Ask Richard: My Parents Don’t Take my Atheism Seriously


Jan. 13, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I'm 22 and a recent college graduate. With the state the economy is in, I'm having problems finding a job and I had to take up residence with my parents. While none of us have a problem with this arrangement, I'm finding some of the things they believe about me to be pretty ouch-worthy.

I like to be open with my parents, so several months ago I told them that I was an atheist. My mom responded, "But you're not an atheist." It really surprised me to hear her say that, and I found myself having to explain to her that I really am. When she finally believed it, she and my dad both started making fun of my atheism rather loudly in a restaurant. After that, I tried to keep my atheism on the down-low.

I eventually found out that my father identifies as an agnostic, and I thought that maybe I had found an ally. Hearing him discuss his own frustrations about religion, I thought that maybe I could open up again. When I did, my mom seemed genuinely curious about why I'm an atheist, and I tried to explain how I came to my conclusions. I thought she accepted me, but I found out later that she thinks I'm just "going through a phase."

This is my first problem, my mother just thinking that I'm going through some sort of phase with atheism. I know that in my mom's head, I'm still just a child. After all, I'm the youngest. But it frustrates me that she seems to think that I'm incapable of making my own decisions–especially since I've held this conclusion for a few years now. And what is perhaps even more frustrating is that my agnostic father seems to take her side on the issue.

And because my non-beliefs aren't being taken seriously by my parents, I found a second problem emerging relating to getting a job.

I went to college to become a teacher. Since I have no money or car, I'm limited in where I can teach for the time being. At one point, I got an interview at a Catholic high school for a temporary position. (I have no problem being in a religious environment because I know that I can just not talk about being an atheist, and that doesn't bother me.) Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the job due to a question asked in the interview about whether or not I followed the rules of my church. I didn't want to lie, so I said that I don't belong to a church.

However, that made my mom rather angry. I understand that she wants me to get a job; however, I don't want to outright lie. But because she doesn't really believe that I am (or will remain) an atheist, she thinks that I should've lied. That really bothers me.

When I've talked to others about it, they say, "Having a job is better than having no job." I have no problem being quiet about being an atheist, but I do have a problem with lying. I have no idea how to handle my parents thinking I'm just going through a phase and that I should lie to potential employers about my non-beliefs.




Dear Frustrated,

The first problem–not being taken seriously by your parents–is not your problem. It's theirs. They probably won't take you seriously until after it no longer matters to you whether they do or not. Focus on being a grown-up in your own eyes, rather than in theirs.

It's good that you like to be open with them, and you probably should continue to do so. But when you share things, if it sounds in any way like you want their approval it puts you into the role of child and them in the role of parents. So when you share about yourself, do it entirely as an adult relating to other adults. Share only because that's what you want to do for yourself, not for any kind of reaction you want from them.

(This does not mean you should have a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, or be cold or aloof. It simply means that you no longer attach your emotional comfort to their impression of you. This detaching also does not mean that you will have to passively accept disrespectful treatment. If they ever start to publicly ridicule you or your atheism again, you'll need to assertively object and demand that they immediately stop.)

Being an adult is about your own opinion of yourself and living up to that opinion each day. Stay true to your own values, period. Someone else's image of you is irrelevant to your adulthood, so treat your parents' opinion of you as if it's none of your business. Your business is to attend to the second problem, which is getting a job.

And it looks like in order to do that, you need wheels.

Your mom wanting you to lie to get a job is beside the point.  If you don't want to lie, if you want to be true to that ethic, then that choice means you need to increase your physical range so you can find a secular school where you won't be asked about your religious views or practices.

Think creatively and in terms of possibilities. Perhaps at first you can use a transit system or commute with a friend to reach more schools. After you get a teaching job you can commute with a fellow teacher who lives nearby, sharing the cost of gas. Perhaps you can negotiate a loan from your parents for a cheap car to get you farther out there to catch that job. Once you do, you can continue living at home for a while and pay them back for the car. Then, if you wish, you can move out and have the physical independence to match your inner emotional independence.

Frustrated, I think soon you will rename yourself Fulfilled. Your desire to remain ethical and not to lie, while still being discreet, suggests to me that you will be a very good teacher. A teacher's strength of character is at least as important as their academic competence–and perhaps more so. I wish you good fortune in your hunt for a job and your quest for your inner sovereignty.




(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 counseld 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.)