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I live with my mother, my grandmother and my cousin, who is also an atheist.

I've had a feeling for a couple of years that I should let my mother and my family know that I no longer believe in God, but I haven't done so because I feel that this would cause some discomfort between me and my mother and other relatives.

This week my mother asked me to go with her to church, I refused saying that there was no reason for me to go, this ended with her leaving and me dressing and going after her to church. I met her when the mass finished and she said that if I was going to go anyway I should have done it without fighting first and hurting her (I agree). Now I think that I refused to go hoping that she would notice I disagree with her beliefs.

I've decided I need to tell her explicitly that I don't believe in God anymore but I don't know how I'm gonna do it.

My goal is that she accepts and hopefully respects this, I'd have no problem going to church with her once in a while once she acknowledges it. Obviously I don't intend to disrespect her or her beliefs.

Notes:

  • Most of my family are catholic except for one of my uncles who changed his religion to that of his wife's many years ago but he is still a believer.
  • I started doubting about the existence of God when I was 17 or so, now I'm 22 and I'm convinced God doesn't exist.
  • Religion is very important for my family.

Edit:

I see many people have asked about my expectations of doing this and my motives for doing it. I believe that me becoming an atheist is an important topic that sooner or later will be revealed to my family, either I'll tell them or they'll find out by others. Most of my friends know I'm atheist, plenty of them are too.

One of my cousins who is also atheist has come up with the topic once or twice and my mother just says something like "don't speak like that" or "what kind of talking is that?"

What worries me is that as a mother she probably will be worried about me, my soul, my future and that sort of thing.

  • 3
    This comparable question from Parenting might be relevant: parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/7618/… – Erik Feb 21 '18 at 19:38
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    When someone asked a somewhat similar question (that OP also being an an atheist son of very religious mother) this was my answer: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/6193/381 The other answers on that page also give good inputs towards resolving the issue. [You can ignore the "superstitious" aspect of that question.] – English Student Feb 21 '18 at 23:36
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    The comment section is not the place to discuss the difference whether or not atheism can be considered a religion. Please take such discussion to Interpersonal Skills Chat. – Mithical Feb 22 '18 at 7:54

13 Answers 13

42

It's good that you're being careful and sensitive about this. As a Christian myself I can say that there is no easy way to go about the topic. If a family member told me that they didn't believe in God anymore, I would be devastated. No matter how you go about it, it will be a huge shock and your mother will need time to process and come to terms with it.

That being said, it's best just to take time to sit down with her and simply tell her that you're an atheist and why. Do everything in your power to answer any questions and concerns she might have, then give her time, as much support as you can provide, and possibly some space.

You sound convinced about your position, so I wouldn't wait too long. This won't get any easier if you wait to talk to her about it, and it could very easily get harder.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Feb 22 '18 at 22:54
27

There are two aspects to this, and you need to see that.

The first part of religion is faith. Understand that making you lie or pretend on this is a form of oppression. In many parts of the world you can be killed for stating that you are an atheist, in more civilized parts you might be shunned, or something inbetween, but the base principle is the same and it is oppression and you have every right to stand up to it and state your belief or lack of such freely.

The second part of religion is customs and traditions. While they are mixed with faith, almost every christian tradition specifically is actually based on an older non-christian tradition. For the purpose of family or social activity, you can absolutely take part in these traditions without sharing the majority faith. Many atheists happily celebrate christmas, some call it by its original local names (mostly solistice-related) but many just say "christmas" and don't mean anything. Interestingly, renaming these things "winter celebration" or whatever the PC word is was never an atheist idea.

All that said, you seem to have your head on the right way by saying that you don't mind accompanying your mother to church sometimes. But you messed up trying to dance on two parties at the same time.

Your family, no matter how important religion is, cannot force you to believe. Take a stand. Don't cover it with sugar, and don't phrase it in believer terms, e.g. "lost my faith", "doubted" - nonsense. The idea of god doesn't make sense to you, that's it. When communicating that to sensitive people, your duty is to not hurt or insult them, but it is their job to come to terms with what you said, not yours. They are adults, too.

Start with something positive and respectful to get that out of the way immediately. Something like: "Mother, I respect your faith and devotion to your god." - the added "your" is a first warning shot, but you clearly address the deep fear of every religious person - that you are going to attack their faith - immediately. With that out of the way, you can add in whatever words best fits your feelings that you don't share that faith. Then (sandwich-technique: good-bad-good) add that you will be happy to accompany her to church sometimes and celebrate the various holidays for the sake of tradition.

End with a request, ask that she shows the same respect to your worldview as you show to hers.


Fair warning: This might still fail. People are often irrational about things like religion, sex or politics. Even the best communication might not work out. If you cannot afford a conflict (e.g. you live at home with no income of your own) you might decide that survival is more important than honesty.

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    This is a very good answer, +1. OP grew in a religious family so obviously was "religious" initially, but then made up his mind. He did not loose faith, he just decided when l'autre about his beliefs. It can be heloful to set this perspective when brekingvthe news but I do not have much hope in it usefulness as rationality and religion are antonymic (by this I mean that this is probably not the right strategy) – WoJ Feb 22 '18 at 6:16
  • "in more civilized parts you might be shunned, or something inbetween"..? Which 'more civilised parts' are you talking about that you'd be shinned for being an atheist?! – Aka_aka_aka_ak Feb 23 '18 at 1:33
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    @Aka_aka_aka_ak parts of USA, Spain, Italy, some parts of Eastern Europe, Middle America - essentially wherever people are deeply religious and slightly intolerant. I know a few cases even in the German countryside where declaring yourself an atheist didn't exactly help your social life. – Tom Feb 23 '18 at 1:58
  • Very good answer. Many answers here ignore the simple fact - that religious people tend to be more irrational and less logical than atheists/agnostics and such. The whole nature of faith suggests it. Therefore a likelihood of aggression is something worth to be taken into account. My parents are religious too and they are rather good people, but when I respond to their religious pressuring on me (like, when they talk about how some things are sinful and push other dogmas) they can turn very very vile and start namecalling. – parsecer Feb 23 '18 at 21:20
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    It works like a switch - because many religious people are deeply insecure and fear death and existential crisis, so when they encounter anything that threatens to destroy the defenses they have built to protect themselves from that fear (read faith) they can turn very aggressive in a matter of seconds. So be very careful. – parsecer Feb 23 '18 at 21:22
20

Being honest and forward with telling her is the way to go while avoiding undermining her religious views.

Mom, I'm an atheist. It's nothing against you or the rest of our family; I just don't believe in God anymore.

Something that can really help the situation is mentioning how being a part of her religion has been helpful. As someone who was also raised Catholic and now consider myself agnostic, even I can see the value that going to church as a child has given me.

You could add something like

That doesn't mean I don't want to go to church with you. I've learned a lot at church that has helped me develop into the person I am today. It has helped me develop a strong moral code which I still live by.

If you didn't learn anything like that from church, you could simply mention that you enjoy spending time as a family even if it's at church.

I would also like to say that you should mention that you don't feel comfortable taking part in the more ritualistic parts of her religion like taking communion. Some people consider it offensive to take part in those kind of rituals without being a part of the religion but others might not care.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – HDE 226868 Feb 28 '18 at 22:18
6

I actually lived this very same situation 2 years ago. I´m going to tell you my experience and how it went. Much like you I wanted to tell my parents about this, but knew they would be devastated (I was 21 at the time and had been a christian in their eyes all my life). I had been an atheist for 3 years and many fights had ensued when I refused going to church, so I decided to come out.

There is no easy way to do it, and your mother is going to get hurt but I think you should sit her down, in a time when neither of you are in a rush, and tell her:

"Mom there´s something I´ve been wanting to tell you. I´m no longer a chistian, I´m an atheist."

From here on you could tell her why if she asks, but that really depends on her character. My parents weren´t actually that surprised, although they were really hurt, and only my father asked me some questions.

Overall, it was a great decision for me. Although I think they still hope I convert back some day, they don´t look distressed or even ask me questions about it. Our relationship hasn´t changed a bit.

Hope this helps, good luck!

  • i would like to tell me family too (mainly because i don't want to waste my time anymore by going to church every now and then if i don't believe in it anyway). But they would get so mad at me its ridicilous, i once told them that i have no reason to go to church except for a marriage etc. but for griefing? no thank you, i can do that on my own. Very religious people seem to perceive not going to church as a some sort of crime.. – hopsinat Aug 21 '18 at 11:24
4

As you say you're 22, presumably you're old enough to make up your own mind about such questions.

This depends a lot on your mother's personality. As we don't know her, it would be hard for us to say. You say that religion is important to her, so I'm guessing that means that telling her you have rejected her religion is unlikely to result in her simply saying, "Oh really? Whatever." The question is whether she will accept it, make a determined effort to convert you back, throw you out of the house, etc.

I'm a Fundamentalist Christian and when my daughter told me that my son had become an atheist -- they're both adults and no longer live with me -- my reaction was basically "yeah, not a surprise, that's been coming for a long time". Frankly I feel a little guilty that I've done pretty much nothing about it.

While I don't know how your mother will react, it's possible that you don't really know either. You may be guessing wrong about her likely reaction. How does your mother deal with your atheist cousin? That would presumably be a clue to how she'd react to you.

You say you live with your mother et al. If it's her house, then even as an adult you have to respect her rules. Of course she can't force you to believe as she does, but if she doesn't want you putting atheist posters up in the living room or some such, if it's her house, etc. If she insists you go to church with her, you should go, out of courtesy and respect. If it's too difficult to get along, you may need to find your own place to live.

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    She treats my cousin the same as she treats me. Now I'm ok going to church with her from time to time. Also, she has some religious figures in our walls and I respect that too and have no intention of asking her to take them away or doing something myself that collides with her religion. – Guy who types fast Feb 21 '18 at 23:43
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    "If she insists you go to church with her, you should go, out of courtesy and respect." could you explain this to me please? Would it not be courteous and respectful for her to let her 22 year old son make his own mind up about this? I agree she can have rules in the house, but she shouldn't be able to control the rest of his life like that in my opinion. – Aka_aka_aka_ak Feb 23 '18 at 1:36
  • @Aka_aka_aka_ak If the mother was posting here asking how she should respond to her son rejecting her beliefs, I would agree that we should discuss if pressuring or forcing him to go to church with her is appropriate. But it's not the mother asking, it's the son. So the only relevant thing to discuss is how the son should react to possible actions by his mother. – Jay Feb 23 '18 at 22:17
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What worries me is that as a mother she probably will be worried about me, my soul, my future and that sort of thing.

While I agree with the delivery way suggested by others (honest and simple), I'd like to address this point, that seems overlooked by the other answers so far.

A very important aspect of a religion is the complex of moral and ethic values attached to it. Belonging to a religion means not only believing in God, but also believing in a given set of values and ideally applying them in everyday life. Christian values can hold even if a person does not believe in God. Or, put in other terms, a Christian and an atheist can act the same way (except for mass attendance and similar rituals).

If all of this apply to you, you could try to decouple the beliefs from the values: underline to your mother that you still appreciate and apply the message contained in the gospels, and that you're glad that you learned it. She can see it as the good mark that God left on you and, more importantly, that you're not morally worse for not believing.


I come from a Christian family. I've become agnostic when I found out that Santa wasn't real ("white beard, knows everything about you, punishes you when you're naughty... wait that's God!"). After a while I became a scout in a Christian association, while still doubting of the existence of God. For seven years I've gone to church every Sunday, learned a lot about the Bible and the gospels, debated a lot about spiritual matters, ethics, morals and beliefs with fellow scouts and clergy people. After that it was clear to me that I wasn't a believer at all and I quit.

Now I'm a happy atheist who's happy to have learned that much about Christianity. To me, God isn't real, but the Christian message raises some very good points.

4

Talk to atheists who have come out to their parents. Many will be more than happy to help. They can discuss the pros and cons, do's and don'ts. Some people come out and then go on to have good relations with their families, some get ostracized. Contact The Atheist Community of Austin. They are smart and friendly people. They have been there, done that. They have a lot of experience. You can also call in to their talk show, The Atheist Experience.

3

Remember that religion fulfills multiple roles

The secondary one is the one that's important here. Regardless of belief in god, religion provides community and identity. The price for being a member of the community is attendance at service. Another part of the price is bringing up your children in the ways of the community. It gives you a place to belong, a place to go, no matter where you go in the world, if you identify with that community you can find friends.

Your wanting to be gentle with your mother about this is significant, your attendance at church is part of her belonging to the community. It shows to the congregation, who have usually all known each other for many years, that she's a good mother and a good community member.

If you make a big scene about this it'll hurt both your mother and grandmother in a way that will make them feel that they've somehow failed. I would suggest that you start to regulate your attendance at church if you really feel that way but, even as someone who doesn't believe in god at all, it doesn't hurt to be seen at a service once in a while.

When you move out and go your own way, you can stop attending church, when back at home it's good to be seen in church, it does nobody any harm and allows your mother to show off her grown up children in the community.

You don't need to directly inform your mother that you don't believe in god, just find something else to be doing on a Sunday a gently increasing amount of the time.

  • Thank you but this wouldn't be useful for me. I barely go to church, about once every 2 or 3 months, maybe less. – Guy who types fast Feb 22 '18 at 15:38
  • @Guywhotypesfast The text of your own Question tied the issues of attending Church and discussing your being an atheist. Given that, it seems helpful to separate the issues, noting that an atheist can attend church (if they welcome non-believers). After disclosing your beliefs (atheism) to your mother, you can still elect to accompany her to church service. Make clear that you are not asking to be persuaded to rejoin the church, but that you are glad to be with her. I would not participate in rituals, out of respect to the congregation and to avoid confusion about your stance. – Basil Bourque Feb 22 '18 at 23:34
2

Just tell her:

Mum, I really don't believe in God any more.

the same way you would tell her that you don't believe in the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny (assuming you don't still believe in those).

That should open up a conversation, and then you can explain why and whatever else in a civil manner. If she is not open to conversation or discussion, then that isn't really your concern - at least you are not hiding what you feel.

Being dishonest about how you feel, simply to cater to your impression of your mother's feelings, is the best way to actually hurt her feelings in the long run.

Coming from a Roman Catholic upbringing, I went through a similar process as what you are going through. However, I was only 18 when I approached my mother to discuss it with her. I simply stated that I no longer believed in the Church (which is a spurious organization in any case), that the Bible is essentially a very popular collection of fairy-tales and that in my mind, God doesn't exist in the manner portrayed by the Catholics.

Don't imagine that a conversation / discussion like this will be easy. Although, if you approach it with conviction, it will all work out.

  • 1
    One doesn't usually need to declare that they have outgrown a belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Everyone is an atheist with respect to all of the other Gods and religions one doesn't believe in. The OP can say as much or little as they care to on the subject. But it doesn't necessarily need to be anymore than a casual statement. Mother may be upset but will almost certainly get over it as well. – user11886 Feb 23 '18 at 12:23
  • This will have effects opposite to OP's desire not to worry his mother. Obviously if the objective was "how do I inform my mother, regardless of the effect this might have on her and our relationship?", the solution would be very simple – Alexis Nov 28 '18 at 12:00
1

If you are asking "How can I tell her and have her be okay with it", the answer is likely "You can't."

It's best to just tell her straightforwardly that you have thought about it a lot, and concluded that you don't believe in God. What you also need to do is tell her that you are willing to talk more about how you feel if she wants to listen, but that otherwise, you don't want to talk about it; you don't want to argue about it, you definitely will not put up with being lectured about it.

Then if she starts, tell her "Mom, I"m not discussing it". And if she persists, walk away. You can't let her, or anyone else in the family, get away with disrespecting you by haranguing you.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – John Feb 25 '18 at 7:41
1

There seems to be some cultural differences between regions in how such situations are handled, so I'm not sure how well this advice can be applied.

There are many people who don't call themselves atheists, they rather say "I'm not too religious". They still feel culturally a part of Christianity (and value its moral teachings and traditions), without believing in the supernatural aspects of it.

If being an atheist was the most important part of your self-identity, and debating/criticizing religion was among your main goals, then the best course would be to be open about it, declare yourself as an atheist, and stand your ground.

However, if you are just one of many people who feel that religion is just not a part of their lives, the easiest way would be to just say you are not that much religious, and if the topic comes up, it's better to say you are not interested, rather than behave in a hostile way against Christianity (this would just invite even more arguments and attempts to convince/convert you).

For example, if someone quotes the Bible, don't interrupt with a rude comment like how much of a nonsense you think the Bible is, but behave as if they quoted Star Wars or Tolkien (I know from the question that you would not interrupt like that, this is just an example, bear with me). For you it might have the same basis in reality, and people don't get angry when Tolkien or Star Wars are quoted (unless they overdo it). Accept it as part of the general culture, and accept the fact that there are people who are strong fans of it and people who are not. Only escalate if really forced to. Until then, you are neither a strong fan, neither an opponent.

0

(There are several answers that speak about religion vs. faith, but I think my approach is yet very different.)

I am pretty sure you can soften the thing by separating practising religion from having a faith. These two are completely different. The thing is that you can express you don't want to practise the religion without having to express your look on faith.

Hey mom, I don't want to be coming with you to the church anymore because the church does not represent my view of the world.

This lets her decide whether she wants to know more or not. If she does not, it's fine. If she does, it's her asking questions and you simply answering honestly. If she asks: "So are you still a Christian?" you still have two choices how to word things:

I do not consider myself a Christian. (That's the soft way.)

I am not. I am an atheist. (That's the most direct way.)

Altogether, there is actually plenty of room for hints and for delivering the message in small chunks.

-1

You have a few very good answers and they cover a multitude of scenarios.

Before revealing your feelings to your mother, it would be helpful to consider the following points.

  1. YOUR REASONS

Sit down and contemplate why it is that you now consider yourself to be an atheist. Be very true to yourself and make sure that you are certain what these reasons are. This will give you confidence of where you are spiritually in the present.

  1. YOUR UPBRINGING

Realise that although you are no longer part of it, your mother's ideas concerning her religion has produced a moral code which has reflected upon you. For example you have loving feelings towards your family, you do not wish to hurt them and have respect for them. These feelings have been inspired by her ideas around her religion.

  1. YOUR MOTHER

No matter how many times people may practice their religion, the decision to be a good person is their decision and not the religious institution. You mother is responsible for her kind acts in bringing you into the world. You are obliged to treat your mother sensitively, and she deserves your real and your most innermost feelings. To be fair you must be honest and not hide from your truth.

  1. THE FUTURE

Nobody knows the future. You might deny all religion now, but something may call you back at some future point. Realise that you consider your self an atheist at the moment - but possibly not for all of your life. Your beliefs have taken you where you are right now. Allow your mother to be your protector, to help you in her own way, and once you have explained your non- beliefs then accompany her to church out of respect and a willingness to be part of your mothers life and expectations, not because of the religious regime. Whilst there take note of the sermon and try to see the messages within them without being bound by them. The Bible has been around for a long time and there are many lessons to be learned from it. Lessons in human nature, and how to respond to others. But you do not have to believe in the concept of god to do this nor believe in the hereafter to gain wisdom and an ethical code without illusion.

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    This sounds more like an attempt to bring OP back into the religion than an answer to their question. – Erik Aug 21 '18 at 10:44
  • Thanks Eric. This an answer. I have asked for consideration about why, where they are, consideration of feelings and respect. This is not an attempt to return to the church - this is a realisation of what the religion has given the family, and what can be learned within the religion. This can be done without believing in it. This is a suggestion to exercise sensitivity towards the family, whist being able to uncover true feelings. – Elsdon Ward Aug 21 '18 at 11:02

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