As published on God Hates Atheists -

Having family members who are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic, or just theists in general can make for an interesting mix. But there are ways to avoid nasty conflicts to improve the situation, or maintain a good relationship with the ones you love. I can only speak about my relationship with my parents, as the one with my girlfriend's family has been somewhat strained for a lot of different reasons.

Establish respect for their beliefs and demand that they respect yours

Respect is a two-way street. It's important for you to show respect for your family still, despite the fact that you might totally and completely fundamentally disagree with what they believe. You don't have to respect their beliefs, but by not discussing them, or debating in a very non-confrontational way is the best recipe.

If you're new to atheism, it's hard to not get hyped up about your newly-established views. You're very zealous about what you believe and don't believe, and it can be very enticing to debate. But having debates with your family isn't usually the best use of time with them. If you do have debates, it's important to remember the following:

  • They don't see things the way you see them. This is a more obvious point to consider.
  • They aren't going to change their minds even after the most compelling of arguments.
  • They're getting comfort and emotional support from their beliefs, church, or religious activities.
  • Anything you say against their faith, god, religion, or beliefs will be taken as a personal attack.
  • They may think that you're threatening their salvation or eternal fate by even discussing beliefs with them.
  • It's their duty to keep you in the faith.

Theists take their beliefs very personally -- much more than we atheists or agnostics do. You're essentially embarking (most likely) on a fruitless journey by trying to convert them. My advice: don't do it.

That doesn't mean that you can't take some valuable time to clear their misconceptions about atheism. After all, if they're getting all of their information from a pastor or priest, who could be scaring them with fables about how atheists eat babies and worship the devil. Nevertheless, if you do have any discussion about this, they'll probably be pretty quick to tell you what they think about atheism since there isn't really any logical argument against it.

When you do have these conversations, be nice, and talk about what you believe and think in a positive way. And remind your family or in-laws that you're still you, but you just don't share their beliefs. Tell them that you still love them and respect them, and that you expect the same. They can't make you think or feel a certain way, but tell them that you trust that they won't be proselytizing or preaching at or to you. You will do the same. And mean it.

Part of respecting your family members and

It's not worth losing family over

Hopefully your family and friends don't totally disown you, like in the case of Damon Fowler, a fresh graduate of Bastrop High School in Bastrop, Louisiana. If they do, don't lose your head over it. Just remind them that you love them and you hope that you can have a relationship with them after the shock settles. Things won't ever be back to normal, but you can always establish a "new normal".

Your family loves you and doesn't want you to burn in hell. That's the biggest reason they want you to believe in their god or Jesus. So it doesn't make sense that they would totally cut you off. This may not be a good point to bring up in argument (you tell me...), but remind them that they said they love you, and if you're not going to be with them in heaven, to make the most of their time with you on earth.

In all seriousness, it's not likely that theist relatives will entirely disown you, but it does happen. You will probably know how your parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are going to react if and when you tell them. If you think they'll fly off the handle and totally reject you, then just don't tell them. If you're young and you're depending on your family to provide you with a roof, hot meals, and a place to sleep, then forget it. Unless they're open-minded and accepting of others' viewpoints, it's best left alone. If they're paying for your college and you think that would jeopardize your future, then leave it alone. It's just not worth it. It's best to reveal your beliefs (or lack thereof) when you're independent and aren't relying on outside help.

Determine when to tell them by "taking their temperature"

If you can't stand being untrue to yourself, and just have to tell them, then start slowly. It's best to take their temperature first by talking about famous atheists around them. You might mention reading Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", and then commenting on her religious views. Or talk about how a kid in class who's an atheist. It's wise to see how they're going to react, and you'll know immediately what they think about your atheism.

"Coming out" is no longer a term reserved for homosexuality. Atheists have to face enormous challenges in society just for not believing in a god. 76% of people in the USA claim Christianity, while around 90% believe in a higher power. Your odds aren't great while wearing that scarlet A on your shirt.

Are you an atheist?

Atheism is one position you can subscribe to. But there are other labels that you can call yourself that don't sound as harsh. The most obvious is "agnostic". It's not that bad, and agnostics aren't all that different from atheists. Richard Dawkins outlines the dichotomy between atheists and agnostics in his book The God Delusion, and there is one, but it's not likely that they will know all the specifics. It's a good way to be fairly honest about yourself without dropping such a huge bomb on them. While agnosticism refers to what you know, and atheism refers to what you believe, in this case, it probably applies.

Another term is "humanist" - call yourself a humanist, or secular humanist. Humanism speaks more directly to your position on others and your desire to create a fair playground for all. Most likely, your family members will not be very familiar with the exact definition of the term, or will just think that you're a bleeding-heart. Humanism doesn't depend on atheism, either, for many theists are also humanists. Some theists can even be secular humanists, where they believe in a god but understand that secularism is what keeps everyone free to believe what they want without unnecessary impositions on differing viewpoints. Surely they will have more respect for you if you use one of those terms, and you're basically leaving your religious beliefs out of it.

Maintain control so you tell as few lies as possible

Lying is bad. It's still bad even now that you're an atheist. But you knew that.

If you can maintain control of the discussions surrounding your beliefs (or lack of them), then you will be less apt to have to lie in a bind. Lying isn't good, because if and when you do tell them that you're an atheist, they'll be upset with you for being dishonest. They'll never point out that they made being honest such a difficult task to begin with, but you may want to bring that to their attention if that comes up.

Plan the discussion the best that you can. If you think that it's going to require some time to tell them, then plan, plan, plan! You don't need to announce the news 5 minutes after you decide to. Keep your religious beliefs off Facebook and anywhere else that they might be easily seen. When the time is right, you'll know.

It's probably not going to be as bad as you think

You probably aren't going to get locked up in a room with a TV playing evangelistic sermons, only to leave for bathroom use and dinner in the mess hall. It might seem that way, but overall, many parents will feel a little heartbreak and probably not bug you too badly about it. They'll talk to you about it, try to change your mind, beg and plead with you, offer you the ever-famous Pascal's Wager argument (among other fallacious ones) to get you to stay within the faith. What can you do? Listen, gently refute, and remind them that you've made your mind up. They know that they can't change your mind for you, so heavy intimidation and hostility isn't very likely. And it's probably not in their best interest to be overly mean about it anyway since it doesn't help their cause.

But if you think the shit will hit the fan and it'll be a bad situation for you, just think things through and be smart about your actions and you'll be okay.

Special note to Muslim apostates

Don't say a fucking word. Islam doesn't talk nicely about apostasy. If your family or close friends are fundamentalists or very devoted to their faith, then don't talk about it. If coming out means losing your life or possible violence against, you, then keep quiet. It's not worth it. Figure out a plan to get away from it and just think clearly and rationally about every step you take.

The Christian bible doesn't talk nicely about apostates either, but the degree of biblical literalism and fundamentalism is demonstrably less violent. Nasty words might be said, but violence is much less likely.


Leaving a belief-system altogether is hard to do. It's even harder to share it with friends and family, especially when you know they'll take it hard. But being true to yourself is the most important thing -- as Shakespeare said:

This above all: to thine own self be true [...]

Preserve your relationship with your family by making sure everyone respects each other, and don't talk much (or at all) about the differences in faith. Differences seldom bring people together, so focus on what you do love about them, and encourage them to focus on what they love about you and you'll be okay.


I need to print a retraction, so-to-speak. I have mentioned in a few posts that I was raised atheist. This is not entirely true, as my parents have mentioned. They are very loving, generous, and spiritual people, and they were quite upset when they read that. I don't wish to unfairly misrepresent my upbringing, but by pure definition I was raised as an atheist to the Christian god. My parents believe in a higher power, and that there is a supernatural element to life. I disagree with this position. My upbringing could possibly be better described as agnostic, but I claimed atheism in high school. About two years after I graduated, I spent nearly three years in the Christian faith before rejecting it. My apologies go out to anyone who is offended if I've not been entirely clear about my upbringing and beliefs.

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Comment by Eric Keyte on May 29, 2011 at 12:04pm

Jeanne D -

I'm glad that this community exists, then! This article is a fresh post, but I've received a few e-mails from younger generations who have told me that this has helped them. I think that as atheists, knowing that our viewpoints are misrepresented and not understood by the Christian majority, we should be helping the young people who are too afraid to come out. And coming out isn't always the best move early on! Thanks for your comment!


John, thanks for the recommendation on Pyrrhonism. I'm going to look into that a bit. It would be very interesting to look at that viewpoint.


Honestly, I've had times (and articles, if you read the blog) in the past where I've called out in a very critical way, the Christian faith. I'm learning as I go, that they are, in fact, as convinced of their beliefs as we are and that they're not wrong for having been indoctrinated. If we ever want to pull ourselves out of this medieval mindset, it's going to have to happen with love, forgiveness, and above all, patience.


I appreciate it, John! Thanks so much for your comments. I'm feeling like joining Atheist Nexus was an awesome idea!

Comment by John Camilli on May 28, 2011 at 11:29pm

Get back in the closet, you hippie! Lol, no I like this post a lot. I thought it was very insightful for someone who is new to his atheism. I also commend you for realizing that theists are just as convinced of their thoguhts as you are of yours, and that they have a right to them, just as you do. I think a lot of atheists lose sight of their respect for theists and get to a point where they ridicule and disrespect them, which I think is just turning the tables and making one's self the oppressor, rather than helping to bring any enlightenment to the world.


Welcome to the nexus, and more importantly welcome to atheism! I want to make a recommendation, if you feel like doing any research. Check out an old philosophy called Pyrrhonism. It's the predecessor to both skepticism and epiricism. Perhaps you'll find it as interresting as I do.

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