“I just became an atheist. How do I tell my friends and family?”

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 1, 2011 in General Atheism

Many people contact me for advice about what to do now that they’ve become an atheist. How should they ‘come out’ to their religious friends and family? It’s a tricky situation.

Here is my advice.

It’s almost certainly a good idea to go public with your unbelief. Living a lie is no way to happiness and fulfillment. The question is when and how to ‘come out.’

If your situation is extreme, such that coming out will cause you to lose your job and all your relationships, then you should extract yourself from that unhealthy situation before you come out. If your whole life depends on your Mormon community, and they will break all contact with you if you come out as an unbeliever, then first you need to make some non-Mormon friends and get a job outside the Mormon community.

But for most people, coming out as a skeptic need not mean the loss of a job or family. It will mean more stressed relationships, perhaps, but you can focus your efforts on making things work despite the tension. Place priority on your relationships and your financial support, not on proving to everyone that their worldview is deluded. Make your loss of faith a personal thing that is about you, not about their irrationality. Say things like, “I just can’t believe any more.” Better for people to pity you than to be angry with you, though both are annoying.

Feel free to engage with all-out arguments about the existence of God with strangers, but when it comes to your family it’s probably more important to show them continued love and respect and affection than it is to introduce those particular souls to rationality.

On the other hand, if your family and closest friends seem to be open to rationality, or are in general persuadable, it may be valuable to gently offer up your reasons. Maybe they’ll be persuaded, and their lives can be freed from centuries-old dogmas, too.

Coming out as an unbeliever to your fundamentalist spouse may be the trickest situation of all. I know a surprising number of marriages that have survived this departure in worldviews, but they often survived just barely, and of course many marriages do not survive this. On the other hand, for how long can you live a lie? One may also need to consider children, who generally are negatively impacted in a major way by the divorce of their parents. On this subject, I have no advice that can generalize. You’ll need to think through the utilities and probabilities of the situation on your own.

My own experience? I didn’t lose a single friend or family member for switching from fundamentalist Christianity to rabid atheism.

Perhaps most importantly, talk to lots of atheists. Be open and honest about your situation. You’ll hear lots of perspectives. You’ll find lots of other people who went through your situation in the last few years. You’ll realize there’s a huge community that you can join. You’ll see a variety of ways to see the world without gods.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan D. Vick May 1, 2011 at 5:01 am

Great post Luke!

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Howard May 1, 2011 at 5:50 am

My advice differs from yours, Luke. I would advise the new unbeliever to simply observe for a while before making any decision to “come out.”

Living a lie? Meh. We all do. Everyone’s public persona differs from his/her private persona differs from his/her familial persona etc. ad nauseum. Also, for me, there was no specific event or time that I can point to when I “became” an atheist. The process was gradual, until one day I realized that I not only didn’t believe any of that crap, but that I no longer felt compelled to try. The real relief came after I divorced my Lutheran wife and found a fellow nonbeliever who consented to be my wife.

But as for “coming out”? That isn’t even necessary. I am active in an atheist group, but outside of that, I simple don’t discuss religion, especially with my family. And because they want to believe it, they think I’m still a “good Christian”. I don’t see any good reason for disabusing any of them of that mistaken notion. Like most Christians (at least the ones I know), their beliefs are pretty much harmless anyway, since they remain profoundly ignorant of their own religion, having accepted the spoon-feed cherry-picking of biblical fantasies they have been getting from their church since childhood (I am still a bit surprised that the brainwashing did not stick in my case). My wife’s mother died happy in the “knowledge” that my wife was a “good Catholic.” My mother will probably pass comfortable in the “knowledge” that I am a “good born-again Baptist.” None of that will make the slightest bit of difference in the long run (in which we are all dead).

I don’t discuss religion or politics with my family or my coworkers, or for that matter, anyone but the folks at the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas. I’m comfortable with that. I have no compunction to “save” anybody from their impossible belief systems, and I suspect that human nature in general would make that an exercise in futility anyway.

I believe that the best way to keep religion in check is to encourage the formation of factions that can be played against each other — and *not* encourage them to band together so that they can more effectively harass the unbelievers.

That said, there is at least one REALLY dangerous superstition on the planet, and that is Islam. I suspect there will come a day when we will be forced to kill Islamists in order to keep them from killing us. But maybe it will play out that we can get the various factions of that militant cult masquerading as a religion to kill each other so that we don’t have to. But whichever way that plays out, I will probably simply position myself in public as “not a Muslim” rather than as an atheist. And I will take that stance only because I see the Religion of Pedophilia and Misogyny as a clear and present danger to my way of life. Christianity, by and large, is not. Christians don’t believe in conversion by the sword (and if that changes, well my attitude towards Christians will also change).

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Scott May 1, 2011 at 6:33 am

“Ask Richard” over at Friendly Atheist also gives great advice.

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cl May 1, 2011 at 8:47 am

It’s almost certainly a good idea to go public with your unbelief.

Evidence? That seems like a claim from intuition. We’re supposed to eschew intuition, right?

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Garren May 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Luke has answered this question before. (Better even, if current Luke doesn’t mind hearing that about past Luke.)

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=9302

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Brenda May 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm

I came out this past Christmas with family and friends by including a short description of my journey from fundamentalist Christian to atheist in our family newsletter. I also included the link to my website at: http://www.leftchristianity.wordpress.com. It may not be particularly academic – but it is my story.

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Andy Walters May 1, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Pardon me as I toot my own horn, but I’ve made available what I think is an excellent coming out letter which I wish I would’ve sent to my family and friends. If you’re a new atheist looking for an example, a model, or even plagiarizing material, check it out.

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Luke Muehlhauser May 1, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I knew I had answered the question before but I couldn’t find where! Thanks for linking. :)

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Luke Muehlhauser May 1, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Andy,

FYI, the formatting on that page is screwed up for me in Chrome but not Safari.

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AndrewR May 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm

…have lots of conversations with lots of atheists

One place you can do this is the online chat site http://www.talkatheist.com

(like Mormon chat, but for atheists)

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AndrewR May 1, 2011 at 3:12 pm

One place you can do this is the online chat site http://www.talkatheist.com

(like Mormon chat, but for atheists)

Sorry, that should be http://www.talkatheist.org, not .com

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cl May 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Hey Luke when you get a second, could you just briefly explain the conditions under which intuition-based claims should be accepted, as opposed to when they should be challenged? This is a bit unclear for me.

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Luke Muehlhauser May 1, 2011 at 4:24 pm

cl,

No, there is no brief explanation for that. You need to study how cognitive algorithms generate our intuitions to have some idea of when they should be trusted and when they should not. Note that this post was one of giving advice, not one where I offered justifications for my advice.

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Garren May 2, 2011 at 1:04 am

This seems a decent place to share a quotable excerpt I found today:

‘My appeal to intuition need not be misunderstood. I may open a case on the grounds of intuition: I do not rest the case on the grounds of intuition. If I did so I would have no case. An intuition poses a question, not an answer. And an answer to the question renders an appeal to intuition superfluous.’ — Paul Ziff, Semantic Analysis section 11

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cl May 2, 2011 at 9:56 am

Luke,

Thanks for the links. I had already read a few of them. Are you implying that intuition is okay when giving advice, but not okay when justifying a philosophical argument?

Garren,

Thanks for the quotation. It seems to me that Luke’s intuition posed an answer here, so, I’m still a little confused.

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Andy Walters May 2, 2011 at 11:01 am

Andy,

FYI, the formatting on that page is screwed up for me in Chrome but not Safari.

Fixed!

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Luke Muehlhauser May 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm

cl,

No. I’m saying that nobody offers full justifications for everything. I could not speak to anyone ever if that was the standard. I stand by my advice because I’ve thought a lot about it, but I won’t be taking the time to justifying my advice. Take it or leave it.

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cl May 3, 2011 at 9:55 am

Luke,

So, “no,” intuition is NOT okay when we’re giving advice, but you’re just going to go ahead and do it anyway because you’ve thought a lot about it and you don’t want to take the time to justify your claim?

I’m saying that nobody offers full justifications for everything. I could not speak to anyone ever if that was the standard.

I disagree. Take this post for example. You could have said something like, “Going public with my unbelief seemed good for me, it might be the case for you, too.” Such a statement wouldn’t require any justification whatsoever, and it would have the added bonus of being consistent with all else you preach about eschewing intuition when it comes to real-world claims.

I mean, when it comes to “what’s good for us” in terms of desirism, you ostensibly reject intuition, yet it seems you’re actually quite willing to use it when it suits you. I suppose I’m just looking for the principle behind the apparent discrepancy here, and the principle seems to be, “When I want to make intuition-based claims about what’s good in the real world, I will… and the rest of the time, I’ll demand that others eschew intuition-based claims about what’s good in the real world.” That doesn’t seem right.

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Garren May 3, 2011 at 11:40 am

It’s almost certainly a good idea to go public with your unbelief. Living a lie is no way to happiness and fulfillment.

I consider this a false dichotomy. Most of my family and acquaintances still assume I’m a Christian, but I don’t have to lie to maintain this. Heck, when I’ve said things that really should be a clue, I’ve noticed people will tend to interpret what I say in the way they find most comfortable, e.g. they’ll assume I’m a lax Christian.

Would my life be better off sending an ‘apostasy announcement’ letter to everyone? I doubt it. Seems like it would mostly cause a big ruckus among people who aren’t all that interested in critically assessing the truth of their traditional beliefs.

The ‘living a lie’ thing would be appropriate for, say, preachers who stop believing but keep on at their job with some kind of liberal theological justification. Or the parent who gets pressured into positive, outward appearances of faith to appease the spouse, or the spouse’s family.

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cl May 3, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I’ll second Garren, I meant to ask a question about that earlier.

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Adito May 4, 2011 at 9:44 am

Garren,

There probably are circumstances were not telling your friends and family your religious views does not effect your ability to self actualize but I suspect they are rare. I mean consider your position, it seems likely that your family has an interest in really knowing you. Not in knowing a certain mask you wear that makes them happy. By denying them this you are doing them harm.

I suspect the majority of people want their family to know and love them for who they are, regardless of what they believe. If a persons justification for keeping it secret is “I just don’t want to create problems” then perhaps it won’t have any adverse consequences for them. But if it includes even a bit of “if they knew they might not care for me as much” then I think this suggests a fairly serious problem that should be addressed and the most obvious method would be to tell them the truth.

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Garren May 4, 2011 at 11:38 am

@Adito,
..’But if it includes even a bit of “if they knew they might not care for me as much” then I think this suggests a fairly serious problem that should be addressed and the most obvious method would be to tell them the truth.’

Yes this does suggest a serious problem, but it’s a problem in other people. Telling them has the effect of triggering the problem, not necessarily fixing it.

It reminds me of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario because it’s not necessarily in the best interest of any individual atheist / homosexual / unpopular political opinion holder etc. to confront their friends and families with the crisis of rejecting prejudice or rejecting the person, but it is in the interest of atheists / etc. in general for individuals to do so until common opinion changes for the better.

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EvolutionSWAT May 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm

About marriage, I would discourage you from being very out if you are married to a believer. It’s very hard on your spouse for you to publicly criticize his/her ‘personal relationship’ with God. They also cannot handle it as much as you can.

My advice? Think carefully about when to come out when you are married, and consider keeping it a personal secret if you love your spouse more than anyone else in the world and you know they cannot handle it. Perhaps just be very gentle, if you do tell them.

I admit that maybe I am being dishonest here, but I think we should be sympathetic to people who know their spouses are good people but could probably not handle a total worldview change.

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Justin May 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Hey Luke,

I have a friend who found out that she was transgender (will be referred to as he from now on). I feel like this can be applied to more than atheism as it works for transgenders, homosexuals, Scientologists, ect. I think I will show this to him as he doesn’t know how to tell the loved ones who might not accept him for who he is.

Thanks.

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