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How to Tell Your Evangelical Parents You Are an Atheist

coming out as an atheist

In the Western world, Evangelical churches are hemorrhaging members left and right — particularly younger congregants. Evangelical pollsters and church growth gurus continue to discuss WHY so many people raised in Evangelical families are exiting stage left once they get out of high school, and WHAT can be done to retain them. I managed restaurants for several major fast-food chains. Several of the stores I managed faced declining sales. As manager, I was tasked with figuring out why customer counts were down and what could be done to get former and new customers to spend their money at the restaurant. This is exactly what is going on in Evangelical churches.

Churches and their pastors know that their future rests in retaining younger members after they graduate from high school and go off to college. Yet, most Evangelical churches (don’t let megachurches skew the picture of what is really happening) are losing younger members — not replacing the older church members who are dying off. Average congregation age continues to climb, especially among sects such as the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant sect in the United States.

The reasons for these defections are many. However, it seems clear that many young adults are leaving their childhood religious homes because of politics, science, and Evangelicalism’s increasing inability to honestly answer the hard questions of life. Younger adults refuse to be placated by appeals to faith and authority. If their church leaders can’t answer their questions, then these budding skeptics look elsewhere. Further, Evangelical churches, pastors, and educational institutions threw their weight behind the culture war, justifiably earning the label as the most hated religion in America. Younger Christians watched from the sidelines as their pastors, teachers, and parents supported Donald Trump, villainized LGBTQ people, labored to outlaw abortion, and supported systematic racism. These young adults rightly concluded that they no longer wanted anything do to with their parents’ religion.

Most Evangelicals have what I call a “borrowed faith.” The bulk of Evangelical members were raised in the church. Everything they heard and experienced reinforced the faith taught to them by their parents, pastors, and youth leaders. For readers not raised in such environments, it is often hard to understand how isolated and intellectually stilted such places are. Everything is governed by a set of propositional facts about God, Jesus, the Bible, and their peculiar version of Christianity. While “questions” are sometimes permitted, the only answers allowed are those which conform to the one true faith.

Evangelical pastors know they must protect their churches from the Philistine horde outside the gates, so they use lies, distortions, and repetition of beliefs to hopefully inoculate their congregations from faith destroying questions and doubts. Churches and their pastors know that atheism and agnosticism are existential threats to their existence, so what do they do? They either pretend there’s no such thing as an atheist (Romans 1) or they lie about what it is atheists actually believe. One need only watch YouTube videos shat out by Evangelical apologists to see how these men grossly misrepresent atheist beliefs. If atheism is no threat to Evangelicalism, why all the interest from apologists? If God and his Word will always prevail against the godless, why do apologists spend so much time attacking atheism? Their behavior suggests that atheism is a real and present danger for Evangelical churches. Thus, pastors and apologists are willing to lie, distort, and misrepresent atheist beliefs (and their own beliefs) in their attempts to hang on to those whom pollsters call the “Nones.”

Nones are best described as those who are disaffected by religion. While many Nones are atheists or agnostics, some are not. Nones are often people who no longer give a shit about the religion of their youth. Quite simply, their churches, pastors, and parents no longer provide adequate answers to their doubts and questions. Many of them are sickened by the Evangelical culture war and the reduction of church on Sundays into a spectator sport. Four years of support for Donald Trump and the immoral policies of the Republican Party have driven thoughtful, caring young adults out of the church. And what do many Evangelical apologists and pastors do? They double-down, suggesting that the problem is a lack of Bible knowledge among young adults. “Get back in church,” these preachers demand, “and listen to my preaching.” These supposed men of God think that there’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a few verses and sermons from the Bible. They refuse to acknowledge that the real issue is that disaffected young adults no longer buy what they are selling; that behavior speaks louder than words. These salesmen for Jesus also fail to understand that the Nones often sat in their churches for years, silently plotting exits from these temples of ignorance and irrationality. Over the years, I have corresponded with countless young adults who were biding their time until they were old enough to stop attending church or move out on their own. Some of the people I have talked with have actually escaped the snare of Fundamentalism, but they keep the true nature of their beliefs secret. Even older people can be trapped behind enemy lines, so to speak, unable or unwilling to tell their spouses, children, parents, and grandparents that they no longer believe.

I am often asked for advice on how to tell your Evangelical parents that you no longer believe in God. (Please see Count the Cost Before You Say “I am an Atheist.” This is not an easy question to answer due to the fact that there are so many variables to consider. When my wife and I left Christianity in 2008, I drafted a letter and sent it to family, friends, former parishioners, and colleagues in the ministry. (Please see Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners.) While this letter was signed by both of us, it was largely received as coming from me alone. Polly was viewed as a lemming, a woman under the spell of her husband — a lie that still irritates the hell out of her to this day. Polly’s mother and extended family — all Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB) — believe that once I die Polly will come running back to Jesus and the church. They think so little of her that they refuse to acknowledge that it was her decision alone to tell Jesus to take a hike.

Over the past 12 years, we have paid a heavy price for sending out that letter. We have lost all of our friends, and family relationships are strained to the point of breaking. I have been asked if I had to do it all over again would I still send out the letter? Looking at the carnage that came from the letter, was it worth it? Would it have been better for all involved if I just ducked and kept quiet? Maybe, but that has never been my style. I knew the Evangelical gossip mills were working overtime as they deconstructed my life, my ministry, and even my marriage. The only way I knew to control what was being said about me and Polly was to write a letter and send it to hundreds of family members, friends, former parishioners, and colleagues in the ministry. I thought, naively, that this would put an end to the lies and gossip. Silly me. I should have known better. While the deconstructions of my life have waned a bit, I still hear from people from time to time or learn second or third hand that I am still be talked about behind my back. So while I stand on decision to send a letter to those who knew me, I would never suggest to anyone else that they do the same — that is unless you want immediate fireworks and assaults on your character.

Many Evangelicals-turned-atheists quietly leave the religion of their parents and family behind. They dodge questions or obfuscate the true nature of their unbelief. “Mom, I just haven’t found a church that I like,” a little white lie that hides the fact she hasn’t darkened the doors of a church since going to college. I am what most people consider the village atheist. I live in rural northwest Ohio, five miles from the place of my birth. I can safely say that virtually everyone knows who I am. Yet, on occasion, I will run into older people (who often don’t have computers/Internet) who knew me from my preaching days. They will ask me, “Bruce, where are you preaching these days?” assuming I am still a Bible-believing preacher. I typically reply, “I am not preaching anywhere right now, ” and then I so quickly change the subject that they don’t know what hit them. Should I give them a rundown of my loss of faith in the middle of the grocery store? I think not. Am I deliberately deceiving them? No. I am just choosing what questions to answer. I don’t owe anyone an accounting of my life.

Some Evangelicals-turned-atheists want to be out and proud. They are tired of hiding in the shadows, tired of giving evasive answers to questions about their religious beliefs and relationship with Jesus. Yet, they know that sharing with their parents that they have abandoned the family deity will not only cause conflict but hurt the people they love. Further, there is a real risk of being excommunicated from their family.

For those of you who want to stand up at the next post-COVID family reunion and shout, I AM AN ATHEIST!, I suggest that you carefully weigh the consequences of doing so. I am not saying that you shouldn’t do this — far from it. However, once you out yourself to your parents, you no longer control what happens next. LGBTQ readers can tell us this is true, and that often there is a heavy price to be paid for being true to self.

And therein lies the fundamental issue for Evangelicals-turned-atheists: being true to self. We all want to live authentic lives. We all want the right to be who and what we are. Unfortunately, Evangelical Christianity is not known for love, acceptance, and tolerance. Countless atheists were cut off from their families, told never to return until they “got right with God.” It is heartbreaking to learn that many Evangelical parents love Jesus and their church far more than they love their atheist children. In fact, such people believe their churches are their true families. The notion that blood is thicker than water just doesn’t apply in many Evangelical families.

Generally, I encourage Evangelicals-turned-atheists to be honest and frank with their believing parents. Life is too short to deny who and what you really are. If your parents truly love you, they will understand. Maybe not today, tomorrow, or a year from now, but they will eventually embrace you as their son or daughter, regardless of your beliefs. And if they don’t? Then you have to ask yourself if you really want to continue to have a relationship with your parents. I know, I know, harsh words, but your life is short, my friend, and isn’t it better to surround yourself with people who genuinely love you and accept you as you are? And it goes without saying that we should do the same for our parents. We are not asking them to join our merry band of heathens. All that ask for is respect.

I hope you find this post helpful. I would love to hear you tell of your own experiences with your parents in the comment section. What advice would you give to Evangelicals-turned-atheists who no longer want to lurk in the shadows of life?

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Sage

    This is an interesting topic. What advice would I give to people who don’t want lurk in the shadows? I would tell them to weigh the cost of telling their family, but live their lives as fully as possible. Every circumstance is different. You have to do what feels right to you.

    I am living this very situation. My father is a retired minister and both of my parents are in their 90’s. Both are very conservative and live the Christian life fully. My 3 siblings and their spouses, and their children and spouses, and so on, are conservative Christians.

    I live on the opposite side of the country from my family, except for my oldest brother and his family. He lives in the same state and his children live in my city. Wherever they live, I see family members once every year or two.

    I am and always have been the family black sheep. I am not conservative, I do not believe in their god, and I am a non-binary person. In my daily life I live freely as the person I am. Anyone who encounters me can see I am non-binary and not ashamed to be me. Get to know me and you will soon understand my views on Christianity and conservatism.

    It took me many decades to get to this point in life, and I am quite happy with how I live. But I have decided that there is no need to come out, in any form, to my parents. They are old, and it would cause much pain. I have been closeted to them my whole life, so a few more years will not hurt. It’s possible they may find pics or videos online, but if they have they have said nothing. If they ever bring it up then I will be honest. If they were younger and had more years ahead, then I would be honest with them.

    As for siblings, there will be a time that I tell them everything. If they pay any attention at all to my social media, then they know I am non-binary and vocally against conservative Christianity. When the time comes, after my parents move on, I will announce to all of my family, just so it is clear. I do not care what they may think or say. They can either support me or just move on with their life.

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I am a big fat chicken. I have never come put and told my family members that I am an atheist. My aunt and uncle are good, progressive, liberal Democrats who happen to be Christian and who believe that Jesus wants them to care for other people. My brother and his wife are MAGA conservatives, charismatic Christians, who equate GOP with godliness and Democrats with baby-murdering worshipers of Moloch and Satan and add your favorite demon here.

    We have told my in-laws that we are atheists, and my mother-in-law cried and started pretending like she didn’t know, and my father-in-law goes back and forth between trying to proselytize us to pretending we aren’t atheists. My kids give zero shots about religion. My daughter is dating a guy whose family are basically evangelical Christians but without the political parts. She hangs out with the family a lot, and they still don’t know she is an atheist. She told her boyfriend that if they ask her about religion she is going to tell the truth. Recently, she asked me what a devotion group was and if it was intense. She didn’t have a clue what it was, but her boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend asked her to join one. I wanted to say “run the hell away as fast as you can” but instead told her factually what it is. She decided that since she has zero background in Christianity and zero interest in finding out more or joining a group of people praying, reading the Bible, and praising Jesus for his work in their lives that she would politely decline.

    Everyone’s situation is different, and we all have to weigh the personal costs of telling people about our atheism. My kids don’t care – they can’t relate to why their grandparents feel the need to proselytize them, and they politely want to be left alone. For someone like me who suffered under the oppression of evangelicalism, I am not as nice when proselytized to, and I will bluntly say to my in-laws that I used to be a Christian, probably more hardcore than they were as they didn’t even raise their sons to be regular church-goers, and please don’t try to reconnect me to something I left a long time ago.

  3. Avatar
    BJW

    I’m fortunate. My parents weren’t church goers, so when I stepped away from my denomination and became less strict (during their lifetimes) they were happier. But I was an adult convert.

  4. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    My late mother was a devout, but not fanatical, Catholic. My father, raised Catholic, is basically non-religious. Every once in a while, however, he goes to church and lights a candle “to honor” my mother, although he admits it doesn’t mean anything to him personally.

    The funny thing is that my father had a harder time when I came out as an atheist than he did when I told him, and my mother, of my intention to live in my true gender identity. It may have been a matter of my “coming out” as an atheist at a younger age than I did when I started my gender affirmation process: It was probably my first real challenge to anything my parents tried to instill in me. My mother, on the other hand, saw my atheism as more or less inevitable even though she would hold onto her faith. (She was affirming of my gender “transition.”)

    Other family members know of my atheism and we simply don’t discuss it, or their belief. Ironically, my brother –who had himself baptized as a Mormon so my sister-in-law’s family would accept him–was the most understanding of it, I think he still believes in a higher being, but doesn’t believe in Mormon tenets any more than those of the Catholicism in which we were raised.

    While I would have had to “come out” as transgender at some point or another–after all, how do you explain looking or dressing differently?–I didn’t feel the need to announce my non-faith to everyone I know because it simply wasn’t relevant to my relationships (whether through blood, work or otherwise) with them. That, for me, has always been the main question to answer: How will their beliefs, and lack thereof, figure, or not, into our interactions with each other. And it’s probably the advice I would give to anyone who’s pondering whether to “come out” as an atheist.

  5. Avatar
    apostatedaughter

    For all of our adult lives my spouse and I, both overly-helpful and dutiful middle children, kept churches going through the ups and downs of anxiety-ridden conflict, pastoral change, declining congregations and multiple disappointments. Both indoctrinated from birth, we stayed in for four decades, trying to make it work. After our marriage we committed to supporting my pastor father’s ministry by doing every job possible in the church, from office manager to pianist, Sunday school teaching to music ministry, C.E. Director (we were both in public education and wanted Christian education to be better) to summer camps and growth campaigns. Busy-ness kept us going while we raised our three kids. Everyone in the family knew that if it was the weekend, we were at the church.

    Circumstances changed, my father moved, we moved eventually to the ‘progressive church’, and gradually came the realization that we needed a better moral ethic than the Christianity we had been indoctrinated in provided. I began to trust my doubts and read and studied my way out, realizing one momentous day that I no longer believed any of it and to be honest with myself, was an atheist. My husband came to the same conclusion about a year later but did not choose to be vocal about it as I had been with my family. It was, however, obvious to everyone that we were different. We stopped praying before meals but paused and thanked the cook, or simply picked up our forks when in a restaurant. We were home weekends and not keeping churches going. We no longer gave a significant amount of our income to the church, no longer cleaned, maintained them, even built them (my spouse, a talented builder, built three major additions to local churches in his ‘summers off’).

    After people realized we had changed, the church goers we had thought were life-long friends began sending outraged messages. My paternal aunts and uncles (major evangelical family) ignore me and only communicate with my sister. Family members who had little interest in church before we left sent us proselytizing messages and even came to our house. My pastor father told me his life had been a failure because I was not “where I should be with spiritual things.” I said nothing and felt nothing, although I did have an expletive cross my mind at the time. We had just spent months moving them, sorting through their things, furnishing a new apartment and organizing their financial and legal affairs which had been ignored due to their belief in the Rapture and their reluctance to plan anything due to “taking no thought for the morrow”. I had told my father at the time that I had come to realize it was (as Hitchens said) one of the most destructive concepts ever visited on humanity.

    Most family and friends now ignore us, but we are more serene and happy than we have ever been. I am the one child who cares for my parents’ needs. My husband keeps their finances sound. At my last visit to dad before COVID (now fully disabled and in a good nursing home we found for them) we held hands (could not even hug him when he was in the ministry) and he haltingly told me, “You have done old age much better than I.” He feels rejected by those ministers whom he supervised and often supported in the denomination where he retired as the top official in our State. They don’t even seem to remember he is still alive.

    But as an atheist I have come to realize they just can’t deal with actual mortality.

  6. Avatar
    John

    Hello all, I am enjoying reading all the replies.
    I was a Christian for about 36 years. My wife and I were in the ministry in some capacity for about 12 years. I decided that I was an atheist a little over 3 years ago. Almost no one knows, including my wife. We both left church and the ministry around 2012 and she knows that my beliefs have changed a lot. But I have never told her that I am an atheist. She has since doubled down and is again in church as a strong Christian.
    My parents are near the end of their lives, so I really don’t see any reason to tell them of my deconversion. My children are young adults now and don’t want anything to do with religion. I’m sure that they suspect my loss of faith.
    I have three friends that I have told that I’m an atheist. One is a former southern Baptist who came out to me as an atheist! That was quite a pleasant surprise and we have had many wonderful conversations about our experiences. We both live in the north MS, southwest TN part of the country. All of his friends and relatives are Christians (as are mine). Being single with no children, his whole social circle is Christian, as far as he knows, and so he hasn’t come out to anyone else for fear of losing all (or at least most of) of his friends.
    Occasionally I feel the desire to be true to my current beliefs, or lack there of, and just put it out there. But that is only occasionally. For now, he and I are both content to be mostly closeted atheists.

  7. Avatar
    BJW

    John, I have aunts and uncles and cousins from that part of the country. They are Church of Christ (non-instrumental) and are as rigid as fundies. My one aunt was shocked that I posted something negative about the Bible on Facebook, while her one daughter, my cousin, blocked me. At least my aunt doesn’t cut me off although I wouldn’t be super surprised, but she is a kind person in spite of indoctrination. Still, it’s quite toxic what these types of beliefs have done to people and society.

  8. Avatar
    mary

    good article. i do not discuss my new belief system w/my pentecostal parents. they know we don’t do church anymore but assume we are keeping the faith so to speak. i still identify as a progressive liberal christian. it was the only way for me to retain faith and get along w/my spouse. so i have more of a fred rogers type faith of love, goodness, kindness and helping others. i too was driven away by the immoral destructive nature of american fundamentalism. life is infinitely better w/o such a dogmatic rigid so called faith. i am not in a position to come out to all so to speak, so i just live as best i can. grateful i am not stuck doing church. took me 20 years to get dh out of the mindset we needed church. turns out he was only insisting because his parents taught him that god would rain down terror if we quit church. imagine his surprise when life only got better! glad we quit when our kids were young and had not had the burden heaped upon them fully. kids are thankful and told us so. here’s to hoping america can move forward and be better for all of us if we can kick out the religious right and make them even more irrelevant.

  9. Avatar
    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    Make no mistake. The famous Campbellite Church of Christ, centered in Nashville, Tennessee, is a Christian fundamentalist church in everything except their name——and in some ways they are even worse. For example, they do not believe that IFB church members or other church members can get into Heaven. Only the members of the Church of Christ are going to Heaven (because that is what the sign says in front of the church “Church of Christ.”) Everyone else is going to Hell because they are not members of a Church of Christ. Only Christ can take you to Heaven. Who ever heard of a “First Baptist” taking a person to Heaven? You gotta have the sign right in front of the church. It must say “Church of Christ.” I know this sounds silly, but that is what they believe.

  10. Avatar
    Wesley Sandel

    The main thing about the pseudo-Christians fear of atheism that irks me is that I doubt that anyone can be a truly moral person if their sole motivation for not doing evil is the certainty of punishment and not because one recognizes evil as wrong.

    Evangelicals don’t even resemble true Christians as their motivation for their “faith” is grounded in fear and selfishness – they appear to be in the game solely for what Jesus can do for them – make them immortal.

  11. Avatar
    Richard Portman

    It just blows me away. It astonishes my little mind. It is truly too hard to believe that some church or some preachers can claim to know the mind of god. There might not be a god, or gods. If there were, it would be a disservice to speak about their motives.
    I’m agnostic, and i keep a lot of traditional superstitions. But religion is not one of them, especially when it comes to bible bangers.

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