The Humanist Dilemma: When Should a Student Come Out as an Atheist?

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To Be or Not to Be…Out. I’m eighteen and will soon be graduating from a small, privately run, conservative Christian high school in the Midwest— and I’m an agnostic atheist. Ironically I won the Christian testimony award last year and have been a poster child for the school as a “virtuous woman.” These “honors” and “awards,” as the administration calls them, do not mean that I quietly sit in Bible class without challenging their ideas in a respectful manner. (Yes, I have Bible class for an hour every day.)

Both of my parents are highly religious; my father even used to be a pastor. To their dismay, I’m going to a secular college next year. My mom keeps on hounding me about what church I’ll attend, and how I’ll maintain my faith. If I come out as an atheist right now, I would be kicked out of my high school. But if I come out in college, my parents might not help me with my expenses. (Granted, they were only going to give me a modest amount, but it’s still a lot of money to me). I love my parents and I fear the repercussions. They would never harm me, but the social backlash from my extended family may be severe.

Should I maintain a façade of my “faith” and periodically attend church? What would you do in my situation?

—Longing to Surface, but Afraid


Dear Longing,

Congratulations on your achievements in high school and the fact that not only did you get into a secular college, your parents are allowing you to continue your education there. You may not realize it, but proficiency in Christian testimony and Bible studies can carry you a long way in life, no matter what path you choose (and atheists tend to be high scorers on tests of biblical knowledge—not as surprising as it may at first seem, since actually reading that book tends to erode faith). It also sounds as though you’ll be away from home next year, so your parents won’t have a front row seat to see whatever you do—or don’t do.

First of all, I suggest you look into financial aid of all kinds, through your college, through outside sources, through part-time jobs at or near your school and during summers. There are also some cool scholarship opportunities such as the FFRF student essay contests.  The more you become financially independent  from your parents, the more you can assert yourself without fearing the rug will be pulled out from under you.

Conversely, there’s no good reason to come out now, while you’re still in high school. If you got kicked out as you predict, that could very well result in your college acceptance being rescinded. Whatever imaginable gain, it’s hugely outweighed by very substantial and real risk. So just keep doing what you’ve been doing, which apparently is working very well for you, as you rack up awards and honors for politely raising questions about faith.

You can tell your parents that when you get to college you’ll check out various religious options. Every school has student faith organizations, and you can explore any and all of them. Maybe you’ll make some friends and enjoy some groups. Maybe you can find one that is very light on dogma and strong in community. Maybe there’s a secular student group you can become involved with (and if not, consider starting one once you get your bearings). Use your judgment to figure out how often to go to any kind of church, if at all. I don’t advocate outright lying, but you can certainly beg off attendance with very genuine excuses: you have too much studying to do, or a volunteer project that takes time, or student activities or a job that requires Sunday morning hours. Try to give your parents the bare minimum of information–just enough to keep them from showing up and dragging you away.

Once you’re earning enough money to stay afloat without your parents’ help, and you feel confident, you can start gradually—or cold turkey—withdrawing from any religious activities and narratives you’ve been maintaining, if that’s what you want to do. If you’re enjoying any faith-based activities, there’s no reason you can’t continue as long as you’re getting something out of them.

As for your extended family: You can’t live your life on pretense just to keep everyone happy. You don’t have to tell them anything about your faith unless you want to, and if they learn the truth regardless—well, it’s the truth, whether or not they choose to accept it. If your family really does reject you, move on (but remain open to reconnecting if and when they are ready to respect your views). You are doing nothing wrong and everything right.

The minute you get to college (and even before, using social media to start meeting classmates), create a new extended family of like-minded individuals and groups. You have your whole life ahead of you, and that—not the rest of high school or the college years, which will go by in a blink—is what you must focus on. Carrying on an elaborate charade will only stunt you in the short term and, more importantly, in the long run. The sooner you start living according to your own beliefs, the sooner you’ll start maximizing your potential and living your life authentically.