned and well practiced responses to their intellectual challenges, to their emotional reactions, to their attempts to change you, to coerce you, to guilt trip you even attack you, and so on. If you wait until your thoughts, opinions and experiences are richer and more deeply developed from the who-you-are that you are now just discovering, you will have more confidence and stability and you may be able to come out the other side of that gauntlet with your own self less bruised and maybe even with a more accepting relationship with your family.

    Just some respectful advice from an old guy who still bears some scars from being 18.

  • Julie

    I think you’re right to wait until you graduate from college. And actually, I think you should wait until you’re completely supporting yourself financially. Even after you move into your apartment, you might find yourself leaning on the parents at times, between jobs, etc.

    I didn’t grow up with religious parents, but I grew up in a bit of a strange family. It’s a great, great feeling when you can drive away, live on your own, and become your own person. Until then, I would just keep quiet if I were in your shoes Upsetting them when they’ve supported you your whole life might not go over so well.

    If you really want to make things easy for yourself, just wait until you’re about to have your own kid. There’s no way your parents will want to upset you or distance themselves from you when you’re about to pop out their grandkid. (Kidding.)

  • jordan

    Wow. I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’m sorry I don’t have any advice for you, I’m only 16 and haven’t shared my atheism with my family yet. I don’t think I’ll tell them until I’m financially independent. It’s just nice to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

  • Peter

    I agree with the above – don’t do it. Get independent first.

    In my family, they all know I am an atheist, but we never discuss it. I don’t think we could discuss it even if we tried to be civil.

    I personally think, since this topic is so charged, its best to get to the ‘unspoken acknowledgment’ phase and leave it at that.

    It may be that you need to tell them, but I’d say do it through actions and not words. IMHO.

    Good luck!!

  • Sondra,

    One question I have for you is… do you accept and respect your parents’ beliefs?

    The way I see it, whether or not your parents are able to accept you for who you are is not something that you have any control over. But you do have some control over how you see your parents.

    As long as you are confident in who you are and you also respect them for who they are, the rest is out of your hands. I’m certain they love you with or without their religion. Trust in that.

  • Xeonicus

    I’m certain they love you with or without their religion. Trust in that.

    Not to say that’s untrue, but I wouldn’t bet your life on that if it were me. Religious brainwashing can go pretty deep. Even if there is love deep down, there might be a whole lot of obstacles in the way.

    I remember reading about a girl who converted to Scientology and cut off all ties with her parents. It took 10 years for her to snap out of it and reunited with her parents. I think that after all she went through, she really did love her parents, but she was so mentally abused she couldn’t see it at the time.

    Though, fanatical Catholicism isn’t quite on par with Scientology (though they might be close). I wouldn’t assume it’s okay for you to be reckless and trust that “love will win out in the end”. That’s a romantic idea, but it isn’t always true in my opinion.

    My advice would be similar to what a few others have said. Wait awhile until you’ve experienced life on your own a bit more and you’re spiritual growth has matured. You need confidence and life experience to back you up. Then again, maybe you’ve more mature than I was when I was 18. I know I certainly was a bit iffy on what I believed back then.

  • Kate

    I think everyone here has posted great advice, Richard – well said!!!

    I can’t offer anything specific to coming out to parents, but I can say that Erik’s parents have had to deal with their son dating a non-Christian, and it’s been hard for them. They’ve blown up a few times, but he’s gotten to the point where he stays firm, doesn’t engage in an argument, and patiently reminds them that they can have a good relationship with him, or none. (Note – it REALLY helps that he’s 100% financially independent). They’ve (knock on wood) currently chosen a good relationship over no relationship.

    Definitely get independent first, in every sense of the word. Like Richard said, your views may change – strengthen, change, etc. Use this time for self-exploration.

  • i’m also an atheist and my mother very religious (though not as strict as in your case.) i’ve never broached the subject with my mother, despite her numerous tirades about “trusting in god”, “when jesus comes back” and other fairytales.

    When she launches into her rant, i could stop her and say “mom, i don’t care what the bible says. i don’t believe in that crap.” But i know that her knowing that would hurt her deeply. No matter what she believes religiously, my mother loves me, and the same goes for your parents.

    If my mother were to ask me directly i would tell her the truth, but as it stands now it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Some people might see that as not being true to myself or my beliefs, but i don’t see it that way. i love my mother dearly and to intentionally do something to hurt her just so i could “be right” isn’t worth it to me. If my mother never asks me, she can live out the rest of her old age and die thinking she’ll see me on the other side.

    i’ll reiterate that if they ask you, you should answer truthfully, at least then it’s their own fault for asking ;). But if you think it’s going to cause such great division in your family, ask yourself if it’s worth hurting people you love just so they know something you don’t believe in.

    i hope this helps.

  • I’m certain they love you with or without their religion. Trust in that.

    I wouldn’t assume it’s okay for you to be reckless and trust that “love will win out in the end”. That’s a romantic idea, but it isn’t always true in my opinion

    For the record, I was not advising for or against coming out to the parents. My point was that no matter what, be true to who you are without having to judge others who may not necessarily see things the same way.

    I find it sad that whenever there is a discussion regarding religion or lack thereof, the focus always seems to be on separation/division when I listen to either side of the argument. Everyone speaks in terms of “us” against “them.”

    Call me idealistic, but I think the focus should really be on love and how we can love in spite of the differences in our beliefs.

    My frustration when speaking with the folks at the Christian camp about atheism was always that you guys are viewed as “them,” as if you are of a different breed of humans. I see the same sort of thing going on over here as well.

    When all is said and done, who loves Sondra and cares about her best interest more than her parents? You? Hemant? Me? I just wanted her to see the big picture beyond the issue of religion.

  • Hi Sondra,
    I’m probably not the best advisor here since i was raised by atheist parents to become myself a proud atheist.

    The only thing I have to say to you is it’s probably best that you tell them while you’re still living with them, because it’s much easier to break family ties when you’re apart. If your parents really are “good catholics” like they probably say they are, they won’t kick you out of the house. They will go through a denial phase, that can last for the rest of your lives, but they will come to terms with it eventually, even if by choosing to ignore it. And then when you leave home, things will probably be cooled down and you will be able to maintain some sort of relationship with them.

    Anyway, whatever you decide, I wish you all the best.

  • TXatheist

    I suggest not coming out til you are financially independent.

  • Bostonian

    Hi Sondra. Obviously you know your family and your relationships with them better than we do, so it’s hard for us to know what the outcome of telling them would be. But my suspicion is that it would be bad.

    Telling them won’t help them at all, because they sound pretty heavily indoctrinated. You’re unlikely to sell skepticism and rationalism as virtuous qualities and they’re likely to look at this as “losing” you. They may even be angry.

    The other person in this equation is you. Will telling them help you in some way? I don’t see how it would, but you know yourself better than we do. If you simply want to tell someone, perhaps you should pick someone who is more likely to react well (perhaps someone like-minded).

    I’m in a similar situation. Very Catholic nuclear family, with a very Catholic extended family as well. I’m not home schooled, but I am Catholic schooled. I suspect my family would be more accommodating than the people you’ve described. But I still haven’t told them, because I decided it would do neither me nor them any good. I haven’t hidden from them that I don’t go to church, and when I’m visiting home for holidays with my wife we tend to go to church with them (but not always). So my parents probably think I’m still Catholic, but just a lazy Catholic. I’m planning to keep it this way for as long as I can. But your mileage may vary.

    Even if you don’t mind breaking contact with them for religious reasons, at age 18, having a family who isn’t angry with you can be handy for purely practical reasons. If you have student loans, if the economy tanks and you lose your job, if your health diminishes for unforeseen reasons … any combination of bad circumstances may make you wish you hadn’t said anything. So don’t take the decision lightly.

  • terri

    Great responses! My two cents – I agree in not telling them ever, unless they ask. If you feel that you must tell them because you’re being dishonest, letting them support you when you think they wouldn’t if they knew, then do whatever you can to become independent ASAP, including grants, scholarships, co-ops, etc. Be careful not to rely too much on your friends for basics, either, because if that falls through, you need to be the backup, not your family. In the meantime, be honest with yourself – don’t pretend to believe, but also don’t make it so obvious that you don’t when with them. Often, a parent can pick up on such cues, realize that something major has changed, and also know that they don’t want any more information because it will mean a big change in your relationship. If you think that a slow reveal will still be fair to them, allowing them the time to absorb implications, then maybe you can hang on until graduation.

  • Stephanie

    Well, being an Atheist- and I capitalize it mostly for my own amusement, since religions are capitalized- means I don’t place much emphasis on religion. If anything defines me in the area of religion, it’s the absence of beliefs and passions. So I don’t feel any strong need to ‘come out’ so to speak, because I find it places too much importance on something I find rather silly to begin with.
    I agree with all of the above statements about becoming independent first- not just financially but emotionally. Until you break away to build your own life and family, you tend to define yourself in terms of your parents. Wait until other definitions like, spouse, parent, or job title come first. Then decide if it’s something you want to do, or indeed if it’s something your parents don’t already know about but are terrified to discuss for fear of making it a very real obstacle. You might find your desire to take a stand now is part of your separation and redefinition process or you might find it’s something that really needs done- but either way, waiting until you are independent will probably make things less painful for both you and your parents.

  • Spurs Fan

    I have also been in this situation. I would agree that the financially independent part makes it easier. When I “came out” to my mom, she flipped, but I was already 28 or 29 and obviously not depndent on her.

    It’s odd how if this situation were reversed, I can’t help thinking that different results would occur. If a “Born-again” Christian or newly-converted Muslim “came out” to their Athiest parent, I’m sure a few would be upset. However, I’m almost certain that most skeptic parents would be supportive. Saddened or intrigued maybe, but loving and gentle.

    It’s sad…the other day my high school social studies class was having a (albeit one-sided..I’m in a rural part of Texas) debate over gay marriage, and some students asked me what I would do if my son brought home a high school boyfriend. They seemed utterly shocked that I would accept it and not be angry. Even if I had a problem with homosexuality, I can’t imagine having the level of hate that I saw in their eyes for my own son. Likewise, I can’t understand a parent rejecting their child so harshly for a belief, and a well-thought out one at that.

  • Lexi

    Lately, every time I see that someone wants to pray for someone else I have the urge to point out that ‘pray’ ‘killed’ this girl. I realize that is not helpful information, other than if she wants to be snarky with her parents . . . which is not helpful to her situtaion either.

  • Karen

    It’s sad…the other day my high school social studies class was having a (albeit one-sided..I’m in a rural part of Texas) debate over gay marriage, and some students asked me what I would do if my son brought home a high school boyfriend. They seemed utterly shocked that I would accept it and not be angry. Even if I had a problem with homosexuality, I can’t imagine having the level of hate that I saw in their eyes for my own son.

    Hatred of homosexuals – in a high school class!?! Wow. That’s really sad and backward, given the stats about how tolerant the majority of young people are about homosexuality.

    My kids are teens and their friends – even the Christian ones – are very cool with gay people. It is very sad what hatred and indoctrination will do. I guess we can only hope these kids go away to college and get exposed to some more progressive thinking.

  • Darryl

    You are under no obligation to come out to your parents about your atheism. If they can handle it, then go ahead. But, if you think it would really trouble them, or cause a rift between you and them, then consider not telling them. The Truth will set anyone free, but not everyone can handle the Truth. The Apostle Paul said that he was free to do certain things, but if doing them would cause his brother to stumble, he said that he would not do those things for his brother’s sake. That’s a very Christian attitude. Paul said the stronger brother ought to bear up the weaker brother. In my view, your atheism makes you stronger, and your family’s Christianity makes them weaker. It is therefore incumbent upon you from this view to look out for them. But, no matter what course you take, it is your choice, and you are free to do as you think best.

    All the best,


  • Spurs Fan

    Hatred of homosexuals – in a high school class!?! Wow. That’s really sad and backward, given the stats about how tolerant the majority of young people are about homosexuality.


    I know, I know. I think the stats are correct. I’m not sure where you live, but this is probably a regional situation. Oddly enough, their parents are probably more intolerant. When some attend college, that will help.

  • josh

    I really hadn’t had much of a choice when i came out to my parents. i’d been an atheist for about six months, without telling them. needless to say, this made church services rather tense, and i dreaded every sunday. My brother (who is less atheistic, but a devout agnostic) was going his bad-boy rebel phase at the time and always locking horns with the good ole’ parents. he’d been tugging at the bit for a while, and eventually refused to come to church. An argument ensued, and then he brought it up:

    “I don’t believe in it anymore, and Josh doesn’t either!”

    Well, the $#!t hit fan then and there. My parents, while not young-earth fundamentalists or going-to-hell catholics, are quite religious. There were heated debates, with them giving me that “i’m disappointed in you, son” look as i explained my logical arguments. At the time, they felt that i was disrespecting them by not attending church. Also, there was the commonplace “you’ll find god when you hit the rocks of life” argument (maybe so, but i can honestly say i have the best coping skills in my family because of my roboticly unemotional thinking).

    For about six months after that, they had an enforced church-attendence policy. Which went over like a lead balloon. i visibly sat and sulked through the sermons–didn’t do anything but stand up when the hymns were being sung. eventually the forced attendence became less frequent, and then stopped entirely.

    when i stopped going to church alltogether, the youth group leader–a nice guy named kevin–asked why i wasn’t coming anymore. i told him that i felt it was hypocrisy to attend church when i didn’t believe, and if i wasn’t attending i shouldn’t be getting any benefits. I also mentioned the hypocrisy as one of the reasons i didn’t want to attend church with them anymore. It seemed to work. And it was completely true, in both cases.

    nowadays, they’re not exactly happy about it, but it’s not an issue anymore. I suppose the moral of the story is this:

    i don’t know whether or not you should come out, i never actually had to make that choice–my brother made it for me. but your parents will eventually adjust. time may not heal all wounds, but it blunts all hard feelings. Like others who posted, i’d suggest using the “eventually i’ll convert back” argument (Not neccesarily truthful in my case) and my own “hypocrisy” argument (gives you an ethical reason to not attend). Other than that, you probably know best.

  • In his Savage Love column, Dan Savage recently had some excellent advice for teenagers on coming out to their parents as queer. I think it’s very applicable to coming out as atheist as well.

    And among his pieces of advice was: Don’t tell them until you don’t need their support any more. If they can kick you out of the house or cut off your tuition, it can wait.

  • Sondra,

    You can always just be a lax Catholic… or a non-practicing Catholic. Nominally retain the title for your parents benefit, just stop going to church… After they are used to your laxness, you can eventually level with them that you don’t believe in heaven, hell, the saints, and the bodily ascending virgin anymore. I know plenty of lax non-practicing Catholics that for all practical purposes are atheists. But they still kind of consider themselves as Catholics (by upbringing or family tradition) probably for the benefit of their parents. Half of the people in Europe probably fall in this category.

  • Aquaria

    One thing I haven’t seen here is taking opportunities to distance yourself from the beliefs. You know, if the parents make an absolutist statement, saying something like, “I don’t know… Are you sure?” and gradually increase the questioning until they’re not so surprised if you come out as not having their faith. Sort of an inoculation, that makes them not so surprised when the truth comes.

    Strangely enough, it might take until you graduate from college or are on your own to get there.

    A lot of this depends on how your family sees you, too. I was always strong-willed and outspoken, so if I had told my mother to knock off the religion crap, well, she was used to my saying things like that, in that way.

    I didn’t have to overcome an intolerant family, but at your age I did have to deal with being an atheist in an extremely conservative part of the country, where it can be dangerous to be an atheist, especially a female atheist.

    As someone said upthread, I usually followed a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. But it was very hard, because, in that environment, the first thing you’re asked after an introduction is, “What church do you go to?” For a long time, I tried to dance around it. But, after a while, I stopped. I just answered, “I don’t.” Some days, I would endure hearing the sales pitch for their particular church. And sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes, it was something in between.

    One thing for sure: you won’t have to deal with only your parents about this. Being an atheist can affect you in the outside world. In some places, you can face losing your job, your apartment, your friends. Even in more tolerant societies, there will be nasty people to face.

    And yet so many of us don’t suspend our disbelief. I suppose it’s very much like how gays deal with acceptance in various circumstances. If you’re in Wyoming or East Texas, then maybe you’d better a) never admit anything to anyone if you can help it (easier for atheists than gays) or b) move somewhere more tolerant. I chose b. It’s usually the best.

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