Ask Richard: Atheist Student Struggles with Ethics Around Coming Out to the Family January 5, 2017

Ask Richard: Atheist Student Struggles with Ethics Around Coming Out to the Family


Hi Richard,

I am a 21 year old college student. Even though I live on campus, I am still close with my immediate family. Both my parents as well as my younger sister are still very much involved in my life and vice versa. Needless to say, my family is very close. We all get along and have a good time together. You probably already guessed it, but religion plays a HUGE role throughout our family dynamics. For instance, my family attends church every week and is involved with various church activities. I, however, am not feeling “it” anymore.

Over a year ago I realized I was no longer a “believer”; that is, I had let go of the most important part of being a Christian, which is belief in God. While this new outlook on life was accompanied by peace and liberation, I decided to keep it to myself because I did not want to add any conflict in my family. My plan was to keep pretending I was a “believer” until I was finished with school, living on my own, and working a “real” job, then reassess the idea of coming out to my parents as an atheist.

But now, over a year later, I can’t keep pretending I am something I’m not. I feel like I am drowning. I can’t sit through another church service without wanting to scream. I feel like I am not living a genuine or moral life. And I feel like I am deceiving those I care about most. All in all, I feel like a liar and a bad person.

The reason I have not disclosed these things to my parents is out of fear that they won’t accept me. Obviously, from our point of view, this is absolutely ridiculous. Of course my parents don’t just love me because I “believe” in God! However, from their point of view, that could very well be the case. What if belief in God is what is holding my family together? If that is the case, the moment I say I don’t believe in God, everything will fall apart. Is my conscience more important than the happiness of my family?

Another reason I have not told my parents is due to the fact that they wholeheartedly believe Jesus is coming back to take us to our “real” home in heaven. This belief is very comforting for my mom in particular. A few years ago, my mom lost her mother and the only thing that got her through her sadness was the “fact” that she would see her mother again. With that, I have a feeling it will literally break my mom’s heart to know that I am an atheist.

Therefore, in your eyes, what is the ethical thing to do? I could risk the happiness of my family for the sake of feeling honest and genuine again; or I could ensure that my family dynamics will remain intact and somehow overcome the idea that I am living a deceitful life.

Thank you so much for your time,

Wanting To Do The Right Thing

Dear Wanting To Do The Right Thing,

I think your original plan is the wisest course, to let them think you still believe until you are more independent, and then to reassess the idea of coming out to them. It is best for both prudent reasons, taking care of your own interests, and also for ethical reasons, following principles that guide how your actions affect others. I will explain in detail below.

But the first thing I want to do is to remove the unfair condemnation that you have leveled against yourself as “a liar and a bad person”:

This is not about deceit. It’s about privacy.

When you are surrounded by people who will not honor your being honest with them, but instead are likely to penalize you, possibly severely, in unfair, unrelated, and irrational ways, you do not owe them your honesty. As an adult, whether you should be honest about particular topics depends on the context of the relationship that you have with each person. You’re not a “liar” if you decide to keep the details of your sex life, your political opinions, or your religious views private from your family if that will preserve the best aspects of that relationship, and if indulging yourself in openness is simply not worth the cost. You are the one who decides if that is any of their business. If they will not be able handle the truth, if their reaction will be immature and destructive to themselves, to you, and to the relationship, then it’s really okay to respect your own boundaries and preserve your own privacy.

It’s clear that you’re not a bad person. Having such conflicted feelings over this demonstrates that. Your loving concern for your mother’s grief demonstrates that. You’re a good person in a tight spot who wants to do the right thing, and I admire you for your earnestness and how seriously you are considering this.

The problem is that in real life, “the right thing to do” is very often a messy, imperfect compromise between principles, such as “honesty is a good thing,” and the pragmatics of what will actually be the outcome. Beware of formulaic, cookie-cutter solutions to such dilemmas. We can seriously harm people by mechanically applying one-size-fits-all solutions to every situation, and then telling ourselves that because we followed a principle like a robot, we’re not responsible for the effect that our actions have on others. Yes, we are.

In each and every situation, we have to use judgment, an often perplexing and fretful process. We have to take into account other ethical principles besides honesty, such as “compassion is a good thing,” and “considering others’ needs is a good thing.” Then, often with trepidation we must make our choice of which of these principles we will follow, or how much of one and how much of another, and then we must accept responsibility for the consequences. Although our solutions are hardly ever perfect, we do tend to get better with practice.

What I have just described is what it means to be a grownup, and the way you’re struggling with this predicament so thoughtfully shows that you’re already well along on that path.

Here are the prudent reasons, the self-interest reasons to wait until you’re in a better position before you even consider letting them know your atheist views:

Religious families react to the news of a young member being an atheist in a wide variety of ways, ranging from a supportive shrug of their shoulders, all the way to panic, irrational coercive and punitive actions, emotional abuse, financial penalties, and even appalling cruelty. Most religious families react somewhere in between those extremes with a mix of reason and emotional absurdity. Very often that mix gradually changes over time, often for the better, but it can be a slow and painful process.

You are the foremost expert on how your family will react. I cannot predict what they’ll do as well as you can, and yours is still at best an educated guess. While you wait, you can watch them and gather more insight and information about how they might react, and what might be the best way to tell them if and when the time comes. Sometimes the timing is the essential thing more than other factors. Remember that you cannot un-ring this bell.

The ethical, the principle-based reason to hold back on telling them is what I touched on earlier, finding the best possible, if still imperfect, balance of ethical principles. One principle says “Be honest,” but another says “Be mindful about how your actions affect others’ well-being.” One principle says “Be true to yourself, and follow your own path,” but another principle says “Be kind.”

I have expressed my opinion here, but in the end I cannot tell you which of these or other principles you should favor in this dilemma. I can lay the issues out before you, and suggest that you to take your time, and while you consider and weigh your judgment, encourage you to unburden yourself of the unfair characterization that you are “a liar and a bad person.” No, it’s obvious that you’re not.

On the other side of all this is an urgent inner pressure to let your family know that you’re an atheist: You are feeling stifled, suffocated having to pretend, to play along in a charade. You want to express your own thoughts and feelings openly and freely.

Please know that I say this with deep respect and without any condescension: You’re feeling that urge so strongly because you are still young. Our development into adults is a long, slow process of differentiation from our parents. At many different stages, in myriad ways we are compelled to become our own person. From our first two-year-old “NO!” mini-rebellion, to our adolescent defiance and our staking out our own tastes, then to the life path we choose, the mate we choose, and the family of our own that we build, we must express the unique and independent person we are struggling to become. I think that might be where the energy, the urgency of your desire to tell them is coming from.

If you decide to withhold your atheism from your family for the present, perhaps that urgency to tell them can be relieved and satisfied by channeling it in other ways. Develop trusted friends at college and elsewhere with whom you can confide about your atheism. Join an atheist group or a Secular Student Alliance so you can openly and loudly vent your stifled frustration. You’ll find some relief just in the realization that you’re certainly not alone in the challenges you’re facing.

Together, your parents and you have raised a fine and upstanding young adult, and now you are putting the finishing touches on yourself by yourself, as it should be. I hope that you and your family can all find a way to preserve the abundant love that you clearly share.


You may send your questions to Richard right here. Please keep your letters concise, but include pertinent information such as age, relevant financial issues, and significant people in the situation. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

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