The Ethical Dilemma: I Came Out as an Atheist, and Now My Family Hates Me. Help!

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Auntie Mame: I am a stay-at-home mom who helps out my family by taking care of my niece whenever her parents have to work. This means my niece (6 years old) and my kids (5 and 6) spend a lot of time together.

Lately, my niece keeps bringing up Jesus and God. Generally, I try to steer the conversation to a different topic, but she’s starting to become a little more persistent. Naturally, I respect her parents’ decision to raise her how they choose. However, I find myself struggling with how to answer my own children’s questions about religion. Both of my kiddos are curious, so I want to be honest with them, yet I find myself in an awkward position when the questions are asked in front of my niece. I want them to make up their own minds, but at such a young age I know that I have a huge hand in influencing what they believe.

I don’t want to alienate my family (we all have a mutual respect for each other’s point of view), but I don’t know how to get my niece to quit discussing religion with them. I’m also in the dark when it comes to answering questions about a faith that I do not follow, without potentially saying something that steers them towards atheism. Please help!

—Atheist Mommy-o

Dear Mommy-o,

I’m not convinced you have a problem beyond feeling that you should be deferential to your niece’s family’s views versus your own—which I don’t think is called for. They know you are atheist and raising your kids that way, and they are willing to leave their child under your influence—just as Jewish families sometimes put their children in Christian schools and vice versa, accepting the risk that their children might sample the Kool-Aid that goes with the care.

Your niece may be getting more persistent about discussing her religion because she’s noticing the discrepancies between what she experiences at her home and what goes on in yours. It’s fine for her to bring these things up in front of your kids (and for your kids to raise religious questions in front of her), and for you to respond with your views, just as Jewish teachers would tell Christians they don’t accept Jesus as the messiah, and Christian teachers would eat ham sandwiches and talk about Jesus in front of Jewish students. Yes, it can be awkward because you know you will be contradicting things she’s being told are true, and your kids could start longing for rituals and an afterlife. But all these children are going to have to face all these questions sooner or later. Aren’t you lucky you’re in a position to answer them in your own way, when the kids are at this especially receptive age?

So enjoy and make the most of this opportunity. If your niece’s parents ever complain, relate the above analogies about religious schools, and tell them you won’t address religious questions if no one asks, but if they do, you will answer with your views. If the parents no longer want to leave your niece with you, that’s their prerogative; expressing your perspective on your turf is yours.

Brought Up, Bought Out: I am an atheist. I struggled with religion for many years (since I was 5). After much reasoning, soul searching and reading of the Bible I have finally concluded there is no god. My family, however, is not so supportive. My parents are both Baptist and my mother has repeatedly become furious at my lack of faith, telling me that it was not the way “you were brought up!” My husband also verbalizes his displeasure and frequently says things like:  “Don’t you want to see our baby again?” We lost an infant son many years ago. I have three children of which only the oldest (a daughter) cries every time it is brought up that I do not believe. I just don’t know what to do!  Help!

—Atheist in a Haystack of Christians

Dear Haystack,

Wow, you were struggling with religion at an unusually young age—way ahead of most of us (maybe you were cared for by an atheist aunt, like the child in the first question?). And yet, like many of us, you still teamed up with a religious spouse, so now you have to deal with him on one side and your parents on the other. But this is probably the case for far more atheists than you might expect.

When I first read that your husband asked if you didn’t want to see your baby again, I thought he was threatening to take your child away. So it was a relief to realize he was just talking about the afterlife (oh, that!). The real concern is your living children and your here-and-now life.

I’m afraid I can offer no miracle to cure your situation, only support for you to continue to stand your ground and be honest with your family about your worldview. You can tell your parents this is how you were brought up: You were instructed to read the Bible, which is so full of contradictions and unbelievable/incomprehensible tales and nasty characters (especially that one called God) that you, using your brains and morals, had to reject its teachings. You can tell your husband you are not as concerned about seeing an infant in the afterlife as you are about upsetting your oldest child in this one. I don’t know if your younger ones are just too young to get upset yet, or your oldest has had more years of religious indoctrination, or her distress is just her way of responding, but you need to consistently be serene and confident in your atheism. Emphasize all the positive aspects, such as no fear of eternal damnation, the appreciation of nature, the advances of science, the beauty of the arts, the thrill and responsibility of using our own mind and abilities to solve problems.

I’d suggest you ask your husband and parents to ease up for the sake of harmony in your home—and to stop upsetting your daughter and wasting their breath on you—but I don’t expect they’d comply. They believe they’re doing the right thing, and not protesting your atheism would be wrong. But if you can find some fellow freethinkers to include in your life (to come over for dinner, to have their kids play with your kids), you could make your haystack a lot more congenial while demonstrating that many well brought up atheists walk among us.