Care and Feeding

I Just Came Out to My Christian Parents as an Atheist

They are devastated, and I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse. Is there anything I can do to help them understand?

Collage of an older woman holding a bible in front of pink paper tears.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by pidjoe/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

All my life I have raised my child Christian, and now as she moves on to college and has a boyfriend, I’ve got it out of her that they are atheists. It devastates me, but I also know it is up to her to get her salvation.

The above statements are what I know my parents feel. I am the atheist child.

What do I do to help my parents feel less crushed? I know they only want me to accept God again, but I just don’t believe. I understand their faith, I just don’t want them to continue to feel hurt by seeing me.

As I move on to hopefully marry someone who agrees with me on my views, I feel they will continue to be devastated. And, will cry tears of agony instead of joy if they attend my wedding.

I know my views could change, but I seriously just want to hear what I can do to lower their agony.

—Child Turned Away

Dear CTA,

You are a kind and gentle person. I’m actually very touched by the concern you express for your parents’ feelings. It indicates they are not being total D-bags to you about the situation, which is great, but also complicated: When parents are being total D-bags about your loss of faith (which may not be a loss for you), it’s a lot easier to tell them to pound sand and move on with your life. When parents just seem fragile and sad about it, a lot of protectiveness and misplaced guilt can kick in. Fragility and sadness can also be very effective tools of control. Don’t feel like you have to apologize, equivocate, or take on the burden of their sadness.

You’re no longer a child. You’re their child, but none of us get any guarantees about our children, I can assure you. I’m a generic Protestant who is pretty into it without being an evangelical, so my lovely and mega-progressive shit-stirring Catholic mom is only mildly disappointed I’m on the JV squad of God and not playing varsity, and my lovely atheist dad is mostly bemused, as he really did lay out a great case for Only the Sweet Release of the Cosmic Void Awaits Us All (frequently a very comforting thought in its own right). They’re fine. I have no idea if my children will turn out to want or seek or find faith. I believe in God and that one day the circle will be unbroken, but today I cried for (checks watch) almost 45 minutes about John Prine dying, so it’s certainly not a magic balm that eases all lives and has the power to protect us from the fear of death. Religion can be a real motherfucker, as history past and present shows us.

My answer is that I want you to try to first release this weighty sense of obligation for their feelings that so clearly presses on you. You have nothing to be sorry for. You didn’t burn down their garage. They have experienced a form of loss and that’s for them to work through. But you do feel a sense of obligation to lighten their load, and I want to acknowledge that and offer some words of help.

Don’t dangle any “well, who knows what the future holds?” carrots in front of them. If a burning bush speaks to you, you can handle that when it comes. Expectation management is one of the true keys of human existence.

You are a person with values. Some of those values probably came from your parents.
You can thank them for those values, if they have helped you become the good person you clearly are, without needing to buy into the belief system that provided them to your parents in the first place. You can talk to them about your own values. You do not have to be the Best Atheist in the World Who Cares About All Living Things and Climate Change and Systemic Inequality Every Single Damn Day; you can just be yourself. You’re the same kid they had last year. A good person.

You can also, down the road, absolutely say, “If you are gonna cry tears of agony at my wedding, don’t come.” That’s nonsense. If they try to win you back to Christ with teary phone calls in the more immediate future, you can say, “Let’s talk in a few days when you’re calmer.”

Just be yourself, all of yourself, be gentle but firm, maintain boundaries when necessary, and love them the best you can. That’s all anyone can do. I also encourage you to be aware of your own sense of loss, if you ever do perceive it as such, and to seek help from secular counselors if you need to process it. That doesn’t have to mean “I miss believing in God”; it can mean “I am sad that my natural progression as a human who lives in the world has affected my most foundational relationships and need to mourn that.” I’m glad you have found meaning and happiness in your life, and I wish you all the joy in the world.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 4-year-old son who hums loudly while eating food he really enjoys. My husband thinks this is inappropriate behavior at the table and is a problem to be corrected. I see absolutely nothing wrong with it and assume he will grow out of it. He’s a completely normal delightful/crazy-making 4-year-old.

I don’t want my husband wasting quality time with his son harping about something that doesn’t really matter. Am I wrong on this?

—Loves a Pleasant Tune

Dear LaPT,

Oh, what a deliciously small problem, thank you so much for this. Honestly, at 4, I think your husband is right that it’s time to phase out loud vocalizations during dinner. (If your son has any markers for any developmental issues other than joyous food humming, and it turns out to be a verbal stim, I would probe that first, and I would be more inclined to let him enjoy his humming.) In the absence of such a reason, it’s not going to go over great at school, it’s clearly annoying the heck out of your husband, and I enjoy tremendous numbers of things I cannot do in front of other people at a sit-down dinner. It does not have an impact on my human flourishing, I assure you.

I don’t think “please do not hum at the table” is “wasting quality time.” It’s just parenting. He’s not going to look back on his life and say, “If only the two weeks it spent me to get my kid not to sound like a bumblebee when we had stroganoff for dinner could have been spent tossin’ the old pigskin around.” This will be over quickly, and you will barely remember it. If your husband is the only aggravated party, obviously you can expect him to be the “no humming” point person on this. You do not have to chime in, but I would encourage you not to actively undermine him in his quest, which is always a mistake for nonabusive familial situations.

See, too, if there’s a way he can take this musical impulse and do something a little less disruptive with it. I don’t mean “get him a harmonica,” but he might enjoy learning to sing. Exchange the behavior for a more productive one, if possible.

Congratulations on being an excellent cook! If your husband is the excellent cook, please pass on my compliments.

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Just like everyone these days, I fear COVID-19. I’m staying at home, going to the store only when necessary, etc. My boyfriend is a police officer, and although I know he is very cautious, I’m worried about him unintentionally infecting me due to him having to work and human interaction. I have an autoimmune disorder and have repeatedly told him these concerns, yet he still comes over daily. He knows it’s serious but at the same time thinks it’s completely overblown. I’ve been clear that I do not agree. He’s taking it personally which floors me. I’m at a complete loss on how to handle this at this point.

—Losing It in Longview

Dear LIiL,

I need clarity on one point: Have you told him directly that he needs to stop coming to your house? Because if you have, as opposed to just telling him you’re worried and concerned about your autoimmune condition and the possibility of exposure, then he is in direct violation of your personal autonomy and you need to a) break up with him and b) carefully, as he clearly does not respect a “no.”

If you haven’t said, “I need you to stop coming over until things are under control,” then you need to say it now, today, and if his response is that you might as well just break up, that’s his choice. If he continues to violate your wishes, see the above paragraph. Our essential workers are essential, but so is your health.

I am not a dating columnist, but you came to me and here I am. I do not like this situation for you.

Is It OK to Go to the Zoo During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m not doing well. Are other parents doing well? I feel like the only person drowning when I see Instagram posts of learning-and-chore charts. I have to “work from home” with two small kids, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day. We do our best to do the remote learning we’re given, but some days it’s “let’s read a few books and then watch educational shows on Netflix.”

—I Feel Like a Schlub

Dear IFLaS,

We live in strange times, as did all previous generations at one point or another (Joni Mitchell spent weeks in a polio ward with essentially zero contact with her parents when she was 9 and still wrote “The Last Time I Saw Richard” eventually). You’re doing fine. Instagram is a lie. Be kind to yourself, do your best, and remember that every other kid is going to eventually return to school in a slightly more feral state and will need to catch up on things. The teachers know this. It’s just reality. You do not have to be a superstar; you just need to get through this. I also feel like I’m dropping the ball constantly, and I’m supposed to be a professional.

We’re in this together. Most kids have two months of essentially no education every summer, and yet they manage to grow and flourish and learn. One year where every kid gets double summer is not going to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Younger kids, like yours, are going to barely remember this.

I let my kids watch part of Thor: Ragnarok yesterday. We’re all just making it through the day. My friends who are teachers are struggling just like everyone else. I think you’re great.

— Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My loving, kind boyfriend of five years has spent the last 10 months in prison. He was off to a great start in his profession when a friend snitched and he got in trouble for possession with intent to distribute an illegal drug (that is legal one state over). He is now getting out of jail in his early 30s with more than $180,000 in student loan debt, a felony conviction, and is losing his professional license. We have stayed together during this ordeal, and luckily my family and friends are very supportive. I love him dearly and can’t wait for him to be home, but as his release date gets closer, I am starting to have a return of some of the anxiety symptoms I began having after his arrest. I work full time in a field I am very passionate about and could eventually be employed by the government. I am worried about how his record will affect me in the long term. I also sometimes feel that I am being a real idiot for staying with him due to his poor decisions. However, I am crazy about him, and we have so much fun together all the time. Any advice?