These three letters share a common theme, the difficult choices of being open or secretive about one’s atheism to family and friends. The issues in the letters overlap. Much of what I suggest for one case will apply to the others.
First off, thank you for starting this “Ask the Atheist” advice column. It is nice to have a place where we can get advice from someone without the “god will guide you,” and “pray about it.”
Secondly, my question. I am an atheist, but have not quite fully come out to my family. They know I am not religious, but I have never said “I am an atheist.” My parents are very religious. I have a decent relationship with them, and I know that they already don’t fully approve of my lifestyle (living with a girlfriend, child out of wedlock.)
My mother will be coming out to visit us for our daughter’s 4th birthday later this month. We had stayed in their house for a while, when they were traveling, and when they came back we made a point of putting away all of our atheist/irreverent books and movies, so as not to cause any drama. Now she is coming to my home, and will undoubtedly see my bookshelf. I don’t want to ruin our relationship (especially for my daughter’s sake), but fear that this may be a final straw for her. Is there any safe way to handle this?
My husband and I are both atheists who were raised catholic. I am a bit more “militant” in my atheism but overall we agree on most issues involving religion. The one place we don’t agree is in regards to coming out about our atheism to our other family members, who are all fairly devout Catholics. I told my family about my lack of belief as soon as I was no longer living with them, and although we fought about it a lot at the time, our relationship now is just as good as ever and I’m glad to have it out in the open.
My husband on the other hand has never told his parents about his atheism or mine and doesn’t plan to, because he says he doesn’t want to upset them or give them cause for worry. This makes me feel really uncomfortable around them, especially when they pray over meals, or ask us about local churches etc. The funny thing is, our wedding was completely god-free, in a garden with a UU minister and a ceremony we totally put together ourselves, so it should be obvious that we aren’t catholic at least. I’m just not sure why keeping quiet to his family to keep the peace is worth the tension it causes between my husband and I. Any thoughts on how to deal with this?
I very much liked your response to the question of how to be an “Out Atheist” in online forums and discussions. It was well thought-out and reasoned, and addresses something that I’ve struggled with (and continue to struggle with) in online discussions on both religion and politics to this day.
The question I want to ask is related, but slightly different. How do I be an “Out Atheist” in my real life? More generally, how do I lead a life with my friends where I am true to my ideals and beliefs without alienating people and being an overbearing jerk about them? For instance, many in my family are very religious, and I generally tend not to talk about these things with them so as to not make waves. But what if these issues come up? How do I stay true to my own beliefs without damaging a relationship that I really don’t want to damage? More generally, how do I do this with friends (and it doesn’t necessarily have to be on the subject of atheism)? For instance, when a friend says that something is “gay” meaning that it’s bad, do I do more damage to my friendship by calling him out on it than I do to myself by remaining silent?
Thanks a lot for your advice, Richard. Keep up the good work.
Dear Filius, Ex-Catholic Wife and Tim,
The short answer: There are no painless solutions to these problems.
The long answer: Every solution to problems like these is a trade-off. They all have costs and benefits. Choosing the best solution may be easy or hard, and then we take our chances, but there are some ways to increase the odds of a better outcome. I’ll get to those later.
Filius, sometimes there is a difference between the short term and the long term costs and benefits of a solution. For instance, in the case of your atheist books, the short term solution at first seems obvious. Simply hide the books in your house that might upset your mother just as you had while staying at her house. Problem solved… for now. However, that’s only a postponement of a crisis that probably cannot be prevented forever. As Shakespeare said, “Truth will out.” In some situations, putting off the upsetting truth makes it easier to take later, but in other situations, doing that will just make it all the worse later. Even if the difficulty is not changed by delaying, your enjoyment of the “peace” you’re keeping is to some extent spoiled by the fear of being discovered and the resentment from having to pretend to be something you’re not in front of your loved ones, even in your own home. If the truth will out sooner or later, it might be preferable to have it come out in a controlled situation of your design, rather than haphazardly. You may be underestimating your mother’s resiliency, as well as underestimating the leverage you possess in her granddaughter. Will there be upset? Most likely. Will it last a lifetime? Probably not. Will it be good to not have to hide things? Definitely.
Ex-Catholic Wife, your letter describes how when two partners have different solutions to the same problem, that difference can become a bigger problem than the first. You have gone through the difficulties of coming out to your family, and after some time you are now enjoying the benefit of improved relationships and the ability to be genuine in their presence. Your husband wants to keep it all a secret from his family, and so you feel awkward going between the open family and the secretive one. So now the tension and resentment have shifted more between the two of you than between either of you and either family.
Talk to him about the bond, the alliance, the unity between the two of you. That’s the most important relationship in your lives. Share with him what you went through before, during and after you came out to your family; the fear that held you back, the anger and hurt that you endured once you had told your truth, and the eventual relief and healing that came later. Ask him if he feels like he has to hold back truths from you as well, for fear of your not accepting. Patiently coax him to first be more open and risk-taking with you, if need be, and reward him with acceptance. Let him see that you understand his fear about his family from your own experience, and that you have confidence that he, with your support, will be able to go through the difficult truth-telling process with them, and the two of you will emerge on the other side with a stronger marriage as well as better family relationships.
Tim, your letter very clearly illustrates the almost universal struggle between our desire to be ourselves and our desire to be loved. Friendships and family relationships that require us to have less of one in order to have more of the other need to be improved at their foundation. Before finding how to talk about a touchy subject, you must first talk about the relationship itself, about how you want it to be more mutually open and accepting. If you feel stifled by what you sense are restrictions on what you can say, perhaps the other person feels stifled too, about other topics. Gradually establish a right to free speech between you. Give permission to the other to respectfully confront you if you step on their toes, and ask for the same permission in return. If talking about talking, about the relationship itself feels awkward at first, then go right ahead and talk about that awkwardness. It’s all part of laying a foundation of trust and respect that will withstand the stress of disagreement. Try out a couple of easier subjects for frankness before moving on to the heavier, riskier feeling ones. Each time you successfully broach a sensitive matter, that adds strength to your foundation.
In cases like these three, it is fear that holds us hostage. We fear someone else’s fear, the fear that our family and friends have for our unbelief, our difference from them. They have been taught to fear unbelief and unbelievers, or anything different from their beliefs. They may react with what looks like anger, indignation or disgust, but the root is actually fear. They’re not bad, they’re afraid. Remembering that can help you to use the universal solvent for fear, love.
Please do not dismiss my invocation of love as a corny cliché or a platitude. It works. When revealing fear-inducing truths to your family and friends, Always begin, continue and end with love. Saying again and again “I love you” literally, as well as in your tone, in your body language, and in your actions will disperse their fear and the other emotions that spring from it. Whether you’re saying “Mom, I’m an atheist,” or “John, saying ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’ hurts my feelings,” if “I love you” is clearly part of your statement, then most likely they’ll be better able to deal with it. Sometimes this is a slow process, but if you patiently, patiently keep soaking your truthful words with your love for your family and friends, their fear will gradually dissolve, and your freedom from keeping secrets will increase.