The Humanist Dilemma: Does Becoming a Parent Mean a Closeted Atheist Has to Grow Up?

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Being Honest with Parents So We Can Be Honest with Children: I became an atheist around the age of fifteen, I’m now in my mid-thirties and I have yet to “come out” to my family. I am unapologetically open about being an atheist in all other parts of my life, as I want to help put a personal face on atheism and secular humanism in an effort to help move the needle. The only reason I haven’t come out to my family is out of consideration for my mother. My maternal grandfather is an atheist, and has been his entire life. I’ve witnessed my mother beg him on multiple occasions to be baptized so he will gain entrance to heaven. I can see the very real terror from her perspective, that once he dies he’ll be forever lost to her. Seeing the psychological distress this has caused, and continues to cause for her, I decided long ago that it was a more humane, ethical compromise to not contradict her assumptions about my faith but not to actively affirm it either. I long ago committed to telling the rest of my family that I’m an atheist after she dies.

Now, my husband and I are expecting a child, so these issues are going to be more difficult to skirt and with bigger repercussions. Once we have a child, we’ll have to deal with questions of baptism and Sunday school. Personally, I don’t have a problem with someone putting water on my child’s head if it eases my mom’s existential terror. However, I would not become affiliated with a church in any standing way. I am left wondering if by not telling my mother I’m an atheist all these years, and if I choose to continue to do so, am I doing the humane thing or is this some way of rationalizing cowardice? Once I have a child, how does that obligation change?

—Closeted to Calm


Dear Closeted,

I have a friend who found it easier to tell his wife, five children, and minister parents (he himself had been a minister) that he was gay than it was to tell them he was an atheist. And although everyone accepted his sexual preference, on her death bed his ex-wife was still begging him to get back with Jesus before it was eternally too late.

But he had told everyone, and he never regretted it. Most of his family was fine with all of his revelations, and he was free to be himself, without fibbing to those closest to him.

My advice is this: it’s never too late to start being honest. It’s bad enough you’ve been dissembling for yourself, but now you’re considering perpetuating this into the next generation. How can you think of doing this to your child? Is that a lesson you want to teach?

I also wouldn’t be too sure your mother is clueless about your atheism when you’re open about it to everyone except your family. Her own father is a lifelong atheist, but somehow she was bitten by the God bug. She may truly believe she’s succeeded in passing it on to you, or maybe she’s just happy to pretend along with you.

I don’t see what you’ve been doing as humane to your mother or yourself. I do see it as dishonest to her, repressive to you, and potentially dysfunctional to your new family. What does your husband think about all this? Is he on board with baptizing your child just to keep up the charade, but then letting it drop once it’s time to go to church?

It’s time for you to accept the role of grown-up. As a parent, your job is to be an adult to your child, not a child to your mother. You can either start by telling your mother that you’re not a believer, or you can just drop all pretense of being one and wait for her to ask. She may very well know on some level and may prefer “don’t ask, don’t tell” to being forced to face facts. But if she does ask, answer truthfully. By being an “unapologetic” atheist, you’re not doing anything wrong. (On the other hand, deceiving your mother sure doesn’t seem right.)

Regardless of her truth, your views are your truth, and have been for more than half your life already. It’s time to live without pretense, so your child won’t have to continue this deception—and the messages it conveys about the relative value of religious belief over atheism and of blissful ignorance over reality.