Ask Richard: Atheist’s Family Finds Out, Shuts Out, Loses Out May 31, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist’s Family Finds Out, Shuts Out, Loses Out

Dear Richard,

I always read your advice letters and they always seem to make sense, so I felt you would be the best person to seek advice from.

A month ago, I went out of town to visit the university I will be attending in the fall. When I came home, my family began acting very hostile towards me and I didn’t understand why. I endured about three days of constant insults, including being called idiotic when I didn’t even say anything. Finally, one family member explained that one of my books on Atheism was found while I was gone. Of course, I soon realized that this had to have been found by going through my things while I was out of town. I felt betrayed and that I couldn’t even trust my own family. I didn’t even know what possessed them to go through my things. I am now being treated like a stranger amongst my own family just because I am Atheist. They are acting like I am the most untrustworthy and horrible person they know. I have tried to reason with them, but I keep getting interrupted and being told “I don’t want to hear any stupid things out of your mouth.” I don’t get any respect anymore and I’m not even given the opportunity to explain myself. All of my friends respect my beliefs, but I can’t get the same respect from my family. I don’t want to stop talking to the only family I have left.

Please help,
high school senior

Dear high school senior,

I have received many letters describing the fear, hate, bigotry and cruelty that explodes out of some Christian families toward one family member who is revealed as an atheist, but none of them have so concisely listed the worst of these families’ mistakes as does this short, poignant letter.

This is why I emphasize careful forethought before “coming out” to one’s family. When it is done on your terms and on your time, it might go better, but sometimes it can get very ugly anyway. Even families that never showed much interest in practicing their faith can suddenly become reactionary and hostile.

Your letter is a nearly complete list of the things a Christian family should definitely not do when they learn of a member’s lack of belief. Not all, but enough families react this way to be giving me an extensive collection of wretched stories with these same features. Every one of these reactions pushes the non-believing member farther away, and reduces any chance to bring them back into the fold:

  • The family criminalizes the atheist, treating them like a dangerous intruder, even though he or she has always been a loyal and loving part of the family.
  • They insult and attack the unbeliever, making bizarre accusations that have no basis in reality and have nothing to do with a simple lack of belief.
  • They betray the person’s trust, prying and intruding into their private, personal business.
  • These families punish and threaten the atheist member, in the idiotic assumption that they can intimidate or coerce someone back into a sincere and abiding faith.
  • Finally and the most destructive of all, they refuse to permit open, respectful and reasonable communication, shutting it all down when he or she tries to talk to them, not to convince them to disbelieve, but just wanting to be understood.

Some of these pious Christian families seem determined to behave in ways that have no resemblance whatsoever to the best teachings of Jesus. It is as if they have never heard of him. A good measure of how well Christians follow their prophet’s loving wisdom could be how they treat atheists, but even with their own flesh and blood, many utterly fail.

In past remarks to other beleaguered atheists, I have explained that very often the root of such anger is fear, and the root of such fear is ignorance. But these are offered as an explanation for a family’s deplorable abuse, not an excuse. There is no excuse.

High school senior, I fully understand that you “don’t want to stop talking to the only family you have left,” but other than insults, they are not talking to you, and they are prohibiting you from talking to them. Communication has to be mutually permitted. It only takes one side to shut it down. They have made a decision to emotionally kick you out. My heart aches to say it, but until they change that decision, your options for a relationship with them are limited.

Your self esteem must now be based on your own behavior rather than the approval of your loved ones, so behave well. Since they are currently incapable of behaving with simple decency and courtesy, it is up to you to supply that. Carry yourself with dignity, good manners and poise. Ironically, you may be the one whose treatment of others resembles the best teachings of Jesus.

I suggest that until you leave in the Fall, you avoid as much as you can any interaction with them that will provoke their abuse of you. Be as patient and respectful as you can to your family, as long as you protect your own safety. Do not stoop to returning insult for insult. That does not help you in your situation. It will only be used against you to further justify your family’s contempt for you, and it will escalate.

Protect what little privacy you have left by having a friend store anything you’d rather keep safe from your family’s snooping. Be sure that your internet activities are secure and anonymous. Young people often end up regretting revealing things online that they thought were confidential. Facebook is the bane of many a closeted atheist.

This kind of mistreatment and rejection is painful. Find a trustworthy person with whom you can release your hurt; a counselor, a friend, someone who knows how to just listen. Keep your morale up by increasing your contact with your respectful friends. See if there is a secular student club at the university, and make some contacts ahead of time. It will be nice to have some allies waiting for you when you get there. Some may be reading this right now. You are not alone, but you need to start finding your comrades.

As you continue to prepare to leave for the university, set things up to be as independent from your family as you possibly can. This will probably be a gradual process. By increasing your financial, physical and emotional self-reliance, your goal would not be to totally sever contact with them, but to have more choice in exactly how much and what kind of contact you have.

Time, distance and absence may permit some calming down. At some point you may be able to start an actual dialogue with them. Sometimes a well-crafted letter, full of genuine love, patience and willingness to talk and listen can reopen channels that were closed down. One family member may be more receptive to you, and he or she might play the role of diplomat to approach the others. This could take weeks, months or years.

High school senior, you will soon change your moniker to University Freshman. Your adult life is just beginning. This painful episode will hopefully be but a brief chapter in your autobiography. Avoid filling it with bitterness of your own to add to your family’s foolishness. Keep your heart open, ready for a reconciliation, keep your mind open, ready to learn new things, and keep your hands open, ready to help another young freethinking person who is enduring a similar hardship. One of the best ways to heal your hurt is to use it to help heal the hurt of someone else.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

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  • Heidi

    Wow, that’s very sad.

  • High school senior:

    I have to agree with Richard that the best way is to make sure your own actions live up to a higher standard than the way your family is acting towards you. Maybe one famliy member may be more willing to listen than others.

    All the best.

  • Aegis

    Absolutely agreed. Lead by example, bud. Be the Truth Youth.

  • Carol B

    Richard gave really good advice in an earlier post that might work well here, too, especially as High School Senior becomes University Freshman, and isn’t as dependent on family (i.e., doesn’t live with them anymore). That is, High School Senior could start saying something like “I’m going to leave the house if you insult me” (or are disrespectful, or whatever), and then back it up by quietly leaving as soon as anyone is insulting/ugly.

    Oh heck, Richard always says it best. Here’s the link. 🙂

  • Bob

    If you’re not allowed to speak, then they certainly can’t answer any questions or concerns you might have about your faith. In being judgmental, they open the door to resentment and anger – and those simply drive an even greater wedge between the two.

    Reading Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins doesn’t mean that you *are* Hitchens or Dawkins, or even that you share their views. My bookshelf at home includes more than one Bible, a copy of the Koran, books by Thich Naht Hahn, the Dalai Lama, Thomas a Kempis, C.S. Lewis, Karen Armstrong, Marks & Kamman, Carl Sagan, Starhawk, John Michael Greer, and numerous others from different faiths and philosophies.

  • If your family does go to church, then consider going and talking to the minister. Perhaps this is a person who will remind them they need to reach out to you rather than push you away.

    Of course, it could also be that the minister will just support them. What is the worse that can happen? At least there is a chance you can get some small degree of relief.

  • Matt

    My heart goes out to you “High School Senior”. I can’t imagine having my family turn on me. I have always had a fairly nonreligious and supportive family.

    I noticed you said your friends still support you. It sounds like you can take shelter with them and they will prop you up. Find more people that instill confidence in you, help you grow, and share your interests.

    I may be in the minority when I say this, but… I don’t think you should struggle to recoup your relationship with your family just because they’re family. If they act horrible and make your life hell, you need to get rid of them and stop having them poison your life. It reminds me of a wife staying with an abusive husband just because they’re married.

    Get out. Find greener pastures. Just my opinion. I’ll avoid saying anything mean about your family, but THEY are the ones that need to apologize to you and try to reach out and regain your trust.

  • fritzy

    Highschool Senior–my heart really goes out to you. I can only imagine the pain you may be going through and it brings tears to my eyes. Stay strong.

    Richard’s advice is excellent. I just have to second his suggestion that you always take the high road. Take Carol B’s advice to heart.

    The suggestion I like most is to write a letter–it gives you a chance to use well-chosen, measured words. Your family doesn’t have to read it but at least they can’t interrupt and you can say you made an honest and well considered attempt to communicate with them. Hell, you don’t even have to give them the letter if you don’t want to–sometimes it’s just a good way to organize your thoughts.

    Your family members aren’t bad people–they are just acting out of ignorance and fear–unfortunately that tends to bring out the worst in people.

    I’m really sorry for your circumstances. Hang in there, brother and good luck to you in everything you do.

  • qwertyuiop

    Pretty disgusting how religion can cause a family to turn hostile to someone they loved for many years. Another reason the world would be better off without religion.

  • sarah

    What a sad situation to be in. I cannot even imagine what that is like. Richard’s advice is excellent.

    Good luck to you, sir.

  • JulietEcho

    I’ve been through something similar to what you’ve gone through, and what Richard said about some family members perhaps becoming more diplomatic than others (and calming down and wanting a good relationship with you again) is true in my experience. A united front can be the result of bullying, peer pressure, confusion, and surprise combined with initial distaste. That united front won’t necessarily last.

    It’s been a year and a few months since my family’s explosion, (which was on my terms and not theirs, since I chose to be open with them instead of continuing to risk them finding out from another source – a luxury you didn’t get). Two of the four are on good terms with me again. Things can be awkward, and they’ve made it quite clear that their Biblical values condemn me to Hell, but we can still have a good time talking or occasionally visiting.

    A third member is pleasant towards me in a superficial way, and we sort of act like acquaintances. I very rarely see her or talk with her.

    The last member – my dad – is a lost cause. He is polite to me when he has to talk to me, but those are rare occasions. He expresses no desire to be closer to me or to pursue a relationship. I’ve been able to let go of any hope, anger, etc. regarding him. If he doesn’t want me, he doesn’t deserve me, and I don’t want him.

    One last note: the three family members I *do* have some positive communication with are all still in contact with me on the (unspoken in some cases, explicit in others) condition that I don’t bring up my differences around them. I go visit alone, instead of bringing my unconventional family. I don’t mention my lack of belief or my opinions when they talk about their Christianity. The relationships aren’t deep or equal. Maybe someday they will be, but that will take years if it happens at all.

    Good luck, and here’s hoping the last few months fly by before you leave for college. If you have secure, private internet access, you might want to check out the forums here, where there are several members who can empathize with your situation. And as others have said, spend as much time with your supportive friends (and away from your family) as possible. if you’re 18 (and if someone offers), consider spending the rest of summer staying with a supportive friend. Your family might come to their senses sooner if they have a more concrete sign that they’re pushing you away.

  • Peregrine

    I have a high-school aged cousin who some time ago changed her “religious views” on Facebook to “Agnostic”. I don’t know if her parents or immediate family are aware of it, or if so, how they’re treating her about it, but I would hope that they are at least understanding that at her age, she needs to be granted the liberty to explore her faith on her own, and come to her own conclusions.

    I don’t talk much with extended family outside of holidays and observances, and she’s at an age where she’s probably more interested in hanging out with her friends than what her nerdy older cousin is up to. But if it should come to it, I would hope that she, or any other like-minded family members are able to find support within the family, even if their immediate family is not as open-minded.

    Perhaps “high school senior” could look elsewhere in their family for a sympathetic ear, or a caring relative willing to act as some kind of arbiter or go-between. Perhaps a cousin who’s about the same age, or maybe not too much older, who may be going or has gone through something similar. Perhaps an aunt, uncle, godparent, or even a grandparent who’s willing to sit down and listen without being judgmental.

    Finding them may be tricky, since, considering the environment, they’re probably not exactly carrying a big neon “atheist” sign themselves. And if you pry too deeply in the wrong place you may find more resistance than support. But looking to your extended family, dropping a few subtle hints, or veiled comments may reveal options or avenues for support, or at the very least, an understanding ear.

  • Laura

    Right now, you’ve got a few months to go until college starts. I’m not sure how you’re holding up at the moment, and it’s possible that your family is making your life pretty unbearable. I wouldn’t recommend prolonged dishonesty to your family, but for the time being I think it’d be forgivable if you told a white lie. You could say that you aren’t currently an atheist, but you were questioning your faith and interested in what the book had to say. Or, even drop that you have been considering coming back to the faith you were raised in, but the resentment and hostility you’ve been feeling from them has made you feel reluctant. It won’t be long until you’re on your own, and then you’ll be able to assert any worldview you like without anyone being able to make your everyday life miserable for it.

  • prospera

    Carry yourself with dignity, good manners and poise. Ironically, you may be the one whose treatment of others resembles the best teachings of Jesus.

    I agree with Richard. You can show through your actions that they are the ones being hypocritical and judgmental.

    I hope that in time, your family will be able to see that your worth is not defined by your religious views.

    I wish you the best.

  • lurker111

    To the letter writer: My question is, “Who’s paying for your college?” If your folks are still ponying up for the college, you’ll have to decide whether to put up or ship out. If you have a scholarship, then you may want to investigate the “emancipated minors” laws in your state (you may need to be able to enter into contracts on your own, without your parents’ approval). If you have a legal aid office nearby, this may be worth looking into.

    Really, really nasty situation here …

  • Julia

    Although this is likely too late for you, highschool senior, I thought I’d make a suggestion for other people whose book(s) have been found by family who would react badly (and thus staying in the closet is the best current option). One could always claim that the books are just to hone your debating skills against atheism. After all, one cannot argue effectively against that which s/he doesn’t clearly understand.
    Terrible situation and I hope it will resolve amicably.

  • Aric

    I have one suggestion. If the writer’s family is involved with a church, the writer should talk to the church’s pastor or other leaders.

    Usually churches take it as their responsibility to council their member families, especially in spiritual matters. Since the pastor is not as personally involved he/she will be able to think more from the perspective of how a christian *should* act. He/she should also have experience in counseling all types of relationships and see how the family’s actions is harming the family.

    Of course this advice should be considered when keeping in mind the specific church and pastor. I KNOW this method would work well in the church I grew up in, but might not in others.

    On the other hand, maybe some of the family’s aggression is from fear that their church will find out they have an atheist in their family. It might be enough to ‘threaten’ his/her family with talking to the church if they don’t start treating the writer with a little respect.

  • Richard Wade

    LarryD and Aric,
    Thank you both for suggesting the possibility that the local pastor or priest could be helpful in getting the family to be more willing to communicate with high school senior, and guiding things toward a more humane situation. Also, I’m glad that you acknowledged the possibility that it might not work, but that there’s probably not much to lose.

    This idea occurred to me while writing my response, but because I have almost no personal experience with clergy from my past, and no information about how they might respond to an atheist’s plea for help with an abusive family, I didn’t have confidence that it would be a sensible suggestion. I hoped that someone else with more experience might explore it, and I’m glad that the two of you did.

    This is why the readers’ comments are such an important part of this column. It’s not about Richard being so wise. It’s about all of us pooling our ideas and experience to help someone. The person in a tight spot could be any of us the next time, and it’s better to have the guidance and encouragement of many people, not just one.

    Again, I thank you, and thank all of you.

  • fritzy

    Yeah, the clergy at the churches I attended when I was a highschool senior would have likely dealt with a situaltion like this very effectively. Hell, I suspect one of my old ministers was himself more “spiritual” than he was xtian. I was a member of the Episcopalian church and I suspect some of the more moderate denominations such as presbeterian and methodist would be similar. I might be a little more cautious to recommend this action with some of the more evangelical churches, however.

    Highschool senior likely has a pretty good idea of whether this would be effective with his/her parents minister. If it seem like it would work, I say go for it.

    Peace, highschool senior and again, good luck.

  • Michael

    How sad that a family would do this. I can see the community treating someone poorly, not that it is right, just expected. Having your own family, the people who are supposed to love you be so corrupted by such bigotry and is just disgusting.

  • high school senior,

    Church ministers deal with loss of faith by various people in the congregation all the time. Its kind of part of their job. If talking to one is applicable in your situation, it might help smooth things over with your family. I know of a number of conservative Christian evangelical families who have atheists kids whom they have eventually accepted. I used to hear these kinds of discussions in an adult Christian small group I used to attend.

    It is possible that your family’s bad behavior is partly due to the following:
    1. just being surprised by the atheism books. (They haven’t had time to process it yet). Things will get better with time.
    2. having a bad opinion of atheism (thinking atheism means demon possessed or a complete lack of morals). Perhaps in the long run, their love for you will force them to realistically take a look at what it really means to be an atheist (and not just the cliché taught at church).
    3. feeling that they failed raising you and now its too late to do anything differently. Often someone will lash out at the one whom they think they failed when they are really hating themselves. By living an ethical life, you can show them that they had raised you right after all. Religion just didn’t have anything to do with it.

    P.S. If they are paying for your college, be very diplomatic.

  • Aj

    Option A: If they take the Bible seriously, unlike many Christians, it suggests that disbelievers are going to hell when they die or are sent there by angels at judgement day. The distortion is the one that paints the New Testament as fuzzy and warm, Jesus as meek and mild. In a way it makes their reaction slightly more understandable. If they believe this, as few Christians seem to do now, then wouldn’t their reactions be manic and full of rage? At least the aggression is an expression of them thinking they have lost a loved one. At least if this is the case, they’ll slowly start accepting it.

    “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” – Jesus

    “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” – Jesus

    The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    Option B: Not even the so called “moderates” can stand criticism of Christianity as an ideology, or faith itself, not even some agnostics and atheists. It’s rare for Christians to be so aggressive against personal doubt, many of their own have periods of doubt. Yet suggest that it’s good to doubt, that others should doubt, that the harm Christianity causes isn’t just a “misuse” or “distortion”, then venom will rain down upon you. For belief in belief is more important to them than belief itself. If they assumed your opinions are similar to a book like Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and you confirmed this by trying to argue with them when they found out, then their reaction is typical of the reaction of many towards Sam Harris when his book was published. You have as much chance of reasoning with these “moderates” as with fundamentalists.

  • C

    My parents are emotionally abusive, and have been as long as I can remember. Nothing will change a 50-year-old who is just cozy with their own misery.

    I have learned from this that for financial aid, you are considered a dependent until 24, and therefore need your parent’s information until then. The only way out is to be (have been?) an emancipated youth. This basically (I am not a lawyer!) means that you became an adult, through the court system, before you were 18. Other than that, there was nothing I could find to change the FAFSA status. I could not cut off communication with my parents until I was 25, due to various legal and monetary ties.

    I just hope you can, if you wish, avoid this. Just remember- sometimes, a jerk will always be a jerk. It is up to you to learn from what’s dealt to you.

    Best of luck, and be strong.

  • Dave

    I “rebelled” a bit too when I went to college (I did not want to follow in my father’s footsteps); and my parents divorced. So like a previous respondent, I can help address PAYING FOR COLLEGE.

    At the end of freshman year I was faced with the prospect of not being able to afford college. It appeared that my parents would no longer be able to pay. I certainly couldn’t pay. And even if my parents could pay, they wanted to control my every class.

    Step 1 – Scholarships – they are free.
    Step 2 – Summer Jobs – they pay the rent when you can’t go home
    Step 3 – Join the Military – they pay for your tuition, and your hippie dad gets extra pissed

    There are other routes but you need to be able to pay for college on your own. DO NOT GET A LOAN! College is an investment in your future and should not include debt. Debt for an MS or PhD is fine but not for a Bachelor’s. If you consider the military, become an officer, the pay is much better. I’ll not promote one branch over the other but I’ll warn you to look carefully at each branch and what exactly you want to do in that branch and talk to real people in the service besides the ROTC recruiters. BTW do not come out as an atheist to the military until you are firmly in (wearing rank); there are many highly religious zealots in the officer corps.

    Just my $0.02

    I haven’t told my family that I am an atheist, but I will soon; and I’ll be over 30 with a secure job, wife, and dog. I have no fear of doing so because I have supported myself since I was 19 and they know that.

    When they learn that you don’t need them, then they will realize that they need you. Then they will want to be with you, and it will be on equal ground.

  • DGKnipfer

    I think LarryD has the best advice for how to bridge this gap. Most Ministers at least understand that without a bridge there’s no way you would ever come back to the fold; which is probably what the family wants. Since driving you away does not serve the Church or God, their Minister might be willing to help you, but be prepared for some very strong proselytizing from the Minister. He will likely feel that you’ve only gone astray and need leading back to the path.

  • DGKnipfer


    Not necessarily true. Rules on emancipation vary from State to State. Also, I would only advice HS Senior to look into emancipation as a last resort option. His family may be blocking the bridge to communication, but he should definitely avoid burning it if possible.

  • Militant Atheist

    “Some of these pious Christian families seem determined to behave in ways that have no resemblance whatsoever to the best teachings of Jesus. It is as if they have never heard of him.”

    What an idiotic statement. Has that guy ever read the Bible?

    Psalm 14

    “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.”

    This is the basis for bigotry against atheists. It is as Christian as stoning gays to death.

    Hope you understand.

  • Richard Wade

    Militant Atheist,

    Yes, I think I understand you, but I think that you don’t understand me.

    You seem to be making exactly the same mistake that this pious Christian family made. You’re focusing on your bitterness, anger and fear, and you’re using cherry picked parts of scripture to justify it. You seem to be looking for every opportunity to perpetuate and accentuate your enmity, and ignoring any opportunity for peace.

    If you were to read carefully what I wrote, I was not talking about the overall teachings of the Bible or of Christianity, and certainly not about the Old Testament. I was talking about the “best teachings of Jesus.”

    He didn’t write Psalm 14. If I am not mistaken that is from the Old Testament, which was written long before Jesus was born.

    I was referring to the various examples of Jesus practicing and preaching about showing kindness, patience, and reaching out to those who oppose you. I certainly do not pretend to be a Biblical scholar, but since you do, I’m sure that you know the parts I’m talking about.

    I think we agree that many parts of the Bible are reprehensible, and overall it is an awful mess of bigotry, superstition and confusing gibberish.

    But even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    Cherry picking can be done for a different reason than justifying hatred. If you are willing to look for bits and pieces of wisdom amongst all the bullshit, you will find a few. You don’t have to buy into the whole thing.

    If high school senior practices those bits of wisdom, “takes the high road” as several commenters here have called it, I think he will fare better than if he copies his family’s example and returns anger for anger, hurt for hurt, and rejection for rejection. He already has plenty of those things supplied by them; why manufacture more? If he behaves in just as base a way as they do, then in what important way is he any different from them?

    Being combative, antagonistic and belligerent is not strength, and seeking opportunities for peace is not weakness. There are creative and productive ways to remain strong, assertive and effective with those who challenge us.

  • J

    I think responding to every insult with “I love you” may be a good place to start (even if only to see their reaction).

  • If your parents still snoop through your things, you may have a back channel to surreptitiously communicate with them.

    For example, you could print out this very article, and keep it among your papers. Or articles about dealing with verbally abusive family members. Not out in the open, but where a snoop would find it.

  • bismarket

     Yes, yes, i was thinking exactly the same thing only i’m not sure that will do any good. If his family really is as bad as they seem it’s unlikely much will reach them. We’ve all seen videos of these religious fundamentalists & the way they’re convinced they’re right & basically feel they can do anything as long as it’s for Jesus, while ignoring the irony.

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