Dear Richard: I need help in just how to handle my religious parents and relatives and friends. I have kept the fact that I am atheist a secret outside my immediate family for the most part.
I am a married 50 year-old mother of 4 children (10, 11, 13 and 15). I was raised very Catholic with my mom in particular coming from a large Irish Catholic family. I realized decades ago that I had ‘lost faith’ and that the Bible was a collection of old fairy tales. However, I ‘went along’ in regard to religion in order to ‘get along’ with my parents and the rest of the large extended family. I have raised my children to be free thinkers, and so far, all are atheists as am I (my husband says he is an agnostic). My mother does not accept this and makes comments about how I am hurting my kids by not sending them to religious school or church. When she babysits, she also tries to take the kids to church when I am not in town. I used to let her take the kids to church when they were very young for Christmas, but I stopped that a few years ago when the kids expressed their atheism and distaste for church to me.
Now, I find it increasingly hard to put up with the constant religious comments that my relatives say when we get together for parties, birthdays and holidays. Also, the community I live in has a large amount of Christians and Christian fundamentalists. I socialize with and am friends with many. But I feel like I have to hide my real self and real opinions every day. I cannot say what I really think for fear of them writing me off as a friend. It depresses me that my family wallows in their belief in God/Jesus, instead of seeing the world for what it really is — a wonderful place (not filled with angels and demons, etc…) and I that I cannot express my true thoughts. I was raised Catholic, so I am very good at ‘passing’ as a believer when I have to, and at other times I just keep my mouth shut.
However, is this really a good way to live To suppress one’s true self? How can I make changes to move toward showing people the truth without alienating them? I am also afraid that some families will shun my kids and not allow them to be friends with their children. When I bring up the topic with my mom, she just cries.
— Depressed Atheist Surrounded by Believers
Your last paragraph contains three questions:
1. However, is this really a good way to live?
2. To suppress one’s true self?
3. How can I make changes to move toward showing people the truth without alienating them?
Given what you have said in the rest of your letter, the first two questions sound like rhetorical questions. You seem to be making the statement, “I think that to suppress my true self is not a good way to live.” Nobody else can make that decision for you, but I’m getting the impression that you’re just about there. I called you “Surrounded” for short instead of “Depressed,” because you don’t sound actually depressed. You sound beleaguered, frustrated, stifled, and fed up. As unpleasant as they are, those are much healthier emotional states than depressed.
Your third question, given what you said in the rest of your letter, is ambiguous in its meaning: Is the truth that you want to show people the truth as you see it about their beliefs, that they “wallow” in delusion, or is the truth that you want to show people a truth about yourself, that you simply don’t share their beliefs?
If you come out, the consequences from either of these two approaches could be very different, so you should clarify to yourself exactly what you want to emphasize, and what outcomes you’re willing to risk.
Just telling people that you don’t share their beliefs can imply that you think their beliefs are false, and from what I’ve observed in people, some will make the connection consciously and immediately, some will make it subconsciously and gradually, and others will disregard the implication. Then there is a wide variety of emotional responses to all that. Because of all this variability, your presentation, tone, and emphasis can make a significant difference in the outcome.
The alienation that you worry about might be more likely if you take the other-oriented approach of trying to show people that their beliefs are wrong. That would involve a series of “you” statements, statements about them. It emphasizes a change that you want to produce in them, and they might see that as an aggressive threat to their beliefs. So they might react defensively or counter-aggressively.
On the other hand, the self-oriented approach of simply saying that you’re personally unconvinced would involve a series of “I” statements. It is focused only on yourself, and the “threat” to their beliefs is only implied, if it’s there at all.
If you come out, whatever way you do, I think you’re likely to get to some degree some of the social consequences that you are anticipating. You described three that I’ve seen in many letters:
Emotional manipulation by a loved one. You’re already getting this in your mother’s frequent crying that prevents even discussing these things. That is the tactic of a two-year-old, and perhaps you should consider calmly but firmly calling her out on it. Her attempts to subvert your children to her religion behind your back are NOT acceptable. Consider telling her that she will not see her grandchildren as long as she continues to try that. Your extended family might try their own tactics. For instance, you might face an increase of their “constant religious comments” at family gatherings. That’s a common passive-aggressive way to needle you. It’s rationalized as a way to bring you back to the fold, but it never works. It’s really just an indirect expression of intolerance, a cowardly form of aggression.
Abandonment by friends. It is often said that any friends who write you off because of your atheism aren’t friends worth having anyway, but that is not of much comfort to you at the time. It still hurts. Short of complete rejection, you might experience their condescension and conceit, and if they keep it up, eventually you might be the one who ends the friendship.
Parents telling their kids to shun your kids, or forbidding their friendships. This is a cruel thing to do to innocents, but parental instincts to protect offspring are very powerful and can override reason. The prospect of one’s children being affected is a deal breaker in many kinds of otherwise successful attempts to coexist.
These possible consequences are presented above in their worst case scenarios, but remember that things usually turn out not as bad as we fear, and not as good as we hope.
In general, the best guiding principle for responding to people who react poorly to the truth you say is to always be the adult in the room. Do not match their negative emotions with your own. Do not follow their example of immature behavior. Do not let them dictate the level of your comportment. When people reactively give back whatever treatment they receive, that back-and-forth always spirals down to worse and worse treatment. If they are unkind, and you are just as unkind to them in response, they will feel fully justified in what they said and did, and they might want to do worse. Instead, maintain your equanimity. It gives you power. Calmly and patiently call them out on their unkindness. Take their unkind remarks apart piece by piece, and keeping your composure, suggest that by the way they’re behaving, they are not being good representatives of their faith. Always be the adult in the room.
I think it would be a good idea to build yourself a network of atheist friends before you come out to your present friends and associates, because you might lose a few, and your kids might also lose a few of their friends. It sounds like your community may be heavily soaked in religiosity, but undercover atheists just like you are everywhere, and the internet is an excellent way for us to find each other privately and safely. Search online for atheist/freethinker groups in your region. Look for Meetup groups in your area. Just one understanding friend is a lot more than zero, and he or she might know another, who knows others, and so forth. Look for atheist parents with kids roughly your own kids’ age, and get them together. Take some time to build yourself a social lifeboat before you need it. You have bitten your tongue for this long, you can patiently wait a little longer while you make preparations for yourself and your children.
So as the saying goes, “Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.” In life, neither the absolute best nor the absolute worst are likely. What almost always happens is something in-between. So if you’re prepared for something worse than you actually get, that’s fine.
Please write again to tell us how things turn out; the good, the bad, the not-so-good, the not-so-bad, and the in-between. Most of us reading here have faced and will face situations like yours, and we benefit from hearing each others’ experiences.
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.
(Image via Shutterstock)