Ask Richard: To Tell the Parents or Not? Dad’s a Minister July 8, 2010

Ask Richard: To Tell the Parents or Not? Dad’s a Minister

Note: Letter writer’s names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard

I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’ve been an atheist for a few years now, and am thoroughly happy and at peace with this state of affairs. My wife, and various other family members who live nearby to us, know I’m an atheist, and accept my beliefs even though they don’t share them. My parents, however, who live halfway around the world, do not know. My father is a Methodist minister, and although he has such liberal views about religion that he himself verges on humanist (if not outright atheist) views himself, I strongly suspect that a confession of atheism would be quite a shock to him (and my mother). Having little opportunity to speak to them face to face, I have therefore put off telling them.

Here is the problem, though: I feel compelled to keep my atheism relatively closeted in the online social networking context, because I do not wish my parents to find out in some round-about way. (Also, I have been thinking for some time about starting a freethinking blog, and I’m loathe to do so under a pseudonym – if such a thing is even possible – because I don’t generally like shielding myself behind anonymity.) Finally, I simply feel that I’m keeping an important part of my life from my parents, something that could potentially be a normal part of conversation during our regular phone calls (my dad always enjoys philosophical discussions!). However, the last thing I want to do is jeopardize the wonderful relationship I have with them.

I realize my problem is not as severe as many who write to you, so I completely understand if you do not respond.

Thank you for being such an excellent counselor!

Warm regards,

Dear Trevor,

Firstly, whether or not your problem is less severe than someone else’s doesn’t matter. You deserve encouragement and constructive input as much as anyone else.

This may or may not apply directly to you, but one thing I think is important to say is that atheists don’t “owe” anybody a disclosure of their atheism. It’s private. One should never out oneself because of guilt. Many of us live in a very hostile environment where taking the risk of honesty is usually punished rather than honored. By preserving your own safety and sanity, you are not guilty of anything. If you’re going to do this, only do it for your own self interest, out of love for yourself and love for your parents, in that order.

That having been said, there are some encouraging things that make your situation more workable than many I’ve read. You’re an adult with your own marriage and independent life, and you’re already out to your wife and other family members, who are accepting. That greatly reduces the overall amount of loss you would risk.

One thing to keep in mind is that your openness to the other family members actually can make their lives a little more complicated if they have any contact with your parents, and they’re supposed to keep your atheism a secret. While they may be okay with that, it might lead to some delicate and tricky moments.

Aside from avoiding the inconvenience of having to cloak yourself in a pseudonym online, I get the impression that you’d really like to tell your parents and have a deeper, more open and free rapport with them. If your present relationship is as wonderful as you say, then it seems less likely that it would be seriously jeopardized by this disclosure about yourself.

You say that you “strongly suspect that a confession of atheism would be quite a shock” to them, and of course your impressions are more informed than mine. I only suggest that you consider all the things about them you’ve actually observed rather than your emotional reaction to the prospect of telling them. As mature and independent as you are, your old set of feelings from your childhood might be coloring your expectation. Children dread disappointing their parents far more than making them angry. Try to assess it as if you were an uninvolved person. From what you’ve in actual fact seen, is there a possibility they could react with surprise rather than shock, or even “Oh, we knew that.” rather than surprise?

Don’t refer to it as a “confession of atheism” even if that’s just a figure of speech. Confessions are for criminals and wrongdoers. If you resolve to do this, you would be sharing this intimate thing about yourself with them, honoring your mutual trust. Start by describing yourself as unconvinced rather than using the word “atheist” at first. It’s amazing all the bizarre connotations that people attach to the “A” word. However, from your description, your father or both of your parents may be more mature and well-informed than that.

Perhaps you could step by step build on your relationship’s strengths, and enrich it with a higher level of adult-to-adult respect, trust and candor about all sorts of subjects. Then if you premise the disclosure of your atheism with what you said here, ”Dad and Mom, the last thing I want to do is to jeopardize the wonderful relationship I have with you,” I think you’ll have set a tone that will help them want to preserve it too.

Your father sounds like an interesting and multi-dimensional person, with much more possibility for a positive and frank connection between the two of you than so many other parents I’ve heard described in similar letters. Once he knew, the two of you would certainly have some of those interesting philosophical discussions that he enjoys. There’s even the possibility that he’d be relieved to be able to confide in you his own doubts or ambiguous feelings about religion.

Trevor, whether you’re out or closeted, using your own name or a pseudonym, I urge you to start your freethinking blog. You can use it to chronicle your development from self-protecting, to self-reflecting, to self-revealing, to self-realizing, and finally to an interpersonal focus moving beyond self. Post after post, you can record your growing relationship with your dad and mom, and an important milestone will be when you put your real name at the top of the page.

Let us know when you first launch it, and I’ll be a regular visitor, not just to cheer you on, but also to learn from your insights.


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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  • Trace

    “However, the last thing I want to do is jeopardize the wonderful relationship I have with them.”

    I can understand how you feel, but at the same time (judging from your letter) you seem to be luckier than most in that your parents seem to be quite accepting.

    You, and only you, can decide when/if it is right to come out to your parents. If I were them, however, I’d rather hear from you about your atheism than through friends or the web. It may also give them a better chance to adapt to the situation and deal/cope with it, if ever “confronted” by members of their social network.

    I wish you luck, Trevor…and send us your link if you ever start a blog 😉

  • Rock

    Interesting. It was quite a shocker for my parents when I told them I became a believer. To most ppl back home, atheist is the norm. You are weird, uneducated and stupid if you are a theist.

    I’m from China.

  • I’d bet my house this guy’s parents already deduced that he is an atheist (or at least doesn’t share their beliefs).

  • I’m interested in following Trevor’s freethinking blog, too.

  • VXbinaca

    You can either hide or face the consequences so to speak. I chose the latter, and while it does suck, my parents and I still talk often.

  • Alan

    Dear Trevour,

    I think Richard said it all. Just because one is an atheist it does not mean one has to declare it all and sundry – unless you feel it necessary too.

    Your parents sound like nice folk. A question I would ask you to consider is what would be more hurtful to your parents “The fact that you ar an atheist, or the fact that you felt it might endanger how they relate to you?”

    If you do tell your parents, do emphasise that being an atheist does not mean you are therefore anti-theists.

    Some atheists are anti-theists, some are not.

    I have been an atheist most of my adult life, but do not consider myself anti-theists. I am, however, anti-bigotry – which means I do find myself opposing some theists, and occasionally even some atheists.

  • VXbinaca

    And I would like to see his blog too.

  • Wade Geering

    I was in the same situation as Trev and I chose to tell my parents. They still love me just the same, but we have some great debates too. I think it has actually helped our relationship somewhat, as we now have something to talk about.

  • In my experience, Methodists are a bit more focused on “good works” than “right beliefs”. Also, the one minister I know (who is an evangelical Baptist) told me that he preaches a middle road between his own beliefs and the beliefs of most of the people in the congregation. This means that he is more open-minded than most in the congregation but pragmatically needs to give the flock what they want to hear to keep his job. He does include some subtle open-minded messages in his sermons to try to slowly condition the congregation that everything isn’t all black and white as far as salvation. Perhaps your father is a bit like that too and you too could enjoy some good theological discussions.

    I would echo the advice, though, of disclosing your atheistic beliefs slowly. Perhaps start out just saying that you are basically agnostic with the strict definition that you don’t have any particular knowledge of God’s existence. For example, you haven’t yet had the clouds part and God talk to you in his booming voice.

  • Matt

    I was raised in a Methodist family too. Of course, my parents were the kind that would admit to believing in god, while at the same time rarely going to church or talking much about it. Overall, the Methodists I knew were very moderate. They went to church out of cultural habit. Everyone in my entire family knows I’m an atheist, even the more religious ones, and they don’t care or treat me different. (except for my born-again brother, but he’s a special case) I’m not sure this is how all Methodists are, but it’s how most of those I’ve met are. Casual, good-natured, accepting people.

  • Little James

    I had a similar situation — my father is a former minister in a liberal protestant denomination. I finally got a chance to talk to him about my atheism and it couldn’t have gone any better. I framed the conversation as “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this recently, and I’ve come to these conclusions. It turns out that this new outlook has actually become a very important part of my identity, so I thought you deserved to know about it.” Like Richard suggested, I avoided the “A-word” altogether (that may be for another time). I emphasized that I am still the same good person just with a more clarified, reasoned-out outlook.

    As I hinted, it went very well. In fact, atheism hasn’t really come up since. The whole response was essentially “Oh, I see. Thanks for sharing with me.” and the relationship kept its course. If anything, my admiration for my father has gone up because of how he handled the discussion.

    While no two situations are the same, your description of your parents really reminds me of mine. It makes me think that you can tell them and not have it negatively impact your great relationship. Best of luck!

  • Sarah

    I was in this situation not to terribly long ago. I wanted to be more open with everybody about my atheism, but felt that I couldn’t until I told my parents.

    I thought they would be shocked, but I think they were just relieved I finally told them. And now I feel free to talk about my atheism online and with people who know my parents. It’s pretty awesome.

    While I agree with Richard that atheist do not owe disclosure to anyone, in my personal experience, I felt I owed it to myself. To me, in order to be true to myself I had to be open about this aspect of my life. I understand that other people are different, but for me it was very freeing.

    There’s nothing like owning yourself. =)

  • S-Y

    I think too many non-believers are at least a bit unassertive on their atheism, quite contrary to the stereotype many believers have of calling atheists “outspoken”. (when they’re no more “outspoken” than the average church pastor) People generally seem too embarrased to simply put the truth out, as if atheism was something shameful to hide.

    That said, my family’s fairly open and since they found out about me being a non-believer; no one has bothered me about it except my mom. Still, it’s been no big deal and I’ve never had to deal with horrid situations that some others have had to with certain kinds of family members and friends. It’s been quite the opposite of what some religions/groups/denominations like to encourage.

    Generally, I think people should be open and at least a bit assertive of their beliefs or lack thereof, and willing to engage in discussion of them. If professing your beliefs to a friend or family member results in arguments, it’s not hard to tear down their retorts with basic logic and science, though I suppose I’ve had it too well since I’ve never had parents nor family members escalate things. (They believe in the more peaceful side of Christianity after all.)

    That said, non-believers have no obligation to point out or justify their lack of belief to anyone. But to me, if someone is going to put you down for not following their beliefs, any connections with them are not worth continuing if the person doesn’t care about you anymore for a reason as stupid as that. Otherwise the connection ends up being built on falsehoods and the potential for something bad to happen just gets worse. (With due exceptions; I’m particularly speaking for non-dependent relationships such as friends, spouses, etc. but a teen or child not telling his abusive parents about his non-belief would be a very smart choice.)

  • It’s interesting to me that so many people have to “come out” about their atheism.

    My parents are not atheists, but they raised us in a secular home. Since I never developed any religious beliefs, there was never a need to come out about not having them. I suppose I must have mentioned that I was an atheist in my early teens, but I don’t remember it and can’t imagine that my parents would have cared one way or the other. There were never any discussions about religion or politics in our home, or at least none that were initiated by my parents. I suppose my family is truly apathetic on that score.

  • Kirk59

    I think you should keep it to yourself. Devout theists, as your parents may be, are tormented by the idea that their child will be punished for eternity. Why saddle them with that pain? It would be selfish to do so, in my opinion.

  • Heidi

    Make sure to put in how much you love and appreciate them for raising you to think for yourself. Obviously you do, and they did.

    I’m glad you wrote to Richard. It’s nice to hear from somebody whose religious family members might just be ok with it when they come out. If you do tell them, let us know how it went.

  • Hi Everyone

    This is “Trevor”. My real name is Keith Harrison.

    First of all, thanks to everyone for their helpful and compassionate comments – it’s immensely encouraging to see so many people of like mind out there.

    I have happy news. I shared my religious views with my dad, and his response was very positive. Not only did he draw parallels between our two faith journeys, but he mentioned two of his close friends, both of whom were in the ministry for many years, and who have since begun to identify themselves as atheists.

    I almost feel a little silly: as if I had been walking around thinking that my taste for ice cream was taboo, only to find out that everyone is open about their love for it.

    If only that were generally true. Instead, I think I am one of the lucky ones.

    Another bit of news is that, a few weeks after sending my original e-mail to Richard, I started to go ahead with a blog, called Coming of Age.

    The main purpose of the blog is to host three essays that I have written on religion. The first is a general critique of religious belief that, over the years, has served as the drawing board and scratch pad for my beliefs. It captures all the arguments that led to my religious deconversion.

    The other two essays focus on free will and moral calculus, respectively.

    Thanks once again to all of you!


  • Heidi

    That is SO EXCELLENT! Congratulations! I’m really happy for you. I’ll definitely check out your blog.

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you for this wonderful feedback. I’m very happy to hear that your dad has handled it so well, and has treated you so honorably. It must feel like a tremendous lift of weight off of your shoulders. I have looked at your blog and it is worthwhile reading. The essays are thoughtful and complex. I wish you and your family continued good relationships.

  • amy

    i do not believe in god, i never have and i doubt i ever will. my boyfriend, on the other hand, is very religious. he is christian. i have nothing against religion or anybody that chooses a religious life. anyhow, he asked me if i believe in god and i told him i did in fear of how he would react. he said that he loves me even more now that he knows i believe in god. i feel he needs to know the truth, anybody deserves to know the truth. i just dont know how to tell him or how he is going to react. should i tell him? i dont want him to think im something im not. i dont know if he will want to break up with me when he finds out or not. i really dont want to lose him. i love him so much. i believe that two people can have different views on religion and still be together. anybodys advice would be greatly appreciated.

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