I’ve come out as atheist to college friends, two of my sisters and their husbands, and my parents. All of them were, and are, Christian, but even so, every conversation went differently. Most of these coming-out stories are documented here, and 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
Trying to respond to someone’s objections to your beliefs on the spot is both nearly impossible and pointless. When I came out to my sister, she brought up an objection akin to Pascal’s Wager, and although I had already written an entire blog post on it, all I said that the time was “Ugh… it’s complicated.” Understandably, she probably thought she had won that one. But just because I didn’t have an answer at the tip of my tongue that day doesn’t mean I didn’t have one. Ideally, I could have just sent her to that post and asked her to read it on her own time before giving me her thoughts.
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” (which isn’t even the right use of the word 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.