Ask Richard: Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 2 of 2 August 5, 2010

Ask Richard: Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 2 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 that was published last Monday. Today’s letter is from someone 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. Monday’s letter was from someone of about the same age who seems to be mostly complete with her emotional individuation, but she is still depending on her parents for financial needs.

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.

Hey Richard,

I am one of the many people who have yet to tell their parents that I am an atheist. Im 27 now but I was brought up in the church and believed in god up until i turned 18. I used to go to church every sunday, as was required of me, but since i became an atheist, i have yet to go back. Im unsure if my parents are aware of my absence in going as well as i am unsure if they even are wondering what i do still believe. Like everyone else that are in my shoes, i am worried that they will be discouraged and disappointed in me (and create awkward situations every time i go to visit them).

Disappointed in the sense that they would hope that “im better than that” or that they are concerned more for my soul rather than for my mental health. My mother has already shown in numerous occasions that she holds the teachings in the bible higher than her own flesh and blood.

Her reaction to me telling them that i dont believe in the same things they do anymore is my biggest fear. The idea has been a point of stress in my life and i want to get rid of it. I want to keep a strong relationship with my parents but at the same time i want them to understand that i am an adult and im not THEM. Are there some ways that you feel that are the best for bringing up the topic and finally letting them know? Any advice would be appreciated!

All the best,

Dear Chuck,

You’re not living with your parents, and I’m assuming that you are not financially dependent on them. So your difficulty is about an emotional conflict rather than a material conflict.

I think you’re struggling with the unfinished process of differentiating or individuating yourself from your parents. The first stages in early childhood involve simply discovering that we are separate individuals, not physical extensions of our parents. The later stages, seeing that we are not psychological or emotional extensions of our parents, take longer and can have unfinished bits and pieces that extend into our adulthood. Many people are still working on it in their late twenties. It is almost always a difficult and uneven process.

It is not a shameful thing to be still resolving this later than others; it is simply a variant in how people grow up. Apparently, the time has come for you to finish this. You are ninety percent of the way to being thirty years old, and you have been an atheist for the last third of your life. You say that you want them to understand that you are an adult, and you are not THEM. But it’s really about you. You must first deeply understand that you are not them.

The boundaries between you and them seem to be blurred in some places. You seem to be not entirely sure on a deep level of four things:

1. that your parents’ opinion of you is separate and independent from your opinion of you,

2. that your parent’s opinion of you is separate and independent from what you really are,

3. that your parent’s emotional state is separate and independent of your emotional state, and

4. that your parent’s feelings and reactions are their responsibility, not yours.

You sound like a decent person, and I’m sure you would not want to deliberately discourage or disappoint your parents, BUT if you are going to finally be your own person, you cannot behave as if you must protect them from their own feelings or their reactions to the decisions that you make. You do not have to be unnecessarily harsh or hurtful to them, but you must be true to your own needs and your own principles, and you must follow your own path. Otherwise, you will still be functioning as if you are an extension of your parents, and that will become increasingly problematic as you get older.

The religious issue may be only one of several that you might need to explore in your individuation and emotional autonomy. Their opinions of many things about you may still be blurred with your opinions about yourself. Think long about this with a compassionate attitude toward yourself, rather than a self-critical attitude. Find those overlapping areas in your mind, and clearly see the line where your parents stop and you begin. What they think of you is not you!

Chuck, you would know best exactly how and when to tell them that you don’t go to church or believe what they do. What you hoped I would tell you is a way that will not produce the emotional reaction in them that you dread. But that is not the point. As long as your method is respectful, gentle and honest, their reaction is their responsibility, not yours.

As I’ve often said before, atheists do not owe anyone their “outing” themselves, especially when people can react extremely negatively, with attitudes that are unworthy of the courage that it takes to risk such candor. They should reveal this for their own purposes, period. So pick the time and method that benefits you, rather than them.

I will suggest this much: Have a casual sounding, but well practiced brief statement ready for when and if the subject comes up, and the mood does not seem excessively tense. The bigger a deal you make in your presentation, the bigger a deal you may get from them, so try to keep it light. Something along the lines of, “Oh I haven’t gone to church for a long time. It’s just not for me. I’m concentrating on being the best person I can be in the here and now.” With highly reactionary parents, a gradual, step-by-step clarification over weeks or months seems to sometimes work better for the atheist’s purposes than using the ooh, scary “A” word right at the start. There are no guarantees, of course.

You said that your mother has repeatedly shown “that she holds the teachings in the Bible higher than her own flesh and blood.” If she treats you accordingly, that will be sad for her, but if you have successfully sorted out you from them, it does not have to be sad for you. Shrug your emotional shoulders, and love her from your independent heart. You can hope that some day she’ll soften and relent, but you must not let her treatment of you dictate your opinion of yourself, or the direction of your life. You can still treat your flesh and blood with love, respect and patience, and minimize absorbing any hurtful or abusive treatment from them.

I have one other suggestion. When you type a message of any kind and you use the first person pronoun “I,” always capitalize it. Go to the trouble of shifting to the upper case every time, and let the word that stands for you be one that stands up tall, strong and proud: I. You deserve respect, and it starts with the effort you put into respecting yourself.


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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  • Claudia

    I’d like to add a few practical notes that could possibly help. Both of them are taken from advice I’ve seen given to closeted gay people, especially from Dan Savage.

    Choose your venue carefully. If your parents are the kind who will make a scene that makes it utterly impossible to explain your position, get them to a public place. An outdoor cafe for instance. Its neutral ground and the presence of other people will cut down on the possibility that you will have a traumatic and un-helpful scream-fest.

    Another thing is that you remember that, as the adult child of your parents, you hold one critical hostage; yourself. Your presence in their lives is the one thing that you can hold out as a lure. When the initial storm has “passed” if you see no improvement you can tell them (gently but firmly) that you are giving them a year. They have a year to scream and shout and ask as many questions as they want and try to witness you or whatever. In that year you will continue to visit, to call, to attempt to have a relationship with them. After that year, they have to treat you with the respect you are owed as an adult, or you will cease to contact them. Keep in mind that eventually this may be neccesary to preserve your sanity, but laying it out beforehand means that they understand that mistreatment will not go without consequences.

  • Capitalize “I” and assert yourself, yes, but don’t capitalize “me” or “my” unless it’s called for – at the beginning of a sentence. I’ve actually read things by people who capitalize all 1st-person pronouns, and it makes it seem like they belong to The Church of Narcissism. 😉

  • muggle

    Well said again, Richard. Good catch on the i thing. I didn’t even notice that until I read about it in your reply and now I’m amazed I didn’t.

    The letter writer is the same age as my daughter so I’ll add this: I’m a very strong, out-spoken woman and I know she is sometimes afraid to assert herself with me simply because she has a meek nature. No matter how I stress she should be her, she has trouble standing up to me sometimes even when she should. Could this also be the problem sometimes when young people are afraid to come out to their parents?

    My grandson is in for a hard life because he’s a stubborn, rebellious cuss like his grandmother who rarely hesitates to speak his mind. His mother goes nuts between the two of us. She’ll mistake us for fighting when we’re doing anything but. We are often just talking but getting as passionate as we’ve a tendency to.

    I wonder if sometimes there might be something of this. I know there are plenty of parents that young people do have to be worried about about and I wouldn’t risk it either until independent but sometimes I suspect the reaction probably isn’t as bad as some fear. I know at one point my daugther was reading the Bible and afraid to tell me that and was amazed at my nonreaction to it, my read it and consider it, simply because she knew I’d hate for her to be what I feel amounts to being duped.

    Anyone with parents who are religious have less a reaction than they thought they would when they told them they no longer believed?

  • Kyle

    For my own take on the whole coming out idea, I think of it as a “need-to-know” sort of thing. I haven’t told my parents anything about my life yet. I’m 34 closing in on 35, transsexual, gay and an atheist, exactly the opposite of everything my parents attempted to bring me up as. I live independently from my parents and live 2,000 miles away. It’s not as though they’re giving me money to subsist on nor are they close enough to simply show up on my doorstep after chruch. I don’t feel an urgent need to tell them about this since we hardly talk as it is. Yes, I would love to be able to have that door open once more, to have family to talk to and get emotional support from, but I’m able, for the most part, to rely on my local friends and family for that kind of connection. They are still my parents, however, and I love them in spite of being active churchgoers (Mormons, of all things!) and outspokenly anti-gay.
    Examine your motivations for coming out. Are you doing it to set a boundary? Are they constantly shoving religious rhetoric in your face? Always filling your email inbox with “Come to Jesus!” messages? Calling you to warn you about hellfire and damnation if you don’t go to church? Or are you wanting to do it for other reasons? Individuation? Protesting religion by throwing it back in the face of your family members? More importantly, look at what role you want these people to have in your life. You might be opening a whole rotten can of worms by coming out. Once-friendly email and voicemail messages might become downright nasty. Once-neutral relatives might stoop to passive-aggressive tactics to tell you how they feel without actually coming right out and saying it. Think carefully.
    It helps also to get in touch with any atheist community that may exist, if available, for support. If the bottom does drop out and your family will no longer be emotionally supportive to you, you can then build a new family with closer relationships with the community around you who may not be genetically related to you. That’s my unsolicited $0.02 on the matter, from someone who’s definitely outside the mainstream of straight, cisgendered, Christian America!

  • littlejohn

    How do you feel about capitalizing “god”? I won’t do it.
    I feel bad for this guy, but good lord, he’s 27 years old – not exactly a greybeard, but old enough that he shouldn’t have to hide his religious beliefs from his parents.
    Obviously, don’t announce it upon arriving for a visit with your parents, or there will be arguing the whole time.
    Tell them on your way out following a visit. That way they can let it sink in without any opportunity to berate you.
    If you start getting abusive phone calls, letters, etc., you’re under no obligation to accept them.
    This should be purely in your parents’ court. It’s not your problem.
    This is entirely different from the teenager who relied on her parents for food, shelter, tuition, etc.
    Your parents could disown you, I suppose, but you can live with that, trust me.

  • Trace

    I think YOU are going to be fine, if nothing else because you care so deeply about how your parents may feel if/when you disclose your atheism.

    Good luck. 😉

  • If Chuck is 90% of the way to 30 (and being emotionally independent), I would presume, based on the contents of the letter, that his parents may be much farther from their own emotional independence. His parents may be forever dependent on the religious world view in which they were brought up. The difference is that Chuck desires to complete the process of being emotionally independent. His parents may be unable.

    If this is the case, he could present himself as a perpetual seeker or mystic in studying and considering the divine. You could simply communicate that your religious perspective distrusts all organized religion and views all scripture as perversions of the truth. If you parents ask if you believe in God, you could just answer them with the question “what is God”.

    The bottom line is that you will need to decide if it will “work better” to spin your atheism in some kind of religious wrapping or just come flat out and say your an atheist. The only problem with the latter is that your parents have probably been brought up to think atheists are in many ways sub-human. You will need to educate them which may be difficult.

  • Ivy

    I do not necessarily label myself an atheist, but I am certainly a skeptic, and a few years ago I faced the problem of telling my very Christian parents about my non-belief. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I worried they would pull me out of school, or disown me, or something equally terrible, since my mother especially is incredibly fundamental. But once I told them, none of that happened. Sure, there were tears, and arguments, and “serious talks” which were truly offensive to me, but… they still loved me. They accepted me and did their best to “tolerate” what they viewed for a while as an act of rebellion. Things are still awkward when I visit home and they want me to go to church with them, but overall their reaction has been much better than I expected. I am definitely glad I “came out” to them, and the horrible reaction you are expecting may never actually happen.

  • Chuck

    Thank you guys (and gals) for the responses. First of all, I didnt really take into consideration the fact that I wasn’t capitalizing all my ‘I’s and I think that came off as evidence to my lack of self confidence or however you want to put it. Let me just say that I dont have a lack of self confidence. My girlfriend and all those I hold close know that my confidence level is normal. The consistent mistypes of “i” instead of “I” is almost purely laziness on my part. It took a lot for me to put down, in words, that which described my thoughts and mental conflicts with the problem at hand. When you have a flood of emotion and you are trying to get it all down in words, the last thing I think about is “Did I cross all my “t”s and dot my “i”‘s?” Frankly, I just put to much confidence in spell check to auto-change the i’s into I’s. Little did I know that when I would send a letter to a man who I thought could (if he was able to answer my email) help me with my issue at hand the LAST thing I expected was his critique of my grammatical ineptitude.

    Next, I wanted to thank both Richard for giving me sound advice and Hemant for publishing my letter on his awesome website.

    After reading the response Richard gave me on this site, I realized that I had indeed been keeping this truth from my parents for their protection more than my own. The first time I told my mother I was moving in with my (ex)girlfriend 2 years ago, my mother was visibly fighting back tears as she let me know that it wasn’t what God wanted. I care a lot about my parents because they have sacrificed a lot on me and my two brother’s behalves. I know that my faith is important to them and I was so worried about being faced with her fighting back tears in front of me when I told that I am an Atheist, that I kept justifying not telling them so I wouldn’t have to face that situation.

    Please consider the fact that I am an avid artist and part of being an artist is the ability to abstract ideas and images in your head, also known as an “overactive imagination” Now when that starts to spill over into real life conflicts and problems, you tend to let your mind wonder and visualize the worst case scenarios. One of those being my parents shunning me and never speaking to me again.

    Now it’s easy to say “Well that’s their loss” but I’ve never been a real selfish person so cutting the rational of it there would be like saying “Well I’m leaving it in god’s hands” and we all know that logic is flawed. I want them to be happy and I know now that I have kept this secret from them in hopes of keeping them happy. Yet I still have to fully grasp the idea that their happiness is not my responsibility.

    I’d love for people to respond further since I hope that this clears some things up. Telling my parents about my beliefs is my final step into becoming a fully independent adult. I don’t like to see my mother cry and I dont know who WOULD. But maybe, when the opportunity does present itself, I can tell them and they will act like mature adults. If not, well I guess that will be a telling sign of who is more mature between us.

    Thanks again! And I look forward to your responses!


  • Thank you for the post, Richard.
    All the best Chuck!

  • Richard Wade

    Chuck, thank you for writing further.

    I’m sorry, I should have made it clear that the lower case “i” habit is just a small symbolic thing that changing might help in a very minor way with being more assertive. I meant it to be just an exercise in self awareness. I didn’t mean to imply that it indicates a lack of self confidence. If you lacked self confidence, you would not have done so many very good things for yourself, such as freeing yourself from your childhood indoctrination, leaving home and being self-reliant, and you would not have even written your letter. So a lack of self confidence is not the issue here, and I hope that people don’t take it that way.

    It doesn’t have to be a choice between being completely selfish or completely self-sacrificing. The issue is about shifting your priority from your parent’s emotional comfort to your own. There is a difference between caring about someone else’s feelings, and taking care of someone else’s feelings. It is possible to do the former without doing the latter to such an extent that you neglect your own legitimate needs, and perhaps inadvertently perpetuate a child-like dependence for emotional reassurance in the other person.

    Your parents are adults, and so are you, and it is often difficult for parents to let go of their parent-to-child way of relating to their now-adult offspring. Sometimes adult offspring slip into relating to their parents in a parent-to-child way, such as trying to cushion their parent’s emotional discomfort by hiding important things.

    Your parents have, as you said, sacrificed much for you and your brothers. You pay your debt to them by being the strong, self-reliant and moral adult with integrity that you have become, not by pretending to be something that you are not.

    Emotional discomfort is a part of life. They cannot nor should they try to continue to protect you from the bruises of reality, nor should you go to great lengths to try to protect them. Your emotional health and comfort is now your responsibility. Theirs is theirs. Take care of your own emotional needs and care about others’, just not to the extent that it causes your own detriment.

    Telling them or not is not the essential issue here. The reasons why you would tell them or not is the issue. You could do either for good or bad reasons. There are legitimate pros and cons for either path. Because you are clearly a very thoughtful person, I think you will make your choice for the best reasons.

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