Saturday, December 3, 2011

Breaking the News

Man, life can get complicated, can't it? Here's the short version of what happened in the past 24 hours: I almost threw up, Neil finally let up on the ultimatum, and I still went ahead and came out to my parents as an atheist.

Like I said, life can get complicated.

Before I continue, I should say a few things about Neil. I think what he planned to do was very wrong. I think much of what he said to me was also very wrong. But from my continued messages with him, I can tell that he really was acting out of concern for my parents, however misguided the response may have been. He apologized for what he said to me, and he didn't force me to go through with telling my parents. Again, to be clear: My decision to tell my parents was mine alone. You can blame him for other things, but not for that.

Now then, on to what happened.

Yesterday, before Neil relented, I called my sister and asked her to come home from college (just a 10-minute drive) to be there for me when I told my parents. She readily agreed. I came home from work, went to tennis practice, watched Super 8 with my parents. I was crying a little, but I didn't let them see it. Twice that evening I nearly threw up from the stress. I stood retching over the toilet bowl but managed to restrain myself. My mom came in once and asked what was wrong.

I told her it was a long story.

This morning, about eight hours away from when I had planned to tell them, I got the message from Neil: I was safe. My emotions were shot. I was happy, shocked, relieved.

But there was another feeling mixed in there as well: something like dread. I realized that if I just let it go, I would have to experience all of this twice. I planned on breaking the news at some point no matter what, so if I continued to keep this a secret, I would have to go through these sickening pangs of anxiety all over again. And despite the potential consequences, I really, genuinely didn't like keeping this from them. I decided, what the hell, I've come this far. So I battled nerves and nausea for a few more hours, waiting for the right moment, and finally forced myself to through with it.

It went really well. Certainly better than I expected. We keep models of the people close to us in our heads, and this past year I must have mentally simulated a hundred "coming out atheist" conversations with my parents, with results ranging from blissful acceptance to angry shouting matches. But since I've never been in any serious trouble with them or confessed any big, damaging secrets, I didn't really have a baseline that I could use to gauge how they would truly react. I hoped for the best but feared the worst—which, since I'm not financially independent, could have been pretty bad. Over the years I had heard my dad react to atheism with hostility and contempt, so what if he took the same approach towards me and my own conclusions? And my mom can be emotionally fragile even in relatively ordinary situations, so for all I knew she could have been mourning for days on end. But people are hard to predict, and I've never been happier in my life to have predicted wrong.

I sat them down at the kitchen table, and after several stops and starts, I told them that last year I had started questioning Christianity, that I had spent a long time reading and thinking carefully about my beliefs. Finally I told them outright that I didn't believe in God. There was no mention of Neil or anything besides my unbelief and how I came to it—I wanted the focus to be on my personal journey of faith and doubt, and I just didn't feel like overcomplicating things.

I could see tears well up in my mom's eyes, although my dad remained stoically calm. Since I hadn't mentioned the "A" word yet, that was naturally the first thing that came up. I transitioned, a bit awkwardly, into explaining the technical definitions of atheism (lack of belief in gods) and agnosticism (lack of knowledge about the existence of gods), and that I classify myself as an agnostic atheist. I don't know if it really sank in, but no conflict came of it, and that's good enough for me.

It was remarkable to see the dichotomy in their responses, their ways of lightly questioning my decision. My mom's emphasis was squarely on faith. She asked me if I had prayed about my loss of faith (I did, in the beginning). She told me that we shouldn't be proving or disproving God, but rather listening as he speaks to our hearts. My dad's approach was focused totally on logical argument. He actually produced rudimentary versions of both the cosmological argument and Pascal's wager, though he wasn't familiar with them in a formal, rigorous sense. There was a little back-and-forth on those subjects, but before things got too far I told him we should save it for another time.

They told me they would pray for me, which I said I appreciated—even though I don't think it'll accomplish anything, it's still a sign of affection. They recommended Lee Strobel's books, to which I said I'd already read one and part of another. They asked me to still come to church now and then, which I agreed to, though I told them it wasn't likely to change my mind. And that was that.

Of course, there's still a long road ahead. There will be some tense moments, some heated discussions, and quite possibly even some arguments, but I'll do my best not to let those turn into rifts that drive us apart. I'm truly glad not just that I managed to tell them, but that I was able to do it on my own terms.


  1. When my religious parent found out I was atheist I made a deal with them... Read a christian apologist book for every freethinking text they read. It's a non-invasive, non-proselytizing way to help them understand your views.

    Congratulations on comin' out.

  2. Very relieved to hear this went as well as it did. Thanks for the quick report.

  3. I'm really glad things worked out for you, Tim. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that your situation consumed my thoughts over the last 24 hours.

  4. I am very happy to hear how quiet it went, relative to the possibilities! Your father did almost verbatim what my mother did back when I had "the conversation." It sounds like you have a great handle on things, even if they aren't settled or comfortable.

    It really helped me to talk to them about people I admired that they would appreciate as good "Christian-like" people, even if they weren't actually Christian to ease the transition. Einstein is a pretty well-regarded atheist they know. I actually just looked up the winners of Nobel Prizes and showed them all the atheists who are contributing to the world.

    Please keep us informed on how things are going!

  5. This is very encouraging to me, and I think I can say the same for any other atheists who have been worried for you these past couple days. As someone who also had to come out to religious parents, it's very moving to hear that they didn't flip out in the way some would.

    The best endings to a story only occur when there is great risk of it ending badly.

  6. I'm glad to hear it went well. You've been very brave and if you continue to be as well spoken, calm and determined not to let this become a rift with you and your family, things will continue to go well so long as they are determined to do the same. Kudos to your sister for coming when you needed her and supporting you so fully. Sometimes sibling solidarity can make all the difference when confronting parents with a truth they're not going to like.

    I'm agnostic and my own conversation with my parents went well and rather casually, as neither of them were overly religious, although my mother still considers herself Catholic even if she doesn't go to church that often or she's pissed at the church's handling of the sex abuse scandal. Even knowing they were only casual believers, I was VERY nervous telling them I wouldn't be attending church anymore and that I despised organized religion and was quickly losing faith in God at all. I can only imagine how sick I would have become with nerves and outright terror if they had been as devoted as your parents are. The relief you must be feeling now to at least have it out there must be tremendous. I'm sure you already know to be prepared for more gentle (and perhaps nongentle) prodding and pushing. A previous poster recommended exchanging books, a tit for tat type situation. I think that's a great idea. It shows a willingness on both your parts to keep an open mind but always knowing that you're not ever really going to agree.

    You've handled this as well anyone could have, especially given the special circumstances of blackmail by a (perhaps) well meaning but arrogant buttinsky who apparently feels your belief (or lack thereof) is the equivalent of you being a heroin addict and needing to save you from yourself by telling your parents your private business. I hope your parents will eventually see that while they may not agree with your lack of faith, and it may cause them some distress, they should be proud they raised someone who is able to think and speak for himself and face up to tough challenges like the ones you've gone through recently and will unfortunately continue to go through as an atheist living in a hostile world.

    Good luck with everything!

  7. I'm glad this went well for you, Tim. Its always good to hear stories of bravery like this; make no mistake, this took a lot of courage, and even though I don't really know you, I'm proud of you. As always, we're all here for you. Good luck!

  8. I happy for you... good luck in the future.

  9. I'm glad you survived this. But I would not give Neil a pass on this. He's guilty of Unnecessarily Inflicting Pain, and that, to me, is the Prime Violation.


  10. Thanks so much for thinking of me, all of you.

  11. @Tim - Congrats on a well managed coming-out. The overall approach and result speak volumes to the character of both you and your parents.

    @Lurker111 - Tim seems to have this handled and Neil, though aggressive at first, seems to have backed off. Reading through the back and forth between them, I am not sure Neil realized until after the fact just what sort of ultimatum he was really throwing at Tim. He was looking at the situation from the standpoint of a Christian parent that would be very hurt and offended if such a secret was being kept by a child of his own and reacted as such. Once the other side of the situation was shown to him via numerous commentors, he re-evaluated and dropped the ultimatum.

    He may have been in the wrong initially, but he was big enough to admit that, apologize, and back off. No one benefits from holding a grudge at this point.

  12. You know- I don't know why Neil backed off.
    I wish Neil a healthy personal change; I really do..but as eloquent as his speech might be, he is still seems too accusatory and not a safe person to be around.
    Tim, I wish you and your family a continued good relationship.

  13. @Anonymous, re:

    "[Neil] was looking at the situation from the standpoint of a Christian parent that would be very hurt and offended if such a secret was being kept by a child of his own and reacted as such."

    I fear you are being far too generous. Neil still stuck his nose into business which was none of his own. Neil was not personally affected by anything that Tim did. Neil simply used the excuse that most proselytizers use to interfere with others' lives, viz., that they want to "save" them for heaven. If heaven exists and is filled with people like Neil, then that is my idea of hell.


  14. Tim, You've been on my mind so much over the weekend. I am relieved for your progress in living authentically with your parents.

    I am further and further into my own deconversion but still in the closet at work and with extended family, and I experience intense anxiety at the knowledge that eventually someone will ask me to pray or ask if I'm a Christian because they don't want to work with someone who isn't (yes, I live in a town that conservative). I have so much to lose, and I don't know how to handle it. (My always-agnostic husband says to let people assume and leave it but I'm an open book person.) I appreciate your thoughtful and fair musings so much - it gives me some direction.

  15. To the Anon just above me, I'm glad to have been of help. I hope everything goes well for you.

  16. Happy for you!

  17. I feel sad for the difficulties you went through. I have at the least been OPENLY Agnostic since 1980. I went through the military and all the way through to the present (I now consider myself an Atheist)without an issue despite having a very religious family. I have sisters who were missionaries, One sister in in the top ecelon of the Salvation Army and brothers who are very religious. My foster parents took me to church every Sunday and I even sang in the church choir. all the while a non believer. Everyone still loves me DESPITE disagreeing with me. Since I do not interact with them on a daily basis perhaps that is why it is easier. I have always been FIRMLY rooted in my non-belief but is have never been unkind to any family member. So this goes to everyone that has the issues Tim has had. Stay strong and know that if your family truly loves you they will continue to do so.

  18. Glad to hear it went OK. Coming from Ireland, where the state of Christianity resembles a plant that has not been watered in 3 months, I find it strange that it is such a big deal. The church here is viewed with a combination of disgust and suspicion. Being an atheist here is about as big a deal as the brand of shoes you wear

  19. I think that, while ultimately you told them on your own terms, you were forced into the situation by your parents' friend Neil.

    I'm glad it went well for you, and I can't speak from experience, but it sounds like it's difficult being a non-believer when you have parents of such strong religious faith.