It’s Not Just LGBTI+ People Who Come Out

Question from Kayleigh:

Hi I’m Kayleigh and I’m trying to come out to my Christian parents as atheist. Most of my school already knows I’m atheist due to an untrustworthy friend….I want my family to hear from me that I’m atheist but I’m scared of being kicked out of my house and being shunned by my whole family…

Answer by SmartLX:

Hi Kayleigh. I’m sorry that you feel that your true opinions and beliefs (or lack thereof) are such a potential threat to you. It’s not my fault, but you deserve an apology from somewhere. A lot of people do.

Every family is different and there’s no one way to do this right. If you’re genuinely concerned about being ostracised or even kicked out, though, I’m gonna say your family is pretty devout, so let’s take care.

The A-word is frightening all by itself to certain religious types. It doesn’t just say, “I don’t share your beliefs.” It says to them, “I am the ENEMY and I want to DESTROY your way of life, or I’ve been brainwashed by those who do.” This is what all the religious scaremongering has told them since before Dawkins came along. So be direct but don’t open with “atheist” and don’t get drawn into an argument over what you are as opposed to what you think. The latter is much more important.

A good approach, I think, is to simply say to your parents in private that you don’t (or no longer) believe in God, or any other gods. This might still be a shock, but instead of declaring yourself the “other” you are stating a fact about something you don’t really have a choice over. You’re just not convinced.

What’s good about this is that it will open a discussion. Heated, perhaps, but it’s something that can be worked through. If they ask you why you don’t believe, you tell them. If they tell you why you should believe, you tell them why that’s not convincing to you. (Don’t be afraid to say, “Let me look into that and get back to you.” If they order you to believe, you tell them you can’t without actually being persuaded, otherwise you’re just pretending and no god would accept that. They should realise that shunning you won’t change how you feel, and they need to engage you intellectually to try to win you back. This carries a risk that their own beliefs will be challenged, and many will back down from this prospect alone.

It’s important to keep the fact of your disbelief separate from the question of what to do about it. In terms of negotiation, everything is potentially on the table from total concession to absolute estrangement. If you simply want to be honest with your family, you could agree to keep it a secret (from anyone who doesn’t already know). If you want to stop going to church, that’s a tougher sell because your family’s friends in the congregation will notice; you can use the angle of not wanting to be there without conviction, or the implied threat that your disbelief could spread.

Another important distinction to make, to them and to yourself, is between your differences of opinion and your bonds as a family. You still love your Christian parents (I hope); why would they not love their apostate daughter? (“Love the sinner, hate the sin” and all that.) You haven’t become the enemy, you’ve honestly applied your brain to the subject and now disagree, as all young adults do in one way or another.

I know you’re scared, but if you’re here asking how to do this then you have a need to work this out with your parents and that will only grow if left unaddressed. As soon as it’s out in the open, you’ll know where you stand and you can start building a new kind of relationship from there. Be gentle and respectful with them and they will hopefully be the same to you. And keep us posted in the comments. Good luck, we’ll be thinking of you.

“What will my parents think?”

Question from Amanda:
Well I’ve finally decided, after many years, to tell my parents I don’t believe in gods. The only problem… I have no idea how. Any ideas that will help them understand and not hate me for the rest of my life?

Answer by SmartLX:
I get asked this question a lot, or something similar. Here and here are two of my previous answers.

The problem is that everyone’s situation is different. You’ve obviously got religious parents or you wouldn’t need to ask about this, but even if I knew as much about them as you I couldn’t reliably guess how they’ll react if you tell them. Since I don’t know whether you still live with them, I can’t say what the consequences might be if they react badly. Still, you’ve already made up your mind and you’re only asking how to go about it, so I guess I can make a few suggestions.

A pretty good rule is to try to avoid the word “atheist” (or any other similar identifier like “freethinker” or “bright”). Don’t deny it if they bring it up, but don’t start off by confronting them with a bold label you’ve given yourself. That makes it sound like you’ve fallen in with a bad crowd (as if you’d gotten a gang tattoo) and you need to be isolated and “rescued” or “deprogrammed”.

Since it’s all about you, and you’re not just the victim of evil godless propagandists, put it in terms of what’s actually happened to you: if you ever believed in gods, you don’t now, and all the church in the world won’t change that because insufficient or ineffective preaching isn’t the reason you don’t believe. Once the simple fact is out there, you’ll get a pile of questions the nature of which will give you a good idea how to proceed. If they’re to do with the horrible stigma attached to non-belief, you’ll have a chance to dispel some myths about it. If they’re aimed at actually bringing you around, you can give them a taste of some straightforward counter-arguments – not to destroy them in debate there and then, but simply to demonstrate that you’ve thought this through.

Through it all, emphasise that you’re still their daughter, you’re still you, and that you don’t think any less of them for thinking differently than you do (implying, of course, that neither should they think less of you). Recognise that if they do have a strong reaction, it will be largely motivated by genuine concern for your wellbeing, stemming from fear both of God in Heaven and of the anti-atheist discrimination you’ll suffer on Earth. Reassure them as much as you can.

Only the most extreme fundamentalist parents would refuse to have any kind of relationship with a child who’s made what he or she sees as a rational decision to be open about lacking a God-belief. If you’re even hopeful that your parents can be made to see reason in your position, they’re probably not that type, so I reckon you’ll be all right. Come back and let us know how it went in a comment, if you like. It’ll be educational to others, one way or the other.

Afraid and lonely? It happens.

Question from Josh:
I am a somewhat new atheist. I recently finished leaving the fold and feel that I am now very much deconverted in this long drawn out process. However, no matter how many books I read about how hell was invented later I still have a small fear of it in the back of my mind. I was wondering if you had a similiar experience or had advice. Also I am feeling very lonely since deconverting it seems as if it gets harder and harder to find secular friends as an atheist. I feel I have to keep this hidden about myself.

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, Josh. I didn’t invent it, but I did come up with the name. The fears and anxieties instilled in you by your indoctrination (including the fear of Hell) will outlast the core beliefs on which they’re based, possibly by a long time. Such is the nature of psychology and emotion. Be assured, however, that as long as you don’t relapse into the beliefs themselves, you will feel better and less afraid as time goes on. (The opposite happened to me; after not seriously thinking about religion for over a decade, all the associated emotions had faded and no longer supported the beliefs. I mostly base my concept of faithdrawal on what people have told me in their questions.)

You haven’t said where you’re from or where you’re living, but it can certainly be problematic or even downright dangerous to identify yourself as an atheist in some places. That said, there are few places in the world where you’re likely to be entirely alone in your atheism. Think about it: if you feel you have to keep it hidden, other atheists around you probably feel they have to hide it too, including from you. A community sometimes needs a few brave folks to “come out” before the rest will be open about it. I’m not necessarily encouraging you to do this, I’m just acknowledging that it would take courage, and for good reason.

While you’re waiting for the local atheist contingent to hit that “critical mass”, you can look for local groups with “Atheist”, “Humanist”, “Secular” and/or “Freethinker” in the title. If you’re in America, for example, American Atheists and the Secular Student Alliance are all over the place these days. If you’re in Great Britain, look for the British Humanist Association. If you comment and say where you are, even to within a state or equivalent, we might be able to help with this.

Cheer up, it seriously only seems like you’re alone.

What’s in a name? Or a closet?

Question from Jim:
Thanks for the work and effort that goes into your podcast, I enjoy it immensely. I’ve found that using the term “coming out” as an atheist, always requires a lot of explanation. But that’s alright, because it opens up the conversation, to other issues. Such as the issuance of titles. Namely why we have to use a title. Would titles be necessary if it weren’t for the title “Christian”? Did this title not open up this Pandoras Box? Or maybe even the title “religious”?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think the term “atheist” would be needed if there weren’t a large number of people with opposing viewpoints.

The term “abolitionist” was relevant in the United States only until slavery was successfully abolished. Nowadays it’s assumed that (nearly) everyone there is opposed to slavery and would work against it if it returned, so everyone’s an abolitionist and there’s no point using the word to refer to individuals.

Likewise, “atheist” is a term for someone who rejects a popular position, namely theism. If religious belief declined until it were as rare as, say, political anarchism, there’d be no more reason to call someone an atheist than there’s reason to call someone a non-anarchist. It would already be assumed, and instead the theists would need to speak up.

As for “coming out”, its meaning for gay people is common knowledge, so it shouldn’t be too hard to transfer it to other revelations of people’s private nature. Atheists in certain places have just as much reason to be “in the closet” as gays, so it’s just as meaningful when they “come out”.

By the way, we don’t do a podcast, so the one you enjoy is by someone else. Jake did a few short videos some years ago, but that was it.

How do I “come out” as an atheist?

“Ultimately your parents will come to some form of understanding. That understanding could be anything from complete tolerance to the idea that you’re the devil incarnate.”

Question from Jarod:
My parents take me to church and expect me to believe in whatever they tell me to. I have had a limited say in anything regarding religion. After many months of questioning and doubt, I have finally come to terms with the fact that there is no god. A lot of my friends know and they don’t mind (in fact, a lot of my friends are atheists), but now I’m contemplating coming out to my parents. I am extremely nervous about telling them because they expect me to be a Christian. How do I approach them, and is now a good time? I’m only 14, by the way. Thanks.

It’s never a good time for something like this, from your parents’ perspective. It’s got to be done sometime though, because (among other things) if they still think you believe when you grow up and have kids of your own, they’ll expect you to indoctrinate the kids too.

I’m sure you realise that if you do it at 14 they have the ability to make your life hell for 4 years, whether or not they actually would. That said, if you think the situation will improve after you get this out in the open, or you don’t relish another 4 years of pretending, go for it and best of luck to you.

To soften the blow, say that you don’t believe in God anymore. The word “atheist” over and above that would probably be more shocking as the first thing out of your mouth, as if you came in and said, “Mum, Dad, I’m a Communist/Nazi/anarchist.” Sad in this day and age, but true. Not believing in God is a personal conclusion you’ve come to which they’ll need to deal with, whereas atheism might seem more like a bad crowd you’ve fallen in with and need shielding from. (That’s enough phrases ended with prepositions for today.)

There’s a chance, especially if they think your disbelief is a form of rebellion, that they’ll threaten you with punishment. Speak the simple truth: that it wouldn’t make you believe again. It might coerce you to pretend to believe, but an all-powerful god would see right through that. No, something would actually have to convince you to believe again.

They may subject you to some form of apologetics: a book, a video, a private session with a local preacher, or they might try their own hand. Look at it as an opportunity to crash-test your atheism. (That’s exactly why I started at ATA.) If they come up with an argument you haven’t already considered and dismissed, you can probably find a reply to it on this site. If they come up with something this site hasn’t answered, I want to know about it.

Ultimately your parents will come to some form of understanding. That understanding could be anything from complete tolerance to the idea that you’re the devil incarnate. Sorry, I can only predict the thoughts and actions of strangers up to a point. Regardless, you’ll have done it, you’ll have been honest and you won’t have to lie anymore.

Let us know how you go, if you like.