Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
I’m in the 9th grade and I’ve been reading and commenting on Friendly Atheist for several months. You and I have had some good conversations here. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’m a big fan of your advice.
I’ve got some very religious grandparents. Actually, they’ve got maybe 10-15 images of Jesus and crosses around their home. I became an atheist about one year ago, and I’m an “out” atheist, but I haven’t told them. When I talk to them, they always say that they’re “praying for me” and that “God is with me”. I always just say, “thank you” and ignore it, but it makes me somewhat uncomfortable because I feel like I’m being dishonest with them. I love them both and they deserve to know the truth. On the other hand, I’m unsure as to how they might react. It’s more likely that they’ll accept and respect me, yet one can never be 100% sure. As you can guess, I hope that they’ll be okay with it, but I don’t know whether or not I should take the risk.
Thank you very much,
Before figuring out how to tell your grandparents, you need a “whether report,” as in whether or not you should do that at all. Because you’re already “out” to other people, this knowledge might eventually reach them without your choice, but then again, it might not.
Since starting this column, I’ve received about 200 letters. The problems people present fall into categories such as ethical dilemmas, raising children, or unwanted proselytizing.
But by far, the largest category of letters is called “Help! My Family is Treating Me As If I’m Disgusting Vermin Since I Told Them I’m An Atheist!”
Over and over, so many of the stories relate how when the atheists came out, their families suddenly changed from loving and supportive, to cold, rejecting, hostile, and even vicious. The years that the atheist has spent being loving, supportive and loyal to the family apparently count for absolutely nothing, as if that never took place. They are instantly regarded as vile monsters simply because of their membership in a belief category. Their actual behavior or conduct has nothing to do with it.
While the atheists may have expected some upset from the family, they are often stunned by the intensity of the reaction. The hurt that the atheists suffer can be heart-rending, and the level of insanity in the rest of the family can be bewildering. The younger the atheists are, the more vulnerable they are to pressure, manipulation and mistreatment by the family.
Certainly, not all families react so horrendously. Some handle it quite well, some have some tension but eventually adjust, but enough of them have this explosion of utter irrationality that I hesitate to ever suggest that someone reveal their atheism without very carefully testing the waters first.
So go fishing.
There’s an old cliché about a person approaching a psychologist saying, “Doc, I have this friend who has a problem,” when it’s really his own problem. Old western movies often used a cliché where the hero held his hat out on a stick from behind a rock to see if anyone would shoot at him. As cliché as those methods are, they can work.
Bringing up the topic of another person’s atheism might give you some insight into how they might respond to your atheism. Of course, the exact way you’d go about this with your grandparents would depend on the nature of your relationship with them. Your delivery might be offhand and casual, or a more serious request for advice. With whatever adjustments that would be fitting for your relationship with them, you might say something like this:
“Grampa and Gramma, I wanted to ask your opinion on something. A friend of mine confided to me that he has realized that he’s no longer convinced that there is a god. He’s always been a very good friend, and he has always been an honest and good person. I didn’t quite know what to say, and so I was wondering if you have any suggestions.”
Avoid asking closed-ended, yes-or-no, either-or questions such as “Should I remain friends with him?” Such questions supply them the answers to choose from, and you’ll get less information about their attitudes. Ask open-ended questions about their thoughts, feelings and suggestions about the situation.
Tell the story first without the “A-bomb” word, and then later mention the term “atheist.” If their reaction is significantly different between “he’s not convinced that there is a god” and “he’s an atheist,” you’ll also gain insight into any misconceptions they might have about that scary, scary word. That will help you plan your statements if you decide to tell them.
I’ll acknowledge straight out that telling them such a “friend of mine” story is a lie, and I make no apologies for that. I’m usually the champion for honesty, but I’m not at all above lying to avoid getting my head shot off.
But there’s more to the act of telling the truth than the consequences we personally face.
It is also important to consider the effect it will have on the people whom we’re telling. We’d all love to have open, honest and frank relationships with our families, not having to pretend or give vague, non-committal responses, but it can be a grave mistake to become entirely self-centered in our eagerness to be completely honest. If we disregard or dismiss the upset that others will go through just so that we will feel better, then our actions can be much more about selfishness than truthfulness.
After all, our beliefs about religion are nobody else’s business. They don’t really need to know, even if we need, or think we need, to tell them. Do our needs always trump all other considerations?
Trevor, I know you love your grandparents, and when you say “I love them both and they deserve to know the truth,” I say they deserve your kindness and respect. Delivering those two things is much more delicate and complicated than simply delivering the truth. Instead of mechanically following a rule about honesty at all costs, we have to apply our judgment to situations. Kindness might suggest that you allow them to continue their assumptions about your beliefs, while respect might suggest that you let them know what you really think. Yet kindness could also be seen as telling them who their grandson really is, and respect might be best served by leaving their beliefs and assumptions well enough alone.
You instinctively know this, and that is why you have hesitated to tell them. You’re not just considering the cost it might have on you, you’re also considering the cost it might have on them. That circumspection is from a more mature love than just blithely telling them the truth.
Beware of simple, formulaic answers to life’s problems. Life is never simple. We have to use our judgment and make decisions based on incomplete information. Even our best decisions always, always have their drawbacks. All we can do is try to get as much information as we can, and then take our chances.
The fishing expedition I have suggested might bring you some of that information. To clarify my position as I have in other posts, I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying make your decision based on thoughtful deliberation rather than from a prescribed rule or an impulse.
You are a most excellent young man, and regardless of your decision or its outcome, your grandparents should to be very proud of you.