Ask Richard: Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 1 of 2 August 2, 2010

Ask Richard: Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 1 of 2

When young people consider coming out as an atheist to their parents, they usually face two main challenges. One is the financial and physical dependence on their parents they may still have, and the other is their unfinished process of differentiation from their parents, where they still feel an obligation to please them and an overpowering aversion to disappointing or upsetting them. Some have mainly one or the other issue, but more have a mixture of both in varying proportions.

This letter is paired with another letter to be published on Thursday. Today’s letter writer seems to be mostly complete with her emotional individuation, but she is still depending on her parents for financial needs. Thursday’s letter is from someone of about the same age who is apparently financially self-supporting, but is still hampered by a blurring of the boundaries between his emotional needs and responsibilities, and those of his parents.

Young atheists who are approaching the coming out dilemma should read both of these letters for a more complete picture.

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

Dear Richard,

I grew up in a Catholic home. When I was young (all the way until about two years ago), I took everything my parents told me at face value and never questioned it. I went through baptism, first communion, and confirmation. I have only recently come to realize that I never really believed in anything I was being force-fed. I am an atheist, but I’m terrified of coming out to my parents. I don’t know how my mother, who is incredibly intolerant and naive to other world views, would act.

To give a vague idea of how she is, I was watching TV about a month ago in the living room, and she was in the other room and could hear it. There was something about Wicca on the TV, and she went on about how they were devil-worshipers and akin to Satanists. For some reason, she felt the need to add in that atheists were one in the same. I fought with her a bit on the issue. I was basically told that anyone that would “forsake God” must be a Satanist… or something to that extent.

I’ve been told by a few people that I should probably wait until I move out (I am 21 and currently attending college. I stay at home to save money) to tell her how I feel. Though I honestly don’t really know how long I can continue to bite my tongue while she spouts what I feel to be total garbage. It certainly isn’t getting better; it’s been gradually getting worse for years now.

Should I find a way to bite my tongue until I move out? Should I never actually come out (as an atheist), because I don’t know how it’ll affect our relationship?


PS I’m not really sure where my father stands as far as religion is concern. I think he chooses to remain quiet and in the background because he might not believe things as strongly as my mother does, and he doesn’t want to start any conflict with her. He is SIGNIFICANTLY more laid back than her.

Dear Wendy,

Take a lesson from your dad. He has lived with your mother longer than you have, and so he probably has found better ways to survive. “Biting your tongue” is a painful way to keep silent. Instead, try relaxing and reducing the importance of your mother’s ignorant remarks. Take deep, slow breaths, and begin to develop a peace within yourself that cannot be touched by someone else’s disturbance.

Yes, what your mother is spouting is “total garbage,” but it’s her garbage, and it does not have to stick to you. You’re going to live surrounded by such garbage for your whole life, and you will need to have that portable peace with you at all times. Right there at home is a good place for you to practice and perfect it. Later in life you’ll be fighting battles, certainly, but you’ll be a much more effective fighter if you can maintain an inner equanimity. A warrior’s worst enemies are her own anger, impatience and recklessness.

Coming out should always be primarily for your own benefit. If it will not benefit you, then why take all the difficulty that will surely come? The benefits of coming out include, among other things, feeling freer to be yourself, not having to pretend or cover up things, not having to participate in religious activities just to keep up appearances, and helping to dispel negative myths about atheists by being a good example.

The drawbacks of coming out include, among other things, having to face anger and mistreatment from family, loss of friends, loss of financial support, even loss of jobs, less commonly threats and intimidation, and in rare cases, violence.

In your case, your financial and physical dependence on others who may react poorly is the single most important factor to consider. As long as you’re dependent on your parents for money or on their allowing you to live at home to save money, I suggest that you keep your views to yourself. If you’re going to saw a branch off of a tree, be sure that you’re not sitting on it at the time.

Aside from the financial and housing repercussions, the level of loony that you’re describing in your mom suggests that it would not be good for your mental health to drop the “A” bomb while you’re still living with her. You need to concentrate on finishing college and starting a career without having to assure her that you’re not a Satanist or some other ridiculous hysteria.

When you’re in a position of strength and independence, then if it is in your own self interest, you can begin letting her know where you stand, but remember, you still don’t have to. You don’t ever have an obligation to re-educate your mother in what would be an arduous process. She has grown up in a world completely different from the one into which you are moving. It is possible for people to renounce a prejudice, but it is very difficult. To do that, they have to:

1. Admit that they have been wrong.
2. Admit that the people who taught them those attitudes, such as their parents, preachers or peers, were wrong. Sometimes that is harder than number 1.
3. Admit that they have perhaps hurt innocent people, and possibly need to make amends.
4. Face the scary prospect of confronting their peers who have the same prejudice.
5. Face the scary prospect of receiving from their peers the same kind of mistreatment they used to give out.

When you consider all that, you can see it’s a daunting proposition. So instead of all that, they more often will rationalize things piecemeal.

When people with prejudices are confronted with individuals in their hated group who do not fit their negative picture, they simply dismiss them as rare exceptions. If your mother doesn’t want to disown you on the spot for being an atheist, I think it’s likely she’ll rationalize that while you’re misguided, you’re “not like the rest of them.” Her prejudice against the group in general might remain unchanged.

So Wendy, bide your time and build your interior sanctuary. Channel the energy of any frustration you have into your best efforts toward your education. Plan your career, save your money, and look forward to your freedom. Looking ahead, it may seem a long way off, but I promise you, looking back it will seem but a moment.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Giffy

    I think there is also simply not wanting to make people you love sad. While I think its silly, knowing that people I love think I’ll be spending my eternity in Hell makes me feel rather bad sometimes. I remember when I was a kid thinking that certain other family members who did not believe the right way were doomed for hell sometimes kept me up at night. Causing that in others is not exactly something great.

    Sure it’s their beliefs and I am not going to change who I am to make friends and family happy, but it is still a hard part about not sharing a religion with people you love. And for me it was the hardest part about ‘coming out’.

    I know for a lot of people who are nevertheless independent and comfortably differentiate from their parents it is still hard to face the sadness that they have knowing your an atheist.

  • Angel

    My husband was in the same boat for many years, although he didn’t live with his parents when he began to shed the religion openly. He was raised a very strict Roman Catholic and it became clear to him early on that his participation was merely to placate his parents.

    He hadn’t told his parents he was agnostic, but he stopped going to church with them on the holidays. Our wedding was, for the most part, religion-free. I made no attempt to hide the books I have on atheism and some that are anti-religion in tone, and there were no tears. His mother admitted a few years ago that her hardliner stance had softened quite considerably into a “if Jesus really was real, I suspect he was nothing more than a hippie who had very important views on treating people with respect” outlook.

    It took many years of being subjected to different opinions through the eyes of their children, but by choosing to let the comments slide through the years and choosing not to be confrontational about the issue, we have hit a point where we are able to talk about religion without a concern. But it had to start with the acceptance that it would be a long process if we wanted to maintain a healthy relationship with them over the years.

  • Nikki Bluue

    Wendy, if you decide to stay ‘silent’ due to your financial status, I do suggest you look into atheist groups and meetings on campus. Sometimes attending atheist groups can help with the stress of living in silence with the parents. It could also help you find your “portable peace” (great term, Richard!).

    I do believe the atheists in the groups will respect your desire for privacy/silence if you make this known. Some might even be in a similar situation.

    In compassion,
    Nikki Bluue

  • Although not the same thing my father is incredibly racist. He isn’t going to change his views and isn’t prepared to listen to reason or even to discuss the topic. He doesn’t take opposing views seriously and you have to go out of your way even to get him to see that racism isn’t acceptable. At best it is possible to get him to shut up for a few minutes but most often this attempt ends in a childish tantrum more suited to a 2 year old than a 62 year old.

    I’ve decided to change the subject whenever he brings race up. Just pretend that it never happened and talk about something else. I can’t usually resist a moment of awkward silence before hand but when I do it is as if he hadn’t even spoken. I do not talk about race with my father. He should know my views and they are the polar opposite of his.

    My tactic appears to work for Wendy’s father and it may also work for Wendy. You never know but if she isn’t getting attention for her views then she might stop expressing them.

  • Kirk59

    Wendy-you do not need to convert your Mom to validate your own conclusions. The risk of trying to do so far outweigh the potential rewards. In her belief system you would be condemned to eternal torture, so why torture your Mom with those thoughts? Like racism, the generations who preceded you have certain outdated beliefs and we need to accept them in spite of those beliefs if we love them, as we do.

  • littlejohn

    Wendy, since for now your free lodgings and college tuition depend on keeping your mother happy, it’s a no-brainer that you keep this to yourself for now.
    After you’ve graduated and move to your own place, you’re free to tell your mother whatever you want. I disagree with Richard that staying in the closet long-term is a good plan. She’ll eventually want to know where you’re going to church, who your friends are, etc. She’ll figure it out.
    Given her obnoxious remarks about your beliefs, you owe her beliefs no special consideration, beyond normal courtesy.
    If you must get this off your chest, do you think your “laid-back” father could keep a secret? Coming out to him might be safe. He might even share your views.
    Also keep in mind that no matter how much your mother initially flips out, she’ll eventually get over it. But be prepared for a lot of unwanted religious tracts, Bibles and warnings about hell until she does. She’ll assure you you’re going through “a phase.” Just smile.

  • abadidea

    I’m in Richard’s queue for the same sort of dilemma, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets skipped over due to leeeength. My mother is now complaining that my Christian counseling isn’t Christian enough! all because the counselor pointed out to her that I am an adult and she can’t stop me from doing things. My mother really is the cause of my depression and anxiety issues but she will never, ever believe that. Now my father is upset because I said I don’t want a traditional wedding ceremony. What is a closeted free-thinking young lady to do?

  • Claudia

    ahe went on about how they were devil-worshipers and akin to Satanists. For some reason, she felt the need to add in that atheists were one in the same.

    It certainly isn’t getting better; it’s been gradually getting worse for years now.

    Don’t discount the posibility that she has an inkling about your beliefs. If she feels the need to aggressively make the point to you, ever more frequently, how totally unacceptable atheism is, it could well be that she’s taking, conciously or not, preventative measures to prevent your coming out. Once you come out, genie is out of bottle and its exceedingly unlikely you’ll ever become the proper Catholic girl she undoubtedly already realized you are not (even if she may not realize you’ve gone the full A).

    Do you go to church? Do you dress as a good Catholic would? Have you expressed pro-gay, pro-choice positions? All of these things, as well as certainly defending atheists, will be setting off alarm bells for your mother. I agree with Richard’s advice, but remind yourself the next time she goes off on one of those rants that part of that anger may be fear that her daughter is leaving the fold and she must take drastic action to keep her in.

  • I didn’t tell my mother I’m an atheist until she began to push me too hard to have my baby baptized. I don’t know how she managed to go all these years without figuring it out for herself. Her reasons might have been the same reasons Richard listed. But if it weren’t for the baptism issue, I might never have told her. I don’t care what she thinks of me, but I care enough about her not to purposely turn her world upside down… even though her world is full of superstition and silly prejudices.

    She’s convinced that Satanists who sacrifice dogs live in her neighborhood, even though it’s become widely known that the dead dogs were just roadkill, improperly buried.

    Some people just cling to the idea of evil Satanists lurking in society. They need their bogeymen, I guess.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    littlejohn wrote:

    Also keep in mind that no matter how much your mother initially flips out, she’ll eventually get over it.

    Unfortunately, that can be very bad (inaccurate) advice. Many people don’t ever “get over it”. And even with the people that do, “eventually” may be a very long and miserable time.

  • Parse

    Most of what I’d want to say has already been said, but I just want to repeat these lines:
    “Coming out should always be primarily for your own benefit. If it will not benefit you, then why take all the difficulty that will surely come?”
    It’s exactly this reason why I’m still in the closet to everybody but my long-term girlfriend. The very slim benefits of coming out are far outweighed by the costs of open atheism.
    The other thing I would suggest is take the opportunity to meet other people on campus – any student groups you have an interest in will do. The more time you can spend with them doing anything – studying, hanging out, whatever – the less time you’ll spend at home with your source of aggravation.

    Have you considered eloping?
    Seriously though, I’m no Richard Wade, but here’s my two cents on the issue. Your wedding day is for two people: you and your husband-to-be. If your father doesn’t approve of your wedding plans, involve him as little as possible in the planning of it. Find a neutral, noncommittal phrase to repeat each time he suggests or complains about something.

    As far as your mother goes, well, for me it didn’t get any better until I got some distance between us, and I was able to enforce that distance by limiting my availability. It’s extremely liberating to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m busy and I can’t talk right now. If I get a chance, I’ll give you a call. Bye!’ Being able to assert your independence will help a lot.

  • Silent Service

    Lot of good advice on the board today. I agree with almost everything said above, but I have to ask Parse a question. How do you know for sure that abadidea intends to marry a man? Lets not try to limit the young lady’s dating options for her. 🙂

  • Parse

    I’m afraid that I must insist on limiting abadidea’s dating options. After all, using C-14 is only accurate to about 60,000 years in the past. (Whaddya mean, not that type of dating?)

    Seriously, though, that is a valid point, Silent Service. Therefore, s/husband/spouse. 🙂

  • abadidea

    Silent Service / Parse: if I was marrying into my own gender, I think my parents would be upset about a lot more than just the ceremony style 😉 “Dear Lord,” I don’t think I could tell them I was bi (true fact) even after I was married to a manly man! They’d think I was cheating on him or something!

    All I said to my dad is that I didn’t want to be walked down the aisle, and he got really quiet and hung up. The next day he texted that “I do love you but I don’t want to talk about it” and acted like the convo never happened after that. If he really wants to walk me down the aisle, he should just speak up instead of reacting, like, I told him I was a bi non-theist or something…

  • Parse

    I can see why your dad might be hurt by that. In a ‘traditional’ wedding, walking the bride down the aisle is the only real role the father-of-the-bride plays. To say that you don’t want that can easily be misconstrued as that he’s done something so drastically wrong that you don’t want him involved in the ceremony. (But you probably know that already.)

    That being said, it is your special day. The next time it comes up, let him know that you love him, yet you want to have a special ceremony for you and Mr. Manly-Man. (After all, you’re only planning on getting married once, eh?) Letting him know that it’s nothing against him might help smooth things over.

  • Unholy Holly

    I don’t know. I feel uneasy about the advice to keep it quiet mainly because it benefits you financially for the time being. Hmm. This seems very self-centered. I think as a parent of a twenty-something living in my home, if he was secretly attending church and bible studies, but at the same time talking up atheism with me at the dinner table, that would be tantamount to lying to me, which I won’t tolerate. But I would not throw him out — I would continue to support him! If he was hiding a drug habit (which causes physical and psychological harm) I would, out of love, try to find a way to rid him of it. And I would continue to support him. Similarly, Wendy’s mom may think of her atheism as a source of spiritual harm which must be gotten rid of. But is their relationship so fragile that her mom would cut her off?

    I think a child’s honesty should be welcomed by a parent. I would personally feel more betrayed if I found out later that my son was hiding his true beliefs (or lack thereof) solely in order to keep a roof over his head.

  • Unholy Holly,

    I understand your position. I do. I battle with the fact that I do this to my parents every day. It makes me feel like shit. And a number of other epithets best shared with my therapist.

    But what do you recommend someone financially dependent do? Telling someone financially dependent to become financially independent is pointless: odds are, that’s what the $dep person is already trying to do. What if the $dep person doesn’t have anyone else to fall back on? Do you recommend that a $dep person join the hundreds of thousands of homeless people … as long as they’re honest?

    Not everyone is lucky enough to trust that their parents will support them. I don’t know whether my parents would if I came out as all and sundry that they hate. Frankly, I don’t want to know, for fear that I’d be financially cut off. Because then there’s nothing. No support system. A sucky job that wouldn’t pay for rent for the cheapest apartment where I live. College tuition. Versus complete financial support.

    You can consider it ethically gray all you want, but separating your idealistic notions of how parents should be, what should a $dep person do instead?

  • I would suggest reading about atheism and religion and, as Richard said, focusing on your education. Reading books about atheism and religion has made me feel that I’m not alone, even if I don’t know anyone personally in my life who is an atheist (at least, not that I know of). Getting an education gives me hope for a better future. All the best, Wendy!

    Thanks very much for the advice, Richard.

  • prospera

    Coming out should always be primarily for your own benefit. If it will not benefit you, then why take all the difficulty that will surely come? The benefits of coming out include, among other things, feeling freer to be yourself, not having to pretend or cover up things, not having to participate in religious activities just to keep up appearances, and helping to dispel negative myths about atheists by being a good example.

    Great advice.

  • Unholy Holly

    to neosnowqueen (& Wendy) — I know there are plenty of parents who do not share my mindset. I have worked hard to position myself to be there for my kids, both financially and emotionally (with the help of a therapist, too!). I can’t predict what a fear-stricken Xian would do but I would hope that a parent’s love for their own child would be stronger than that fear. But then again, someone whose priorities are so muddled they would put god before family are hard for me to understand.

    Here is a cynical view that came to mind: Any chance that your parents’ fear of “what others would think” might work to your advantage? Hey – maybe they will help conceal your affliction to prevent their image as good christian parents from being tarnished. “Nothing to see here, folks. Just go about your business.”

  • Unholy Holly

    a little more…
    I thought about this for awhile. I don’t think it is unreasonable for a family to demand certain behavioral limits on members of the family that are support-ees (I’m talking about “kids” who are over 18 and still at home; younger kids will be more under their parents’ control — sorry). Things like not taking a parent’s car without asking, or not having your partner sleepover in the same room, or asking you to making nice to awful Aunt What’s-her-name are part of the price you “pay”. A Xian family may also require prayers over dinner or an occasional family bible reading. This is “going along to get along”. What they should be careful about is demanding an unquestioning psychological adherence to their standards, and demands on your time outside of the home, like church attendnace or a trip to grandma’s. They have done their part in readying you for an adult mindset and now it your turn to take a shot at it.

    In reality, you are dependent on them. What do you do? You can continue to pretend, but eventually you will leave your parents’ home either at their immediate request or on your own. Get prepared to go it alone. If you are under 18, find out about emancipation in your state. If you are going to college look into financial aid. Learn to do your taxes and check out the FAFSA website. It is always best to know what you might be facing before you are forced to learn by circumstance. It will help you understand some of the consequences of going along vs. going alone.

    I realize I am not qualified to be handing out advice (my degree is biochem!) but I’ve been a parent for awhile and felt like jumping on the soapbox. Thanks for indulging my sentiments.

  • Claudia

    @Sharmin, do you live in an urban area? If you do, chances are decent that there could be a secular group close to you. Secular groups have lots of people just like you, people who will be able to support you and many who will understand the closet. Google around. Also, if you happen to be a nerd go to where they congregate because the nerd populace is highly enriched in atheists and agnostics. Cheers.

  • Once when asked by some members of a bible-study group why I didn’t go to church any more, I responded that I was too busy worshipping Satan. That ended the conversation and the subject was not brought up again. Of course in my situation, I was not financially or emotionally coupled with these people. Had I been coupled to them in some way, I would have chosen a different way to answer the question. I would suggest down-playing your lack of belief but acknowledge to your parents that your own beliefs may not be quite as strong and well defined as your mother’s. It is really just your own business just how “not as strong or well developed” your beliefs are.

  • You could always have a… birthday party!

  • Fake Richard

    Dear Wendy,

    I will give you the advice I give everyone on this blog: hide who you truly are.

    To be honest, I didn’t even read your letter. But trust me, whatever it is you are hiding just keep it hidden. Consider a walk-in closet if you need more room.

    And think of all the benefits of staying in that closet. Sure you may hate yourself, but hey, maybe your mom will buy you a bike for your birthday! Hey, that would be nice. Maybe a new 10-speed with a little basket up front and some kick-ass pegs.

    Sometime it is easier to lie to others if you also lie to yourself. Another tip, don’t bite your tongue (ouch) just put duct tape over your mouth. Wow, duct tape really can fix everything – even your relationship with your parents!

    Why have uncomfortable discussions with people? It is much easier to just pretend you are someone different. You can even pretend you have self respect. Think of it as acting!

    Don’t worry Wendy, your parents will soon be dead. Once in the grave, you won’t have to talk to them ever! Looking ahead, it may seem a long way off, but I promise you, looking back it will seem but a moment.

    Fake Richard

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