Monday, April 30, 2007

So Your Child Told You He or She Is An Atheist -- Now What?

What do you do if your child comes to you and tells you they've become an atheist?

Before I go on, I want to be sure you understand a few things.

First, I'm neither a parent nor a therapist; I'm just someone who has experienced a range of reactions from people I love about my atheism, and who has a strong desire to help families stay together whenever possible.

Second, every family is different; what I have to say here may or may not apply to your yours.

Finally, this is not a guide to how to get your child to reconvert back to your religion. It's not intended to be persuasive regarding any particular system of belief, it's just meant to address some of the natural concerns and questions parents of faith might have when their child tells them they're an atheist. Ultimately my goal would be to help families in this situation stay together, emotionally available to each other, and supportive of one another.

Having said that, here are some thoughts that might help you deal with this new revelation from your son or daughter.

First Things First

So what do you do if you're religious and your child tells you that he or she is not? I imagine you're shocked, unsettled, and probably a bit angry. But you need to think very carefully about how this is going to affect your relationship with your child going forward. Decide quickly -- do you want to continue having a relationship with them, or is their atheism so painful to you that you cannot bear to deal with them? From that one decision everything else flows.

I'm going to assume that you do want to keep some sort of relationship with your child, or you wouldn't keep reading this. I want to say, therefore, that I applaud you for that; it takes courage and great strength of character to try and work through what must feel like such a fundamental rejection of what you stand for. I think -- no, I know -- it's worth it, though. This after all is your son or daughter, the little being you gave life to, who's shared your home for all these years. To throw all that away in response not to what they do but to what they think, would be a great tragedy.

Now that you've decided you want to figure out some way to live with this in your life, therefore, I'd like to address a few of the things that are probably racing through your mind.

What Do They Even Mean By "I'm An Atheist"?

You're probably thinking of other belief systems that have a creed or a list of rules, some kind of organizing document that says "You have to adhere to all of these to be one of us." Atheism isn't like that, though; there isn't a group people sign up for and whose terms they agree to in order to call themselves an atheist. Atheism isn't a creed or a religion or even a philosophy, nothing so organized as that.

That's what it's not, but as for what it is -- well, it's simply a description, meaning "someone in whom no god-belief is present".

That's it.

In some ways it would be easier if there were a list of beliefs you could read to know where you stand with your child, if they were joining a new church that had a creed or a holy book you could research. But atheism's not that easy to pin down, because as I said it's just a description of an absence. You'd do as well asking what all people who don't collect stamps have in common.

Because atheism is a description and not a creed, we don't have any lists of beliefs or standards you have to agree to in order to join up. There's not even anything TO join, because we're not a club. We're not an organization.

That's why you'll see some atheists who say they want to stamp out all religion, and others who like religion very much, just not for them. Some will be immoral scumbags, and others will be among the very nicest, best people you'll ever meet. Some will be raging liberals and others will be staunch conservatives. Some will prefer living in big urban environments while others are happy in a trailer out in the middle of nowhere.

Without any kind of central tenets or dogma, you don't ever know quite what you're going to get with an atheist, which I suspect is part of what's so disturbing to religious people about them.

So what kind of an atheist is your child going to be? The honest answer is, they're probably not going to be that different from the young man or woman they've been all along.

Are They Going To Stay an Atheist?

It's impossible to say at this point what destination your child's journey is ultimately going to arrive at. Think about the kids you've known in your church. Some of them start out all gangbusters, full of faith and fire, only to peter out quickly and return to whatever life they had before. Others burn quietly, but for longer, and become pillars of the community. Some join the church out of anger, or jealousy, or greed. Others join for fellowship, faith, or love.

Atheists aren't any different; we all arrive at our unbelief for a variety of different reasons. A blogger named Hank Fox once outlined four different types of atheists, and although I think his list would apply to lots of folks I think it's a good place to start setting your expectations. Here's his list, slightly edited for presentation:
  1. "Rebel Atheist": Decides he’s an atheist more or less just to piss off his mom and dad.
  2. "Revenge Atheist": Believes in a god, but happens for some reason to hate him. “You killed my kitten / gave me cancer, you bastard, and I’ll never say I believe in you, ever again.”
  3. "Inherited Atheist": The guy who picks it up from his atheist parents, and just never thinks seriously about religion, or whenever he does, thinks it’s just some nonsense like Elvis worship.
  4. "Awakened Atheist": Someone who realized one day that some part of her religion didn’t make sense, and worked her way through question after question over a span of years, and eventually came to the firm conclusion that it just wasn’t true, any of it.
As to what what your child's ultimate destiny is in terms of religious beliefs, it's hard to say. I think atheists of types 1 and 2 from the list above return to the faith of their childhood fairly often -- it's hard to stay that angry for very long. You're not dealing with a Type 3, or you wouldn't be reading this. If you've got a Type 4 on your hands, well, I have to be honest with you -- you're probably not going to get them back into your faith. Non-belief arrived at with careful deliberation and deep soul-searching is work honestly done and reluctantly surrendered. This type of atheist is also, however, in my opinion the most likely to end up leading a peaceful, fulfilling life. You might not feel like it now, but you should be proud of your child if they're a Type 4, because you raised a deep, careful, thoughtful person, and that's always good.

Aren't Atheists Inherently Immoral? And Doesn't That Mean My Child Will Be, Too?

No, absolutely not! Regardless of why your child has come to atheism or how long they hold to it, atheists are just as likely as theists (a generic term for anyone who does hold a god-belief) to be moral or immoral, good or evil, upstanding or wicked. This study, for instance, clearly shows that there is no correlation between atheism and immoral behavior.

I know it seems counter-intuitive to you, but faith or its lack isn't a very good indicator of how moral or immoral someone is. I would bet if you think back on people you've known in your church, you can come up with examples of people who seemed very pious but who turned out to be just rotten. And I bet the opposite is true, too, that you can think of some who seemed like the worst Baptist/Catholic/Hindu or whatever you ever saw, only in the end they turned out to be just great, great people.

If you've raised a good kid, who knows how to love others and to treat them well, then you've got nothing to worry about in the morality department. Just like there are good and bad people in every church, there are good and bad atheists as well. Who your child is on the inside is far more important than what they think about god, in terms of their personal morality.

But I Don't Want My Child Going to Hell!

I understand how painful that thought must be to you. From a religious perspective, though, I would encourage you to remember that the only one who decides who's going to hell and who isn't, is God. If you believe Him to be a truly merciful, loving god, then trust in Him to do right by your child. Don't put yourself over Him and substitute your judgement for His; trust that He'll do the best thing when the time comes.

If you want to keep a close relationship with your child, however, I wouldn't encourage you to take up this argument with him or her. An atheist doesn't believe in Hell, so at best this is an empty threat. At worst, it's likely going to drive your child even further away from you; Hell is one of the more common reasons atheists give for losing their faith in Christianity. The reasoning goes that no God who is all-loving would condemn someone to infinite, eternal torture for sins committed during a finite lifetime. Pushing that aspect of your faith to your child as a reason they should abandon atheism is likely going to have the exact opposite effect you're hoping for.

What's the Best Way To Talk To My Child About This?

Getting angry when you talk about this is not going to be helpful. In the words of the Bible, "This man speaks harshly, Who can listen to his words?" It's important to try and stay calm and reasonable. That can be hard, especially if you think your son or daughter is telling you this just to hurt you. You may think this is a childish, silly position to take. You may be taken by an incredible urge to slap some sense into them.


I can almost guarantee you that this decision or realization is not something your child has come to lightly. It's a serious matter, and deserves serious, adult attention. Talk to them, one person to another, and really listen to what they are telling you. This is your son or daughter; nothing about their belief system is going to change that. They love you, and you love them, and even though you might be furious with each other, don't lose sight of that.

I'm not suggesting you give up your beliefs or to say anything you don't honestly believe -- in fact, I'd say just the opposite. Be open and honest with them, and give them the chance to do the same.

Just remember that their atheism doesn't mean they've suddenly become evil. They're not joining a cult, or planning on ignoring all morality and law. They're just searching for answers, even as you are, trying to figure out what it all means and why they're here, what it is they're supposed to be doing with their lives. Tell them you love them, no matter what (even if you don't feel much like it at the moment, you know you do), and even though you think they're wrong it's not going to change that love.

Atheist or theist, Christian or Muslim, black or white, ultimately that's all any child wants from their parent, to be loved for who and what they are. You don't have to agree with their position, you don't have to condone it or celebrate it, but you do have to deal with it openly and honestly, and always with love.

If you want to continue having a relationship with your child, it's absolutely essential that you not belittle or harangue them. They're making an adult decision, you need to deal with them as an adult. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine how you would want someone to react if you were telling them about your faith for the first time. Your child deserves that same respect and openness.

Most importantly, don't lie to them. Don't say "I completely understand and everything's fine, I'm ecstatic for you" if you're not, in fact, fine and ecstatic with it. Say instead "I hope you understand that this is difficult for me to accept, because I love you and my faith is very important to me. It scares me to think of you not having the same faith I have. But I hear what you're saying and I'm going to try very hard to understand and accept that this is what you believe; it's your life, and I know you have to live it, no matter how I might feel about it personally. Regardless, even if I'm angry or upset or not really understanding right now, I love you and always will."

So Now What Do I Do?

All you can do is love 'em. If you've raised them well, if you've loved them with all your heart, then they're going to turn out fine no matter what faith they end up with (even if it's no faith at all). Be open and honest with them. Keep the lines of communication open. You don't have to give their atheism your blessing, but try to express your feelings in a non-judgmental, non-condemnatory way. "You're going to hell but I love you anyway" is probably not the right approach, nor is "I'm sure this is just a phase and you'll grow out of it." Try something along the lines of "I love you no matter what, and although this isn't something I am happy about, ultimately your faith is your choice and I'm going to do my best to respect your decision."

It's all about honesty, love, and keeping the lines of communication open without being too judgmental or harsh.

And the fact is that there are millions of atheists all over the world living happy, fulfilling, moral, loving, complete lives. This may be the end of your religious hopes for them, but it most certainly isn't the end of your hopes for their moral, intellectual, and emotional well-being.

I hope this has been helpful for you. I want to repeat that I'm not a parent, nor a psychologist, so please take all of this as nothing more than what it is -- the perspective of just one guy, an atheist who has a love for kids and a genuine desire to help families stay together in love and support.

Families are precious gifts; please don't let the differences between your faith and theirs ruin that.


Adam H said...


Norm said...

This is a great article. Thanks for taking the time to articulate those thoughts.

A close friend of mine "came out" to his Fundamentalist parents several years ago -- twice. He told them that he's gay and he told then he no longer believed in God.

As you might imagine, their reception was less than happy. I'm not sure which one of his revelations bothered them more.

Jeff Hebert said...

Thanks guys, glad you liked it. I'm fairly nervous about having written it since, as I said, I'm neither a parent nor a therapist, and I didn't "come out" until just this year at 37 years of age. That's pretty different from being 18 or 21 or whatnot.

Norm, I can't imagine the place your friend found himself in -- that's some tough stuff to deal with in a fundamentalist family. Good luck to him, I hope it all turned out ok.

Roxie said...

I'm not sure how I stumbled onto this post, but it was VERY good. Firm and decisive, but not defensive or divisive. (I didn't intend to rhyme that, it was really the words I wanted to use!) I consider myself a pretty conservative Christian, but I have great empathy for people who have to figure out how to be honestly authentic without horrifying their loved ones. Very well spoken.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in an ultra-strict Irish Catholic family. Coming out as an atheist was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. As I expected, my mother freaked out and my relationship with her was never the same again. My father, though equally pious, was more accepting. Anyway I'm glad I came out, regardless of the reaction. Living a lie is never good. You have to live your own life and not let others live it for you. If they can't accept you as you are, that's their problem.

Everydayatheist said...

That was a very eloquent, well-written article. I think you gave some really good advice to parents who are reasonable, and want to preserve their relationship with their kids. I'm currently 26 (God I'm getting old), and I have not come out to my parents as an atheist yet. Religion doesn't come up with them that often, so it hasn't been a pressing need.

BTW - found your blog through CotG.

Spook, RN said...

Thanks for the wonderful post.

I am going home after 5 years - I've been away for along time.

And during the course of these five years, I have struggled, questioned and argued with myself.

I'm a decided "Type 4". I was apprehensive about "breaking the news" to my deeply devout parents.

Your post will help some!