Atheists already deal with people’s mistaken ideas about them spread by apologists and other “well-meaning” believers in God on an almost daily basis, but how does this factor in with one’s family? My own family isn’t terribly pushy about their Christianity for the most part, and this is mostly due to me being, for the most part to extended family, a closet atheist. I haven’t even told many people outside of those that could figure out through Facebook and look at my profile to see I identify with Zen. In that case, family wise, I would estimate only about 20-25 people at most would know that I’m not Christian, which is pretty much the default faith of most people raised in Tennessee anyway. I don’t see many people having a problem with it at all and I’ve only lost one Facebook friend through their unwillingness to engage in civil debates with me without exploding. I can’t speak for those who have come out, which comprises more of the difficulties and questions that are raised in regards to atheist’s relations with their religious family, excessive or otherwise. But I think I can provide some advice nonetheless as one who engages with the religious commonly.
Atheists who have already come out to their families encounter proselytizing and general skepticism that someone could actually stop believing in God and Jesus. Accusations are flung ranging from the person being possessed by Satan, affected by the secular humanist agenda or doing it out of rebellion. There’s also worry that they’ll go to hell or that they don’t have any basis for doing good, both of which are either irrelevant or unjustified. The insistence that they’ll change their mind with time, when they “grow up” makes me chuckle, since those believers have only grown up physically at most, but mentally, they haven’t truly matured, since they refuse to accept even the doubts that arise as to whether God actually exists or cares about them, pushing them aside. If they are unwilling to face the anxiety and emotional distress that might arise from adopting a perspective where there is no God and only humans in a world which they have the power to improve or destroy, then perhaps they haven’t really grown up in any real sense, except perhaps taking on some responsibilities that any human being is expected to as they reach a certain age. We all leave the nest of our parents, but this doesn’t mean that we sever those connections and dispositions that sometimes persist in spite of the separation we experience by paying our own rent, getting our own groceries and working a day to day job to support ourselves. Many people, since they have lost that direct connection to their initial providers, instead take on the belief that there is a spiritual/supernatural parent always watching over them which comforts them in some way. I don’t deny people’s right to believe this, but even as a pluralist, I cannot completely allow people to hold these beliefs in spite of evidence and arguments to the contrary. Plenty of people live a life full of happiness in spite of losses and don’t make any pleas to a deity to protect them or help them through it, but persist in spite of the existential despair. That humanist tenacity, particularly the secular variety, is admirable to me, though I suppose this goes without saying when in the position of being an outsider to a religion that offers not only the community of similar groups, but spiritual and existential solace in hearing someone preach that there is someone watching out for them and that loves them unconditionally (but only until they die, after which they separate the child from their love eternally if they haven’t loved them back).
I could understand in part when a family member feels defensive or disappointed when you have a family member that believes very differently than you about the supernatural. It’s one thing to have someone who converts to Judaism in a Christian family, or even Islam (popular in the 21st century as the new target that previously ranged from Judaism to Catholicism 50 years or more in the past). But even someone converting to Buddhism, which I have in part, let alone becoming an atheist (reverting back to a state they were already in before) poses a bigger issue to parents who might feel that the child is rebelling against them, or if the child is otherwise obedient, that they have somehow failed God in not raising their offspring to be good Christians. But I’d respond to all those parents: if your child is an otherwise good citizen and is respectful to you in spite of disagreeing with you about whether Jesus saves or God exists, then you’ve done a better job than many parents do in letting the school or the media serve as the babysitter for their spawn, regarding them as little more than a nuisance or free labor. If you genuinely love your child, I don’t see why you should become hostile in any sense just because they have changed from the religion you thought they ought to adhere to. Accept them as they are, like God accepts people. And before you respond that God expects change, don’t compare yourself to something that’s supposed to be all knowing and all powerful. You are neither and thus you don’t have any basis to do anything but pray to that God; not that it will necessarily have any effect on your child’s beliefs. If your child hasn’t become a criminal, they are in no imminent danger.
In terms of preconceived ideas of what atheists are, the best way to dispel those myths is to behave as you normally would and let your behavior speak for itself in terms of your atheism. You haven’t ceased to love your family, you haven’t become less moral, and you aren’t trying to convert them to atheism. But you must establish that you won’t change your beliefs just to make them feel better. You chose your beliefs and you will stick with them even if your family doesn’t agree. In the worst case scenario, your family would disown you and if you’re an adult, this is fine, however troubling it is at first. If they are not willing to accept you in choosing atheism, then perhaps they aren’t truly family in the sense of a group of people who persist in unconditional love in spite of the occasional ups and downs. If you’re not an adult, this can pose a problem in that you have to tolerate such intolerance that it borders on criminal behavior. In this way, being an atheist in a situation where you are dependent on religious family is actually a motivation to become independent sooner than if you don’t have this problem. My own immediate family isn’t so religious that they don’t permit that I have my own beliefs, so there is in a sense not as much motivation to become independent, though I definitely desire it a great deal if only to avoid more religious infighting that might occur in the future as I further mature.
So in my experience, atheists do have problems sometimes with religious family, but as they have become atheists, they seem to have become at least more understanding, though there are many atheists closeted to even their immediate family for fear of ostracism. And I say to them, do not be afraid. You have support in other atheists and even other theists who may disagree with you, but nonetheless grant you that freedom to choose your beliefs as an individual instead of thinking you must conform to satisfy their selfish wishes. Atheists and tolerant theists are your friends, even your family in a sense. Don’t let the so called “support and love” through your family members’ religious evangelism become a barrier to openness about your atheism. That’s the first step to making atheism more accepted and more well known in the world at large. Once your family begins to understand that atheism is only part of you and doesn’t determine other things about you, then they can start telling non family members about how you’re still the same person, you just don’t believe in God like many others might. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.