Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Tell My Devout Boyfriend That I'm An Atheist?
Dear Auntie Sparknotes,
I recently started dating this guy who I really like, and have for a while. At the beginning of the relationship, we were talking about religion. This is where things started to get complicated. I am a "closet atheist". I have only ever told a few of my very close friends this, because whenever people hear the word atheist (especially in the South, where I live) they automatically go OMG YOU HATE GOD UGH SHUNNN.
But when my new boyfriend asked about my religion, I panicked. I basically told him I was a non-denominational Christian who just doesn't really go to church (the same thing I tell my parents so that I can live in my house). My plan was to eventually tell him the truth, but that seems more and more impossible the better I get to know him. His dad is the pastor at one of the local churches, and he is deeply religious. He is relatively quiet, but if the topic turns to religion you can bet he has a spiel or a novel-long text.
I can accept his faith as his choice. He, on the other hand, is very judgmental about this kind of thing. Also, he told me he absolutely hates liars, with a lot of emphasis. Now I'm terrified to tell him, because I know he will break up with me when he finds out. My friend told me I was being silly, but some of the things he says in texts lead me to believe he will freak out, and if I tell him now then we still have to work together on a group project and it will be extremely awkward. Also, he keeps inviting me to his dad's church. This is an extremely uncomfortable proposition for me and I can only blow him off so many times before he gets suspicious.
I'm at a total loss here and this entire situation has been combining with my ongoing depression, to the point where I am relapsing back into thinking about killing myself all the time, something I managed to stop doing years ago. I just don't know what to do and I feel guilty all the time, like I am some sort of lying monster. I am desperate just to get all my emotions back under control and get the truth out. I'm sick of having to hide a big part of me for fear of being judged and maybe if I can start here I can begin not being afraid to tell people. I just don't know. What do I do?
For starters? If you're seriously thinking of harming yourself, call the National Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, immediately, and tell someone what you're feeling. (And if you're not seriously thinking of harming yourself, then please, for the love of everything, do not drop casual references to suicide into your letters, because it scares Auntie to death.)
And with that out of the way, ironically, my advice to you as a closet atheist is the same as my advice to closet gay kids: if you have any reason to believe that admitting the truth—be it about your sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or something else—will make you unsafe, unhappy, or otherwise unable to live in peace, then don't. Not until you're in a position to protect and care for yourself, and even then, not unless you want to. You don't owe anyone this information, and keeping it to yourself is a perfectly valid, morally acceptable choice. Being less than honest about your beliefs when you're surrounded by rabid zealots is like being less than honest about your musical tastes when you're surrounded by rabid Beliebers; all you're doing is depriving people of the opportunity to shun you for something that's none of their biz in the first place.
That said, there is still the wee problem of your boyfriend, who deserves a slightly truthier lie than the one you're currently feeding him—just enough that you can't be accused of keeping him around under false pretenses. And this isn't just so that he can decide whether your unaffiliated status is a dealbreaker, but also so that he stops inviting you to services you have no intention of ever attending. Because as you've so aptly pointed out, you can only claim to be busy bathing your cat so many times before things start looking suspicious.
How you do this, and how much truthier you get with your explanation, is up to you. Maybe you want to tell him just enough to stop the Sunday invites (ex: "I appreciate your trying to include me, but I'm just not interested in going to church"), or maybe you want to crack open the seam on your atheism and give him a warning whiff (ex: "To be honest, I've been exploring my feelings on this subject a lot recently, and I'm not sure I still identify as a Christian.")
What's important isn't offering up the details of your faith; all you have to do is let him know you won't be sharing his. And if this is a dealbreaker for him, then that's too bad, but he's allowed to decide as much—and he deserves the chance to make that decision. But if you want to stop short of revealing the whole truth? That's okay, darling. Really. Keeping your faith (or lack thereof) under wraps is not a lie; it's just a choice to let your personal relationship with the almighty known be exactly that: personal. Why or how or whether you believe in a higher power is nobody's business but yours—and it is particularly not the business of people who would use that information to abuse, judge, or otherwise rag on you.
Which means that people who would freak out about your lack of faith don't deserve the privilege of hearing about it.
Have you ever lied about your religion in order to get along? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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