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.