The Humanist Dilemma: Should I Tell My Parents I’m Atheist?

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Parental Advisory: I started questioning my faith at the age of nine, and now, at seventeen, have come to the conclusion that there is no God, that I am an atheist. My mother is incredibly religious. She’s Catholic and she claims to hear the voices of, hold conversations with, see, sense, and be visited by the dearly departed. While I don’t doubt her, her stories are quite fantastical and unnerving at times.

Just a few days ago we had a funeral for my grandfather. Apparently, during the mass people saw how I was “acting” and heard some of the things I said after the mass. That, along with things I’ve brought up before, seemed to tip my mother off. Just having a conversation tonight I was thinking of coming clean about my atheism, until she started talking to me about what some people had seen me say or do. (Don’t know exactly what they saw.) And she started reprimanding me for my “poor behavior.” Eventually, the conversation started to wind down and she said she didn’t care what I believed, just that I believed there was some power greater than us out there in the universe, and that she would be mortified to find out I didn’t believe in even that.

My father isn’t as devout as my mother. He’s a Lutheran and never goes to church, but still believes in a god and has said that he would be mortified if I didn’t turn out to be his perfect little daughter.

I don’t want to disappoint my parents, to cause them pain, to be disowned by them, or any other event that could lead to disaster. But I also want to tell them and have them not treat me differently. Should I tell them? If so, how and when? Or should I just keep it to myself?

—Keep the Godless Cat in the Bag?


Dear Cat,

I find your questions puzzling, because it seems the cat is already pretty much out of the bag. I’m also puzzled by your statement that you “want to tell them and have them not treat me differently.” That’s wanting to have your cake and eat it too. You can choose what you tell your parents, but you can’t choose how your parents react. They have indicated they would not treat you the same if you insisted you don’t believe in any god. If your goal is to keep being treated the same, your choice would be to back off the atheist stuff. But if what you want is to be recognized as an atheist, you would need to come out and state that plainly—and be prepared for the consequences, which you suggest might be disastrous.

It seems that everyone around you has picked up on the atheist noises you’ve been making and they’re making disapproving noises in response. But no one is really confronting the issue, probably because they (and you?) would rather continue to maintain the current level of denial and avoidance rather than have a confrontation.

I’m also puzzled by your comments that you believe your mother actually communicates with the dead. Why don’t you doubt her? If you believe that, then although you may not accept a god, you do seem to accept ghosts or other supernatural forces. How does that sit with your professed atheism?

Before you do anything further, you need to ask yourself what you really do and don’t believe, and what you want and expect to achieve by identifying yourself as a non-god-believer. What do you have to lose or gain by asserting your non-belief vs. going along with your religious environment? Would you be expressing your convictions (which I don’t think you have sorted out yet) or just rebellion?

Until you have a better handle on your positions and what you hope to accomplish, keep your inner thoughts inner. The funeral of a relative is no time to act out. Even if you were an avowed atheist, there would be no need to display that on a solemn occasion that’s not about you. Many atheists attend religious funerals (and weddings, baby namings, bar mitzvahs, etc.) and behave respectfully toward the hosts’ beliefs and traditions rather than call attention to their own.

In a year or two you will probably be striking out on your own. Use your time now to figure out who you are, what you want out of life, and what’s important to you (factoring in what’s important to your parents and how that affects you). Until you have more fully worked these things out, there’s nothing wrong with keeping your private views private. But bear in mind that your goal is not to be your parents’ “perfect little daughter,” but rather to find yourself as an independent adult woman.

It might help you to air your thoughts and confusion with other non-believers before you attempt to articulate them to your parents. Look for non-believer (secular, humanist, atheist, universalist) organizations in your area or online to develop a better understanding of how other non-believers view the world and help you clarify your own ideas.