The Dilemma: Be Upfront or Remain Anonymous re Non-Belief?
Should I Tell my Family? Atheism/Non-Belief in a Particular Religion
“When you’re different, sometimes you don’t see the millions of people who accept you for what you are. All you notice is the person who doesn’t.”
– Jodi Picoult
There is no denying it. Revealing one’s true feelings to one’s family, friends and community concerning non-belief in a particular religion, or even in God, can result in severe consequences.
Being cut off from family, ostracised within a community and in some families, emotional and physical abuse are real considerations. In some countries, denouncing belief in a deity can lead to imprisonment and death.
For most of us, however, the consideration is a lot less wrought with risk and more about desiring to maintain connections, and not hurting others whom we care about emotionally.
Are we atheists or are we non-believers in a particular religion?
For some of us, we may have come to the conclusion we are atheist, but we are in a family, group of friends or community who are religious.
For others, we may no longer adhere to the religion of our upbringing and the bigger question of belief in a god or not, is still up for consideration. The dilemma is “Do we continue to attend church?” or, “Do we come out and say we no longer accept this church or faith is the truth?”
The question, can also become a matter of “how” to reveal non-belief, or whether to tell religious family or friends at all?
The question of how you proceed is also influenced by whether you are a teenager living at home and still financially dependant on your family, or whether you are an independent adult living away from home. The consequences both socially and economically may be very different depending on the situation in which you find yourself.
Some people may already have a strong sense that telling their family would be no big deal, and so they may choose not to announce anything.
It is, after all, a personal matter.
However, for those of us who know, pretty much without a shadow of a doubt, that any non-attendance at church or deviation away from accepted religious practice would result in possibly serious consequences the issue is a lot more fraught with anxiety and also meaning.
Taking into other people’s feelings, especially those we genuinely care about, and at the same time respecting our individuality, right to self-expression, autonomy, and authenticity can be a juggling act.
How we choose to act can change over time, and can be quite fluid depending on our circumstances and our own particular family and community.
And this is all okay.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question.
Often the consequences of disclosure are usually quite well known before we make the decision, but for some, they may come out of the blue, and be quite devastating. Therefore, a discussion of this subject is apt.
Possible negative consequences of revealing non-belief
However unfair, and unfortunate it is, the reality is that declaring non-belief may forever alter your relationship with believing family members.
For myself, the religion of my childhood, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), disfellowships those who no longer believe. What this means for those who are openly honest about non-belief is that family and friends who remain JWs are strongly advised to treat them as if they are dead, shun them and cut them off completely.
If all your family and friends are in this religion, then this is something that is a serious consideration before you declare your intention.
Once again though, how you handle this would depend on the degree of rigidity in dogma and their open-mindedness and acceptance of others holding other equally valid world views.
There are both positive and negative consequences of being open about non-belief.
Some possible negative consequences of openly declaring non-belief are:
- Ostracism and shunning from family
- Losing friendships
- Becoming very isolated within a community that is church based
- Possibly forever altering your relationships with religious family and friends
- Your family believing you are a “bad influence” on younger members and limiting your contact
- You may reveal what your true feelings are to your family who in turn may ask you to keep it a secret in the broader community
- Losing your home (being asked to leave home if you refuse to attend church especially if you are a teenager)
- Your family may intensity efforts to ‘convert you’ once they know for sure you are a non-believer
- Losing your job
Some possible positive consequences of openly declaring non-belief are:
- More open dialogue with your family as you no longer have to keep it secret
- Others in the family or among your friends who have had doubts may feel able to speak to you about them
- You may be able to dispel bigotry and other myths around ‘atheism’ as your family and friends know you and will be more inclined to listen if you can remain calm
- You may choose to be open with your family but keep it to yourself within the wider community due to possible social consequences (ability to participate in community activities).
- You may choose to attend church still, but declare your non-belief to your family so you can be honest and open in conversation with them.
- Ability to have ‘open’ conversations with your family if you want to about why you feel the way you do now.
- Your family and friends may respect your decision, and there may be ‘no’ negative consequence whatsoever
- You can speak openly with family and friends about how you feel about things, and you do not have to remain quiet or keep secrets
- The psychological and emotional fallout from continually keeping secrets and being afraid people will ‘find out’ is no longer an issue
- You can do things that previously were forbidden to you amongst your particular church community. Freedoms such as: joining the armed services, voting, having a blood transfusion, celebrating birthdays and other public holidays, who to marry, freedom of choice in how you dress, makeup, freedom in music and dance choices, and a myriad of other liberties that may be banned in your particular religion.
- Being able to be open about your sexuality and all that entails
- Being able to have friends who are not of the same religious persuasion, or marry someone, not of the same religion
How others have chosen to handle no longer believing in God or a particular religion
- Say nothing (especially if you live away from home and only occasionally visit). For some putting up sitting through a service they hate, is worth it to maintain family harmony. They do not wish to create any further drama in their life. If they are not asked directly, then they do not see concealing their true feelings as anyone else’s business besides their own.
- Speak up (especially for those independent adults living away from home). Maintaining the illusion of a lie is something they do not wish to do. They see it as strongly as this. They want to live life as “true to themselves” and being open, and upfront about all their beliefs/non-belief is vital for them to achieve this.
How to ‘tell’ your religious family about your atheism or non-belief if you choose to do so
If there is any chance that your family may become physically violent or your safety is at threat if you tell them about your non-belief, then DO NOT do so. You may need to keep it a secret until you can live somewhere you are not dependant on them, or not at risk from them.
In some situations like this, NOT telling is a good option. Your life is more important.
But for most of us, this sort of life and death situation will not occur due to changing our religious beliefs. So, in this case, you have weighed up all the pros and cons, and you have decided you want to go ahead and let your parents, family or close friends know about your non-belief.
Is there any way to do this that can make it easier, or that can assist you in the process.
There are things to keep in mind that could help the situation. But, please, always remember, they are likely going to be upset, and no matter how respectfully you choose to tell them, you are not responsible for trying and making them happy.
Their feelings and reactions belong to them.
- Always talk to them respectfully
- Do not turn it into an opportunity to try and talk them ‘out’ of their belief or convince them that you are right and they are wrong
- This is for you to advise them of your position, and is not about attacking them
- Remind them how much you love and respect them and that what you are about to tell them is not about ‘rejecting them.’
- Their reaction may indicate ‘fear’ for you, for the consequences of your decision. Remember if they believe you will go to hell or think you are condemned by God for turning your back on the particular religious faith they may react with great fear.
- Be sensitive to their fear even if you no longer believe in it. It is very real to them.
- Never raise your voice. If it gets to that point then calmly walk away. Tell your family you did not come to fight, but to be honest with them.
- Let them know you do not want to be a hypocrite and that you do not want to live without honesty. They should respect that stance if truth and honesty are important to them.
- If you have reached your decision after much soul-searching, research and are final in your choice then let them know that if you feel it may help.
- If you are still searching and doubting, then let them know that if you want. Realize they may take this as an opportunity to try and convince you to come back to believing, but if you are okay with having those conversations, then that is up to you.
- They may wonder what traditions you may still want to participate in? Or no? Give some thought to this. Are you happy to attend christenings? Will you celebrate Lent? Or, Passover? Your family may still want you to be involved in family traditions while at the same time respecting your non-belief. It is up to you to decide as this no doubt will feel very personal to them.
- Let them know it is not personal ‘against them’ your upbringing or how they are as parents. This is a decision ‘for you’ made after you have examined your position as an adult about this matter and come to this conclusion. They may feel they have failed as parents, failed you, and may be extremely upset. Their reaction is not your fault. It is also not their fault. It just is. Accept that strong emotion may be felt, not only on your side but theirs too.
- Allowing them some time to digest the news may be important and follow up conversations may also then need to occur.
- If maintaining the relationship is of utmost importance to you, then that is where you need to focus. Not on convincing them, or trying to argue who is right and who is wrong.
- Can your relationship survive and accept each of you holding a different position on this point of view?
- How will you each move forward with respect for the other’s differences in this regard? How can you make it work?
- Not all questions may be able to be answered by you, or them, straight away. Understand this. Accept this. Further reflection may alter your view. on things, on what you are prepared to do or not do, and the same with them.
- Also, they may respond in anger. When people are frightened, upset or confused anger can be a default emotion. Understand that what someone may say in the heat of anger, or emotion, may not be how they feel underneath once the dust has settled. Allow some time for feelings to die down. Accept that someone may wish to come back with you and have a chance for further communication after their initial angry response.
If you are a teenager or still living at home, what can you do?
If you are a teenager or still living at home then this matter may be further complicated.
Here is a video discussing things to take into consideration before deciding whether or not to talk to your parents before you leave home, including some great tips if you do decide to talk to them.
What if you are married and now have changed your mind in relation to belief? (spousal non-belief)
According to Common Sense Atheism, they advised in this situation, “Make your loss of faith a personal thing that is about you, not about their irrationality.”
They advocated that it is probably more important with your spouse to show continued love, respect and affection than it is to engage in arguments concerning the existence of God.
Especially is this true if you are part of a couple where both of you once believed in God, were united over this, and now you no longer believe.
Some couples do survive and go on to thrive despite one no longer believing in god, but it takes a focus to be on the relationship rather than on trying to convince the other to believe the same way you do on a subject.
Particular issues and tensions would arise in a couple where one is secular, and one is a believer. However, this is not an indicator of complete incompatibility. Others have made marriages work in these circumstances, and not just work but thrive. According to the site Friendly Atheist, in their article, “The Seven Benefits of a Relationship Between an Atheist and a Believer” seven commonalities can still link a couple. These are:
- .Both can share common values and morals (the only difference is one believes they come from a God and one doesn’t).
- Partners report becoming a better advocate of their worldview. A partner has a unique opportunity to take into consideration how their belief or non-belief affects their behavior in the marriage and to work on genuinely practicing that in real life.
- Very conservative religious believers report accepting more tolerant social views. “I have become more liberal in my thinking because of him and changed Lutheran denominations because of that,” says Julie. “We both can agree, and I love the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I feel we both have strengthened the other in their views. At least he has for me by questioning why I think what I think. I was able to separate my true beliefs from just believing things because I grew up believing it.”
- Some non-believers report being able to ‘let go’ of bitter resentments held towards religion due to the example of their spouse. “I no longer automatically view someone who identifies as religious with derision, and I can admire their faith, and I instead align myself with them based on the larger question of whether or not they are a good person in the broader sense.”
- Having different worldviews can lead partners to have more in-depth conversations about topics and learn more about each other than otherwise.
- The believer and non-believer are challenged to examine their own beliefs more closely. Having to defend a view leads to a much deeper examination of it, and leads to either dropping a view, a lessening of its intensity if logical and intellectual arguments cannot be vigorously made for it or reinvigorating of your opinion. “Just the presence of the difference was like a whetstone against which I sharpened my mind.”
- It can lead to partners being more open-minded towards each other and less “militant” in their belief/non-belief.
My experience in Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) deciding to leave/not leave due to non-belief
Because Jehovah’s Witnesses practice ‘shunning’ towards those who no longer believe — the consequences for sharing non-belief are usually life-changing, and often catastrophic.
According to the article, “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Religious Shunning and The Free Exercise Clause,” the practice of “shunning,” involves the complete withdrawal of social, spiritual, and economic contact from a member or former member of a religious group.’
It is not just Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice shunning towards members who leave, but The Church of Scientology, Amish, Judaism ( Ultra-Orthodox and Chassidic communities) and Exclusive Brethren, and Muslims.
For some people who are JWs and who no longer believe they may prefer to be seen as an “inactive” witness rather than face disfellowshipping or disassociation. From my own experience, it was more common than not, as people could not face, and did not want to face isolation from all their family who may be in the faith. An inactive witness is classified as one who is not engaged in the door to door preaching activity (recorded monthly).
To start with if someone believes that family who is Jehovah’s Witnesses may suffer serious psychological or emotional harm if the non believing JW comes “out” officially, then some may choose to create an online alias and partake in the exJW forums etc. for support but on the face of it remain an “inactive JW”.
I was reading a blog where a person spoke about their mother who was an active JW had severe mental health issues and had been suicidal in the past. He said that his mother’s mental health was the reason he did not officially come out as being a non-believer now as he did not wish to do anything that may create further harm and distress for her.
Others may strongly disagree with this stance, but at the end of the day, everyone’s journey is different.
How we choose to act in these situations is for us alone to decide. If we decide to keep quiet and keep our non-belief to ourselves for personal reasons, then it is for no-one else to judge.
We all were judged enough by ourselves and others when we were in Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My ‘disassociation’ from Jehovah’s Witnesses
For myself, I was announced as disassociated despite at the time not entirely being ready to do this publicly. Because the elders believed I had so many friends and would likely influence others they decided to announce that I no longer believed I was a JW.
This occurred as an elder phoned me one day after he had loaned me a book, and casually asked me if I was going to be in field service on the weekend. When I stated I had not done this for many months and could not in good faith, do so while I continued to doubt whether or not JW had the truth he had it announced at the following Thursday meeting that I had “disassociated myself.”
My husband was told a day or so before the announcement and was shocked as he knew I was having significant doubts and did not believe some of the doctrines anymore, but he also knew I was studying with an elder and his wife to try and find answers to these questions and doubts. Despite me writing to the elder body that I did not wish this as I had no made up my mind entirely but was still in the process of doing so, I was announced as having disassociated myself.
Why someone else decided to keep her JW past a ‘secret.’
“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”– Andre Berthiaume
Another ex JW makes some good points as to why she keeps her past as a JW “secret.”
Mostly it relates to her high profile job and the fact she doesn’t wish to lose credibility if people assume she had an “f ……d up past”. Also, the fact that she doesn’t wish to be constantly reminded of this by everyone knowing. Now and then she can go to an ex JW site and vent, or as she puts it “take her pill” and then she can leave and forget about it until next time. It is not a daily thing that might unexpectedly be thrust at her when she least expects it. I can relate to this reasoning.
It is a difficult enough road to take when leaving JWs let alone the added burden of “to be public or not.”
I think we should all respect the road everyone takes and at the end of the day, nothing is set in concrete.
I am sure many live a double life for years “pretending” to be inactive JWs when they no longer believe in JWs, but I also am equally sure that some eventually decide they no longer can do this, and choose to make it official.
Why I am glad my disassociation happened now as it did
For myself, I eventually would have chosen to disassociate publicly.
I am now glad it happened.
I did not choose it to happen as soon as it did.
I know I would never have been able to go to university, take on the fulltime job I did, allow my children “worldly” friends (one of my children had a career in the Australian defense force) as well as have all the “non-JW” friends with whom I regularly associate.
It would have been immensely difficult and I choose to live with NO secrets.
Maybe because I also had lived with secrets as an abuse survivor this also gave me the impetus to be grateful for the complete break and for not having to live a double life.
But I have no issue with anyone who makes a different choice.
There are many considerations to take into account, and the choice and circumstances are unique to each.
“Being yourself means shedding all the layers of looking good, wanting to be liked, being scared to stand out and trying to be who you think people want you to be. Being yourself means being naked, raw and vulnerable.”
– Jeff Moore