The Great Courses

A Scary Dilemma

Jan 27, 2014 at 7:28 AM
4 years ago

I recently saw a heartbreaking article on titled, "My Scary Dilemma."  And unfortunately, it echoed much of what I see in my inbox.

woman silhouette

A young woman calling herself "Scaredy Kat," a 17-year-old in a Christian home, came to the realization that she could no longer accept the religious teachings of her family and church.  Terrified that the announcement of her apostasy might devastate her parents and potentially derail her future, she asked the online community for advice.  Many people responded with wonderful words of support and encouragement.  

I added my own response, and I've posted my letter here so that it might provide encouragement to so many others who are in her shoes.  -Seth


Dear Kat,

I'm a former Christian, and my "coming out" to parents as an atheist resulted in various stages of if my mother and father had lost their son.  They displayed disbelief, confusion, anger, denial, and now an uncomfortable acceptance.  It's been over half a decade.

Ultimately, my decision to publicly declare my non-belief wasn't about them.  

Certainly, we must take the feelings of others into account whenever possible, and I'm convinced we must step forward with compassion and the desire to alleviate pain.  But we should also not allow ourselves to be emotionally blackmailed into walking a path, accepting a belief and swearing a religious allegiance fashioned by someone else.

No parent should ever say to a child, "Believe as I do...or else," which is exactly what so many parents do.

Your life isn't someone else's to live.  It belongs to you.  It is absolutely unique.  And it is too short and precious to waste.

flower standing out

I suspect you're not on a crusade to change your parents' minds, to alter their lifestyles or to push them out of the religious nest.  You simply want to live honestly, truthfully and rationally within sight of them without being pawed at, yelled at, guilt-tripped, cried over or branded the black sheep.  You want to be a family: a healthy unit where love and support isn't made conditional by agreement.  

You want peace, but not at the cost of surrender.

Ultimately, my encouragement is twofold.

1)  Take your time.  Don't let guilt or the pressures of any person or community push you to make the announcement before you're ready.  You can start slowly with questions, easing them into your circle of skepticism, or you can simply make the announcement outright, "I don't believe in God."  Only you can decide how to construct that particular discussion.

2)  No matter what happens, keep this single word in mind:  Boundaries.  It's assured that they'll be scared and hurt, and the months after your announcement will probably be intense.  They'll call.  They'll write.  They'll knock.  They'll pray.  They'll worry.  And (hopefully) they'll come to a point where they'll accept.  

But at no time is a parent, sibling, family member or friend allowed to cross into your personal boundary, to threaten you with familial, social, professional or eternal punishment.  At no time is anyone allowed to disrespect you.  At no time will someone be allowed to go after your life partner or children (if you have any).  

draw the line

Just as they proclaim their individual right to live their own lives, they must respect your right to do the same.  No double standards.  And if they cannot exist in your circle without bringing conflict, guilt, division and pain, they will have to be removed from your circle until they can.  

They can disagree all they wish, but they must also respect boundaries.

It's often extremely difficult for our parents' generation to understand non-belief.  To many, it's unthinkable.  And I believe it's important that we see their often panicked reaction for what it is: a desperation to keep a beloved child from pain.  

I also think it's healthy for them to see a beautiful child living a happy, productive, moral and truthful life without any holy books or chants to the sky.  It's healthy for others to see the caricature of the pathetic, sad, rudderless atheist shattered to pieces.  And I think it's healthy for them to discover that they don't live in a bubble, and that someone out there (even someone on their family tree) might disagree with them.

hand of friendship

Family isn't just lip service.  Family acts like family.  They hold you up in moments of crisis.  They listen.  They provide (productive and helpful) counsel.  They keep you honest, and they rely on you to keep them honest.  They demonstrate love through action and not merely talk.  They laugh with you.  They cry with you.  They take the journey with you.  And even in moments of great disagreement, they will not abandon you.

It's my hope that your family will see you living a rich, truthful, beautiful life, and even if they don't completely understand, they'll support you, and perhaps they'll begin to question why a god they so adore might eternally punish you for the crime of thinking for yourself.

All my best.

Seth Andrews


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