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.