Ask Richard: How Do I Talk about My New-Found Atheism with my Family?


Mar. 31, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I've been an atheist for only a year or so now. My mother passed away when I was only 16 from a terminal illness, which sort of set forth my disbelief and doubt (I am 20 now).

Now that I acknowledge that there is no God, I have found it more difficult to enjoy the holidays with my semi-religious family. (I say semi-religious because they are more so "part-time Christians." They only take notice of God during the holidays, or during my doubt.) 

When my sister-in-law and I got into an argument a few months back, I revealed that I was an atheist. Now my family makes a mockery out of my irreligious preference. I've also felt the sudden need to lie to my father, uncles and aunts about it to avoid confrontation. I don't initiate any conversations on religion, but in recent months I've been asked a dozen times if I believe in God. I've also felt the need to excuse myself when asked to say grace or even when I'm in the same area where people are praying over dinner. With Easter coming up, being a "closet atheist" has appeared to be more difficult than I had originally imagined.

Do you have any suggestions on how I should go about being honest with my family and telling them I don't believe in God?

–Closet Atheist 


Dear Closet, 

You might not be as closeted as you imagine. It sounds like your sister-in-law and perhaps others have been spreading the news.

But I'm glad to hear that you're tired of lying about it. It's time for some healthy righteous indignation. It's time that you take an assertive stand to be who you are. It's time to stop being mocked and grilled by these family members who should love and accept you because you're family. You've already said that you don't believe in God. Now it's time to show that you do believe in yourself.

Rather than a big, dramatic "coming out" announcement to the whole family, I suggest that you respond to each person only if they come to you, and take each incident only as it comes up. The thing to avoid is getting into another pointless heated argument like the one you had with your sister-in-law, because that's a no-win situation for you.

You don't have to argue with them about their beliefs. You don't have to explain yourself. You don't have to get their approval. You don't have to get into any discussion that leads to you being pointedly questioned and having to justify your views. Instead, all you have to do is meet each of their challenges with a calm, honest and brief statement.  

When someone asks if you believe in God, look them right in the eye, take a deep, slow breath and say in a cool, calm tone, "No, I don't. If you are uncomfortable with that, there's nothing I can do about it. If you're okay with it, fine. But please let's not discuss it further." 

If someone begins to mock you for your irreligious views, say, "That kind of mockery is childish and not worthy of a response. You're not behaving in a loving way, so please stop." If they persist, simply walk away.

Your family's behavior toward you has been unworthy of family, so you don't owe them any response beyond this. They owe you respectful treatment, because you're family and you have done nothing disrespectful to them. But if you consistently remain calmly assertive, rather than passive or aggressive, they may gradually treat you more respectfully. Even if they don't, you will be developing a quiet strength and self confidence that will be of great value to you as you go through life.  



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.