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When young people consider coming out as an atheist to their parents, they usually face two main challenges. One is the financial and physical dependence on their parents they may still have, and the other is their unfinished process of differentiation from their parents, where they still feel an obligation to please them and an overpowering aversion to disappointing or upsetting them. Some have mainly one or the other issue, but more have a mixture of both in varying proportions.
This letter is paired with another letter to be published on Thursday. Today’s letter writer seems to be mostly complete with her emotional individuation, but she is still depending on her parents for financial needs. Thursday’s letter is from someone of about the same age who is apparently financially self-supporting, but is still hampered by a blurring of the boundaries between his emotional needs and responsibilities, and those of his parents.
Young atheists who are approaching the coming out dilemma should read both of these letters for a more complete picture.
Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,
I grew up in a Catholic home. When I was young (all the way until about two years ago), I took everything my parents told me at face value and never questioned it. I went through baptism, first communion, and confirmation. I have only recently come to realize that I never really believed in anything I was being force-fed. I am an atheist, but I’m terrified of coming out to my parents. I don’t know how my mother, who is incredibly intolerant and naive to other world views, would act.
To give a vague idea of how she is, I was watching TV about a month ago in the living room, and she was in the other room and could hear it. There was something about Wicca on the TV, and she went on about how they were devil-worshipers and akin to Satanists. For some reason, she felt the need to add in that atheists were one in the same. I fought with her a bit on the issue. I was basically told that anyone that would “forsake God” must be a Satanist… or something to that extent.
I’ve been told by a few people that I should probably wait until I move out (I am 21 and currently attending college. I stay at home to save money) to tell her how I feel. Though I honestly don’t really know how long I can continue to bite my tongue while she spouts what I feel to be total garbage. It certainly isn’t getting better; it’s been gradually getting worse for years now.
Should I find a way to bite my tongue until I move out? Should I never actually come out (as an atheist), because I don’t know how it’ll affect our relationship?
PS I’m not really sure where my father stands as far as religion is concern. I think he chooses to remain quiet and in the background because he might not believe things as strongly as my mother does, and he doesn’t want to start any conflict with her. He is SIGNIFICANTLY more laid back than her.

Dear Wendy,
Take a lesson from your dad. He has lived with your mother longer than you have, and so he probably has found better ways to survive. “Biting your tongue” is a painful way to keep silent. Instead, try relaxing and reducing the importance of your mother’s ignorant remarks. Take deep, slow breaths, and begin to develop a peace within yourself that cannot be touched by someone else’s disturbance.
Yes, what your mother is spouting is “total garbage,” but it’s her garbage, and it does not have to stick to you. You’re going to live surrounded by such garbage for your whole life, and you will need to have that portable peace with you at all times. Right there at home is a good place for you to practice and perfect it. Later in life you’ll be fighting battles, certainly, but you’ll be a much more effective fighter if you can maintain an inner equanimity. A warrior’s worst enemies are her own anger, impatience and recklessness.
Coming out should always be primarily for your own benefit. If it will not benefit you, then why take all the difficulty that will surely come? The benefits of coming out include, among other things, feeling freer to be yourself, not having to pretend or cover up things, not having to participate in religious activities just to keep up appearances, and helping to dispel negative myths about atheists by being a good example.
The drawbacks of coming out include, among other things, having to face anger and mistreatment from family, loss of friends, loss of financial support, even loss of jobs, less commonly threats and intimidation, and in rare cases, violence.
In your case, your financial and physical dependence on others who may react poorly is the single most important factor to consider. As long as you’re dependent on your parents for money or on their allowing you to live at home to save money, I suggest that you keep your views to yourself. If you’re going to saw a branch off of a tree, be sure that you’re not sitting on it at the time.
Aside from the financial and housing repercussions, the level of loony that you’re describing in your mom suggests that it would not be good for your mental health to drop the “A” bomb while you’re still living with her. You need to concentrate on finishing college and starting a career without having to assure her that you’re not a Satanist or some other ridiculous hysteria.
When you’re in a position of strength and independence, then if it is in your own self interest, you can begin letting her know where you stand, but remember, you still don’t have to. You don’t ever have an obligation to re-educate your mother in what would be an arduous process. She has grown up in a world completely different from the one into which you are moving. It is possible for people to renounce a prejudice, but it is very difficult. To do that, they have to:
1. Admit that they have been wrong.
2. Admit that the people who taught them those attitudes, such as their parents, preachers or peers, were wrong. Sometimes that is harder than number 1.
3. Admit that they have perhaps hurt innocent people, and possibly need to make amends.
4. Face the scary prospect of confronting their peers who have the same prejudice.
5. Face the scary prospect of receiving from their peers the same kind of mistreatment they used to give out.
When you consider all that, you can see it’s a daunting proposition. So instead of all that, they more often will rationalize things piecemeal.
When people with prejudices are confronted with individuals in their hated group who do not fit their negative picture, they simply dismiss them as rare exceptions. If your mother doesn’t want to disown you on the spot for being an atheist, I think it’s likely she’ll rationalize that while you’re misguided, you’re “not like the rest of them.” Her prejudice against the group in general might remain unchanged.
So Wendy, bide your time and build your interior sanctuary. Channel the energy of any frustration you have into your best efforts toward your education. Plan your career, save your money, and look forward to your freedom. Looking ahead, it may seem a long way off, but I promise you, looking back it will seem but a moment.
You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.