Ask Richard: Lying About My Atheism is Making Me Lonely September 20, 2010

Ask Richard: Lying About My Atheism is Making Me Lonely

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

Dear Richard,

For any number of reasons, I am unable and unwilling to be open with most of the people in my life about my atheism. This includes both my family and my coworkers. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home. My parents and extended family are deeply committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible and to extremely conservative social and political views (think of James Dobson; not Fred Phelps). I have always had a shaky relationship with my parents, and their acceptance of me is dependent on their thinking I’m a Christian. Although I’m financially independent of them at this point, I don’t know if I’m ready to be disowned completely.

As for work: I recently graduated from college, and the job market being what it is, I work two part-time jobs which I was able to find through family and friends. Both businesses happen to have “Christian” in the name. If anyone I work with found out that I was not a Christian, I would lose my job. I have negotiated this so far by claiming to belong to a fairly liberal Christian sect with no local congregations (so no one can ask to visit my church).

My problem is that I’m coming to feel very isolated. I feel that I can’t have real relationships with people. I feel that nobody can know who I really am. While religion isn’t that important to me (I like most religious people), I know that they wouldn’t be as nice to me if they knew I was an atheist. Some of them wouldn’t speak to me at all. The constant fear of discovery keeps me from forming close friendships with my coworkers – many of whom I would love to get to know better.

Also, lying to people everyday bothers me on a moral level. I pride myself on being an honest person, and I cannot justify this in my mind. It would be different if the topic never came up and I could simply let people think what they wanted, but I have to actively lie about my beliefs, sometimes multiple times a day.

My question is, what should I do? I know the courageous thing to do is to tell people the truth and face the consequences, but right now, those consequences would be devastating to me. I don’t know what to do. Richard, do you have any advice on my situation?


Dear Cathleen,

Lying about your atheism is making you lonely. Telling the truth about your atheism would clearly make you even more lonely, and also unemployed. Let’s look for other solutions.

Regarding your family: You say that you have always had a shaky relationship with your parents, and their acceptance of you is dependent on their thinking you’re a Christian. That of course means that you don’t really have their acceptance at all. They are accepting a false impression of you, an illusion, not you.

Even if you were a Christian, their acceptance would still not be worth much, because it is so narrowly conditional. One has to kowtow to their strict stipulations for their tolerance. That’s not family acceptance, that’s qualifying for membership in an exclusive yacht club. Get out your captain’s cap and your becrested blue blazer.

Telling anyone the truth about your atheism is not a free-floating ethical requirement with no regard to the persons involved. The ethic of your being truthful with your family exists within the context of your relationship with them. Making it safe for others to be frank and truthful is a back-and-forth, mutual, shared responsibility in such relationships. If they do not provide that unconditional or at least condition-minimal safety, then they have not earned learning this truth that you would share. They would not treat it or you honorably. They are not worthy of knowing that truth about you, and you do not deserve the abuse and abandonment that you would receive for your efforts.

I can understand your not wanting to be “disowned completely.” Your emotional needs for love and belonging do not just evaporate in the light of rational thought. So until one or more of them demonstrate that they are trustworthy and would handle this particular truth with compassion, respectful treatment, and a genuine desire to understand, you may have to satisfy yourself with that part left unspoken and incomplete.

Remember, there are several other important things about you besides your atheism. It does not define you. Find your solace and sustenance from your family in your shared joy about some of those other things. It may not be full, free and complete, but it’s better than nothing. They are not perfect; neither are you. So your relationship isn’t likely to be perfect either.

As for your two part-time jobs with “Christian” in their names: Having to lie and fake a religion where you’re working now, you are like a spy in a dangerous country. That cannot be healthy for you. Take care of your health, inside and out, but take care of your financial needs as well. Currently, you’re caught between the pragmatics of keeping your job and the ethics and guilt of lying to people. Rather than getting yourself fired in a hara kiri of honesty, find your way out of the bind on your own terms. Look for other work.

In a robust economy or a stagnant one, people should always be looking for better jobs. It’s a good habit. Just keep quietly looking every day. The looking, as fruitless as it might be for the time being, is an important gesture to affirm your self esteem, and a guard against resignation and what follows, depression. You deserve a better work situation. Find it.

Hopefully, you’ll eventually find work where nobody cares about your religious opinions. You won’t have to lie because nobody is interested. They’re interested in getting work done.

In general, I do not think it’s a good idea to form close friendships with coworkers even in less risky circumstances. Dual relationships so easily become conflicts of interest: If you and your close friend at work compete for the same desired assignment, the personal information you both have becomes a weapon. Its use can hurt very deeply. If you or they promote, one is now over the other, and the awkwardness is just the beginning of conflict.

Best to keep your friendships and your working relationships separate. The playroom and the workroom should not be the same room.

As for your feeling that you are lacking courage, that is an unfair and simplistic assessment. There is a balance between courage and wisdom. If you would not be harsh and unforgiving to another who was in your predicament, then don’t be that way to yourself. Show compassion and patience to yourself just as you would to others.

Disabuse yourself of notions about “courage” that sound like they come from a book I read as a child, A Boy’s King Arthur. You have already shown great courage to face your own doubts and to free your mind from the shackles of your childhood indoctrination. That is rare, it is usually scary and uncomfortable, and it is very tempting to just accept things without question. Such is not the act of a coward.

On the other hand, telling the wrong people at the wrong time something that they don’t need to ever know is not the act of a hero. As I said before, the ethical requirement of being forthcoming with a truth depends on the relationship you have with those whom you might tell. For instance, nobody needs to or ought to hear about your intimate sexual fantasies and appetites except your lover or your psychologist. You’re not being “dishonest” by keeping that private from others.

I suggest that you find friends completely separated from both work and family. Cultivate more than one group. Join a group of atheists, or humanists, or skeptics, whatever you can find. Be willing to travel some distance if you must. The impression I get of your level of loneliness sounds serious, and it could turn into a paralysis of despair. Also, join a group of people who have some other aspect, interest or love of something in common with you. Have several resources, so you always have someone with whom you can talk, someone with whom you can play.

Your friends will probably share some but not all of your interests, and so you’ll tell them things about yourself according to categories. People who can accept everything about you are a little more rare. If you are lucky, there will some day be one person who can hear and honor all of the true things about you. I hope you find each other.


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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  • Charlie

    Richard, I’ve loved your columns for quite some time. Thanks so much for sharing your always-excellent wisdom.

    I am not in the situation Cathleen finds herself in. And yet, I see many things applicable to myself in the advice you gave. So thank you.

  • For a pragmatic suggestion about what to do while you are at work and people bring up religion, I would recommend something along the lines of what you are already doing.

    I have negotiated this so far by claiming to belong to a fairly liberal Christian sect with no local congregations (so no one can ask to visit my church).

    Perhaps, though, you can take it a bit farther. Size up your co-workers and determine the limit of their acceptability and declare yourself in general terms just inside that range of acceptability. If this causes a little bit of tension, then that would be good. Perhaps they can recalibrate somewhat their definition of acceptability. Only you can determine how far to push it. Universalist Unitarian? Deist? Agnostic? You might even form some friendships resulting in the extra attention you may receive when they try to evangelize or at least inquire about your beliefs. If you go down this route, research the position you adopt and be prepared to explain the theology. You might have to suck it in, though, when they say “Well at least you are not an atheist”.

    Eventually moving to a larger, more diverse, town may be the ultimate answer, though.

  • littlejohn

    As usual, pretty good advice. However, finding friends at places other than you place of employment, your school (not a factor here) or church is pretty tough. (After, a plurality of married people met their spouse at work.) It doesn’t leave a lot of other placcs.
    As Jeff has already noted, she’s made a good first step changing to a more liberal church. She could take that one step further: Join an Episcopal or, better yet, Unitarian church. I was raised in the Episcopal church, and my priests, at least, hardly even mentioned religion. We just discussed social issues. The Unitarians take that even further: They don’t even ask you to believe in god. You could openly discuss your religious doubts without any judgment whatsoever. You’d likely make some like-minded friends.
    And, of course, there’s the Internet. Sign up with Facebook and “friend” Hemant and PZ Myers (I did). That led me to some other atheist friends.
    Also, Google “atheist” and the name of your town or the nearest town of any size. There may be a freethought group you can join.
    If you join FB, search for John Anderson and add Bethany College to the search. Go ahead and friend me. I’m a boring old guy, but there’s one friend you’ll have right away. I spend a lot of time online, and I’ll be happy to discuss any religious issues you like.

  • Claudia

    Wow between this:

    I have always had a shaky relationship with my parents, and their acceptance of me is dependent on their thinking I’m a Christian.

    and this:

    I know that they wouldn’t be as nice to me if they knew I was an atheist. Some of them wouldn’t speak to me at all.

    You are, in essence, completely alone. No one actually knows you, they know someone playing the part of you. Even if atheism is only one part of you, being in an environment where religion is so overt and constant means you have to be on perpetual alert. Ugh, I’m really sorry.

    Keep working, every day, to get the hell out of your situation. Try to find a job in a big city far far away from home. The bigger the town, the more you are guaranteed to find nonbelievers and believers who don’t care if you aren’t like them.
    I completely understand not coming out to your parents now, the fake relationship you have with them is tragically a big chunk of your human relationships. Drawing parallels (of course) with gay people, they often draw on friends who accept them as out as family substitutes, since for many their families have rejected them. For now, I’d try to join a gym, or a club of some sort, to meet people. Long term though, I’d really work to move away and establish a life, and a support structure, non-dependent on your family and accepting of the real you. When you’ve done that, you’ll be in a much stronger position with your parents.

  • Heidi

    Damn. How can people act like this? Could you open a dialogue with relatives or coworkers about “a girl from college” whose family rejected her when she left the church? You could tell them that she was a good person, and that conditional acceptance was hard for her. If they want to meet her, just say that you heard she moved out of state after graduation. It might get some of them thinking about their prejudices.

  • Godfriend

    The struggle about owning up to atheism may not be the only reason for the insecurity and loneliness that have characterized your attitudes within your circle of relationships. There is more to this than the talk of religion. Pretending to be what you are not would not make you attain the goal of believing in God, just like it would not help anyone else in that circle of relationships. I think what you need is perhaps that which you are trying to run away from. You,like any other human, need to search deep within to find what it is your inner being longs for that is not found in the routines of some religious obligations. Telling about your atheism or not will not do you any good until you personally find the answer to your silent yearnings. Many of us have been where you are at right now; but we found help that goes beyond giving assent to some doctrines or denying them.

  • Traziness

    This must be terribly frustrating!
    I agree that you need to get away in order to be yourself. In the meantime: Don’t forget that there are other atheists out there who also ‘fake it’ to stay in the good books with their religious family and friends. Each day you go to work and family functions take a look around the room and try to figure out who might be just like you. It’s not usually very obvious who is an atheist and you may be surprised by someone one day. You really are not alone; acting in a socially acceptable way is what everyone around you is doing!

  • Boudicca

    Also useful for meeting people and hopefully improving the job situation:

    – join societies/clubs in your employment field (if available) for lectures and socializing.

    – volunteer, either for a cause you believe in or perhaps something in your employment field if that’s an option. Also, a great way to side step church if you just *happen* to have to volunteer on Sundays.

  • Demonhype

    “For instance, nobody needs to or ought to hear about your intimate sexual fantasies and appetites except your lover or your psychologist. You’re not being “dishonest” by keeping that private from others. “

    I don’t think this is the best analogy. For example, in reality, sexual fantasies and appetites are considered TMI as a general rule, to be discussed only with (as you said) a lover or psychologist. It is not dishonest to not tell anyone else about these things because everyone tends to keep them secret and it is generally understood to be a private matter.

    With religion, this is not the case. Many religious people simply can’t shut up about their faith, and many really do base your relationship, employ-ability–or even your value as a human being–on whether you believe in God or in the correct God. And nearly every religious person, even the less overt ones, tend to assume that everyone around them shares their beliefs, and this assumption is likely a major part of why many of them are so non-vocal. They don’t need to be. And even many of them will have some kind of problematic situation when they learn of an atheist in their midst, ranging from mild discomfort/need to reconcile to outright fundie-worthy rage and/or indignation.

    Much like what Pat Condell said–one of the things I actually agreed with anyway–if religious faith was no more than the style in which someone might decorate their house, I would have no problem with it. This, unfortunately, is rarely the case with religious people.

    The problem is, Cathleen is surrounded by people who are not only constantly telling her about their sexual appetites and fantasies, they are assuming she also shares them and will agree with the things they say. And it is perfectly natural for an honest person to feel dishonest in such a situation, even though those around her would pitch a fit and make every effort to ruin her life should she choose to come clean about who she is.

    Honesty is a two way street, and her friends and family are very dishonest. They want to revel in their beliefs, as publicly as possible, and she is not only forced to keep hers silent, she is forced to pretend to be something she is not.

  • Atom Jack

    Richard, as always, I love your incisive replies. Cathleen, you are maybe 20, 22? I realized I was an atheist at the age of 53! Lucky you! I have yet to out myself to my wife of 30 years…soon, truly, but that inertia can be incredible. Good for you for shaking off the religious yoke. Not being able to show who you really are is painful, as I well know. Having to listen to my carpool buddies go on about god…yeesh. ‘Nuff said, good luck with your situation!

  • Happy Misanthrope

    @Cathleen: I think I can sum up how you should handle the status quo with two cliches (which, after all, are based on common real experiences):

    1. Once the cat’s out of the bag, you can’t put it back in (though you can move to a new town under a new identity).

    2. You may not be entirely happy with the way things are, but things could easily be much worse.

  • stlkaper

    @Cathleen: Lot of advice dished out here. Here’s mine. Find a group of folks like any of us to start chatting with online, people who will listen to you. And as you begin to talk to others who think more along the lines you do, I think you will begin to find your own way. Your world is SO complicated, and you cannot possibly sum it all up in one short email. So we cannot possibly offer you spot-on advice based on so little we know about you. Good ideas offered here, but if it all seems to fall short, that’s the obvious reason. An ongoing dialogue will help you discover the best way for you to work these issues out in your own unique way in your own unique corner of the world.

  • muggle

    stlkapper above sums up what is good advice. Feel your way cautiously and do what you can handle at a time but it is probably time to start slowly working your way free of having to live a lie since it is bothering you to do so. This can be problematic in a small town and if you don’t like the hustle and bustle of the city or suburbs, it’s an even bigger problem. But since it’s bothering you, you need to look at your situation and what you can change and what you can live with and make a suitable compromise between the two. We all make some compromises to get on in this world because it is no rose garden. We have to grow our own rose garden and it will have thorns. That’s just the way it is.

    btw, littlejohn, I sent you a friend request too. And that post of yours reminds me that I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone who’d like to friend me. I accept basically any friend request and haven’t so far had to unfriend but two so if anyone wants another FB friend feel free:

    muggle’s FB page

  • Porpentina

    Really good advice. Just damn good.

  • JLT

    @ Cathleen: You said you recently graduated from college. Maybe you could reconnect with someone from college (or even school?) who was accepting of your views or even shared them? That wouldn’t help you with your situation at work or with your family but it would lessen the feeling of being isolated.
    I’ve always found that having at least one person to talk to freely and openly helped a great deal in coping with difficult situations.

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