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.