Last week we reported on research that suggests it may be better to make a slow and subtle break from the religion of your parents rather than to go out with a bang and risk alienating family members. We asked readers to share their experiences leaving the faith they were raised in, several of which appear below.
It’s been over five years since I deconverted from Christianity (loose spirituality by then) and turned to atheism. That resulted in severe alienation from my evangelical mother and brother, whom I still have not seen. Our contact is extremely limited but I have been attempting to repair and rebuild recently. They felt threatened by my loss of faith, but I also zealously “preached” my newfound secular knowledge, for which I have apologized. I was not always as sensitive to their emotions and perspectives as I needed to be. The old adage applies: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
I hope to find a new comfort level with them. While I still want to honestly share my convictions, there is a way to challenge beliefs without shaming the believer. This will take patience, but I miss those irreplaceable family connections. Whether believer or nonbeliever, at the end of the day we all just want to be loved and accepted for who we are.
When I was about twenty, my father confronted me demanding to know if I was a Christian. I chose to nicely confess that I didn’t believe in any gods. My father went to the bedroom crying. As years have gone by, my relationship with my parents has been strained no matter how kind I am to them. He has continued to harangue me about Christianity, though I just refuse to discuss anything and just change the subject. He has written me letters saying atheists are the biggest evil in the world and need to be eradicated from the universe. He eventually refused to have any contact with me until I agreed to become a Christian, and so I didn’t see my parents for six years. They began giving large monetary gifts annually to my brothers, but not me. Only recently (I’m now sixty-eight) have things improved, since my mother had a stroke and my father has begun to have some dementia. I’ve now been able to call them nearly daily for pleasant conversations and stay with them when I’m in their town once a year. I’ve spent my adult life in the closet, because if even my own parents can’t accept me, I fear destroying other relationships. This last year I have started reaching out to other atheists through the American Humanist Association and other organizations. I’ve told a few trusted friends, one of whom told me in no uncertain terms to not tell anyone else. Once my parents are gone I plan to step out of the closet much more, but gingerly. I can’t tell you if you categorize my story as a sudden or slow fade split or not. I don’t know if either one is less painful.
When I first broke from religion (Catholicism in my case) as a college student, I overdid it. At Christmas dinner with my family, including my uncle who was a priest, I “let them have it.” This was a terrible mistake. It was entirely counterproductive and caused unnecessary pain and misunderstanding for my family, especially my mother and myself.
Later I learned to be more civil in expressing myself in criticizing religion, but was still insensitive and tactless in some ways. I now find it best to speak what I feel is true respectfully, humbly, and sensitively to others. I focus my criticism on aspects of religion that I feel are irrational, hypocritical, and inhumane while acknowledging the good inspirational and ethical principles associated with it. Irrationality and inhumanity are our enemies, not religion per se. An old maxim among the ancient Epicurean philosophers is “Speak the truth with kindness,” i.e., don’t lie to be kind but don’t tell the truth in harsh, cold, and unfeeling ways but rather tell the truth with understanding and empathy.
Religion is important to people. For many it’s more than something to console them in times of grief. It provides meaning and guidelines to their lives and conduct. They live for it, die for it, and raise their children with it. It’s hard to be told one’s whole life is based on an illusion. If we must do that, let’s do it with kindness, with “wisdom” as Carl Sagan would say, and couched in a humility that recognizes that no one—not atheists, not humanists, not the religious—has certain answers to the deep mysteries of life.
When I was sixteen I started to fade out of my family’s religion. I realized that it no longer made sense, and the questions I had weren’t answered by religion. Or, they were disingenuous. I told my family when I was a freshman in college, and my father threatened to stop helping me finance my education. Although things are better now, I am conclusively the black sheep of the family. The emotional gap between us has only grown since my mother died. Personally, I don’t think faking it is worth it, but I can understand how it’s necessary for some individuals to do so. I had a sort of privilege in that my family didn’t cast me out, as some people have experienced. I certainly don’t regret telling my family that I’m an atheist, but I do occasionally wonder how much easier or more difficult it would be if I hadn’t expressed my true feelings.
My parents raised me Catholic. They split up when I was six, and when I was thirteen my father became a Reborn Fundamentalist Christian. I officially walked away from attending church when I moved out at the age of nineteen. Overall, my mother has been cool, however my relationship with my father has deteriorated over the years. We still talk occasionally, but his faith is such a big part of his life that I live in constant judgment from him because I don’t share his beliefs. Recently we had talked on the phone and the conversation turned to politics and religion and I hung up on him. I deliberately try to avoid these topics to avoid arguments. On this day though I basically told my father he is an uptight judgmental asshole. Hope this helps.