Ask Richard: Coming Out to Family and Friends Without Offending September 30, 2010

Ask Richard: Coming Out to Family and Friends Without Offending

Hello Richard,

I am new to this, but would like to know what you think. I was raised in a Christian home, but since being an adult, I do not believe in what Christians call God. Whenever I questioned my family, they would tell me I had to get on my knees and beg God to forgive me. If there is a God, a forgiving God, then why would I have to beg him to forgive me? Every day, I receive e-mails from lots of my friends stating that “God loves me and is watching over me”. I love my friends and family dearly. I don’t know how they would take it if they knew my feelings on this subject. I am nothing like Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I have feelings for others. I just need a nice way to let my family and friends know how I feel without offending their beliefs.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.
A fellow friendly atheist

Dear fellow friendly,

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how nice a way you find to tell them, if someone wants to feel offended by your not having the same beliefs, they will. That is because such “offence” is not from anger or hurt, since you have said nothing angering or hurtful.

It’s from fear or pretence, or both.

If their faith is thin and fragile, they will feel threatened by someone who is intelligent, sane, and decent, but who simply isn’t convinced of what they want to keep believing. They will cover their fear with a veneer of anger. If they want you and others to think that their faith is strong, they will bluster and bristle, berating you loudly in a pretence of pious indignation.

If they really had strong and genuine faith, they would respond to you with patient understanding, still treating you lovingly and respectfully, reflecting the best teaching of their religion. Sadly, that is very rare, at least in my experience.

So even though you do your best to be polite, diplomatic, gentle, sensitive, and reassuring of your love, you’ll have no guarantee of getting a similar response in return, because their response is about them, not you.

Make no mistake, that hard reality is not an excuse for someone to be rude, tactless, hurtful or cold when they come out. The family’s and friends’ initial reactions may not be the final outcome in the relationship. It will be harder to improve things if the unbeliever verifies and galvanizes their prejudices with discourteous behavior.

When it comes to telling your family, prudence, the wise consideration of your own self interest, is important, especially for younger atheists and agnostics. In general, the younger the person, the more they have to risk by coming out. In your case, you indicate that you’re an adult, so hopefully that includes having financial independence from your family as well as emotional independence.

Begin and end with “I love you.” Tell them that you have come to need more to be convinced of God than repetition and reassurance. It’s how you are different from them, not superior or inferior to them.

Emphasize that your lack of belief does not reduce your love for them, or your interest in their wellbeing. Tell them that even though you are not convinced of what they believe, you are very convinced of their goodness as persons. Then ask them to consider you in the same way.

Your delivery is probably more important than your actual statements. Be calm, warm, soft-spoken and honest. Frequently take deep, slow breaths. There’s nothing like oxygen to help keep your mind clear. Do that quietly, so it won’t sound like a rhetorical sigh, which they might interpret as exasperation or belittlement. That might bring up their resentment, and the communication will deteriorate.

Keep these conversations brief, in installments. If you don’t know how to respond to something or if the tension is rising, saying “I’ll think about that, and we’ll talk again” is a legitimate response. Coming back later with thoughtful and cool-headed replies is better for both sides.

You can anticipate from your experience with them what they are likely to try. They might try intellectual arguments or emotional manipulations. In either case, take your time, think carefully before you speak, respond instead of react, and use “I’ll get back to you on that” as often as you need. Family discussions like this do not have to be run like televised political debates, expecting instant, flawless and irrefutable rebuttals on the spot.

Since your family has a history of giving you godly guilt trips, you’ll probably get some more of that. In response to the usual threats of damnation, just keep calmly repeating something to the effect, “If God exists, then that is up to him. You cannot predict what he will do. He knows what I need, and he does not need you to change me for him.”

They may try the guilt trip about how you are shaming them in the eyes of the community. Don’t fall for it. Quietly say something like, “The community should respect you for what you do for the community. I cannot fake something just to make others approve of you when you’ve earned it yourself.”

They might even try saying that you are shaming them in the eyes of the Lord. Keep your composure, and don’t roll your eyes. Look them straight in the eyes and gently say, “I cannot spoil your relationship with God any more than you can fix my relationship with God. I’m interested in our relationship, you and me. That is entirely up to you and me being willing to lovingly accept each other as we are. I’m willing, are you?”

They may try to theorize about your private reasons for not believing, attributing it to youthful rebellion, or wanting liberty to indulge your base desires, or dozens of other ridiculous attempts to characterize your personal motives. Again, use patience, oxygen, and a leisurely pace, responding in your own words with something like, “You cannot read my mind. Please don’t tell me what my thoughts, feelings and motives are. Please have the courtesy of asking me what they are. This is the same courtesy that I am showing you.”

When it comes to your religious friends, you have more latitude to be more frank, although a calm and poised manner will still help. We can cherish our friendships as deeply as we do our families, but the contract between friends is completely voluntary, not imposed by the accident of birth or entangled with ties of clan and familial duty.

I think it is likely that regardless of how careful you are, you’re going to lose some friends. Let it be so. Those who stay will be the ones worth having, and those who leave are the ones you’re probably better off without. Be you. Be with those who like being with you, as you really are.

To your friends who send you those religious emails, try a response in your own words like “Dear (blank), thank you for your email assuring me that God loves me. I know that is important to you. What I really would rather hear is that you love me. I want to make it clear that I love you dearly. For me, love means me actually being there for you when you are in need, hurting, lonely or afraid, and that is what I intend. I won’t be hoping that a substitute will stand in my place.”

Fellow friendly, do the best that you can with your family and friends, and accept that the outcome will then depend on something you cannot control, the maturity of others. Don’t expect perfect performance from you or them. Keep your heart open, realizing that their first reaction may not be their final one, that in time they may see the value of the love that you have offered and are still offering. I wish you the very best of results. I know that I’d be proud to have so gentle and caring a person in my family or as my friend.


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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  • “I was raised in a Christian home, but since being an adult, I do not believe in what Christians call God.

    I’m wondering if he’s actually an atheist or agnostic, from the words I bolded above. Knowing and explaining the difference could be important in that situation.

  • Ibis

    I come from a secular family and I live in a country where being so overt about one’s religion (except among confirmed co-religionists) is generally considered a tad impolite, so maybe I don’t really get it, but why go into all the hoopla about telling anyone about your beliefs? Can’t you just tell your family & friends that their talking about religion or mentioning God makes you uncomfortable and that you’d rather that topic was off the table? You can even cite scripture (Matt 6:5-6) if that would help your case.

  • exe

    Ibis, you are very lucky. I can just hear it now if I ever came out to some relatives. I wouldn’t likely bring the topic of religion up, but they might talk about it. I might reach the breaking point and no longer be able to keep silent, and mention my true beliefs. I think it would bring on a verbal attack from them.

    But thank you, Richard, for stressing “different” not superior/inferior, which I think is how they would take it, that I think their beliefs are inferior. Perhaps if I ask what is their favorite color, and say well my favorite color is something different, one opinion is not superior to the other, they are just different, and we can get along if we have different favorite colors, so …

  • The e-mail to Hemant said: “I am nothing like Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I have feelings for others.”

    Hey! Madalyn had feelings for others! That’s a really cold thing to say about someone.

    She was a mother and grandmother. She made their clothes herself. She helped people. She was a champion of the civil rights of people who are being pushed around by religion. She inspired a lot of people to stand up for their rights.

    How cold a thing to say about someone. At least qualify it by saying that’s the impression you got looking at her on tv, or what you heard…etc.

    We’re supposed to be more humane than that. Sheesh.

  • I wish that were so, Ibis. Judging by the contents of the letter, it sounds like the family is evangelical, which is a fancy word for “you must believe”. When it comes to casual acquaintances they may be more tolerant, but within families it can be a large source of drama.

    If you never plan on standing against religion in any way, then yes you could simply keep it to yourself. However, I wouldn’t recommend telling them that the talk makes you uncomfortable. That would be a tacit admission of questioning your faith, and would immediately send them into defense mode (telling you questioning will condemn you to hell, God is the only path, etc.).

    And if you don’t tell them and they find out from someone else about your non-belief, such as a public statement decrieing a religious stance that they hold, then they will take it even more personally, and become more defensive, than if you calmly and rationally tell them in private.

  • Fellow friendly atheist, Richard’s advice is wise and reasoned counsel.

    If, though, you can’t bring yourself to come out to them, you could consider playing their religious beliefs back on them. I’m assuming they believe in revelation. You could say that in a vision, God revealed to you that He has special plans for you and for the time being you are not to participate in any church rituals or gatherings. Until your next vision, you are simply supposed to live a quiet, respectful, secular life.

    If your friends and family ask you what the “special plans are”, just say that you were not told.

    Now would your friends and family advise you to go against the will of God? It might be humorous to find out. 🙂

    Of course if you think that they might think you are mocking them, then just follow Richard’s advice.

  • @ Jeff P:

    “On the next episode of Punk’d…”

    While I think that would be unethical, it would be hilarious to watch their reaction.

  • The Other Tom

    I would not under the circumstances reassure them that I believe in their goodness as persons. A statement of my atheism to them might spur them to do unpleasant, wrong, nasty things, and if I told them that I believe in their goodness as persons, they might take that to mean that I believe they’re always right and therefore if they say I’m wrong I must be. I would, instead, state that the fact that I don’t agree with their religious beliefs doesn’t mean I disrespect them personally.

    I like the idea of being able to say “I’ll get back to you about that” or “I’ll think about that and we’ll talk about it later”, but my experience is that most religious people fly off the handle when confronted with an atheist among their friends or family, and while you, the atheist, want to have a civilized discussion, they want to have a screaming match and are seeking any excuse to validate their prejudices, so any attempt at “I’ll get back to you about that” is taken as an admission of defeat and an excuse to scream at you some more about how wrong you are. In other words, they demand that you must have instant answers to everything off the top of your head or else you are obviously wrong and worthy of condemnation. I strongly recommend that anyone planning to have the “I am an atheist” discussion be prepared for this, and be prepared to cope with it. My suggestion for coping would be to calmly say “I’ll talk to you about this again later when you’re prepared to have a calm discussion instead of a shouting match”, and walk out.

    I might even go so far as to tell them that as I am not asking them to defend their beliefs and not trying to impose my beliefs on them, I have no interest in defending my beliefs to them or spending my time letting them try to impose their beliefs on me. Or, I might tell them that they might not want to try to make me defend my beliefs, because I am quite sure of my correctness and if they really want to have that argument with me I am confident that it is them, not me, whose beliefs will be shattered.

  • Tim

    What’s with the bashing of Madalyn O’Hair? She was an outstanding woman, and a champion of civil rights. As part of your coming out, you may want to take a full inventory of all your thoughts and prejudices…I think you’ll find many of them aren’t yours, but your family’s. Old habits die hard, and indoctrination is practically immortal…but you can break free from it, and learn to think for yourself in all areas of your life. Best of luck =]

  • Andrew

    What’s with the bashing of Madalyn O’Hair?

    @Tim: The other day when there was an article posted here about O’Hair, I looked on wikipedia to see what it was all about – hoping to find an answer after all these years about why she was murdered. There’s a lot on non-flattering stuff on there about her, but here (and elsewhere on other atheist/rationalist sites) I have read from people who knew her or interacted with her (or simple heard her speeches) that she didn’t seem like any of that.

    I am not sure what the truth is – is there an agenda out there to make the outspoken person that was O’Hair into the “deserving atheist who was murdered because she didn’t believe”? Is it a smear campaign to say she stole millions from American Athiests (the org she founded), and that she had some kind of warped view of power that led her to hire deranged felons (of which her killer was one – and her employee)? Is there any truth to either of these?

    I don’t know – I am not sure what the truth is, but neither side jibes with me; the truth is likely in between. If anyone knows otherwise, and can show otherwise, I’m all eyes-n-ears! All I’ve seen is a few interviews and speeches on YouTube, and a few book excerpts (beyond the wikipedia article and other anecdotes) – based on that, the evidence seems to weigh stronger toward the “outspoken, maybe a little radical atheist” side – but her writings and speech didn’t seem ranty or hateful, nor irrational in the least.

    Then again, we all know that there exist sociopaths who can fool the best of us…

  • SecularLez

    If their faith is thin and fragile, they will feel threatened by someone who is intelligent, sane, and decent, but who simply isn’t convinced of what they want to keep believing. They will cover their fear with a veneer of anger. If they want you and others to think that their faith is strong, they will bluster and bristle, berating you loudly in a pretence of pious indignation.

    If they really had strong and genuine faith, they would respond to you with patient understanding, still treating you lovingly and respectfully, reflecting the best teaching of their religion. Sadly, that is very rare, at least in my experience. /i

    This has been my experience lately.
    I have a crush on this woman but she keeps bringing up my atheism. I don’t see why we can’t agree to disagree but she’s making it into a much bigger deal than it has to be.

    She always has to make some disparaging comment in class about atheists. It’s SUPER annoying!

    Great advice in this post.

  • SecularLez, I dated a Christian girl. It wasn’t a big deal for me, but for her it was. There’s no use trying to convince someone to like you, as they’ll be forever have the upper-hand in the relationship whether they want it or not. You’ll always feel hindered by your lack of belief and forced between lying or being honest.

    You may be able to see it as an non-issue as you place little importance on religion, where as to her she does. I think being upfront, bold and honest is the only way you can find out. It worked for me, we dated for 6 months until eventually my lack of belief was the elephant in the room (I couldn’t lie), and she broke it off.

    My advice would be not bother, and move on. Unless she had an open mind to begin with, its most unlikely you could change her mind by dating her.

    I think Richard should actually address this one. I’m not in the business of advice columns but I just had first hand knowledge of it.

  • i don’t believe “jesus christ” ever existed. but if he did, i’ll say this: he was an atheist. the central “message” of the xtian texts are anti-authoritarian, for all they revere “god.” xtians have a damn hard time with this one, because it’s all about humility and charity. i really think the central messages of Christianity are “pray in secret” and “a rich man won’t get into heaven, likely” and “do good deeds, and think less about being pretentious or a celebrity.” xtians today just don’t want to hear that.

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