Coming Out to My Sister and Her Husband

I wrote in January about the events that led up to my untimely coming out conversation with my mother. First, my fiance’s and my “immoral” private life was leaked, which led to my family expecting us to stop and being appalled when we refused to apologize. This ended in me coming out to my mother as an atheist as a way to provide some explanation for why we didn’t play by her Lutheran rules. After talking to her and to my oldest sister, the wife of a pastor, my fiance and I safely assumed that her pastor-husband would have moral qualms, if not strict religious restrictions, from marrying together two dirty sinners such as the two of us, as had been our original plan. We informed him that we had decided to go a more secular way—getting married at our reception hall using a non-pastor officiant—to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

This sudden change of plans was very unexpected for my sister’s husband after we had previously asked him to perform the ceremony. My mom had made it plainly clear to me that having a pastor marry us, only to inform him after the wedding that we had been atheists all along, was deceptive and dishonest. And unapologetic premarital sex hadn’t added up for them if we were indeed aware of its cosmic implications for our afterlives. So parallel to the events in January, we found it only right to come out as atheists to both of them.

Living three hours away from my sister and her husband, my fiance and I drove to meet them at a restaurant halfway between us. The conversation started with them asking why we had suddenly abandoned our plans of having our pastor-in-law officiate. In their eyes, we could have met with him and agreed to alter our private behavior according to his pastorly will, and we could have gone through his marriage counseling sessions so that he would marry us. We knew, of course, that this would require lying about one aspect that would deem us unfit to be wed by a Lutheran pastor—premarital sex—but we would have to lie about what we see as a far greater disqualifier—the fact that we are both atheists. In order to clear up the confusion and assure him that we would not fulfill his requirements, we decided to let him make an informed decision instead of us making it for him.

With this being his first time to ever come out to someone as an atheist, my fiance had been extremely nervous and didn’t know what to expect or what to say (but he did a great job). When the opportunity came for us to drop this extremely surprising and unexpected bomb of apostasy on them in a family restaurant (I wish there was an easier way to tell someone you are an atheist), my fiance worked up the courage to be the one to say it. He started off, “well, we want you to be able to make an informed decision… and… well… we… we’re…” Saying it is really hard. If you’ve ever come out as atheist then you know. My first time saying it aloud to my roommates, it took me a while to get it out. But this being my fourth time coming out to someone, I knew that it’s just like ripping off a band-aid and there’s no way to make it sound nice. I picked up where he left off: “We don’t believe in God. We never have. Soo… there. Uh, surprise!”

I think I broke my sister. She froze, starting a lot of questions but never making it past “uhh… wh… when…. uh… who… since when… what…?” It’s a lot to process. After that, my fiance and I were really just there to answer questions. When my sister regained some of her composure back (almost completely forgetting about the previous topic of wedding officiating), she first wanted to know how I got to this point of unbelief. I explained what is becoming a common mantra of mine: “I never truly believed in God except when I was a really little kid. When I was in elementary school science class, I was exposed to non-religious descriptions of how the earth formed. After that, I didn’t really care about religion or church until I got to college where I started learning more about Christian belief and, not buying it for a second, started learning about what I do believe. Soon enough, I was pretty confident in my unbelief.”

Her husband raised a point that I’ve found myself pondering in the days since our discussion. He said, “So your entire worldview, and your eternal destination of heaven or hell, is all following out of your choice of college? Think about it this way: whether or not God exists doesn’t change because of where you went to college.”

I was taken aback. I do hate my college, but I’m glad it made me an atheist; otherwise I would probably be some kind of apathetic agnostic deist. But either way, I decided that his argument worked better in my favor than in his. I don’t know much about whether he was raised in a religious household, but of course I know my sister was. She is Lutheran because my mother is Lutheran because her father was Lutheran, and it goes generations back. My father was Catholic before marrying my mom, but she converted him to Lutheranism, so my sisters and I were raised Lutheran instead of Catholic.

Isn’t it convenient that Lutheran doctrine is true and superior to Catholic doctrine in their eyes? Does my sister not realize that if events had turned out any differently that she would be Catholic? Of course this can be applied so many different ways, in such questions as “if you had been born in the Middle East, you would believe in Allah,” etc., etc. I also think of the saying, “Science doesn’t care if you believe in it or not.” This also came up as my fiance tried to explain that our two worldviews should be treated equally: different interpretations of the same evidence, being the Bible and nature. Our brother-in-law pushed against my fiance’s explanation that “what is true for you isn’t necessarily true for us” in that it implies that what is true depends on the person when in fact, something is either true or it’s not. I can’t help but point out that a lot of what this pastor believes is demonstrably false, and yet it is the foundation of his whole life and vocation.

Our pastor-in-law had more questions along the lines of “so, what do you believe?” and “what do you think of what I do?” To the first question, I can’t help but respond with “about what?” My beliefs can’t be summed up in a word the way that theirs can by the word “Lutheran”. There are things that I believe regarding origins, the afterlife, free will, morality, abortion, and much more. But I wouldn’t know where to start when explaining it all. Conveniently, my apologetics paper about the worldview of secular humanism explains a lot of my beliefs pretty well, and it turned out to be a really helpful tool when coming out to people who don’t know my beliefs. Maybe it can even help some of you come out as secular humanists who don’t want to have to explain to people what that means.

One specific question that they had regarding our beliefs was that of the afterlife. My sister asked, “So all of our grandparents…” (both pairs have passed away) “…with your beliefs, where are they?” I explained that they’re in the same place they were before they were ever born, just not anywhere and not inconvenienced by it. Our brother-in-law said, “So they just don’t exist anymore?” We replied yes. He said, “That’s pretty bleak, don’t you think?” as if it were less likely to be true because it sounds hopeless at first. My fiance explained that with a view like this, we value our limited time on Earth all the more and that we live for now instead of living for death.

This talk of afterlife-implications took a predictable turn. After being reassured how positive we both are that there is no god (we are probably both around 6.9 on the Dawkins scale), my sister posed the question, “but… what if you’re wrong?” I asked her to clarify just to be sure it was going where I thought it was. She continued, “well, if atheism exists…” (my fiance and I both cringed but bit our tongues) “…and I’m a Christian, then I lose nothing. But if Christianity is true, then we go to heaven and you go to hell.” It’s an understandable question to have. At the same time, though, I absolutely love picking apart and refuting Pascal’s Wager. I find it fascinating. But when she asked that, I responded, “Wow, well, that’s kind of a big question that can start a whole theological discussion. It’s… just… ugh.”

My fiance knew that I love responding to Pascal’s Wager. He eagerly waited for me to present all of my logical arguments about it and prove why “what if you’re wrong?” is the worst question ever. But I didn’t. Just like when I came out to my mom and she posed that I try to disprove answered prayers and I could have demonstrated the entire paradox of prayer, but I chose not to. I discovered that my unimaginably non-confrontational nature takes over in in-person conversations, and all of the arguments that I love so much to study and know so much about stay locked inside my head. There is so much that my fingers will say that my lips will not.

Because of this, you could imagine what a hard time I had when the question was posed, “So, do you think that Christians are stupid… brainwashed… or just never asked any questions?” This echoed my mother’s question weeks ago of, “So do you think I’m stupid?” What am I supposed to say? “Yeah, you’re stupid and brainwashed! Love you guys!” That’s not even how I see it. They’re not stupid, but they were indoctrinated. And of course I think they are wrong. But being indoctrinated into a religion doesn’t make you stupid. And asking questions about that religion often leads people to atheism, but a lot of religious people do ask questions about it and find that Christianity is compatible with satisfactory answers for them. So I don’t know why each individual Christian believes what they do, but indoctrination and fear of questions aren’t uncommon. My response was stuttered: “I guess it might be some combination of the three?” As if it were to be some consolation, they assured us that they think we’re stupid for not believing, too. At least we are somewhat agreed on something.

In the words of my sister, us coming out as atheists answered a lot of their questions about our heathenly wedding plans, but for every question it answered, it raised three more. As with my mother, I had never planned to come out this early, because coming out is so hard. And scary. And uncertain. And vulnerable. I was reassured when my sister was actually more upset that I hadn’t come out to her when I first had doubts in elementary school or even greater doubts in college. And they confirmed how angry they would have been if we had had our pastor-in-law officiate our wedding, and have our sister be a bridesmaid at our church, only to tell them afterwards that we were atheists. As usual, however painful coming out is, it was the right thing to do; after all, now my sister made an informed decision to support us as a bridesmaid, and her husband understandably declined to officiate for us although he agreed to attend. Just because we don’t agree on questions of religion or sexual morality, we didn’t let this diminish how much we love, care for, or support one another.


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24 Replies to “Coming Out to My Sister and Her Husband”

  1. 1.Learn to quote lines from Life of Brian. A life saver, believe me.
    2.Watch as many videos of Hitchens as you can.
    3.When in (religious) company whisper to an atheist friend or your fiance just loud enough so people can hear how you have: ”…. worked out how to play an old Black Sabbath CD backwards and it’s true what they told us about the lyrics and the Devil when we were Christians! ”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Sounds like a challenging experience but given the context I agree you made the best decision. Hopefully you’ll get some respect for what you did.

    The “do you think I’m stupid” questions don’t surprise me in the least, but I did chuckle when I saw that. Not because I found it funny, but because of how sad it made me. It is the first question my wife asked me when I told her. After 20 years of marriage, THAT’S the question she asked. It’s like she fucking never knew me… oops side tracked… yeah, that question reveals so much about the Christian mind set, it’s utterly depressing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi ClosetAtheist,

    It sounds like you handled what must have been a very excruciating talk like a boss! Your sister and brother-in-law brought a lot of angst and emotion to the discussion, and your fiancé and yourself defused that by calmly and respectfully stating your position, how you came to it and gently but firmly standing by it.

    I think you made the right response to the Pascal’s wager argument. Too often atheists and theists get pulled into the trying-to-win-the-debate dynamic, which can cause an argument to spiral downwards when neither party feels that their “obviously amazing” arguments get the respect they feel they deserve. Your situation was probably at higher risk of this, as your brother likely considers himself a trained expert in these matters, and might have been tempted to “priest-splain”.

    I’ve been an atheist since I was 11 years old, (I vaguely remember telling my 6th grade teacher, who often referred to his faith, that there was no god. The teacher was actually awesome, and I liked him a lot, he just talked about all parts of his life. I don’t think he was offended – this was Australia after all). The first time I told my parents that I was an atheist was when I mentioned offhand that I had started up an atheist blog, and their response was “Will you have time for that with all your studies?”.

    Can I make a suggestion for managing any attempts that they might make to present apologetics arguments to you or attempt to convert back? Tell them about this blog, and offer to give them a guest post or a blog debate.

    If you are not comfortable with that, it is fine. But your family have a point when they say you have been keeping secrets from them and although they unintentionally made coming out unreasonably burdensome for you, I feel that they genuinely would like to understand you better. They already know that you are an atheist, so all they might learn from your blog is that you are an articulate and intelligent atheist. plus, if you are at some point going to get into an argument with your brother-in-law about whether non-existence of objective morality means we have no reason not to become Nazis (:-) ), then wouldn’t it be better to have that argument in the comments section rather than the Thanksgiving dinner?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Well done, I think you did the right thing, as painful and awkward as it was.
    “So I don’t know why each individual Christian believes what they do, but indoctrination and fear of questions aren’t uncommon.” Yep at my church you could ask questions, but only certain questions haha. My pastor once got angry at me during a Bible study for asking if all of the content in one of Paul’s letters (can’t remember which one sorry) was written at the same time. He didn’t even answer my question, just scolded me and tried to make me look silly by asking me questions back. I don’t have anything against religious people but I did lose a little respect for my pastor after that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can only imagine how concerning all this is to you CA. It is one thing to come to terms with your own worldview, it is another thing to share that worldview with people who love you and who are the closest to you. The reality that they may disown you because you no longer have the same worldview is scary. But you can try this kind of thing the next time the conversation comes up with your sister/mom/brother in law or someone else close:

    “I understand that you are concerned for my well-being and where I spend eternity. It is touching, and I really do value your loving concern. I appreciate it. I’m glad I have people in my life that love me that much. I just want to ask you if it is possible for us to love each other and still be very involved with each others lives AND disagree on this God thing? That is certainly what I want, and it is possible on my end. If that is what you want, let’s talk about how we can move past these world view differences.”

    If they agree, tell them the most important things they can do to help you and ask them what you can do to help them. Hopefully, something positive will come out of that kind of dialogue.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Hey Ark,

        You just love to stir things up don’t you? 🙂

        My opinion about hell is unimportant to any of this. I’m kind of an odd Christian who believes that how I live today, here on earth, is what matters most. Not what happens after death as nobody really knows what happens. Certainly CA’s sister and brother in-law and her mom think that she is not going to be walking through the pearly gates unless something changes. I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise or a shock to anyone.

        But CA doesn’t have any concern about hell or things she considers to be pure make believe. Still she and her family have to somehow find a way to move past this. I think they can. I know they should, and I hope they do. I think CA holds the key to this as she seems to be acting like the adult in the room.

        By the way, Violet is baaaaack.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Amazing! I ask that you please don’t equivocate and you proceed to write several hundred words that is entirely equivocation.
          Yes, I know Miss V is ”back”.

          Now,stop being a frakking hypocrite and answer the question.

          Like

  6. Right off the bat, I agree with judyt54, your relationship with your family will from this point on, be quite different. Regarding this really incredible post, and incredible experience through which you are passing, I have come to believe it’s all about the mind, that is to say the Christian world does not or has never embraced knowledge.

    Two key passages in the Bible reflect the traditional Jewish stance that Christians have woven into the fabric of their belief. God’s discussion with his counsel over Adam and Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit and the possibility of their eating from the tree of life–which will give them–God forbid–immortality. And the Tower of Babel, where once again God fears the possibility of man’s getting “too close” to heaven. In both cases, isn’t it really about God’s fear of man’s becoming overly smart…too intelligent?

    I thought it was so telling that your sister and pastor brother-in-law both brought up the issue of “you think we’re stupid.” The Christian folk collectively fear this issue and being an “over-thinker” is equated with being hell-bound. If you think too much, you’ll lose your faith. “Ignorance is bliss.” Of course just the opposite of Socrates’ famous maxim: “Ignorance is evil.” I go with Socrates.

    Great post, stay strong. We are all there for you!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. —They’re not stupid, but they were indoctrinated.— (from your penultimate paragrah).

    Paraphrasing the joke “Thank God I’m an atheist”, I would say that most, if not all, unbelievers do not believe anymore PRECISELY BECAUSE of that indoctrination. All of us were indoctrinated – I call it brainFORMING rather than brainwashing – and to question things, your mindset must be willing and able to change neuron circuits. My theory is that some persons are able to do that, others are not. It is not their “fault”, it depends on their individual mindsets.

    The interesting conversation with your sister and her husband will, in my opinion, most probably not lead to a rich debate. During my four or five such heart-to-heart talks, including one with a Catholic priest, I don’t remember having heard one of the parties at any one moment say “Yes, but…”. Both the starting points (faith) and the points of no return (reason) differ too much..The water between the mindsets is too deep.
    Greetings.
    .-

    p.d. My apologies for the use of capitals, because I don’t know (yet) how to italicize or underline here.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Best of luck to you as you continue to open up honesty to those closest to you. A friend of mine recently came out as atheist to his mother after leaving ministry. She told him he was too “good” to really be an atheist so she would just choose to believe that deep down he’s still a Christian. In my case I can’t imagine ever really telling my mother my stance as she would literally lay awake at night scared I was going to hell and I can’t think of any productive reason to do that to her. So, every month or so she tells me she wishes I could find a church to which I don’t respond. Every persons experience is different.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think you did the right thing by coming out to your sister and her husband. And I’m glad that it seems to have worked out reasonably well.

    I’m inclined to say that you are no longer in the closet. This is going to spread, and you won’t be able to stop that. There’s no need to make a big announcement. But if people ask, you might as well be open about your status. (No need to change the blog name).

    As for Pascal’s Wager — in my opinion, it is only persuasive for Christians. And the argument against the wager is only persuasive for non-Christians. So I think you made the right decision when you chose to not argue it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You could always change your blog headline to “The Ex-Closet Atheist.” 🙂

      Great read. And I admire your ongoing courage … even though it’s too bad you need it in this type of situation.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Ah – in my case I found out my father had gotten in with a white supremacist preacher who said the bible said black and white people shouldn’t be together.

    The ultimately lead to him telling me one night as we drove the darkened highway (I was driving) “You never believed in God anyway.” I looked at him and told him he was correct. That was it.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. You got guts, lady.

    Next time anyone (family, friend, hostile witness) asks you what DO you believe, just smile and say, “me. you.” and there is, as near as I can tell, no way to refute that. While they’re thinking that over, you can make your getaway.

    The other one I use, is when someone asks, “Don’t you believe in an afterlife?” and you get to say, “You do, and I don’t. When we die, one of us will be right and one of us will be wrong.”

    and, yeah, your relationship will be very different now, en famille. You’ll noitce they’ll be watching you, listening carefully. Little strained silences. Those over-the-head glances that you can feel like teeny lasers. Quite possibly the rogue minister ‘friend’ who tries to sound you out…

    However, I think you can handle it. You’re bright, articulate, and you have your fiance for backup.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think it’s important to go through life with an open mind. It’s a bit of a journey traveling through and you keep finding new beliefs, different religions, spiritual practices, atheism, scientific evidence and they’re all very interesting. You can get bits and pieces of each and string together you’re own belief system. Or you can toss them out, like trying on coats at a store. This fits, that doesn’t…etc. If you lock yourself into one religion, like Lutheran, then your eyes are closed, shut tight against a colorful world. I’ve tried Catholic, Scientology, Jehovah Witness (very briefly), Zen Buddhism, Christian Science, Yoga and who knows what’s next. Right now I’m stuck on non-belief of anything spiritual.
    Ya, you did your family a great service by telling them your beliefs. Start with honesty and you can’t go wrong. Sweet!!

    Liked by 3 people

  13. “I discovered that my unimaginably non-confrontational nature takes over in in-person conversations, and all of the arguments that I love so much to study and know so much about stay locked inside my head. There is so much that my fingers will say that my lips will not.”

    I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I just want to scream about all the wrong-headed beliefs out there. Writing is therapeutic at least.

    Thanks for sharing your ongoing story. I write about religion/humanism etc here:

    https://strangequark.me/category/religion/

    if it’s of any help and others things (astronomy, programming) besides.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Interestingly, if we do meet an older person (as a child) who still believes in Santa Claus, we do think they are stupid. The “wiser” kids will explain all of the “evidence” that our parents were Santa and mock kids for not seeing it. My own sister didn’t realize there was no Santa until she was 13 and was deeply offended that she had been lied to.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I gave up on Santa in the 5th grade, when I was 10. My father so enjoyed the Santa thing I hadn’t the heart to tell him, and when he found out two years later he was heart broken.

      Like

  15. I question whether or not your relationship with them will ever be the same. From here on out, I suspect, that they’re going to be sitting in silent judgment as well as mourning the state of your soul. I fear that they are going to view you as a “mark” to be evangelized. I suspect that they’re going to spend much time researching atheism and attempting to argue with you about it sometimes quite obviously and sometimes quite subtly. It’s going to get old. As it gets old between my in-laws and I. If I hear the phrase “I’d like you to come to church with me”one more time I feel like I’m gonna punch somebody in the face at the dinner table. LOL As if I had never considered that before.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, and watch out for the sudden appearance of “there’s someone I’d like you to meet, I think you’ll find he has a lot to say…” and there’s the clerical collar, and there goes dinner.

      It’s like a scab they can’t leave alone.

      Liked by 4 people

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