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  • Writer's pictureJanice Selbie

Coming Out as a Nonbeliever

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

It's the most Wonderful time of the year... unless you are expected to participate in meals & attend services with still-religious loved ones. In that case, it's the most Stressful time of the year.

Many of my clients who are fairly new in their deconstruction/deconversion journey painfully waffle between wanting to declare their deconversion to all and wanting to hide it entirely, in order to keep the peace. This makes sense, given the internal war raging between our desire to be known as we truly are (a sort of integrity) and the desire to retain our relationships as they are (wanting continued acceptance & intimacy).

This tension can push us to our brink (note the upside-down "Xmas-in-distress" flag). Until we address the issue, our struggle can wreak havoc in relationships due to a shorter fuse; require extra sick/stress leave; and leave us feeling like there is no way we can win.

Before declaring your religious deconversion, it is wise to contemplate the following:

WHY: Examine your motives for declaring your unbelief.

Is it because you can't abide one more dinner with your fundy Aunt Hilda? or because you want to inflict pain on your parents after so many years of brainwashing? or because you want your loved ones to know you fully? Being honest with ourselves about motives is a good way to avert potential problems.

WHEN/WHERE/HOW: Determine when is the best time, location, & method for your Irreligious Coming Out.

We must keep in mind that this news is very likely the worst possible news our loved ones can imagine, barring our untimely demise. You have had time to walk through your deconversion pros and cons and landed solidly on the side of being a nonbeliever - but to them, it may be a huge shock. Also, you have an understanding of where your religious loved ones are at (ie. how it feels being religiously entrenched) - but they have no idea what it feels like to reject the faith. You feel FREE, but they only feel FEAR.

For this reason, blurting out your deconversion over the holiday table might not be the most gracious approach. We must allow time and space for people to digest (see what I did there) this important news, preferably in private. Imagine how you would feel being in a public setting and learning that a loved one died. It's an extreme comparison, but for religious parents their greatest fear is that you won't be with them in eternity. They often take it as a personal failure to impart the single greatest lesson to their child that they were tasked with imparting. Some hope that Coming Out in a public setting will help avoid an emotional scene, but such is not necessarily the case.

It is also important to explore your desired outcome versus the potential outcomes of Coming Out as a nonbeliever. If you are beholden to your parents for financial help, childcare, or a place to live, it might be wiser for you to delay your declaration until such time as you are no longer dependent on them. If you are in any physical danger from a spouse or relative by rejecting their religion, you must develop a Safety Plan ahead of time and potentially enlist the help of another adult prior to disclosing your disbelief. Don't kid yourself: This is a highly charged topic which can have disastrous consequences. Proceed with caution. It may be wise to ensure you have alternate accommodations available (eg. hotel or a friend's place) if you sense emotional distress on the horizon.

To make the holidays easier for everyone, it is reasonable to tell relatives beforehand, either by a phone call, Zoom call, or in a letter. If done by phone or zoom, be prepared for a potentially emotional or explosive reaction. The upside of doing it that way is that you can immediately respond to their questions and provide reassurance as best you can. The only change that has occurred is in your belief; your deep love for them remains intact. You may wish to role-play with a friend prior to making the call.

Given how emotional Coming Out may be for both of you, however, folks often prefer to do so via email. This way, you can be extra judicious with how you say things, editing many times prior to sending. You can also send to multiple recipients at once, so that they can comfort one another and so that you don't have to go through The Big Reveal multiple times.

Telling loved ones ahead of time also provides opportunities for some loving and respectful boundaries to be put into place. For example, you may be thrilled to attend the holiday dinner (don't forget to remind them how you love Gramma's sweet potato pie) but you will not be attending any religious services. You can also offer to speak privately with those who have questions - but inform loved ones that your deconversion is not a topic for the dinner table. Telling them ahead of time can also provide an opportunity to schedule special times for your visit attending a craft fair, sports game, or taking a favorite walk together.

Whatever method you choose to spill your deconversion beans, do so with love and care. COUCH YOUR DECLARATION WITH:

  • reassurances of your love

  • reminders that the great (humanist) values they raised you with are still part of you

  • and your earnest desire to maintain a close relationship with them.

  • Recognize that your news may be hard for them to take, and honor the fact that it is also hard for you to share with them: "I feel nervous telling you this, because I love you so much and don't want to hurt you."

It IS possible to maintain loving relationships with religious relatives, though it requires work. Your discussions with them will no longer revolve around religion - but there is so much more to life! Work at finding and building commonalities to enjoy and talk about: Kids, relatives, animals, sports, gardening, golf, and any new hobbies you have taken up. They don't have to understand your deconversion, but they do have to accept it in order for the relationship to continue and flourish.

I hope these tips are helpful to you! Feel free to send me an email via this website. If you are interested in attending a discussion on this topic, join me on a free Zoom call this Saturday, November 20th, at 11am PST. Send me a message if you'd like the link.

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