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Feb 27 2009

Telling your religious loved ones that you are an atheist

One of the questions that came up at the Ask an Atheist forum was how to break the news that one has become an atheist to those religious people close to you, especially family members, whom you think might be upset.

I get this question quite a lot and usually counsel people that there is really little to be gained by gratuitously announcing to everyone within earshot that one is an atheist. So at the forum, I privately told one questioner who was worried about how his much-loved grandmother would react that there was no need to tell her. What’s the point? Even I, who have been aggressively making the case for atheism on this blog, only raise the issue in private when people ask me about it or the topic of religion comes up and I think the information is relevant.

Over the course of time, many of my relatives got to know of my atheism by word of mouth from those who have read my blog or talked to me. This was a source of surprise to them given my more-than-average religiosity before, and they would ask me about it and I would discuss it freely with them. Many of my extended family and friends found many of my arguments plausible and made them reconsider some of their own beliefs. It surprised me how many of them would then hesitantly admit to doubts about their own beliefs, things they had kept suppressed for a long time and not shared with fellow believers. Encountering a nonbeliever they knew personally seemed to provide them with a license to think about things they had hitherto suppressed out of a sense that such thoughts were inappropriate or even evil. Sad, isn’t it, that religion makes people fearful of even thoughts?

The one person with whom I did not discuss the issue at all was with my own mother. She was a firm believer in god. I knew her faith was important to her and I did not want to needlessly concern her about the future of my soul so I avoided the topic and she never raised it with me, although we were close and talked freely about almost everything else.

My mother was a very open-minded and tolerant person who believed that religion called on people to be good to others, not to judge their worthiness for heaven. My silence about my atheism was not due to fears that she would be angry or offended. I knew she would accept me whatever my beliefs. Because she lived in Sri Lanka and we met in person only occasionally and she did not use computers, I was confident that she did not know about my giving up on the faith she so valued even though I was a bit surprised that she never discussed my religious beliefs when we met. I thought that she died last year still thinking I was a Christian.

Hence it was a surprise when my sister (with whom my mother lived in Sri Lanka) told me last week that my mother had known about my atheism all along. Apparently my sister would print out the more interesting blog items, including the ones advocating atheism, and give them to her to read. I asked my sister what my mother’s reaction had been and she said that my mother simply said that my disbelief was probably caused by my scientific outlook and she could understand that, though her own faith was unshaken. My mother’s views about me as a person remained the same.

So while I was wrong about my mother’s state of ignorance about my beliefs, I was not wrong about the way she would react to the news. She probably did not raise the topic directly with me in order to prevent me from being embarrassed at denying to her face the things she believed in. That was just like her. I must say that I was pleased at my sister’s news. It was nice to have it confirmed that what I believed had no affect my mother’s feelings towards me.
I suspect that my story is not unusual. Close family members of most atheists will be just as accepting because for most people the emotional bonds that connect people to each other are far stronger than the ones that people try to have with a distant, unseen, unheard, unfelt, and uncaring god. It is just best for them to learn about one’s atheism indirectly or gradually, so that they get used to the idea at their own pace, rather than jarring them by making a grand announcement.

POST SCRIPT: Great poem

I am not a big fan of poetry of any kind, but this terrific nine-minute beat poem called Storm by Tim Minchin, about his encounter at a dinner party with someone who spouts the anti-science nonsense spawned by religion and other beliefs in the supernatural, is a must-listen. (Thanks to Chaz for the link. Language advisory.)

3 comments

  1. 1
    Norm Nason

    Thank you for that touching account, Mano. You know, I suspected that your mother knew of your atheism all along as well, for mother’s are usually very perceptive when it comes to matter involving their children. I am pleased to be reminded of her once more.

  2. 2
    ollie

    Ironically, my family expected this to happen when I “went to become educated”; they still wanted me to get educated anyway. :)

  3. 3
    Chris

    I found that coming out as an atheist to family members was just about as stressful as coming out as gay to my family members. Luckily my family was very accepting of both.

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