Should I tell my parents I'm agnostic?
April 10, 2005 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Should I tell my parents I'm agnostic? Well, with the question out of the way, here's some background. I'm 27 and I grew up Catholic. My parents are in their upper-50s and they're not the bible-beating type but they do go to church a few times a month.

I went to church with my parents as I grew up. Into college, I'd rarely go, perhaps just for Easter (since I'd be home for Christmas anyway and I'd go with my family then). Over the past two years or so, I gradually realized that I was just going through the motions and that I didn't really believe that strongly in religion anymore.

I've been out of college for a few years now and I usually see my parents over the major holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas) along with one or two other times throughout the year. If I was visiting in (say) July, we might not go to church; but, we'd go if I was visiting for Christmas or Easter.

It may seem odd that I'm even asking the question. "Why not tell them?", you might ask. Well, I'm not very conflict-minded and I'm not sure how they'd react to it. And I get the feeling that they may be more religious than other couples their age. For instance, though I think my mom feels differently, I know that my dad considers homosexuality a sin (I'm straight, fwiw). My dad also attends the occasional weekend religious retreats which some members of their church have organized. (I suppose my mom might also attend but there's only a men's religious retreat at the moment.)

Perhaps I have three options. One would be not telling them but still attending church with them when I visit (which seems like a bit of a sham). Or, I could tell them, at which point I could either not attend services with them or go anyway. The latter of those (telling them but going anyway) doesn't seem likely to me, but I included it on the off-chance that it might ease the transition for them (as that would retain our family tradition of going to church on Christmas morning together).

If you feel that I should tell them (which is the way I'm leaning), I'd also be interested in suggestions on going about that. I'm fairly close with my parents and I talk with them several times a month; I suppose I could bring it up during one of those phone calls (though how I would segue to this, I have no idea). Or, I could tell them in person during one of my visits -- fortunately, the next time I see them would probably be this summer or fall, neither of which would coincide with Christmas or Easter (so it's not like I'd be telling them the day before a major church service).
posted by Handcoding to Religion & Philosophy (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's not really a sham to participate in church functions as a family activity. There are a hell of a lot of agnostics attending churches and synagogues every week.

If you're agnostic and "going through the motions," you're not getting a lot out of church but neither is your parents' religion offensive to your own beliefs. Unless you have a moral objection to the church services themselves I don't see why you'd have to handle yourself any differently.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 6:13 PM on April 10, 2005

It's polite and respectful to go to church with them. Why worry them about heathen, un-godly lifestyle? I'm serious, you'll worry your mother. Go to church when they ask, I go to church when I'm visiting people and they go -- it's just a polite consideration. If you have serious moral qualms with attending church, then don't go. =
posted by geoff. at 6:24 PM on April 10, 2005

You know, they probably have a pretty good sense that your heart isn't in it. And though they probably wouldn't slap the label "agnostic" on you, they may well have a fairly accurate sense of how you feel.

As to whether or not you should go to chuch, I think going or not going are both valid choices and you should choose whichever you are most comfortable with.

But if you do choose not to go, you can probably do this without an in-depth discussion of your beliefs. If you don't want to discuss it, come up with some pretext not to go the first few times...they'll catch on.
posted by duck at 7:02 PM on April 10, 2005

I'm agnostic, but I was raised catholic as well. What the previous answerers are probably leaving out of the equation is the guilt you're feeling. ;)

(Aside: There's a common joke that being an agnostic that was catholic is kind of like being a recovering alcoholic ... no matter how many meetings you go to, or how many times you say 'no', or how many times you feel guilty but shouldn't ... you're still not completely not a catholic. You're always going to be a recovering catholic.)

I must confess (there we go, see?) that I still will go to mass, confession, etc. before I need to take part in someone else's ceremony. For instance, when my friends got married in a catholic wedding, I went to mass and confession the week before so that I could take communion at their wedding and help them celebrate. I would've felt guilty if I didn't. 99.99% of the rest of the time, I don't really care -- church doesn't even enter into my realm of thought, because my parents don't go and my

I think you need to analyze the reason behind your question. If you're worried that you'll lose face in your parents eyes, that's one concern, and it'd be really hard to answer without knowing your parents, but I'd say not (you are, after all, their son...) ... but if you've got something inside of you that's worried about Sister Mary Clarence showing up behind you someday with her metal ruler, then that's a completely different question that you're going to have to answer yourself, in your own way, in your own time.
posted by SpecialK at 7:03 PM on April 10, 2005

I told my mother and I wish I hadn't. She didn't understand what agnosticism exactly "is" (and I suspect that if she could understand, she'd be one), so now we have this weird misunderstanding in place where she thinks I am offended or perhaps frightened by the idea of religion. For instance, she'll tell me about some sick friend of hers and mention that she's praying for that person, and then double back and apologize for having mentioned prayer. Or she'll ask me to pray for so-and-so, but she'll phrase it in terms of asking my "higher power" (which is precisely the thing I don't believe in).

And I go to church with her anyhow, because it feels way weird to stay at home while everyone else goes, both for her and for me. Maybe you'd have some explaining to do if you used to go up and take communion and now you won't be, but my understanding is that communion is a private thing between a person and God, so if a person doesn't feel ready or knows s/he hasn't confessed lately, it's okay to remain seated during that part, even for believers.
posted by xo at 7:03 PM on April 10, 2005

I am an atheist, but attend church once or twice a year with the in-laws who are religious. It's just time spent with family, and really it's an hour or two out of my life per year, so I can spare it. They know I'm an atheist.

First though, you should consider why you want to tell your parents. Will it change your life for them to know, or not know? Is it just the church attendance that is your concern? Or do you feel guilt in not telling them? They may feel that your morals or ethics have been compromised if you leave their religion. I think if you allow them to understand that you still have the good morals of the upbringing they provided to you, it will go more smoothly if you tell them. But I don't know how accepting your parents are overall to this type of news. Mine are very accepting, so I didn't think twice about telling them my views.

If you do tell them, or if you don't, I think you should continue to attend church with them on special occasions. No big deal to make them happy.
posted by veronitron at 7:08 PM on April 10, 2005

Not that we're taking a vote, but I agree that you should attend, because it's a tradition, and because there seems no reason to turn this into a conflict. If you're looking for a rationalization, consider attending to be exploration - that maybe (no matter how unlikely) you may find something in the church service that pushes you in the direction of feeling more religious (not that you're looking for this, of course). Or curiosity - observe other folks, try to get a sense of what is going on with others.

And if you're asked about your religious observances, you can always say something like "Oh, I go occasionally" or "Well, I don't go very often, but I'm looking forward to going [or "it was nice to have gone"]. The idea is to offer non-descript responses ("I'm not sure"; "I guess I haven't really thought much about it"; "Not very often") that discourage followup questions (or give you a chance to change the subject).

Also keep in mind that your parents probably already have a sense - conscious or otherwise - that you're not very religious, simply because you haven't said or done anything to indicate otherwise - and they probably don't want to have a fight about this, either. [Glossing over potential areas of conflict is often what keeps families together, or at least less unhappy.]
posted by WestCoaster at 7:12 PM on April 10, 2005

I used to be evangelical Christian, and had to deal with how to tell the parents that I wasn't Christian (let alone theist) last year. As for why I told them: they're more attached to their kids than their religion, not the judgemental type, so I wasn't afraid of that; we're very close and I can't imagine them not knowing about such a big change, I felt like I was lying to them. On the other hand, I have friends from Bible college (ugh) that I have not told and will not tell unless unforeseen things happen, because they're not a huge part of my life anymore and they're happier not knowing. It's difficult to give your friends news that you know will convince them that you're unhappy, deceived, destined for hell, etc.

As for how to tell them, I would (and did) do it in person, since you're not absolutely sure how they're going to react and it's easier to read people when you can see them. I don't remember how exactly the conversation went for me, but I went through some events that caused me to think differently, and outlined how various doubts progressed, and my parents ended up chiming in with more doubts that I hadn't actually thought of, but they clearly had. :) As for whether to attend church with them or not... do you value it as a family tradition? Is it excruciating now that you're not in the flock, so to speak? Maybe talk it over with your parents and see how they would feel about it if you stopped going. It might not be the most entertaining thing in the world (or, hey, it might be), but it's not worth starting a family rift over. Same goes for telling your parents: if you decide not to tell them, and your relationship with them stays good, that's cool. If you do tell them and it hurts/destroys your relationship with them, that's not so cool. Given that you've only been going twice a year, they're probably up for it. Good luck!
posted by heatherann at 7:20 PM on April 10, 2005

My mother is very religious -- moreso as she gets older -- and very active in her local church ... both socially and as a reader, bible-study leader, etc. I was raised in this church, was active as a teen, and still have many friends from High School who attend with their families.

She used to want very badly for me (her only daughter) to attend church with her on Christmas and Easter. But about six or seven years ago, I just put my foot down. I had a conversation with her where I basically said "I'm glad that religion means so much to you, and that its given you such a great community to be a part of, but I don't believe the same things you believe anymore, and I think it would be very hypocritical for me to attend church with you. Worship is an expression of belief, not a social function, and I respect you and your beliefs and that community of people enough to not want to be a hypocrite and participate in a ceremony when I don't share the beliefs at the foundation of it."

Amazingly enough, it worked. She's now ok with us coming up on Christmas Eve for dinner, and the leaving to go home as she prepares for the Midnight service. She's even stopped begging me to come for Easter services and dinner. Instead, she's started volunteering to bring Easter dinners to elderly/shut in people in her parish, and I think its been much more fulfilling for her than just having a brunch with me. I still see her lots and talk to her often, and I honestly feel that this conversation was the point where she decided I was actually an adult.

Note that I never got into the whole agnostic/atheist conversation with her. It had no added value. Simply saying "I no longer believe the same things that you believe" worked much better for me. I think the key to having it work was that I didn't make it a big declaration of my own belief structure, but framed in more in terms of "I'm doing this because I think it would be disrespectful to do otherwise."
posted by anastasiav at 7:28 PM on April 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

. . .and because there seems no reason to turn this into a conflict.

I strongly disagree with this advice. You would not be turning it into a conflict - you would be being true to yourself. My own feeling is that it is unhealthy to suppress your feelings in order to try and keep the peace.
posted by mlis at 7:35 PM on April 10, 2005 dad considers homosexuality a sin... My dad also attends the occasional weekend religious retreats... there's only a men's religious retreat at the moment

posted by ori at 8:28 PM on April 10, 2005

Are you really agnostic? Or are you more of an apatheist?

If you really don't know what you think, and it still seems like an important question to you, why not just have a conversation about it with them? I mean, rather than presenting it as a conclusion you've reached, bring it up as "stuff you've been thinking about", or ask them if they ever wonder about these issues themselves. That way you can sort of approach the area without committing yourself to a certain standpoint, and kind of feel out a route (who knows, their beliefs may be more complex than you realize). If you really are agnostic, it's the most honest way, too.

If you've basically realized you're actually an atheist, and you feel like it would be just as artificial to pretend to question these issues as it is to pretend to worship, then you're dealing with a pretty significant level of emotional disconnect. Whether you consider your relationship with your parents close enough to address this disconnect is the real question. If it's important to you that they understand who you are, and these seems like a real part of you, then you should address it. If you feel pretty sure they're never gonna really get "who you are" anyway, and this will just depress/confuse them, and add more awkwardness to everything, then perhaps it doesn't need to be made explicit (as others have said, they probably have a sense of your attitude already).

But if it's possible to bring it up in a low-key sort of way, that's probably the best bet. It doesn't have to be a big dramatic statement of truth. It can just be a shared personal moment, a little intimate conversation about your ideas, beliefs, doubts & hopes...
posted by mdn at 8:57 PM on April 10, 2005

I don't think she needs to be told unless she asks.

Unless you are in the habit of regularly debating religious matters with her, like we do on MeFi, why on earth would you wish to make it a subject of discussion?

It's not like you tell her you had sex the other night, or how mighty a shit you shat this morning. Deal with it when she asks you about it, or iffenwhen you decline to attend her service.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:59 PM on April 10, 2005

I'm curious why it is you feel the need to make a point of telling them you agnostic? What is your goal in telling them? Why do they need to know? I sure don't feel the need to tell my parents about all my different beliefs. I might tell my Dad if I were gay, but there's no need to give him a heart attack by telling him I'm a Democrat.

Now if they're giving you Bible's for your birthday, sending you gift certificates for religious retreats and insisting that you marry a 'good' girl, then by all means sit down and have a serious talk - because then their beliefs are infringing upon your quality of life. Otherwise there's no shame in attending church out of respect for your parents - as they say, when in Rome...

Of course if they ask, be honest.
posted by LadyBonita at 9:09 PM on April 10, 2005

I'm not suggesting this strongly, just bringing up the idea for completeness' sake: you could tell your mother and ask her advice about whether to tell your father. If you get
1) "Well heck, we were already pretty sure, I'm just surprised you brought it up"
2) "Don't, don't, tell your father! It would kill him! I'm so glad you told me and not him"
then this was a good idea. If you get
3) "Oh, that's terrible. Are you going to tell your father? Or have you involved me, against my will, in some painful web of secrecy?"
then you can tell him too.
Basically, though, since you just "gradually realized" and aren't "conflict-minded" then it seems like something to let them figure out for themselves.
posted by Aknaton at 10:11 PM on April 10, 2005

I'm also a recovering Catholic, and I told my parents. However, I'm the sort of person who tells my parents pretty much everything that goes on in my life anyway. I'd say if you feel a need, unless there's a good reason NOT to talk, do so. Otherwise, who cares?
posted by stoneegg21 at 10:40 PM on April 10, 2005

One of the tricky things about some religions is that they can define much of your family's identity - tradition, emotional bonding, etc. And God help you if it's deeply ingrained in your culture. Not wanting to go to Midnight Mass might have the connotation that you don't want to spend time with your family, or even that you are ashamed of them.

I left the Church at age 15, so you can expect it was a stormy decision. I stopped saying grace at the table, and only went to church Easter and Christmas. At church, I would not join in any congregation responses except for the sign of peace, and did not partake in the eucharist. In most Catholic churches, you can still join in the processional if you are not of the faith; the priest or eucharistic minister will administer a blessing, instead. I do not think of it as a sham - I consider myself a visitor.

Both my parents are/were very religious. My mother actually thought for years I was a bitter atheist (I am not - I do believe in God) and it wasn't until about 6 years ago I cleared that up when she flat-out asked me why I hated God.

My departed father was clearly disappointed ever since I left, but always respectful. I thanked his respect and the good things I took from Catholicism by giving him my rosary to pray nightly when his cancer went terminal some months ago. Thankfully, he knew exactly what that rosary meant - and it never left his side until after he died.

Why did I have a rosary? As a reminder that I do not consider my time as a Catholic completely ill-spent. I stopped my participation, but both my folks finally realized I still found value in that part of my life. It took 6-12 years & the death of a parent to get to that point. I'm not saying not to tell your family, but if you do, be patient and respectful.

FWIW, the recent passing of the Pope has given my mom and I the opportunity to discuss religion; we share many of the same gripes about Catholicism, but I am the one for whom these issues are deal-breakers. I suspect the election of the new Pope will again open this door of conversation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I work weekends and holy days as a liturgical musician for my mother's church. Ironically, I have become as church-going as a priest. However, I've made it known I am only an employee and continue to act as a visitor (albeit a paid one) during the mass. If I didn't have to go Easter/Xmas, I would stay home and meet my family after the service.
posted by Sangre Azul at 11:39 PM on April 10, 2005

I would second mdn's opinion - it's much easier to explain how things are to your parents if you describe the symptoms rather than just giving them a label. I explained my views to my parents over a number of months (years?), before attaching the label Buddhist to it all. I'm not sure that they really know what Buddhist means, but they know where I'm coming from.
posted by daveg at 4:33 AM on April 11, 2005

Honesty is the best policy.
posted by mischief at 5:21 AM on April 11, 2005

Going to church without supernatural belief need not be a sham or going through the motions. There can be different ways to look at it. My other half comes from a vicarage family. He's an atheist and I'm what you might jokingly term a 'Father Dougal' Christian

Father Dougal "You know how God made the Earth and all the people and everything?"
Bishop "Yes?"
Father Dougal "And you know how he sent his son to die for our sins and when we die we go the heaven and everything"
Bishop "Yes?"
Father Dougal "Well that's the bit I have trouble with"

I like the church history, I like the services, and the ethics of liberal christianity - I just have trouble believing in the supernatural part. When we go to visit his devout parents, we don't go along to every church service that they do - but we do go to special ones, where we know it means a lot to them to have us along and we enjoy the singing, the company, the liturgy and just being together.

Now I think the question to ask yourself is whether you still have some affection for your church tradition, even though you don't believe. Is there still something there you get out of it when you all go to church? If you do, then you probably needn't bother telling your parents what you think - unless they ask. Enjoy going along to church with them on special occasions and don't worry about your beliefs differing. On the other hand if you really object to things in your worship tradition or it turns you right off, then it's probably best to come out to your parents and tell them why you don't want to go along.
posted by Flitcraft at 6:43 AM on April 11, 2005

There are (at least) three kinds of relationships one has in terms of honesty:

1) People you MUST tell everything. For me, my wife falls into this category. If I were to try to hide something from her (a) she reads me so well she would probably guess what it was and (b) I would blurt it out eventually. Our whole relationship is founded on this sort of honesty, so I don't know how to be any other way with her.

If your relationship with your parents is like this, then of course you have to tell them.

2) People who I like to be honest with but am not all the time. Most friends fall into this category. I don't lie to them, but I certainly don't tell them everything about myself. I would like to be completely open with them about everything, but I know this wouldn't work. Some might be too shocked or hurt by certain things (so that telling them just seems selfish).

My guess is that your parents fall into this category. If they fell into the first category, you wouldn't be asking the question -- you'd HAVE to tell them. If they fell into the third category (below), it wouldn't be an issue.

With this category, I think you need to weigh (a) the consequences for yourself for telling them vs. not telling them (are they likely to cut you off if you tell them? will your no longer be able to feel close to them if you don't tell them?) and (b) the consequences for them (will they be deeply wounded?)

I don't think there are easy answers. You have to use your best judgement.

3) People with whom I have no particular desire to share info. These are acquaintances and some family members. Again, I don't generally lie to these people, but I certainly don't feel like I owe them any personal information.

If you do decide to tell them, I recommend going heavy on the feelings and light on the "facts." I would start by saying something like, "I have something I need to tell you, but I'm scared. I'm worried that you won't love me as much" or "I'm frightened of hurting you..."
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 AM on April 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

My experience was fairly similar- grew up Catholic, went to Catholic schools through high school, slowly started questioning things in college, then finally threw up my hands at the entire structure of religious systems. My family was uber-Catholic when I was growing up (my great-uncle was the Bishop of Maine for many years) and went to Church every Sunday. I don't think my parents go every week now, but they do the big holidays. When I visit my Dad at Christmas, he usually tells me when he and my stepmom are going to Mass and tells me I can come along, but I just tell him I don't "do" Mass these days. I haven't felt a need to have a big discussion about it, and he hasn't asked. I'm not terribly close with my parents, but my dad and I have a call-every-few-weeks-to-check-in kind of relationship, and it hasn't been a big deal. You sound much closer to your parents, so ymmv with the evasive middle ground approach.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 9:31 AM on April 11, 2005

It depends.

It depends just how much you care about hiding your lack of belief from your parents.

It depends just how much you care about the possible negative effect being honest with them would cause.

It depends how much this matters to you.

I've been a strong atheist since I was in my late teens. I was raised in a firmly Christian household, started having doubts at a very young age, they became serious by the time I was 12 and critical by the time I was 14. I literally could not bring myself to continue attending church because it made me feel like a hypocrite and a liar. As I considered religion in greater and greater depth I came to regard it not merely as wrong, or silly, or unproven but as inherently bad. I felt absolutely driven to be honest with my parents precisely because I knew this belief meant so much to them, and because the rejection of it meant so much to me. I wanted them to understand my rejection of it. It mattered to me, a lot.

It wasn't easy. It caused huge, bitter rows. It is still a definite issue between us, although it is one which usually remains unbroached - because we know where it leads. As recently as three years ago my mother and I had a major row about it. It still matters that much.

How much does it matter to you? That's the question.
posted by Decani at 10:27 AM on April 11, 2005

I wouldn't tell them unless they asked, but if you feel you must tell them, I would definitely do it Aknaton's way.
posted by Penks at 10:36 AM on April 11, 2005

You sound like a child when you can't stand up to your parents and fill their life with pretenses of yourself. Note, you’re an adult --it’s none of their business why you don’t want to attend church. So just saying no is sufficed.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:55 AM on April 11, 2005

Hey, you're always your parents' child. No way to escape that.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:56 AM on April 11, 2005

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