Ask Richard: Atheist From Quiverfull Family Considers Coming Out to Parents November 28, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist From Quiverfull Family Considers Coming Out to Parents

I grew up in a family heavily influenced by the Quiverfull movement, which holds that parents should have large numbers of children in order to raise up an army for Christ. I have twelve younger siblings and was homeschooled for religious reasons. My parents made their fundamentalist evangelical faith the core of their existence, and it colors how they see the world and everything around them. While they know I left their specific beliefs during college (and boy were they unhappy about it!), they think I am still a Christian and do not know that I no longer believe in God. I am afraid that if they know that I am an atheist they will cut off contact between me and my younger siblings, most of whom are still under age, which they considered doing back when I first questioned their beliefs. I also have a young daughter of my own now, and I want her to grow up knowing her grandparents, but I also want to be true to myself. What should I do?

Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught in the Middle,

You already are “true to yourself,” even if you are not being fully self-revealing to your highly intolerant parents. Being true to yourself takes place within your own mind. Many people live in circumstances that make it difficult or even dangerous for them to openly express their own thoughts. They are still true to themselves as long as they keep coming to their own conclusions. Although they are pressured to conform outwardly, they don’t give in to conforming inwardly.

They often feel very frustrated because they have to hide their opinions and pretend to concur with people surrounding them, but within themselves, they are still far more free than those who have never diligently questioned their inherited beliefs, assumptions and prejudices.

So as you carefully weigh the possible benefits and drawbacks of being more open about your atheism, keep in mind that “being true to yourself” is not what is at stake. You have been true to yourself since college. That is not diminished just because others assume something about you that is not true.

From the situation that you have described, the benefits and drawbacks of revealing your complete disbelief seem to be very uneven.

The benefits include that you will no longer feel stifled and frustrated by having to pretend, and you may be giving some of your siblings permission to question their own indoctrination, or even to express their doubts and disbelief if they have them. In such a large brood, there are bound to be at least a couple of skeptical types. You might be able to form quiet alliances with those who are the doubters, and give them some support.

The drawbacks, however, give one pause.

Since your parents considered cutting off all contact between you and your siblings just for leaving their specific belief sub-set, then it is quite possible they will follow through with that if they learn that you have completely abandoned their core belief. Without easy contact with your bothers and sisters, it will be easier for your parents to prejudice them against you.

Your parents might increase their scrutiny of your siblings, and make their indoctrination more heavy-handed. If they blame college for your atheism, they might only agree to help your siblings go to selected religious colleges, or they might refuse to help them attend any college. If your parents overreact in these or other ways, some of your siblings might resent them, and some might resent you.

The adage, “The truth will out.” is also an important thing to consider. Even if you decide to remain quiet about your atheism, it’s possible that it will be revealed inadvertently. For instance, as your daughter gets older, your parents will expect to see you taking her to church, and doing things they expect for her religious upbringing. Their questioning, insisting, and pressuring could increase until your cover-up collapses.

So you should prepare for that ahead of time. One thing you might risk is to cautiously approach one of your siblings who might be the most accepting of your disbelief, and who will be discreet. Even if he or she is not also an atheist, having an ally on the inside will help you to keep channels of communication open with your other siblings in case your parents forbid contact. Of course such an alliance will increase the risk of eventually being “outed,” but in the long run that is probably inevitable anyway.

There is one more thing that I hope you never have to use, but you do have bargaining power. Your parents want to see their granddaughter. Cutting off contact can work in two directions. If they prohibit your contact with your siblings, you can prohibit their contact with your daughter.

To be clear, I am not recommending this. It would be painful for everyone. It would be an awful and rather vindictive tactic to employ, but you could ask your parents how they would feel about it as an illustration of how cruel and destructive it is to forbid family members from freely being together.

The main point of anything you do should be to keep communications open as best you can with everyone in the family. That way, if and when and however your atheism is revealed, everyone can continue talking and gradually see that the atheist in the family is neither evil nor dangerous. Enforced silence affords no chance for better understanding and reconciliation. Even if there is heated quarreling, although it is unpleasant, it is still communication.

If you use patience and remain calm, you can gradually coax even an angry and afraid person down from their aggressive/defensive stance. You can do this in two ways: 1. Make it very clear that you are not trying to change their beliefs about gods; you are only trying to show that you are no threat to them. 2. Always play the part of the rational, reasonable grown-up in the room. Losing your temper, or resorting to any emotionally manipulative tactics that someone else might be trying will discredit you, cause the discussion to degenerate, and will be counter-productive.

If doors get slammed between you and your parents or siblings, do not be the one who did the slamming. Do not completely give up. Keep at least your side of the door unlocked. Making it clear that you will remain approachable gives others the ability to reach out again after their emotions have settled down.

I hope that you and everyone in your family, including your parents can find ways to keep love flowing freely, even through times of change and challenge.


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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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anonymous

    Those Quiverfull folks seem less like a “movement” and more like an “invasive species.”

  • s-y

    From my experience, “coming out” is more of a matter of practicality. If one knows for a fact that someone (even if family) cannot accept them for who they are, I find it better to put on the mask and continue on. The person in question cannot handle, and/or doesn’t deserve the truth. Of course, that decision is all up to whoever’s supposed to make it to do so.

    In this particular case, I would say it’s important for the person to look after his/her siblings, and part of that involves doing what can be done to ensure that they have a fair chance as he did to follow who they are instead of who the parents want them to be.

  • Anonymous

    I hadn’t considered the possibility that the parents might cut off college if they panicked and assumed (quite possibly correctly) that the contact with the outside world led the letter writer out of the religious indoctrination of their youth. That’s a very important thing to consider.

    Perhaps a middle of the road option is available to him/her (I’m going to go with she for simplicity). If most of her siblings are underage, her parents have the upper hand, but that will not last forever. She should strive to keep a very active role in her siblings life, expecially the older ones. If at all possible those relationships should be independent of the parents, through the phone, facebook and email, keeping in mind that electronic communication may well be monitered. As her siblings age, they will have a strong relationship with their sister, once that won’t be that easy to break on the say-so of the parents. Eventually more siblings will become adults and no longer be subject to the parents. Out of 12 at least a few are bound to “wander” and independent relationships will be easiest with them.

    Hopefully, by the time the parents do find out about her deconversion, her siblings will be old enough to be less vulnerable and her relationship with them will be strong enough to withstand censoring by the parents.

  • Anonymous

    Even though I “liked” your reply, I’m always torn about whether or not I’m the best judge of someone’s access to the truth. It’s inherently paternalistic, but you may actually be for some intents and purposes their parent. You are making a decision about what they can or cannot handle. But telling the truth no matter what may come is irresponsible if you can reason confidently about the direct consequences if those consequences are detrimental to all involved.

    tl;dr: It’s other people’s moral responsibility how they react to being told the truth, but  that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of evaluating the effects of what we reveal about ourselves.

    Why is this shit so complicated 🙁

  • Sometimes in these situations I recommend describing yourself in a way that the religious people may be able to understand.  Keep in mind that the term “atheist” is very loaded for them and they may not be able to understand what you think about God and religion when using that term.  Perhaps describe your beliefs along a line like the following (change to actually match what you think).

    …that “divinity” is infinite and and cannot be understood by man.  All scripure is an inade 

  • Blakeingle4

    Insightful, thx for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    Not really an answer to the question, but I suggest getting in touch with other former quiverfulls — they may have some further insight into the situation you’re in.

  • Derek

    The withholding access to the granddaughter thing is not a good idea. It will not give one second’s pause for these kinds of religious people as I’m sure the questioner realizes.

    Their reason for cutting off access is not leverage. It’s to protect their family from the pervasive evil of the non-religious viewpoint. Thus not having access to their granddaughter is something they would desire for as long as she is non-religious.

  • Dear Ed-words,
       I’m in love with a beautiful woman.She knows I’m an atheist,but she’ll marry me if I “come to Jesus”. What should I do?                                                                                                                   MISTY EYED

  • Dear MISTY EYED,
     I think . . .hmm,hmmm…give me a sec … …hmmm

    How beautiful is she?

  • Anonymous

    I think Quiverfull is a deeply disturbing movement and horrifically degrading of women.

  • Thank you Ed-words, for a very good laugh. Sometimes coming up with advice can be just as difficult as that.  😀

  • I’d say they’re more like a nasty bowel movement… they need to be flushed.

  • Anonymous

    The term “quiverfull” is so creepy. 

  • A Portlander

    Next on Fox, “friendly” atheists call for pogroms against family-loving Christians in the heartland . . .

  • A Portlander

    I have to agree. These people obviously prize quantity over quality. They’ll eventually have literally dozens of grandchildren, “the godless one we never see” will just be a sympathy-wringing conversation piece at church barbecues.

  • I felt that focusing on beauty was a bit sexist.

    You’re a good sport!

  • Hey, it’s just my opinion.

  • Anonymous

    I dunno about that, but I wonder if they know that there’s a name for what they’re doing.  It’s called Social Darwinism.

  • Candide

    Libby Anne, is that you?

  • Anonymous

    I think that the real question that “Caught in the Middle” should be asking themselves should be:  What kind of example do I want to set for my daughter/younger siblings when dealing with interpersonal relationships?

    Do you want to be the one to setting the example that it’s OK to hide who you are and what you (do not) believe in?

  • (Olde Latin proverb)

    Cave ab homine unius libri.

    Beware of anyone who has just one book.

    (Ite, misse est.)

  • Nicole Youngman

    Mostly very good advice, but “1. Make it very clear that you are not trying to change their beliefs
    about gods; you are only trying to show that you are no threat to them” is somewhat problematic I think. Unfortunately hardcore fundamentalists view ANYONE who doesn’t agree with their theology a “threat” just by virtue of their existence–such people are “blinded by Satan” and are therefore invaders who are out to get them no matter how mild-mannered they may appear. “Caught” is going to have to deal with this reality as s/he decides how open to be about his/her beliefs and to which family members.

  • “Libby Anne, is that you?” gets a ‘like’?

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