When Atheism is Perceived as the Repudiation of One's Family Values

teenage boy

Imagine that you are a parent of a teenager. One day, your teen sits you down and explains that they have decided to reject your values. Everything you believe is wrong. Every aspect of what you have tried to impart over the years is flawed. Your teen is repudiating all you hold dear. They still want to maintain a relationship with you, but it is going to be a different sort of relationship than what you had in mind. This would not be a pleasant experience, would it?

Right or wrong, this is how many religious parents perceive the conversation in which one of their children comes out as an atheist. I am not saying that they are correct to perceive it this way; I am only saying that many do perceive it this way. And for those who do perceive it this way, it makes at least some sense that it would be upsetting. Consider this while watching videos of Christian parents screaming at their atheist children. Remember it when reading the accounts of atheists disowned by their Christian parents. I suspect this perception is at play.

I do not mention any of this to excuse it. There is no valid excuse for a religious parent to disown a child for the perceived offense of atheism. I mention it because making an effort to understand the mindset of religious parents might be helpful to some young atheists. I am thinking of those struggling with whether to inform their family of their atheism or how to deal with the aftermath of doing so. If atheism is perceived as a rejection of one's value system, it makes sense that some parents would react in some of the more extreme ways they react.

Where does this leave the atheist youth? I remember struggling with when and how to tell my family I no longer believed in their gods. I was so focused on myself that I never stopped to consider what hearing those words would mean to them. I worried about how they would react, but I was not thinking about what it would be like for them to hear what I had to say. I suspect that I'd have been more effective in delivering the message if I had thought about that. At the least, I might not have run into as much denial as I did.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2016. It was revised and expanded in 2022.