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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Being (Mostly) Openly Atheist

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When it comes to my atheism, I am mostly out of the closet. My parents know. My boyfriend knows (and turns out to have become an atheist right around the same time). My friends at college know, as do the majority of my professors (They’re fantastic). My parents took it the worst, but ultimately, so far, everyone has accepted that I no longer believe in God. Everyone, that is, except the people I’ve conveniently neglected to tell.

1 – My extended family.

2 – My godparents.

3 – My family’s church friends.

Basically anyone I don’t at least interact with on a weekly basis.

At first, I explained my decision not to tell them with the notion that they didn’t need to know–which was true. They didn’t. But then I found myself in a bit of a tricky situation over the weekend. There was a death in my family, and at the funeral (which was, of course, a mass), the time came for everyone to receive communion.

If I chose to receive it, I would gravely offend my parents, who taught me that receiving communion while not in good standing with the church (which I’m not, since I no longer attend mass) is a mortal sin–the worst kind of sin. Because I don’t believe, I don’t care about the part where that offends God. Nevertheless, I don’t want my parents to be miserable, thinking about how my soul’s been further damned by such a heinous sacrilege against the real presence of Jesus, whom they believe the bread and wine become in the Eucharist. I know my parents. They’ll spend ages praying for me and freaking out about what God might do to me if I stand up and eat a cracker that He’s chosen to grace with His presence. My other option was simple:  don’t receive communion. That choice came with repercussions too, though:  I would be outing myself as a sinner of some kind, if not specifically an atheist. Why is that, you ask?

There are only a few reasons not to receive communion:

1) Failing to fast adequately (1 full hour) before communion

2) Not being in “good standing” with the church. This can range from “Oops, I committed a mortal sin and haven’t been to confession yet,” to “I’m not Catholic.” Both apply to me. (For more details on who is and isn’t allowed receive communion, check out this link.)

Because I arrived early to the funeral (It took place two hours away, so we gave ourselves extra time getting there), everyone knew I had fasted the required 1 hour. They also assumed I was a devout Catholic, because that’s how my parents raised me. While one extended family relative did know (that Buddhist uncle I mentioned in my post on belief in an afterlife as a coping mechanism), I assumed that no one else did. I hadn’t told them. My grandparents were there! I didn’t want them to know.

Maybe they won’t notice if I don’t receive I thought as I waited for everyone to arrive. When it was time for the funeral to begin, I realized to my horror that there were only 10 people there. (The relative who passed away had been estranged from the family, and seemingly from everyone, since really only family and some close friends of ours came, none of whom knew him except for my grandma.) That meant that if I didn’t receive communion, people would notice.

I realize this seems like I’m making a big deal out of the decision of whether or not to participate in a meaningless ceremony, but Catholics can be very judgmental. This is the same issue Catholics who use contraception, or have premarital sex, or cohabitate face every Sunday. They technically can’t receive communion in a state of sin (and there are supposedly grave repercussions if they do for their souls,) but if they choose not to, it casts suspicion on their behavior.

In the end, I chose to make life easy for my parents, who I’ll have to live with at the end of next semester since I’ll be graduating in May. I stayed in the pew and let everyone else receive “Jesus.” No one said anything to me. I hope my grandmother wasn’t looking as people went up to receive. As I waited in the pew, I realized that most of the people who received were the row in front of me:  my parents and grandparents. My brother received communion too, as did one of the family friends. My cousin and aunt, sitting beside me, didn’t receive either. They’re atheists too. I can’t remember if my uncle did, but I really don’t care. What I realized suddenly, sitting in that pew, abstaining from the cardboard-tasting unleavened bread I’d eaten every Sunday since second grade, was that I was in good company. I wasn’t the only non-Catholic there. My grandmother’s best friend, who is Jewish, had come. My uncle, the Buddhist, contributed by reading the first scripture reading. My cousin and aunt, my fellow non-believers, were sitting right next to me. Five out of the ten people there weren’t Catholic. Many of us had been raised that way, but this funeral wasn’t our cup of tea.

I got lucky when it came to communion. The only person who said anything to me was my atheist cousin, who proudly showed me the notes she’d taken in her cell phone during mass. They were her thoughts on the religion, such as “priests need to get laid.” and “Quick, the church needs new seats! Give me money!” Some of them were downright hilarious, and I enjoyed laughing with her and sharing an atheist moment with a relative. My brother joined us and read some, admitting that despite his reception of communion, he considers himself agnostic right now, bringing the total number of non-Catholics at the funeral to a whopping 6/10. That’s 60%. I’m increasingly thinking that being openly atheist might not be a bad thing. Overall, those 10 members of my family and its close friends weren’t exactly lacking in religious diversity. I was just happy to not be the only non-Catholic there. I’m not sure if I’ll go out of my way to tell my grandparents about my atheism, but at least it seems I can relax and be myself around them. In my panic, I had forgotten that I wasn’t the first one to ditch Catholicism.

That just leaves two more groups:  Godparents, and my parents’ religious friends. My godparents came over to dinner a few nights ago, and I said grace for the first time in a while, just to dip back into the closet for one meal. They’re very sweet, but they’re devout Catholic republicans who moved to the south and love it there for all the wrong reasons. I also have more education than they do, even though they’re older than my parents and I haven’t yet finished college. The disparity in education is sometimes glaring, which makes me nervous about their ability to think critically and take the news objectively. Then there’s that last group. My parents’ religious friends believe in spiritual warfare and possession. (Not sure what that is? Check out my post about it here.) I think it’s safe to say I’ll be sticking to the closet with those two groups for as long as I can.

Overall, so far, being out has been good for me. It’s been emotionally freeing, and if you read my “Why Atheist?” page you’ll see that it’s gotten me out of attending mass. I know that not everyone has such a positive experience with coming out as part of a minority group, though. Feel free to comment with any stories you have about being openly atheist, or otherwise being yourself in a way you weren’t sure your family or other people would understand and accept. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think your comments through before posting.

As always, happy thinking!

-Nancy