This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.
Let’s say you’re an atheist. Let’s say you’re a college student. Let’s say your parents are supporting you, including paying your tuition. And let’s say your parents are adamantly opposed to atheism — so much so that if they learned about your atheism, they would stop paying your tuition, cut off all financial support, and cut you out of the family. (Not a hypothetical situation, unfortunately.)
Is it ethical to conceal your atheism?
We often treat this question, and questions like it, as a no-brainer. In my book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, I repeatedly counsel atheists to hold off on coming out if they don’t think it’s safe — if they think it will get them fired from their jobs, cut off by their parents, kicked out of their homes. I do think coming out is ultimately the right choice for most people — overwhelmingly, most atheists who have come out say it made their lives better and they’re glad they did it — but I think it makes sense to hold off if the timing is bad. As I delicately phrased it in the book, “Don’t screw up your life.” I give this advice without hesitation, and it’s mostly accepted without hesitation.
But I’ve gotten some questions about this — yes, from atheists — that have made me look at this question more carefully. I’m still coming to the same conclusion — but I think it’s more difficult than I’d originally thought, with a more nuanced answer.
The issue at hand: If people are giving you something, and they wouldn’t give it to you if they knew something about you, is it ethical to lie about that information, or even simply to withhold it? If a boss were considering hiring you, and you knew they wouldn’t if they knew about your embezzlement conviction, is it ethical for you to conceal that? If someone you were dating were considering marrying you, and you knew they wouldn’t if they knew you were a Republican, is it ethical for you to conceal that? I think most people would say No.
So by the same token, if your parents wouldn’t pay your tuition if they knew you were an atheist — don’t they have the right to make that decision? Isn’t it their money, and their right to decide what to do with it? Isn’t honesty a core ethical value — especially when people are making decisions that would be affected by your information? [Read more…]