Advice for kids coming out to their parents


This is a response to a 16 year old living in Florida with his creationist parents. He’s recently decided that he is a closeted atheist, partly as a result of watching the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate. He wants to know if/how he should come out to his parents. This is advice we’ve given several times on the show, but I like to lay stuff out in a blog post I can refer back to.

Our standard advice for teenagers telling parents they’re atheists is be really really careful. Your parents control many aspects of your life, and it’s not completely unheard of for parents to disown their kids over an issue like this. That means the worst case scenario is losing your home, or losing financial support for college if you’re planning to go that route.
That doesn’t mean that you definitely should not tell them. They’re your parents, so you know them better than most people. How religious are they? Are they pretty level headed? Do they love you unconditionally? These are all factors you consider in deciding how safe you feel in telling them. I wouldn’t want you putting your well being at risk for the sake of expressing yourself.
If you do decide to tell your parents, and you don’t know for sure how they’ll react, you’d best have a backup plan. Think about people you know and trust among your friends and extended family. Would any of them be more understanding if you told them first? Would they be willing to take you in if necessary? You might want to ask.
Finally, remember that since your parents have such unique power in your life, you shouldn’t view it as your job to change their minds. If you can get them to accept you and keep loving you, that’s a win even if they never agree with your point of view. So have arguments about the existence of God with other people as much as you like. But if you’re getting in a fight with your parents, sometimes the best you can do is to stand your ground and let them know that you may disagree with them, but you will always be a decent and ethical person who loves them.

Comments

  1. Mark Massingill says

    Good, sound advice. I know, as an atheist who’s entire family is highly religious that “coming out” to your family can be stressful and from experience I know that sometimes it is best to keep your beliefs to yourself. That said, I do believe honesty is best if you are in a position to take care of yourself should a family disown you. While a minor and dependent on family for food or shelter and it’s their responsibility to provide them, extreme caution should be taken in deciding how much to speak out on the matter.

    However, when it comes to college funding and support, I believe that keeping up false pretenses just so you can get money from somebody for school is the same as theft. If you know that telling somebody that you don’t believe in their god means they won’t fund your schooling so you don’t tell them and pretend to hold to their beliefs so that they will fund you then you lack both integrity and honor while feeding the belief that atheists have no moral code and are incapable of being moral. I wouldn’t want support from someone who wouldn’t willingly give it to me if they knew I was an atheist.

    Admittedly, I’m well past the age where I must depend on family for everything so I don’t face the same challenges or fears that some teens share in this regard. This is simply the standard I try to live by. If you feel that there’s nothing wrong with accepting money for college under false pretenses then it’s something you must live with and decide for yourself. I kept my atheism private for years just to keep from upsetting certain family members, yet I never intentionally lied about my beliefs and would not accept anything from anyone under false pretenses. That’s just me though.

  2. says

    However, when it comes to college funding and support, I believe that keeping up false pretenses just so you can get money from somebody for school is the same as theft. If you know that telling somebody that you don’t believe in their god means they won’t fund your schooling so you don’t tell them and pretend to hold to their beliefs so that they will fund you then you lack both integrity and honor while feeding the belief that atheists have no moral code and are incapable of being moral. I wouldn’t want support from someone who wouldn’t willingly give it to me if they knew I was an atheist.

    It may not be the most morally optimal means to get a higher education, bug I wouldn’t call lying about your god beliefs to be immoral or theft. If you took the school money and, instead of going to school (which is what your parents honestly expect you to spending it upon), you spent the money on blow and hookers, then I think that would look pretty bad (immoral, theft). Even if they made you sign a contract saying you must believe in god to receive tuition money from them, I say sign it and get an education. Nobody, your parents or government, can enforce your thoughts. What matters is what you do. If it means sacrificing your future livelihood to stick to a 100% honesty principle, that just seems like a perfect example of how something can be a “good lie” to me.

  3. @oullr says

    That really reminds me of my thought process before I came out to my parents as a gay teenager. Your advice is good.

  4. L.Long says

    My experience with parents is KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!!!!!
    I never told my mom that I was an atheist, she had disappointment enough when I changed my mind and did not become a priest. Even after leaving home and joining the USAF,I never told her. She was very religious (although a VERY nice person), I knew heaven & hell where real to her, and by the time I thought it OK to mention it, she was dying of cancer so why make things worse. But it does come down to Russell’s advice–YOU know your parents and how things should go, so think hard on it.

  5. RobNYNY1957 says

    Perhaps a way to test this is to go to a different church for a few weeks. If your parents are open to that, then the envelope can be pushed I don’t know if there are Quakers or Unitarians there, but that would be pushing the envelope. Even attendance at a Catholic or Orthodox church would give you an idea of their reaction to atheism.

  6. says

    It’s a damning indictment of christian love ™ that a post like this is necessary.

    That god is sold as the ultimate father figure lies at the root of this problem. That a loving god should react the way he is reported to do so to transgressions against his authority sets a terrible precedent to christian parents.

  7. says

    On the subject of not telling your parents, let me just add a comment. The following may be completely irrelevant for you and if so, feel free to completely ignore it. However, I’ve met people before who have complained that it felt dishonest not to come out.

    To that, I will say: You don’t owe them anything. If you decide not to tell them, it’s not being dishonest; it’s being private. They’re not entitled to know your every thought and opinion. If you decide to withhold information, that’s your right.

    This goes double if they’re likely to react badly. In such a case, I’d even defend flat-out lying. If they have created a situation where it’s impossible for you to tell the truth, then they bear the responsibility for the consequences.

  8. houndentenor says

    I will offer the same advice to a 16 year old agnostic or atheist that I would give to a 16 year old gay or trans person, wait until you are out of the house. Yes, ignore this if your parents are super-cool and open minded. but then such teens wouldn’t be asking for advice. The #1 reason homeless teens have no place to live is because they were kicked out of the house when their parents found out they were gay. Anyone who would kick their own child out of the house for being gay would probably also do the same if they came out as a non-believer. It’s too risky. Wait until you are in college and then tell them. I know 2 years seems like an eternity but it’s not.

  9. Alex says

    @Mark

    Great, guilt-trippig teenagers who face this kind of problem is a great idea! Your moral high ground doesn’t look so moral to me.

    But anyhow, as someone who lives in a “socialist” country, in my opinion the root of the problem here lies with the absurd costs of higher education in the US. The problem simply wouldn’t exist on the same scale here (of course it’s still hard), even if you get disowned by your parents.

  10. says

    >This goes double if they’re likely to react badly. In such a case, I’d even defend flat-out lying. If they have created a situation where it’s impossible for you to tell the truth, then they bear the responsibility for the consequences.

    If there were such a thing as 1000 percent, I’d agree that much. When parents abuse their station as care-givers by using threat and intimidation and fear, they lose every right to complain about their children being dishonest. Children aren’t robots, they are human beings with agency. As such, they aren’t going to obey a parent’s every command like a computer. Part of their charm as human beings is their agency and capacity to think for themselves and make their own choices and act independently. This is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not a good thing, but it’s NORMAL and going to occur. To frighten your kids only means that WHEN it happens (because “it won’t happen” is a pipe dream), they are going to be too scared to tell you honestly what they’ve done. And that’s nobody’s fault but the parents. If the parent gives the impression they are not open and available and capable of reasonable reactions–if they say things like “I would kill any kid of mine who…” or “If you ever do X, I would disown you!” or “I’d throw them right out of the house if…”–then they have set up a system where honesty is punishable, and not welcome or rewarded. They may wish it were a recipe for obedience, but that’s just ignorant wishful thinking. It’s a recipe for kids hiding their behavior and simply being sure to cover their tracks well.

    Parents who say “Never in MY HOUSE by god!!!” have it happening in their house. They just don’t know it yet, and possibly never will.

  11. ironchew says

    @ Mark

    However, when it comes to college funding and support, I believe that keeping up false pretenses just so you can get money from somebody for school is the same as theft.

    This being an issue with parents paying for their child’s schooling, withdrawing that support from him if he expresses a deviation from their fairy tales is implicit extortion. I normally don’t advocate tit for tat, but my situational ethics are perfectly fine with “fake it ’till you make it” in the face of immoral thugs that have failed their duty as parents.

    That said, I also think our higher education system colluding with employers to hold a living wage hostage behind a college degree and absurd amounts of student debt is implicit extortion. This is no small problem in the United States.

  12. Monocle Smile says

    I’m with ironchew on this.

    I wouldn’t want support from someone who wouldn’t willingly give it to me if they knew I was an atheist.

    Admittedly, I’m well past the age where I must depend on family for everything so I don’t face the same challenges or fears that some teens share in this regard.

    At least you come clean about the latter. Most people in your generation still blabber on about how they paid for school with summer jobs and other related nonsense.

    Still, the latter statement nullifies the former. Maybe in the ’50s, idealism could be followed pragmatically…at least by white dudes. Today, pragmatism trumps idealism in pretty much every instance. Sure, it would be great if we could turn our noses up at offered help if we have a certain distaste for the source, but speaking as a recent college grad, that’s just not tenable at the present.

  13. says

    But anyhow, as someone who lives in a “socialist” country, in my opinion the root of the problem here lies with the absurd costs of higher education in the US. The problem simply wouldn’t exist on the same scale here (of course it’s still hard), even if you get disowned by your parents.

    Actually, I think you’re on to something here. I wonder if we could even market socialism to fundamentalist parents. Basically, tell them that a robust social safety net for discarded children would remove, or at least greatly alleviate, how completely against basic human decency it is to disown and throw your child out onto the street for the child’s thoughts. Worried what they neighbors will say? With socialism, those nosy godless heathens will be reduced to comments like “Well, at least the kid will get a bed, enough to eat and a good education.” or “Probably better in the end as they would have just made the kid go to Liberty or Oral Roberts.”

  14. Alex says

    Excellent! Introducing socialism in the US should be no problem at all. Obviously, conservatives are not worried about the government interfering heavily, otherwise they would be opposed to all the patriot act and surveillance stuff. You just have to call it something different. Freedomism, for example. It’s what Jesus would have done, that commie bastard! Then again, drop that last part.

  15. Lana says

    I actually just had the opposite problem. My son, through peer pressure, decided he wanted to be a christian. Normally I would have sat him down and talked through his feelings and asked him why he came to that decision. He is 13. My husband had a very visceral reaction. He got a lot angrier than I had expected. I eventually did get to sit and talk with my son, but I had a lot of ground to make up.

  16. Pete G says

    I consider my mother the one with the problem coming out. I’m an atheist and she is a Jehovah’s Witness. I know which one I’d rather tell people I was. Then again, I’m from the UK where it is irrelevant if you profess to be atheist, JW or a Russell’s Teapotter.

  17. says

    Freedomism, I like it!

    Does your hatred of poor people get in the way of the teachings of Jesus? Do you lie awake at night wondering why it’s so hard to actually bring yourself to kill witches, gays, unruly children, heathens, etc? With Freedomism, you can have the best of both worlds! Freedomism combines help for those you know don’t deserve it, allowing a full nights sleep with the peace of mind knowing that Jesus himself will make sure St. Peter roles out the red carpet out for you at the pearly gates, and freedom to hate them to your hearts content! Sure, you’re probably asking if helping those sinners is really worth the extra taxes. It is. It’s really simple, if you were to actually got rid of all of them, who would there be to hate? If you were to take a few of them out of this world yourself, what would you say to St Pete? With Freedomism, you can scratch that conservative itch with as much hatred as you know the Old Testament God loves, without the fear of pissing Jesus off! It’s guilt free righteousness!

  18. Monocle Smile says

    See, that can’t happen, either. This case is rarer, but it’s important that we don’t react in the same manner as fundamentalists. He’s 13; he’s entering the part of life where everything changes on a daily basis.

    I’m not a parent, but I wonder if your husband is reacting badly because he feels your son’s decision reflects on his parenting skills. I wouldn’t be too concerned, but your approach is the right one.

  19. says

    The thing is it’s not just hoping the parents will pay for the kid’s college out of their pockets. (Nowadays most people can’t afford to do that anyway.) Because to get loans to go to college the wannabe student virtually always has to have cooperation from their parents, either co-signing loan applications (it’s generally not an option to not have a co-signer), and even applying for a scholarship (assuming you can find a decent one nowadays) requires the parent(s) to fill out and sign forms showing incomes etc.

    It shouldn’t have to be such a necessity, and it should be possible to go to a good state school (like in the old days with the UC system) at a reasonable price (up until around the mid-70s you could pay for your UC education with a part-time job) but the reality of funding college now is that it’s incredibly difficult to do so without the help of the parents, even if the parents aren’t actually paying for any of it themselves.

  20. Lana says

    I suspect it had a lot to do with the way we found out about it. He didn’t come talk to us. We found a note he had passed to a friend saying “How do I tell my parents ‘f*** all y’all atheists, I’m a christian’ without them getting pissed”. Doesn’t make for a good conversation starter.

  21. penasquito says

    I’d just like to point out that there is a whole continuum of beliefs that you can ‘reveal’ to your parents with “I believe exactly what you believe” on one end and “God doesn’t real” at the other. If you aren’t sure you want to tell someone exactly how you feel, you could, for instance, talk about plate tectonics vs. YEC or any of 1,000 other subjects and give your parent or whoever your talking to a more accurate view of your beliefs without necessarily contradicting theirs.

    The last time I talked to my southern baptist dad about religion, I shifted the conversation to animal sacrifice, ancient Hebrews and the destruction of the temple. So, if you don’t want to take on their beliefs directly, maybe pointing out some of the absurdities in a religion in which they do not believe is a safer way to go, also.

  22. says

    On the Reddit atheism forum, we get these type of questions every few days. Unfortunately, we get more posts from people who have already come out to their parents and now are in serious trouble. Because of that, this issue is pinned to the top of the page just below the banner.

    The core advice we give is this:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/wiki/comingout

    Excerpt;

    ——

    Should I come out to my parents as being an atheist?

    (Taken From the FAQ entry)

    The short answer is No.

    “The best place to come out to your parents is at a home you own, over a dinner that you paid for yourself”.

    ——

    I’ll add to that a practical bit of advice: When dealing with people who may severely punish you for being honest, it is entirely ethical to lie till they no longer can follow through with as many of the more serious threats. (It’s amazing how reasonable people become when they can’t follow through on threats!)

    To expand on that, punishments usually include verbal abuse and interventions but often enough the punishments have been more extreme and include being kicked out of the house, having college savings removed, being sent to religious camps that are normally aimed at delinquents or drug abusers, or being disowned entirely.

  23. says

    I’ve seen too many people start with honesty, get punished for it, and then later get an apology. Since that is often the case, I see no problem lying to unreasonable people who act vengefully because they can. That includes parents.

    If — years later — the person is independent they can come out and repay the debt if the parent remains unreasonable. Pay interest even. Before then, I can’t tell someone to take the high road on honesty when that is not going to be reciprocated. That is just impractical and does not fit with what actually happens to people.

    See my other post for links to examples of how badly being honest can go for people.

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