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Andrew left a thoughtful, interesting comment on my recent post about coming out to my family. I think it’s worth responding to at length, and I’d like you all to chime in if you feel inspired. What do you think about my decision?


The only family member who does not know of my atheism is my brother. I love him very much, and he’s a great guy. I am intimidated, however, by his methods of confrontation, debate, and the tenacity with which he clings to and reveres his doctrines and traditions. He is a passionate conservative, KJV-only, fundamentalist Baptist preacher who loves to evangelize and debate (neither of which I have ever enjoyed).

“Sinning against yourself”

Andrew has this to say about my reluctance:

I can understand your feelings of wanting to keep people in the dark, it is easier to do nothing. My own coming out as atheist prompted a lot of negative comments from my family, but now I am so free! And after a few years have been able to mend fences.

I just want to say that by lying to your brother, you are sinning against yourself. What’s more important, his feelings or your being able to live in an honest, open way without cognitive dissonance?

Gonna be painful tho, I know how hurtful believers can be when they are saving the lost.


Privacy vs. Lying

I hear what Andrew is saying, and I admire him for coming out to his family and working through all of the backlash. I’d like to clarify things just for my own satisfaction:

And after a few years have been able to mend fences.

That’s right. It takes years. It’s like putting off excercising/dieting to lose weight because you know how long it will take to reach your goal and how hard it will be. Sure, it’s worth it to start (the sooner you do it, the sooner it’s over the hard parts). But that’s not what procrastinators do. I’m a procrastinator. I avoid difficult situations and put them off. That’s where I’m coming from.

I just want to say that by lying to your brother, you are sinning against yourself.

If you consider me not telling him about my religious choices as lying, then I can see your point. But I do not think I’m lying at all. If he asks me a question, I answer honestly. Sure, I’m not telling everything and am withholding some pretty key information about my opinions on certain issues, but I don’t think someone is necessarily lying to me if they don’t tell me about the most personal things going on in their lives.

It’s kind of like political discussions. I’m a progressive, and the rest of my blood family are staunch conservatives. If I don’t mention that I’m a progressive, or that I disagree with their views, or shout my opinions to the world… that doesn’t mean I’m lying to them. they may assume I share their views, but I might not.

I may be avoiding difficult situations–and I may be silly and scared of it–but I don’t think I’m doing it in a “sinful” (ugh, that word…) way.

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23 thoughts on “Am I Lying?”

Bailey · April 9, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I wouldn’t say you’re “sinning” at all -that’s a totally religious concept. You might be doing your relationship with your brother a sort of injustice by withholding information about your atheism from him, but for the time being, that’s the preservation of that relationship. I don’t think you should have that conversation with your brother until you’re totally ready for it, especially if it’s something you think is going to damage your relationship.

I’m also probably projecting a little, here. My younger sister (14) is converting to Catholicism next weekend, and does not know I’m an atheist. I don’t want to ruin our relationship, which is already stressed sometimes just because we’re very different people, so I have not told her. I am totally opposed to her conversion, but I don’t feel it’s my place to dictate her spiritual life; in the same way, I don’t want her newfound religion to come between the friendship we have, which it would if she were to find out that I am atheist. By keeping my atheism to myself, I’m maintaining a relationship that is important to me. It seems to me like you’re in a similar situation.

    Godless Girl · April 9, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    “By keeping my atheism to myself, I’m maintaining a relationship that is important to me. It seems to me like you’re in a similar situation.”

    Yes, exactly! Thank you for sharing your situation; I think ours have a lot in common. I want to keep the healthy relationship my brother and I have finally come to. We love-hated each other for ~18 years, and it’s been a wonderful 9 years of peace ever since. Maturity does a lot to help a sibling relationship! Sadly, religious differences can get in the way of that nice “we’re all human” neutrality.

ray · April 9, 2010 at 6:14 pm

I find it weird that there has to be a real decision to out yourselves in the US. Over here, in the grey and dreary UK, I doubt anyone really cares whether someone is or isn’t a christian. Sure, they may offer up a prayer that we get better, but it is not an issue.

Which means that I am happy when one of us is able to come out over there, knowing how backward the country is with regard to religion. Over here it’s ” a christian committed a murder? not surprised, he looks insane” whereas you get “a murderer says he a christian? not a proper one I think”. Most odd.

Hopefully your brother will take it like a mature adult and not try to change your mind. Maybe he will feel it’s not worth damaging the family over…?
.-= ray’s last blog ..1.1 – The Passenger =-.

    Godless Girl · April 9, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Knowing him, he will try to understand me by asking a bunch of pointed, loaded questions…and then try to change my mind. He really would mean well. He believes in hell and that out of love for others, he should try to keep people out of it. So… yeah. It will be interesting.

    Still, he’s come to peace with the Catholic half of our family even though his Baptist ministers have all taught Catholics are going to hell and are following the antichrist. So he’s not really lost 😉

David · April 9, 2010 at 6:32 pm

I don’t think you’re lying, I think you should come to your brother when YOU are ready.

I have a similar situation, I’ve come out to my brother, one of my sisters and some of my friends, and a lot of random people at the bar. I plan on telling my parents when I’m ready secure enough to do it, not on anyone elses schedule.

Mind you, I sometimes have to lie about religious things when they come up in coversation, I feel bad about it, but what can you do?
.-= David’s last blog ..DaveLerner: @politicalbaron it’s not an affliction! It’s a lifestyle choice, you know, like yoga. =-.

    Godless Girl · April 10, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Lying makes me feel uneasy. I think it speaks to our good characters if we are honest, even when being discreet. There is still nothing wrong with saying “I’d rather not talk about that right now.”

Jeremiah · April 9, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Surely if he gets along with your hellbound Catholic family, he’ll figure out how to interact with you in a way where you feel loved. Do you feel like your interactions with the ones you love and who love you are fake? It seems to me like I would feel distant from the people I wanted to feel closest to if I kept from them something so important to me that I created a fake identity to talk about it to a large internet audience. I have a hard time when relationships don’t feel real or are stilted by something that can be simply changed (simple, even if quite difficult). I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, but my concern would be whether your doing what’s best for you or doing what’s easiest for you.

    Godless Girl · April 10, 2010 at 12:12 am

    Hmm, do I think my interactions are fake? I don’t think so. At least, I hope they are not. At times I’ve felt at a loss for what to talk about since one of my family’s major foci and passions and values is spiritual growth and interaction. So it’s more of a change in language and conversation topics than faking, I think.

Laura · April 9, 2010 at 8:10 pm

I understand the sentimentality–I read people talking about how they don’t tell anyone about their lack of religious beliefs and I think, “Oh, how can you stand having to pretend all the time?!” But I think it is a situation specific thing. Some battles are simply not worth fighting, and some people put the relationship ahead of their self. I don’t think it’s wrong either way; just a personality/situational difference. There are situations I at least delay telling people about my atheism–after all, it’s a part of who I am, but it’s not ALL of who I am. To those who reach the other parts of me, I let it go.
.-= Laura’s last blog ..Eep! =-.

    Godless Girl · April 10, 2010 at 12:14 am

    I think it’s a very “American” issue to be concerned with someone who keeps their faith or lack thereof private and doesn’t mention it, claim it, or label it.

    My (European) boyfriend has to constantly remind me, “It’s none of their business. You don’t have to tell anyone. Just be you.”

    Some people know I’m an atheist, some don’t. I’m anonymous online because of my job risk, but that’s about it.

RoofWoofer · April 9, 2010 at 8:25 pm

What a lot of thoughtful comments here. I think Jeremiah’s particularly perceptive: perhaps changes in your relationship with the people you’re out to and the one you’re not will be affected by your own changes and keeping your distance as well as any discomfort they may have. I suspect that as your atheism becomes a more natural part of you, it won’t seem like such a huge issue to you and make it easier for your family not to be oversensitive to it themselves.

I remember a line from a TV show — “My life is about more than just being gay.” I suspect your life is about a lot more than not believing in God and your family’s is about more than their beliefs. Eventually, those big areas of overlap may be able to carry the relationships along.
.-= RoofWoofer’s last blog ..RoofWoofer: @crispysea Hard to dialogue when one side insists the other is stupid/obstinate because they’re so sure they’re right. Fund’ism goes 2 ways. =-.

mj · April 10, 2010 at 6:46 pm

simply blaspheme against the holy spirit to your brother. then you can’t ever be saved, and his arguements are irrelevant.

more seriously, many of us are in the closet to some extent, whether at work, or within a family or a social group. it’s not cowardice and it’s certainly not sinning. it is a matter of convenience, nothing more.

Sean · April 10, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Sorry to hear that you have to keep your atheism in the closet. I was raised Mormon but I officially left the church at 18; I’m atheist. My father supported my decision because he encouraged critical thinking and respects my reasons for disbelieving.

My family isn’t very large, but they all know I’m atheist. My step-mother is somewhat “agnostic”, I also have an atheist Uncle and half-sister. Perhaps it runs in the family. 🙂

Jeremiah · April 10, 2010 at 8:46 pm

It sounds like nothing anyone says will convince you to talk to your family. You seem to cling tightly to remarks that support keeping it a secret for a while arguing against points that support you talking to your brother. This is totally okay, I’m not trying to make a statement about you being right or wrong either way. I think its okay either way and you have every right to share as little or as much as you want to with your family. It does seem that it is something that weighs on your mind and heart though, so much so that you make multiple blog posts surrounding this topic. Would it be nice to be free from it and just let yourself be out there? Maybe not. Maybe it would be negative. I think I just want your heart to feel light.

    Godless Girl · April 11, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Thanks for your concern. It’ll happen someday soon, probably. I’m not in a rush.

doctor(logic) · April 10, 2010 at 10:56 pm

I don’t think it’s worth the risk for you. One picks one’s battles. As you say, you’re not lying if you’re being discreet.

You seem to be pursuing a rational strategy based on how you feel about the projected outcomes.

In case it’s relevant, I’ll add that we’re not obligated to deconvert those closest to us. (As I like to say, the Borg do not assimilate individuals.) Writing blogs, letters to the editor, etc, is an effective way to work for the cause. Futile or personally expensive efforts to deconvert those closest to us (family, co-workers, clients, etc.), may actually reduce our overall effectiveness for the cause.
.-= doctor(logic)’s last blog ..An Argument Against Libertarian Free Will =-.

mcbender · April 12, 2010 at 9:16 am

Speaking personally, I’m not the sort of person who could keep that sort of thing hidden. I’m compulsively honest to a fault (incidentally, my parents have been trying to cure me of that since I was young, but it never seems to have worked). It’s gotten me in sticky situations before, i.e., I think it got me close to losing a job because I explicitly contradicted a superior during a meeting, that sort of thing.

As such, I could never do what you’re doing. As far as I personally am concerned, I would rather be honest with somebody and if it ruins my relationship with them, so be it; I’d rather have an honest falling-out than retain a relationship under false pretences.

I can understand what keeps you going on in the way you are – I’ve seen it happen before. My parents, for instance, always tell me to keep quiet about my atheism so I don’t scare people off (and I know that’s what they do)… but I can’t do that. It feels dishonest to me.

When talking to my relations about atheism, I’ve actually made some surprising discoveries. My grandmother, for instance, I would never have expected to be an atheist – her husband was, but she always acted very religious, went to synagogue every morning, etc. Upon talking to her I discovered that she actually doesn’t really believe any of it, she just goes to synagogue for the company and thinks it would be really nice if it were true (but knows it isn’t). Hearing her say that absolutely floored me… but she won’t say so to anybody else…

    Godless Girl · April 13, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    I love that story about your grandmother. 🙂
    I hope I find out more interesting things about my friends and family as I continually come out to them. A good number know already, so compared to one year ago, I’ve come leaps and bounds! There really is no smooth way to tell all my relatives at once without it sounding stupid (I don’t like the idea of letters or announcements, for instance). I think with the extended family–unless people talk to me directly about it–I’ll be leaving it up to whoever gives a fuck telling someone else who might possibly give a fuck. 😉

Andrew · April 14, 2010 at 10:48 am

Thanks for your thoughtful response Godless, and you are right I think “lying” was a poor choice of word. It doesn’t seem as though you are intentionally trying to sustain the illusion for your brother, which is a good thing.

But I do think that there is a difference between keeping your beliefs or lack thereof to yourself and allowing someone to draw a conclusion about your beliefs that is not true.

I’m projecting – for some reason I find myself dating religious girls and I have a hard time really telling them what I believe. I won’t say that I believe in God, but I won’t exactly say no either. At least not as emphatically as I think in my head. Maybe that’s me thinking with my “other head,” or maybe I can rationalize it with the idea of easing them into a difficult idea, but it still bothers me that I have allowed myself to do this.

As far as the use of the word sin, yes I’m reappropriating the term for secular use 🙂 – Sin to me is betrayal which seems to fit in this context… though maybe the word is just too loaded for widespread useage.

As to it taking years to achieve normalcy, I would say each family is different. I know of some families who simply ignore their non-believing relatives. Luckily I am from a family who, though very conservative and religious, is very close and is also peppered with a couple other non believers. I think at first my family was more afraid that I was going to reject them, that I was gone, not coming back, they were going to lose me etc. After a few years of being there for Christmas Thanksgiving etc and demonstrating that I am still ME, they have realized that I still am me. Like other commenters have said, most families are bigger than what religion they are.

okfine · April 17, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I’m a little late to this party but.. hello! new reader here.
I too have avoided telling certain members of my family. I don’t want to deal with disapproval, condescension, debate, etc. and I am pretty thoroughly convinced that I shouldn’t have to. I can relate to the feeling that one is lying or hiding, but when you are doing so to protect yourself or others from someone’s totally unreasonable response, I’m not seeing the wrong.
I guess I view dealing with the superstitious sort of like caring for dementia patients. If intruding upon their skewed vision of reality will definitely produce a completely unreasonable, negative response, while providing no increase to anyone’s wellbeing, there’s sort of no point.
Is it unfair to compare them to dementia patients?

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