Dear Prudence

How Do I Tell My Religious Parents That I’m an Atheist?

Prudie’s column for March 23.

Photo collage of a worried woman staring at a church.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash and AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,
My parents have been practicing Catholics for most of their lives. However, they stopped attending church after hearing the priest give an aggressively homophobic homily. They have since occasionally brought up the idea of finding a new church. I’ve encouraged them to do so, but my mom has asked me to look for a church myself. She’s even reassured me that there are congregations that will accept LGBTQ members. My problem is that I just don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m also unsure if or how I can break that to my parents. While I don’t let my lack of religion stop me from choosing to be kind or showing others basic respect, I know the stereotypes about atheists aren’t exactly flattering. Would it make sense to break down my actual beliefs to my parents? Or should I just pray (ha) that the subject doesn’t come up?
—A Crisis of No Faith

You don’t have an obligation to disclose your atheism to your parents, but it’ll certainly make things easier if you do. If you want your parents to continue making the same assumption that you have vague but active spiritual beliefs, you’ll have to resign yourself to coming up with excuses or telling out-and-out lies. If your parents are the kind of people who will be happy with hearing “That’s a great idea, Mom, and I’ll keep my eyes peeled for an affirming church nearby” or “I checked out a couple of services at St. Aloysius the Tepid earlier this year,” and you don’t mind keeping track of your own fabrications, that’s a route plenty of people take. But if you and your parents are normally pretty honest with one another, or you don’t think you could keep up the lie long-term, then consider being more straightforward without making an outright declaration: You hope they find a church that accepts and affirms LGBTQ members, but church just isn’t for you. If that goes over well enough, you might even be able to have a conversation someday about your own atheism, your sincere respect for their religious beliefs, and the many values you do share.

I get that this might seem a little Pollyanna-ish. A lot of people, even those who are only mildly observant, think the worst of atheists, and if your main goal is to avoid a tearful conversation where your mom says, “We love you, and we want you to be in heaven with us forever” while you try to reassure her not to worry about your eternal soul, then you may want to keep making broad, general claims forever: “I hear good things about [X denomination]” or “A friend of mine goes to [Y congregation],” etc.

Dear Prudence,
My dad is a sexist, and I’m tired of it. Recently I spoke up when he said that a toy cooking set for my nephew was really meant for “my future daughter.” I am not pregnant and have no plans to have a child in the near future. He’s also just not a good dad, to put it simply. I would say my mom raised me and my siblings, probably because of his sexist beliefs. When I asked how he could say something sexist when he had three daughters, my mom got upset with me. I feel bad for being “mean” to my dad, but I also feel like he thinks all I’m good for is producing children and making sandwiches. My mom likes to keep the peace. I don’t think this behavior is worth letting slide anymore, and I’m a full-grown adult who has come to realize his views are disgusting. Should I feel bad for calling him out on his behavior? If he makes these comments again, what do I do? Do I say anything to my mom, since she was upset with me? Again, I don’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings, but I’m over him thinking it’s OK to have these views.
—Bad Daughter

Part of what’s painful about naming and rejecting your father’s sexism now is seeing the ways in which your mother has survived her marriage to him by ignoring and excusing it. You shouldn’t feel bad for acknowledging reality when your dad says or does something sexist, but that may mean that you and your mother will disagree or come into conflict more often. (I’m curious what your father’s reaction was in that moment. You don’t say much about how he reacted, if he reacted at all, only that your mother got upset with you for saying something.) She may get defensive at how you characterize your father’s decisions, seeing them as an implicit attack on hers (“I didn’t raise you by myself because your father was sexist; he was plenty involved/that was just the way things worked back then/he was always around,” etc.). You’ll have plenty of opportunities to figure out which battles are worth fighting and which you’re willing to walk away from. You may also decide that you want to limit the amount of time you spend with your father and catch up with your mom on the phone or over lunch while he’s away.

It should help to set some realistic expectations with your mother: “I disagreed with Dad, and I’m glad I said something. I want to speak respectfully to both of you, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with everything you say. I’m not trying to hurt either of you, but I don’t think toy cooking sets are just for girls, I may not ever have a daughter, and I’m going to continue to say something if he does that again in the future.” It’s a good thing that you’re willing to call your father’s sexism out and disagree with it more often, but it will absolutely lead to more conflict—that part can’t be helped.

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