Ask Richard: Teen Atheist Ponders Coming Out In Religious Family April 2, 2012

Ask Richard: Teen Atheist Ponders Coming Out In Religious Family

Dear Richard,

I was raised in a Christian home, and taught that god is the only way to pretty much do anything. Most of my family is so-so with their religion, and while they believe, they do not attempt to shove it down other’s throats or make a show of their all knowing religion, however there are some exceptions to this. My grandfather is incredibly religious, and can work god into any subject. He’s constantly talking about this and taking me aside to pray, alone. Most of my great uncles and aunts are pastors or otherwise work for the church.

As you may know, Easter is coming up. I would prefer to not spend my Sunday at a church whose religion I do not believe in. I’m not quite sure how to go about this, as I’ve not yet “come out”. I worry about doing so, as I’m still considered a minor (I’m 14) and have no way of finding a new home for myself should the worse happen. I’d like to know if you have any tips for a situation like this, and I would like to know how to convince my family that it is not a phase, but my religion, should I end up “coming out”.

Worried and Wondering

Dear Worried and Wondering,

A 14-year-old atheist in a family such as yours has much more at risk in coming out than a 24-year-old, and even they sometimes have reason to pause and carefully consider what would be the prudent thing to do.

We have lately been inspired by the courage and pluck of teens such as Jessica Ahlquist and Damon Fowler, who not only outed themselves as atheists, they also stood up to illegal religious activities in their respective high schools. Jessica and Damon have both faced very difficult backlashes from the public, including threats to their lives. But Jessica had one big advantage. She had the support of her parents and family. Damon discovered that he did not. According to this story, his family threw him and all of his possessions out of the house and left town. Fortunately for him, his brother was supportive and willing to take him in.

Both Jessica and Damon have received rewards for their courage and activism from atheist groups because their struggles were with public institutions, and so there was a great deal of media attention. Teens being kicked out of the house by their family, or more likely simply being made miserable by their family’s fear, anger and reactionary browbeating will probably not be able to count on that kind of attention or support.

You say that most members of your family are relatively mild in their religiosity, and that it’s generally the older generation, your grandfather and your great uncles and aunts who are the more devout ones. That might mean that you won’t face such extreme consequences as Damon did, but it still might mean some very unpleasant conflicts. Your closer relatives might pressure you to “toe the line” for grandpa’s sake, and that might be enforced with threats of disagreeable penalties.

Only you can determine the likelihood of these complicated contingencies, and even a family insider might find such predictions difficult.

If you decide to come out to your family, I suggest that you start with one person, whoever is the one you trust will be the most receptive, understanding, and discreet. That person might be able to help you determine who, when, how, and if you should tell someone else.

Avoid calling your atheism your “religion.” I assume that you meant that it is a strong and long-lasting conviction you have, rather than just a phase or a fad. If your family tries to dismiss it as such, don’t spend a lot of frustrating effort trying to convince them otherwise. It doesn’t matter what they think about that. What matters is what you think, and that you keep on thinking as clearly as you can. As time goes on and you remain true to your convictions, your family will have to face the reality that this is where you stand.

Keep all the rest of your conduct and performance to a high standard. Keep your school grades up, diligently do your family duties and chores, and generally stay out of trouble. You don’t want your atheism being blamed for failures in such areas. As ridiculous as that is, it seems to be common among religious families with a young atheist member.

If you decide to wait and not come out yet, then you’ll probably be required to at least attend the Easter service. I have suggested to young people in similar predicaments that they might reduce their frustration, boredom and discomfort by adopting what I’ve called the “undercover anthropologist” stance. Basically, think of yourself as studying a group of people from within their midst, just as western anthropologists do when they win the trust of aboriginal people in the rain forests and live with them to study their culture. It can give you some emotional separation, and you can find such observation interesting on an intellectual level. This would be better than sitting there thinking of yourself as nothing more than a helpless victim being forced to endure something.

I think you might be getting old enough to be a little more assertive with your grandfather if he wants to take you aside for some private prayer together. You might gently tell him that you prefer to contemplate such things by yourself and in your own way. This is a delicate matter on several levels, so think it over carefully.

I know you’re in a tough spot. You want to live according to your own convictions, yet you don’t want to cause upset in your family if it can be avoided. You love your family, and you also want to be true to yourself. You would rather not have to pretend that you believe and have to attend religious events, but you might have to face some undesirable reactions.

Find some peers. Find some discreet friends who have similar feelings and views. Be very careful to assure as best you can that they are trustworthy. You will be less tense at home if you have been able to share your thoughts openly with someone outside your home. There have been several attempts at discussion websites for young atheists, but they don’t seem to last. The most recently active one I found is Young Atheists, an Atheist Nexus site. Its latest activity was a month ago. DO NOT post your atheist views on Facebook. That will result in your being outed before you’re ready.

Face these challenges with patience and clear thinking. How you handle this will help to mold you into the both principled and pragmatic adult you want to become. Outing yourself is generally a one-way-only decision. Often the outcome is optimized not by how you do it, but by when you do it.

Please write again to let us know how things develop. As a community, we need to gather the wisdom and experience of as many of our members as we can, to best learn how to help ourselves and each other. We also simply care about you, and want to support you in whatever ways we can.


The issue of young people coming out is a huge section of the hundreds of letters I have received. Here are just a handful of other Ask Richard columns dealing with the same problem:

Atheist 8th Grader Wants to Confide to Someone in the Family
Young Atheist Considers Coming Out to His Grandparents
Young Atheist Considers Leaving Church and Coming Out
Family Finds Out, Shuts Out, Loses Out
Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 1 of 2
Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 2 of 2
Parents Rendered Deaf by the Word “Atheist”

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.

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Darwin’s Dagger

    No need to hurry in declaring your non-belief. God will still not be there when the possible consequences of being an open atheist will be less risky. 

  • Richard, as always, your sensitivity and compassion are inspiring.

  • wright1

     Allow me to suggest “”, an atheist-majority site. Though not specifically a “young” atheist forum, and not to everyone’s taste, I have found it to be very supportive and stimulating. At least a few regulars there are also in their teens.

    Richard has given you some sound advice, but ultimately it’s your call, your life. Take heart that there are other atheists who are waiting to meet and support you; more of us each day.

  • Anonymous

    Richard, do you ever hear back from the folks who write in?

    The letter from “high school senior” in “Family Finds Out, Shuts Out, Loses Out” wrote almost two years ago now. I’m curious if things got better or worse in the subsequent time, and what they’ve done/learned since then.

  • chicago dyke, venomous lesbian

    this may not work for the ethical systems of some here, but he can always “get sick” the night before church services. the ferris buller model might work. i like the “be an anthropologist” approach as well, if he can’t get out of it or doesn’t want to come out yet. there’s always research and reading, too. one of my favorite books as a teen had a scene where four children were locked away in their grandmother’s home, and she was very religious. she forced them to pray and read the bible- so they did! and came back at her with religious quotes that eventually got her to shut up about it, b/c she didn’t have the intellectual capacity to argue the “logic” of the bible with them. 

    best of luck, W&W! you are not alone. 

  • Satia Renee

    Richard’s advice to share your beliefs, or non-belief, with one relative who is likely to be understanding is excellent.  I would also urge W&W to not only “pick your battles” but consider your timing.  Easter Sunday may not be the best timing. It is considered a “high” holy day (although I am still confused by how one differentiates a “holy day” from a “high” one).  It is not going to be easy to announce to your loved ones your change of heart.  But you’re bound to make it more dramatic than it need be if you do it going into a holiday that has deep meaning to the people you love.  And remember:  You do love them.  Your goal here is not to hurt them but to be honest.  I just don’t see a need to announce anything when it would almost as volatile as you could possibly make it.

    Finding online support can help you feel less alone.  There are others who are questioning, have doubts, and will encourage and support you.  Hopefully some of those people will include your family members, regardless of what you or they may believe.

  • As Richard and others have said, strategically choose your moment to come out.  Only you know what your particular family situation is like.  You could go ahead and come out or wait a few more years.  If you decide to come out you can always come out in a small way.  It might actually work to your advantage to play along with the “it’s only a phase” attitude that many religious people accuse younger atheists of going through.  You could just say that at this particular point in time you just don’t see any compelling evidence to believe in God (or garden fairies or any other such non-observable entities).   Don’t make a big deal of it and perhaps others won’t either.  Or you could espouse the agnostic/Deistic line that the only version of God you can conceptualize is an unknowable (by man) entity that is a first cause of the universe…. and that all scripture is just made up by human authors.   No virgin birth, no water turning into wine, no resurrection, no heaven, no hell, no original sin, no damnation, no being saved, etc. 

    If your grandfather wants to make it a big deal and talk to you, simply politely listen to him but tell him that arguments from authority don’t really count.  If God wants to show His presence, then He should do it the way He supposedly did in the Old Testament days… or perhaps those events were greatly exaggerated or completely made up.  To make them all happy, you could say you would change your mind tomorrow if you saw some actual evidence of a supernatural entity that couldn’t be explained in any other way.  But even if you did see some unexplained phenomena, that wouldn’t validate the particular religious story-line popular in our society. 

    You might have to suck it in for Easter, though.

  • Matt O’Neal

    Wow, this was an amazing response by Richard, and the comments were just as inspiring. One of the reasons I so enjoy reading this blog.

    One thing I’ll add to the young person asking the question- you don’t have to be an activist to be an atheist. You just have to not believe. I know it’s hard to bury your true feelings. And you certainly deserve the same respect from your elders that they likely demand from you. But the truth is, some of them are going to be set in their ways and could possibly make things difficult (or at least unpleasant) for you.

    It’s sad to say, but in some cases it may be best to keep quiet. To paraphrase the first commenter, no gods are there for you today. They won’t be there a year from  now either.

  • Anonymous

     Yeah, but until then the religious abuse and brainwashing goes on and on and on…

  • Karen

    For a 14-year-old, I’d strongly recommend staying in the closet as much as possible.  Face it, your family still thinks of you as being younger than you are.  Announcing a disbelief in God, however vague your family’s belief system is, may subject you to far more harassment than you might be able to deal with gracefully; even people who are not strong churchgoers may feel VERY threatened if you declare you’re not a believer.  You are still at an age when you can be coerced by your family.

    (My mother-in-law is not a churchgoer nor is she a particularly vocal Christian, but a few years ago she threw a fit because I hinted too often at not being a believer, and she took it as an attack on her religion.  She was in her 70’s at the time, and I was in my 40’s.)

    I would say, suck it up and endure Easter service.  Think of it as practice for the future,  because as an atheist you will have to go through life picking your battles; the world is too full of religionists to challenge them all.

  • I would avoid coming out before Easter because it is considered a date when families go to church as a unit, including people who don’t normally go. Your parents will think that you are lying just to get out of Easter services, even if you insist that it is not the case. Moreover, your absence will be noticeable to other people and not just the ones that you are coming out to, so your family will be “judged” if you are not there. If you come out before Easter, it’s probably one of the first things they are going to think about.

    Good luck, and be careful.

  • I recommend the community at as very supportive and understanding.  You can go blow off steam at the stupidity you are being fed, and find people who have been where you are.

    And I second the consensus here to be careful and take your time.  Remaining quiet is really hard, but saying something that can’t be un-said can make your situation much worse.  You are dependent on your family, and will be for some considerable time, so don’t alienate them. Take it slow, and if you can, take this in small steps.  If there is one tiny piece of your doubt that you can safely reveal, or one church activity that you can back away from, do that and let your family have a chance to get used to that much, and let them see that the kind of person you are has not changed. 

    And meanwhile, when I have had my kids visit churches for cultural background, I always tell them to realize that they are there as a spy.  That might be a helpful in getting through the next few years.

  • Sometimes the letter writers add their own comments to the post after most of the comments have come in, thanking people for their input, and/or updating us on developments. Sometimes they write to me again thanking me and giving some feedback and updates.  I encourage them to to add their updates to the public comments because it adds to our knowledge base of what works and what does not. Sometimes I never hear from them again.

    In “high school senior’s” case, I checked all my correspondence, and I have not received any feedback. We can only hope that he or she is so busy being successful that he or she has thoroughly moved on. 

  • kim

    everytime I remind my parents that I am an athiest (I am 53 by the way), they say “no you’re not” like as if I have no idea what I am saying……so hang in there kid, at least you have people in here that trust your knowledge

  • I’d also like to add to W&W that at 14, you still have a lot of time to decide what and why you believe or disbelieve.  We here, of course, don’t believe in a supernatural entity, and we’ve all come to that conclusion through many paths and many beliefs.  Walking those paths and wrestling with those questions are a part of who we are. Once you put a label on yourself, you’ll find yourself defined by how others perceive that label. 

    I’d maybe leave off labels for now and just let your family know you have questions or doubts.  Talking with them about those questions and doubts will let them know this is something you are taking seriously and they will be far more likely to accept your view point if they see how you reached it.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is that there could well be more “religious abuse and brain-washing” if the writer comes out to his family. Going to church isn’t so hard. And kids have to do things they don’t like all the time. (Adults too, for that matter. Hands up if you’ve recently seen a movie you didn’t like because your partner wanted to see it?) Why is church for an atheist any worse than Twilight? Or a visit to great aunt Mabel and her sixteen cats? The power to commit religious abuse comes from belief. For a non-believer, it’s just a shouty man with a silly story. Is saying “amen” and not meaning it really any different from telling polite lies about how good it is to see Mabel again?

error: Content is protected !!