The Ethical Dilemma: My Parents May Stop Paying for College if I Come Out as an Atheist. Help!

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Coming Out Atheist Without Risking “Scholarship”: I’m a 20-year-old college sophomore who grew up in (and still live in, when I’m not at school) a heavily Christian, heavily right-wing bubble town. I grew up going to church on a regular basis and believing what I was told.

After the start of my sophomore year of high school, I found myself questioning the beliefs I grew up with. I quickly went from belief to disbelief in a rather short amount of time yet have kept my disbelief completely to myself since then. My parents don’t go to church often anymore, but my mother in particular is still fairly religious. I find myself wanting to “come out” to them and to my extended family, whom are considerably more religious than my immediate family.

The main thing keeping me from doing this is the fear of creating a rift in my family and of the possibility of being completely separated from them. My father has been generous enough to pay for the majority of my schooling (something his father did for him, and something I plan to do for my son as well). But I fear that if I come out as an atheist/humanist, he will remove his financial support, and I will be unable to continue my college education due to having to find a full-time job.

What are some ways I could come out to my religious family members? I strongly disagree with their beliefs, but I don’t want to cause a rift in a family that I do care about, despite our ideological differences.

—Wanting To Leave the Closet But Not College


Dear Wanting,

You’re in luck! Just read Greta Christina’s book Coming Out Atheist. I’m sure there’s nothing I could add to what she has to say on the subject or how eloquently she says it, but I can make a couple of observations specific to your situation. You actually have two related issues: Not wanting to create a rift in your family, which is probably more accurately not wanting to get your family upset/angry with you; and not wanting to lose your “scholarship.”

This may sound unethical, but it isn’t: If you believe it’s a real possibility your family would cut you off emotionally or financially, you should continue to keep your atheism to yourself for the two years until you finish college. You’ve managed to do so for several years already, including when you were living at home full-time, so why not hang on for a couple more, which should be easier now that you’re primarily out of the house? Your thoughts about religion are your business and no one else’s—there’s nothing wrong with them, and you aren’t being dishonest by keeping them private. There’s no reason to impair your quality of life for the rest of your life because you expressed your views at an inopportune juncture.

It’s better to opt for full disclosure, if you still want to, once you’ve finished your degree. By then, you’ll be more mature and independent, which will help you make your case without so much fear of economic repercussions and with a greater sense of confidence. Hopefully your family members, or at least those closest to you, will accept your worldview (which by then you will have maintained well beyond what might be dismissed as a youthful “phase”). And don’t be surprised if some of your relatives—perhaps even your father—come out to you in return. In fact, they might be disappointed that you didn’t have enough “faith” in them to speak up sooner.

One more thing: You say you plan to pay for your son’s education. I hope you plan to do the same for your daughter’s!