I’ve come out as atheist to college friends, two siblings, and my parents. All of them were, and are, Christian, but even so, every conversation went differently. In the big picture, they went alright. They certainly could have gone much worse, but at the same time, I would not want to ever relive that time in my life. I had a list in my head of who knew and who didn’t know, and once I told someone and had that weight lifted, it was only so long until I would have to tell the next person.
If someone you know has just told you that they’re an atheist, just know that it was probably at least just as hard for them as it is for you. But there are a few things you can do that will make this time easier for everyone.
1. Don’t argue
This is so important. I wish I, and everyone I came out to, understood this at the time. It may feel impossible not to ask the first thing that comes to your mind when someone tells you they don’t believe in God, but don’t. No “Then where do you get your morals from?”, no “How would something come from nothing?” and no “What happens when you die?” No blurting of gargantuan cosmic questions that the planet’s greatest philosophers and scientists have been battling with since the beginning of humanity. When your family member or friend just revealed the scariest thing about themselves to you and became that vulnerable, probably don’t immediately tell them that they’re wrong. I once went to a presentation given by Mandisa Thomas, and I remember her advice regarding this: “You do not have to justify your position to anyone. You can say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ That’s it.”
2. Be open-minded and introspective
This might just be the kind of person that I am, but if I were in this situation, I would want to know why this person believes what they do. As I’ve said, it’s too stressful to immediately throw objections and questions at them as soon as they come out to you, but it’s not bad to want to know why they don’t believe. If you’ve never had your beliefs challenged, well, they’re about to be. You have to be willing to examine your own beliefs if you are to honestly understand where this person is coming from. I’ve always found it hard, or even impossible, to try to defend myself and my atheism to someone without accidentally sounding like I’m trying to persuade them out of their theistic beliefs. But that’s how it goes.
3. Swap sources
I think that this is a great method for starting productive conversations. This year, at the risk of being annoying, I gave my mom a copy of Why I Left, Why I Stayed by Tony and Bart Campolo for her birthday. I had never really explained my beliefs to her before, and she had read my blog, but never anything written to her. This book is a back-and-forth dialogue between Tony, an evangelical pastor, and his son Bart, an evangelical pastor turned humanist chaplain. They each presented their case for why they believed what they did. All throughout its pages, I wrote in the margins which bits I agreed with or not, and which things I hoped she would be able to understand about the atheistic perspective. While I don’t follow Bart’s spiritual humanism, I highly recommend this book for any pair of people trying to navigate a theist/atheist relationship.
Additionally, I recommend that atheists suggest Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True to their friends and family, and I think that Christians would do well to lend their newly revealed atheist a copy of Francis Collin’s The Language of God. And if there are no books you’ve read in your own journey of determining what you believe, this is a good time to start. Just no Answers in Genesis or Lee Strobel. Those are definitely not trustworthy sources.
4. Have an ongoing dialogue
If you found this post by searching something like “My child just told me she’s an atheist and I don’t know what to do,” then what I say won’t really help you through that first, immeasurably difficult “coming-out” conversation, because there isn’t really a way to know it will happen before it does. But there are other conversations that you can have more control over. Everyone in my family who I came out to had no warning and was shocked when I told them. I knew it was unfair to have a conversation where I knew what would happen and they didn’t, but how do you warn someone that you’re about to tell them you’re an atheist?
During that first conversation, depending on how big a shock it is to you, you may just be on autopilot. So after the conversation, think about what they said and what you said. Make sure they know that you want to keep talking about this, if only for the reason that you want a chance to talk once you’ve gathered your thoughts.
5. If the dialogue dies, let it die
This may sound contradictory to Point #4, and maybe it is. This is about real life and relationships (I am mostly envisioning parent-child relationships here), so it’s not an exact science. But when I came out to my mom, she came back for more conversations later with lists of questions. Although unbelievably anxious each time, I was glad she was willing to talk about it. But as time went on, it was clear that she was running out of things to say and was just desperate for me to “reconsider God,” so to speak. There wasn’t really anything left for her to say that wasn’t repetitive, and as much as I love going on and on about atheism, I don’t really enjoy talking about it to people who don’t want to hear, so we both silently decided that it’s best if we don’t talk about it. We don’t, and I think our relationship is healthier now than when we did.
6. Be loving and understanding
For some parents, it might be hard not to see your child now as someone who is in the grasp of Satan or as “a prodigal.”
They’re still your kid. Actually, they’re the same old kid they were before. There’s a chance they’ve been an atheist for their entire life and you’ve never known it. So the change isn’t their beliefs, it’s the fact that you know their beliefs and they can be honest about it. So you have to make sure they know how thankful you are that they confided in you and how proud you are of them for getting that off their chest and trusting you with this sensitive information.
I hope that at one point or another, this post will be able to help someone whose child, friend, or sibling has just come out to them as not believing in God. As always, I read every comment and email I receive if there is anything else you want to know about coming out atheist or accepting someone who has.
0 thoughts on “6 Things to Do if Someone Comes Out to You as Atheist”
It’s funny that you use the term “coming out,” because that is exactly what it seems like. Personally, I don’t going around telling people or at least, openly discussing it, but when people ask I don’t hide it either. I have had some strange reactions even from within my own family. It does feel like they are discovering something about a family member they never knew and are slightly shocked by it, I think!
Really interesting post Rebekah!
I fear coming out to my family because of the disappointment they will feel and how that will break my heart. Plus – they will not understand, they will think I am going to hell, they will try and persuade me to reject atheism (like it is a belief system), they will bring up examples that they think are signs God exists and has worked in my life and they will get angry when they realise things are not changing.
At the end of the day I also don’t know where a support system exists outside of my family, church and friends. But that is simply because everything I have ever been involved in has been Christian based.
Isolation is a useful weapon to keep someone in a supernatural belief system… at least that is what my experience tells me to date.
Yeah, thinking of rebuttals is harder in real time than online. I find one thing that helps with this is to program my memory so that the right response comes immediately to mind when a theist makes a particular argument. I do this by imagining having a debate with a theist ahead of time and making the responses that I actually want to make when the issue comes up.
Your last point — “be loving and understanding” summarize it all.
I have read that book by Tony and Bart Campolo. I thought it expressed things very well.
When I moved away from the church (Catholic Parish) I was active up to my ears with for another job in another state, coming out became a non-issue for me. So, I can’t relate to this post, even though it is excellent and an important topic.
I’ve had greater interpersonal problems with laying out my political stands and have walked away from relationships because of them. There is value in being around people of like mind, even if it is only on line. It is why I read certain blogs ‘religiously.’ Happy Sunday, y’all.
A lovely post. Well done.
I found that I couldn’t bring myself to read Francis Collin’s “The Language of God” because of the number of extensive reviews of it I read. Dr. Collin seems to just inject his god wherever he finds it convenient. His god caused the Big Bang. His god created evolution. None of these are scientific positions, nor are they “compatible” with science. The scientific theists I respect are those who keep the two topics compartmentalized. Trying to blend the two never turns out well … except that you can see a lot of books to theists by pandering to their beliefs and desires (See, there is no conflict between science and religion, a scientist says so!).
Yeah it definitely had a lot of problems…. but it’s the best apologetics book I’ve read, compared to Lee Strobel especially.
I don’t have any problems discussing religious beliefs with anyone. My sister, who is a huge Christian believer, just hands me a book or video to review and then says something like, “I can’t change your mind about Jesus or God. That has to come from within you.” There’s no argument and she doesn’t try to persuade me.
I told her that I’m a Republican and Trump follower. I spent my entire life as a Catholic Democrat and to reveal that I’ve “walked away” from the Democrats and think Trump is great was TOO MUCH. She couldn’t take it. She shakes her fist at me, screams…He’s a Demon..EVIL…Hitler…What are you doing…You’ll go to Hell…Repent Sinner!!! And then the barrage of CNN/MSNBC talking points spewing from her mouth as her face turns beet red and spittle dripping from her lips with her glaring eyes.
Weird how a belief can get so deeply ingrained in your mind and people will protect and defend and fight with every fiber of their being. Even when the evidence and truth is right in front of their face.
The secret of happiness: avoid religious arguments and avoid political arguments. Nobody ever wins those arguments, so it is best to avoid them.
How do you figure? For me and many other people, debating and discussing religion is an enjoyable pastime.
It seems that we were drawn by unavoidable emotional forces. I think a belief in God is emotional and has not much to do with rational logical thinking. Doesn’t matter how many books you read, theories you uncover, scientific facts, philosophies presented to you. In the end it’s an emotional decision. Same with politics. People vote from their gut not their head and it’s nearly impossible to reason with someone’s gut beliefs. They’ll fight you with tooth and nail.
Rebekah I read your post and others responses. So…I guess I’m not sure why you are following me, but I am glad that you are. I hope you read my latest post of Friday night to put my life in even more of a perspective for you. If you have any comments, I’d like to hear them.
Great post! I wonder though would atheists (myself included) be as tolerant if a friend or loved one came to them and said “I’m a born again Christian”. Because I think these same rules might apply to an atheist in those circumstances. I’d like to believe that I’d be more patient and would at least first want to know what their conversion means in terms of their specific beliefs. I’m not concerned about anybody believing in God, but more concerned about how the Bible might change their particular views on matters like creation, homosexuals, separation of church and state, etc.
In regards to your post directly, I think one of the frustrating assumptions that theists show atheists is that we have somehow come to a state of declaring atheism on a whim. Like it’s not something we have thought about and investigated rigorously to answer our many questions. Like any time an apologist tries to argue anything, I’m like…okay yes I’ve dealt with that question…you’re not bringing up anything new. lol
Good article and many good points. This could also apply in many cases…a child coming out as gay, an atheist family whose child comes out as christian, the case you mentioned and so on. Listening, respecting, accepting and being loving is the way to go in all instances. Arguing and trying to prove our way of thinking just does no good. I agree, discussing our views in kindness, truly trying to learn the others point of view with no other agenda, is great. In the end, we each have to make our own decisions and live in the way we feel is right for us. And we need to respect the view of others to do the same. Thanks for this interesting article.
In my case it happened one night when my dad and I were in the car. He picked up on my non-belief. He said “You never believed in God anyway.” I told him he was right, I couldn’t justify a belief in a God who would cause the death of someone so capriciously.
Now the thing is, the field I’m in, for some reason a LOT of us are atheists. It’s sort of a heavy scientific field, I.T./I.S it is. The I.S. is InfoSec. We’re all pretty well read too. That helps a lot to break the spell of religion.