The Ethical Dilemma: Can I Tell My Parents I’m an Atheist?

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Can I Tell My Parents I’m Atheist? I’m sixteen years old and an atheist. I’m in a Christian family in a very religious county. My parents have always said not to be scared about talking to them about anything. But they always find a way to bring up God or something Bible-related when having just a normal conversation or when I’m asking for advice. They absolutely abhor any doubt or lack of faith.

My dad wants to know when I plan to get baptized, and I tell him I’m not sure. In my head, I’m thinking that I don’t plan on getting baptized because that would be agreeing to a serious commitment that I wouldn’t bother honoring. So, I’m thinking of several options: Coming out to them when I’m back from college. Or wait until even later in life. Or, just happen to move all the way to another state or country and not be able to contact them. Or just not come out as an atheist at all. Which one do you think I should do?

–Multiple Choice

Dear Choice,

You are very perceptive not to take your parents’ “you can tell us anything” at face value. What you describe suggests that your dad for one isn’t going to like hearing that you have no interest in baptism or religion, and I imagine to him the “A-word” is a curse.

So let’s look at your options. I would eliminate the one about moving to where you can’t contact them, since that would have to be not just another state or country (which might still provide phone, mail, email, and other forms of communication), but rather somewhere more remote, like Antarctica—and even there, I’m sure they could get in touch with a little effort. So let’s not consider running away, at least physically.

I suspect the reason your other options involve waiting is that you want to be on your own, out of the house, and financially independent before you drop this news, in case it doesn’t go over so well. If you think it’s possible that informing your parents would bring wrath upon you in the form of punishment (e.g., throwing you out, refusing to help you pay for college) or just getting in your face and fuming at you incessantly, you would be wise to hold off. Once you are independent, deciding whether to reveal becomes a matter of weighing what’s to be gained versus lost. Would it relieve you to tell? Would it make them miserable? Would it improve your relationship with them or destroy it? These are important questions that you would need to consider carefully because once the words are said, they can’t be unsaid.

Certainly it’s possible to live your life without ever cluing them in. But hopefully you’ll get to a point where you can tell others—at least those closest to you. And once you do that, the information is likely to wend its way back to your parents, who would then not only know your secret, but also want to know why you never told them yourself.

You could try the old “My friend just told her parents she’s an atheist” and see how your parents react, as a trial balloon for how they’d react if it were you. From that you’d have a better idea of whether to say anything to them now or ever. You might possibly be underestimating their ability to accept your worldview. Maybe they keep asking about baptism because they already suspect you aren’t on board and would like to know for sure. I actually thought that baptism was something parents arranged for their children when they were way too young to protest, but maybe your family’s customs are different, or maybe your parents genuinely do want you to elect baptism if, and only if, you yourself want it.

So until you decide your best course, keep stalling about the baptism. You can assure your parents they’ll be the first to know if you decide to set a date, but you’re not ready to do that now and that there’s no need for them to keep inquiring. And if you decide you really can’t keep putting them off and you also really can’t confide in them, you could go through the motions of a baptism now as a minor granting your parents’ wishes, and follow your own path when you’re an independent adult.

Whatever you decide, I encourage you to pursue a way to live your adult life as honestly and openly as possible—not bottled up feigning beliefs. You owe it to yourself and to others in your life. And you don’t owe anyone a lifetime of pretending.