Coming Out Atheist to Religious Parents

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve told my deconversion story, as well as the story of coming out to my conservative parents elsewhere on this blog. As you may know if you’ve read other posts here, I’ve had pretty good luck with this. (See my About Me and Why Atheist pages for more on that). In summation, I have not been cut off financially, or disowned. My parents still say they love me, even if they don’t understand why I don’t believe. They have yelled at me and argued with me, but they’ve also stopped making me attend mass; that was my biggest victory. However, there have been a few rough patches in the road as far as coming out to my family is concerned, and one in particular has been a problem lately: the fact that I came out at all.

The person bringing this up is the elder of my two little brothers, the same one who asked why I was against prayer in school (see that post here). Over winter break, back in January, he asked me why I came out at all. He said I’d hurt my parents by telling them I was an atheist, and wouldn’t it have been easier for everyone if I’d just waited until I had moved out of the house for good? At the time, I addressed his concern head on. I explained that I had, in fact, weighed the pros and cons of coming out before doing it. On the one hand, I got along with my family better, on the surface, when we seemed to share the same political and religious ideologies. On the other, when I started having doubts, I would frequently have outbursts in front of my parents. I’m generally an open book and very bad at hiding what I really think. If my words don’t give my thoughts away, my face does, and religion–which I had come to strongly dislike at that point–was all around me. Not only did I have to attend mass every Sunday, but I was expected to participate in grace at dinner time each night, to say “God bless you,” when someone sneezed, to avoid “using God’s name in vain,” and to pray the rosary whenever my parents decided it was time we did that “as a family.” Sure, I can mumble the words and not mean them. I can go through the motions of sitting, standing, and kneeling at mass. I absolutely suck at hiding my true thoughts and feelings though. Eventually, the truth would come out, and I wanted it to happen on my own terms.

I thought that answer had settled it for my brother, but when I came home for Easter weekend, the youngest of my brothers said, “He’s mad at you again. He thinks you shouldn’t have told Mom and Dad you’re an atheist.”

I didn’t address it this time, since he did not approach me about it himself, and I didn’t want to start an argument during a holiday. Still, I felt a bit frustrated that he was holding on to this point of contention for so long. It had been months, after all–long enough for him to have contacted me if he wanted to talk again. Maybe I didn’t make my answer clear enough to him originally, though, so I want to expand on why I came out here, for the sake of anybody else who’s considering telling their family they’re atheist, or anything else about them for that matter. Maybe you’re dealing with this, or will someday.

My brother sees me coming out as the selfish thing to do, and I see where he’s coming from to an extent. I definitely upset my parents severely. I know they believe that I’m probably going to go to hell if I don’t start practicing Catholicism again before I die, and it’s probably very stressful to believe your children are doomed to eternal damnation. As I said before, it’s also more challenging to live with someone with different political and religious views. There are topics to avoid, and difficult conversations to navigate. With that being said, I do not regret coming out, and I strongly believe that doing so was the right thing for me and my family, though certainly there may be people in situations where waiting may be beneficial.

I think it’s pretty clear how coming out has benefited me:  I can be myself, I don’t have to practice Catholicism, and I don’t have to lie about what I believe or don’t believe. How has me coming out benefited my family? Well, for one thing, I’m not lying to them every Sunday, and any other day of the week when religion came up (and it came up a lot). That means the relationships I have with them can be more trustworthy. Sure, it stings a little to find out that someone you thought you had a lot in common with actually doesn’t share one of your interests or obsessions, but wouldn’t you rather they tell you the truth about that? I sometimes listen to 90s boy bands out of nostalgia, but if a friend doesn’t like them, I’d rather have him or her tell me so that I don’t drive them crazy whenever they stop by. I realize for my parents, religion is a bigger deal than what bands one listens to, but I strongly feel that honesty is a good thing in all relationships, and that includes family.

Another way in which coming out when I did (as opposed to whenever I move out, when my brother thinks I should have) benefited my family is that I was home during the period when they were adjusting to the news. (It happened over the summer). I was around to answer their questions, and have discussions with them. While I will admit I may not have handled them all as smoothly and calmly as I would have liked, it would have been much worse if I had moved out of the house and suddenly said, “Oh, and by the way, that religion stuff you taught me to believe is bull crap. Bye!” Talk about dropping a bomb! Even if I said that in a more polite way, it would have a pretty profound effect on my family. Moving out is a time for a young person to learn how to be independent, and a time for the family to learn how to stay in touch despite busy schedules and not living in the same house. It’s not a good time for them to also be wrestling with the idea that you’re going to hell. That might make the separation seem like a good thing. It might make us avoid each other. It would certainly make them all quite angry with me–and rightly so. No, I chose a good time to come out. I also had the added bonus of knowing I’d be back at school in a few months, giving us time apart to grow accustomed to the change, but not so much time that we also grow apart.

That’s what I worried about the most when I came out:  not the short term negative feelings, which I knew would happen regardless of when I told my family, but the long term effects of coming out at a given time. I had to prioritize staying a member of my family. Unless they choose to shun me, I see no reason to do anything that might be interpreted as a rejection of them as people. I’m not rejecting them at all; I’m only rejecting religion.

What I want my brother to understand is that I did, in fact think this through very seriously. I know I made the right decision.

My advice to anyone considering to come out is to do the same: think it through. Consider the likely consequences of coming out at any given time. Figure out if it’s safe to come out–and if it is, figure out the best way to do so.

Have any of you experienced anything like this, where someone basically told you you shouldn’t come out? Are any of you considering coming out? Feel free to leave a comment. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

 

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One thought on “Coming Out Atheist to Religious Parents

  1. Your brother may not be old enough to truly understand what it’s like to HIDE yourself and have to live inauthentically for long periods of time, amidst people who believe radically different things than you. I can only hope maturity will help him see your side. Then again, people much older than him still think I’m a selfish snot for for coming out with my atheism and hurting my mother. It is helpful that I don’t live in the same house with her, as she doesn’t have to see me not practicing the religion she gave me.

    You’re at a trickier place though, being young enough to still need a home base while going to college. I think you did the right thing, being that your parents are pretty devout…I don’t see how you could have blended in without causing yourself serious pain. Bottom line: people get hurt when you come out, and I honestly don’t think it can be avoided in religious families. There are serious consequences to living authentically, and one must be prepared to pay the price to live free.

    Liked by 1 person

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