The Ethical Dilemma: I’m Still Listed as a Member of My Parents’ Church!

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.

Reluctant Atheist Bible School Teacher: When I was younger, my parents made me go through youth group and confirmation into their church. While they technically gave me the option not to, it was very clear that they would be disappointed in me if I didn’t get confirmed, and at any rate, I had not yet started questioning faith at the time.

As a result, I am still listed as a member of my parents’ church. While I’ve been able to simply ignore this fact for years, my father has now become a church elder, is more active in church, and attending more regularly. He doesn’t know that I’m an atheist (or he at least refuses to acknowledge it, as I mentioned it several years ago, but he seems to have “forgotten”), and he casually mentions me to other members of the church from time to time.

I recently received a phone call asking if I would like to help with vacation bible school over the summer. While I don’t know if my dad actively volunteered me for the position, he seems to be giving people the idea that I would be a fit for helping with such things. To make matters worse, because my dad is an elder, and well-acquainted with the woman asking, she already knows that I’m not busy and love teaching young children, thus eliminating most of the polite excuses I can think of. I feel this will inevitably lead to questions about why I’m rejecting the offer.

Should I mention that I wish to be removed from the list of church members? What should I say to my dad to let him know I’m not interested in or comfortable with helping out at church? Should I ask him not to mention me to members of his congregation or at least not to mention me as a candidate for helping out?

Unlisted Number

Dear Unlisted,

I wish you’d indicated how old you are and whether you still live with your dad, but you must be at least in high school. Your degree of legal, financial, and situational independence affects your options, but you have some wiggle room even if you are still a minor living with and supported by your father.

It’s intriguing to contemplate accepting the job and teaching it according to your own lights. As someone who loves teaching children, wouldn’t you love to teach them to ask questions about Bible stories? For instance, why would a god punish people for learning stuff that’s true? Why would a perfect being command one of his favorite humans to kill his beloved son, only to stop him at the last possible second? Why would he keep creating people in his image and then wiping them out because he wasn’t pleased with them? Why would he send his own son to be tortured and killed, and how can one person’s death have any effect on other people’s sins (even those born centuries later)? There’s just endless material for your lesson plans. Then if the powers that be suddenly decide they don’t want you teaching Bible school after all, you’d never have to look for excuses again.

Although it would be fantastic if you’d do that, it may not be your style, and it would not sit well with your dad. So you could just stonewall the woman, saying, “No, I would not like to teach vacation Bible school, thank you,” until she gives up. You really don’t owe an explanation. Like Bartleby in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, you can simply say “I’d prefer not to.”

You do need to have a talk with your father to make all the points you proposed in your letter. Being active in the church is his thing, not yours, and you don’t want to embarrass him or waste people’s time evading their outreach. Since your father apparently isn’t receptive to discussing or acknowledging your atheism, no need to press it on him. Just state that you are excusing yourself from church activities and then step aside like a skilled matador.

As for the “listing,” I’m not sure what that entails. If you live with your dad, you’re probably on the church membership roster by default. If you live on your own, you could ask to be removed, but that might constitute a poke in the eye for your dad the elder. Some churches make it impossible to get your name off their books even if you petition in writing all the way up the hierarchy. But is it necessary to formally withdraw? Couldn’t you just toss any mail that comes, delete any emails or mark them as spam, or glance at caller ID and opt not to pick up the phone?

Eventually people from your dad’s church may give up on you, or your dad will, or you’ll move and forget to leave a forwarding address (for the church, not your dad). Or you’ll reach the point where you’re autonomous enough to tell anyone who will listen exactly why you refuse to participate. They probably won’t get past the word “atheist,” and then you’ll be effectively, if not literally, unlisted.