The Humanist Dilemma: Can I Be Honest about My Atheism with My Friend’s Kids?

(Editor’s Note: Joan is no longer taking questions. Please submit your humanist dilemmas to What Would a Humanist Do?,

Asked but Not Answered: I am a man in my forties with no kids, and I am an atheist. In most cases, this doesn’t cause me problems with my family and friends beyond a few questions here and there. But an unexpected issue has come up.

A friend of mine has twin boys just shy of being teenagers. I’ve been kind of an unofficial uncle to them, and I’m confident they trust me, as do their parents. Both my friend and his wife are Catholic, although they’re definitely not in your face nor over the top about it. We have never had anything more than a friendly discussion about religion, and it’s never been an issue between us.

A couple of weeks ago the boys, their dad, and I went to a car show and then stopped for lunch. Out of the blue, one of the boys asked me what church I go to. I told him that I don’t go to church. He asked if I didn’t believe in God, to which I answered I did not. At that point, his dad kicked me under the table and said, “Yeah, sure he does.” The boys asked why I don’t go to church if I believe in God. I didn’t want to lie but didn’t want to cause a problem either, so I just said, “some people believe different things.”

Later, my friend asked me not to tell the boys that I really didn’t believe in God. I said I wouldn’t bring it up, nor would I try to defend my nonbelief to them, but that I wasn’t comfortable lying about it. We kind of left it unresolved. I was confused as to why he felt it was so harmful for them to know that some people don’t believe what their family believes. Normally my friend isn’t like this.

They aren’t angry with me (we’ve gotten together since then with no problem) and I’m not angry with them, but I hate how unresolved this is. I refuse to lie to anyone about this. My instinct, should the boys ask again, is to tell them that I’d rather not discuss it unless their parents say it’s OK. I don’t feel it’s my place to tell them why I don’t believe, at least not until they’re older . Do you have any advice you could share in case they ask again?

–Between the Truth and a God Place

Dear Between,

This is the kind of behavior from believers toward nonbelievers that really makes me indignant. Believers have no problem telling anyone who will listen about their views but will only tolerate nonbelievers if they keep their views to themselves. It’s a double standard, enforced because beliefs are so fragile, particularly in impressionable young people, that the truth (i.e., that some people have other ideas) is kryptonite. For the most part, I advocate coming out about one’s atheism, and if that causes other people’s beliefs to crumble, so be it.

But this is a bit more nuanced. These people are your friends and you’d all like to keep it that way. It’s very likely if you exercise your right to express your views, you’ll be opting out of an enjoyable relationship. But the boys have already heard you say you don’t believe in God or go to church, and they probably noticed that you changed your tune in response to their dad. That can’t be undone, nor should you regret it. You were under no obligation to dissemble. And you’ve made it clear that you refuse to be dishonest. That’s all good.

Your plan to defer to the parents if asked again is also good, even if it’s not as satisfying as it would be to simply share your views with the boys. Now it’s up to the parents to instruct their children not to ask you any more of these questions. The only thing I would suggest is amending your position and tell the parents that, if asked again, you’ll answer with the truth, as it’s an intrinsic aspect of who and what you are.

You can do more for these boys by being in their lives than by being shut out. Hopefully, they’ll always remember the friend who may not have believed in God and didn’t go to church but was a good guy just the same. And apart from this bump, you probably derive a lot of satisfaction from the relationship. So do your part to keep it going, but without compromising yourself. The longer you hang in there, the more likely you’ll be able to speak to these young men openly and honestly. Until then, even if you can’t tell them, show them what an atheist is all about.