The Ethical Dilemma: Advice for Coming Out as Atheist and Bisexual, and Agnostics Who Hate “God Bless You”

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Atheist Has More Coming Out: My super-religious and bigoted parents know that my teenage children and I are atheists. But they don’t know that we are also all bisexuals. Do we have to tell them? Or can it wait until one of them wants to marry someone of the same sex? I married someone of the opposite sex, which might have been out of fear to even attempt dating someone of the same sex. I still fear “coming out” in my forties.

—Bidentity Crisis

Dear Bidentity,

I’m wondering if your spouse is also an atheist and also bisexual or at least aware of your and the kids’ bisexuality. I hope the answer is that he is informed and accepts it—but maybe that’s another secret you’re keeping. I bring this up because if there’s to be any disclosure to your parents, your husband should be forewarned.

The fact is you are an adult, and your children are almost adults. You don’t have to tell your parents anything, and you also don’t have to keep any secrets from them, assuming you’re not living with them or dependent on them financially. It all depends on what you want to do and what the consequences may be if you reveal.

What business is it of your parents if you are bi? As for your children, they may still be solidifying their sexual identities. I can just see them coming out to you as straight or gay and hoping you won’t be disappointed that they are not bi after all. So it would be premature to tell anyone anything about the kids and unnecessary to tell them about yourself. You would also need to check with your kids whether they would ever want to share this personal information with their grandparents or anyone else.

On the other hand, letting your parents know that you are bi might shake up their narrow worldview in which all good people are straight. I can’t even guess which they’d consider worse: atheism or bisexuality, bisexuality or homosexuality? But they already survived your coming out as an atheist, so they might also take this one in stride (unless it would be the “last straw”). It might provide a teachable moment that makes them less inclined to discriminate against people who do not conform to their strictures. Look at the politician who switched from con to pro same-sex marriage after his own child came out to him—it was not Dick Cheney. Which is more likely to be your parents’ response?

So weigh what’s to be lost or gained by enlightening your parents about your secret. At the very least, giving them a heads-up about your own identity might temper the shock and ameliorate their reaction if one or more of your kids does one day decide to inform them of same-sex or assorted partners. Or it might be better just to let your parents enjoy their blissful ignorance of your family dynamics. Your call.

Damn Your Blessings: My husband and I are both agnostic/atheists. He comes from a family of right-wing, evangelical, “dinosaurs are a myth” Christians. It’s hard to relate to in-laws who believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with me and my value system.

My mother-in-law went through a period when she was being somewhat sensitive and not saying things like “God bless you” to us. Something’s changed though (a talking-to at church?) and now she’s blessing us all the time—when she says goodbye, on my Facebook page, and even in a condolence note she wrote to me. I find this very rude, as she knows perfectly well we’re not believers. I would never, ever push my beliefs on anyone, and I expect the same courtesy from others. Frankly, she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I am not sure if she is being vindictive or just clueless.

I don’t know what to do, because my husband is very sick of my anger towards his family. I don’t blame him, as I do have a temper and I’m too vocal about complaining to him about them! This has become a serious marital issue for us. He does not want me to tell her to stop saying “God bless you.”

What do I do? Nod and smile for the sake of marital harmony when she does this—and try not to get so angry that I explode later? Is there a polite way to establish boundaries with this woman?

—“Demonic” Daughter-in Law

Dear Demonic,

I just finished reading How to Control Your Anger Before it Controls You by respected psychologist Albert Ellis. He actually advocates a “humanist” response instead of fury. This type of rational advice could be really helpful in putting your situation in perspective and keeping it from eating away at you and your relationship with your husband.

It really doesn’t matter whether your mother-in-law is blessing you because she sincerely wishes you well, fears you are very much in need of remedial juju, or is purposely trying to incite friction and conflict. Don’t allow her actions to make you lose your cool. Work on divorcing her actions from your emotional response to them. Your mother-in-law can do whatever she pleases—and you can be a confident, serene adult who doesn’t overreact—whether she is doing her best to provoke you or is being as nice as she knows how. Don’t turn her blessing into a curse.

Recognize that although your code says pushing your beliefs on others is a no-no, hers very likely says it’s her duty, especially for loved ones and close family, to “save” those who don’t accept her absolutely true doctrine. You can’t make her think or do what you want, nor should you try; nor is she obligated to defer to your wishes if you were to demand she cease and desist. She knows how you feel and yet she persists, and your husband (who is on your side of the religious divide—now that’s a real blessing!) has asked you to get over this. So get over it, before he gets over you.

We all experience irritations from those around us, no matter how much we love them (or not). The trick is that old serenity prayer, paraphrased (hey, if a prayer contains wisdom, use it): “Change what you can change, live with what you have to live with, and figure out which is which.” This is definitely a live-and-let-live thing. Your task is to coax your anger impulse to exhale, not explode—because an explosion will hurt no one more than you.

I wonder how your husband feels about all the blessings. Has he made peace with it, or does it irk him too? Whichever is the case, you need to be sensitive to his position between his holy-rolling mother and his irate atheist wife. Rather than fixating on his mother’s behavior, you might focus on being a good teammate to your husband, since you are his mate and you’re on the same team.

When you married into this family you must have recognized that you’d have to cope with their beliefs, just as you hoped they’d cope with yours. So lighten up, and count your blessings (figuratively, not literally). If this is the worst complaint you have, you’re doing pretty well.

Nodding, smiling, and saying “thank you” works. Eventually, you might even mean it.