How to Deal with the Family Fallout When You Announce Your Atheism April 28, 2009

How to Deal with the Family Fallout When You Announce Your Atheism

Daniel Florien has some excellent advice for atheists/agnostics who come out to their family members and have to deal with criticism as a result.

He goes into depth on each point, but here’s a rundown of his list:

  • Don’t Return Criticism
  • Be Sympathetic
  • Talk to Them Privately
  • Disagree Calmly
  • Emphasize Your Open-Mindedness
  • Admit When You’re Wrong
  • Don’t Tell Them They’re Wrong
  • Listen, Listen, Listen
  • Focus on Areas of Agreement
  • Love Them Anyway

Is there anything else you would add?

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  • VeliciaL

    Love that last point. I was always brought up (as a Christian) to do that, but most Christians can’t really seem to wrap their heads around it.

  • So how do you tell them you’re an atheist and therefore believe there is no such thing as god without telling them they’re wrong (about their beliefs)?

  • Bill

    I’m not tap dancing around anyone. If they don’t like me the way I am then too bad.

  • Most of those are good, but I think that in some cases you have to tell people when they’re wrong. “Atheists [caused the Holocaust/are hateful evil people/eat babies]! You can’t be one of them!” Misconceptions about atheists have to be kindly and politely refuted, but refuted nonetheless.

  • Just tell them that you are not an atheist. You just don’t believe in God and consider the bible as nothing more than literature. They will be relieved and keep you in the family. 😉

  • DeafAtheist

    Ms Constantine: There’s a difference between saying. “I don’t believe in God” and saying. “You’re wrong if you believe God exists!” People can have different beliefs without criticizing the beliefs of others.


    That post on Unreasonable Faith was a good post. I shared it with others on Facebook. Most of my friends on Facebook are Christians. Not sure how many actually read it tho. No one commented on it.

  • – RUUUNNN!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Thanks for sharing this, Hemant!

  • Jim

    If you know they’ll take the news poorly, don’t come out. What’s the point, other than intentionally hurting your family? It’s spiteful. Live your life the way you want, and if they question your lifestyle, move on.

    (This works particularly well for coming out as a homosexual as well.)

  • @DeafAtheist – So it’s OK to imply that you think they’re wrong as long as you don’t say the exact word’s “you’re wrong”?

    Alright, think I got it. ;]

  • I think an important point is that religion teaches that people should have values.

    If they cannot respect that one of your values is having a coherent world view and being honest with friends and families where you stand. Then really they are being a bit hypocritical.

  • DeafAtheist

    @Ms Constantine: Yep, because they can go about thinking you’re deluded without feeling threatened and you can go about KNOWING they are without having to engage in a debate with them. If you want to preserve the relationship with theist friends and family avoiding conflict is the best way to go.

  • Richard Wade

    This is a very good list. I’d add one more, “Make sure you’re financially independent before you tell them.”

  • tamarind

    This is a very good list. I’d add one more, “Make sure you’re financially independent before you tell them.”

    Very, very important.

  • What my brother (he’s Christian) and I do is disagree on my blog (though he will only post anonymously–I only know it’s him because of the IP address) with long diatribes, but relatively polite.

    In person, we don’t really acknowledge our online debates, and I don’t really want to anyway. We’re very cordial to each other in person.

  • I would add:

    Be willing to drop the subject. Temporarily or, if necessary, permanently. (Hey, how about them Yankees?)

    And be prepared, if necessary, to drop contact with your family for a while. Of course it will hopefully not come to that… but it might. Be prepared for that — not just financially (as others here have pointed out), but emotionally.

  • I think that it is worthwhile to continue to act in the same way. Show them that the concerns that they might have are unnecessary. They might believe all sorts of strange things about atheists and it is important to show that you still live a good life, just one that is free from god belief.

    There’s a list of common misconceptions about why people become atheists somewhere. i.e. they are angry with the gods, they want to live a life of debauchery and hedonism, they devil has whispered in their ear, etc. Show that these are not true and that their fears are unjustified and they may well come to accept it in time.

  • Vic

    I would agree with the “be prepared to drop contact if necessary” advice. If they cannot handle it, then they cannot handle it and there is no reason to be abused while they come to terms.

  • I’d say to come out as an atheist when having some sort of of independece, like going away to college or living on your own independently. Living with your family while being a dependant can be shameful and embarrasing. If you’re a non-believer and you know your family are loving and caring christians that would ostracize you for not believing what they believe in, save it until the right moment.

  • littlejohn

    I’ve never really thought about this problem, because my parents weren’t religious. When I meet new people, though, I make no secret of my belief. Some people freak out, like I just admitted being a serial killer. But I won’t compromise. If you’re too close-minded to accept an atheist friend, then I don’t want you as a friend.

  • llewelly

    There are two items missing from this otherwise fine piece. Neither will need to be used frequently, but they are important nonetheless.

    First, part of growing up is learning that some relationships – be they with relatives, friends, cow-orkers, or whatever, can only do you harm. It’s possible you’ll have some relives to whom the best response is to drive them away. There’s a place for harsh rhetoric, for telling people they’re wrong, stupid, deluded, etc, and that’s the place for it – driving away people you’re better off without.

    Most of us will rarely encounter relationships which require that sort of response – I’ve needed it maybe twice in my adult life. But it’s important to know when a relationship is really nothing more than a cancer that needs to be cut out.

    Second – I tried all the nice advice – which has been floating around for ages and usually works – on my mother, and it didn’t work. So next I tried something different: I refused to speak to her for five years. That worked. Now we have a mostly amicable relationship.

  • When I was coming out as gay, it was a muuuch bigger issue than coming out as an atheist later (which happened by deconverting my mother, so yeah, it wasn’t that hard). But even the gay thing was resolved, partly by going to college and seeing mom only once in a month, and partly by the peculiar circumstance that I’m unable to be loved, by definition. (This has taught me a lot about several kinds of things – actually I think I’m pretty lucky to be like this. I will die a virgin, but there are some much more exciting things to do, lol.) The hardest stuff to get my parents to accept was cutting. Even now, they are a bit tense about it – no idea why should your child’s choice of entertainment upset you so much, but whatever. The advice I can give is, to any kind of people doing any kind of coming-out: stay strong. Part of a parent’s job is to try and mold you into the shape that society desires (peer pressure from other parents, worries that you’ll never have a “normal life” [whatever that might mean], and a bit of pride). This makes the family the most emotionally volatile environment if you happen to be different from whatever norm they follow. But you have to be patient, and ignore all the bullcrap they sling at you – they might eventually learn that it’s no use. But at the same time, be aware of the problem, constantly. Keep your cell phone at hand and functional ALL THE TIME – a loud word, and go 911 on them. If you have your own room, lock the door at night, so they won’t kill you in your sleep. If you can afford, move out. If you can’t, pack some heat. The important thing is: be able to defend yourself. It will take a bit of time for them to lose those murderous impulses, and some may never get that far. But be patient: kin selection is often stronger than social-cultural outrage.

    “love them anyway” – this is a bit meaningless. Assuming you’re a thinking human, somebody who uses xyr neocortex instead of xyr “guts” (which is really the limbic system, but meh), you never loved anyone in the first place. Besides, this is not really practical advice.

    “part of growing up is learning that some relationships (…) can only do you harm”
    SOME relationships?! It’s *all* of them. That’s the very reason they exist, duh! If people were unharmed by relationships, society could not work because we were too individualistic. Socialness rules out freedom and mental integrity, freedom and mental integrity rules out socialness – you can’t have it both ways.

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