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Coming out as an atheist

Nathan Olivieri confessed his sins to his family

Cartoon: Bryant Apolonio

A few weeks ago, at a family dinner, I passed a grenade along with the salad. After careful deliberation, I decided this to be the opportune moment to reveal to my devoutly Catholic family that I was an atheist.

This, a family that have no real association with anyone other than Catholics, certainly no association with atheists, and, in fact, no contact with anyone that wouldn’t cook pasta in the same way. And to tell them that I was shunning the religion of my youth and, more importantly, la famiglia?

It did not pan out pleasantly.

The remains of that grenade burned long into the night. Few topics will see your parents erupt so impassionedly, and when you tread on one, a number of delightfully backhanded barbs await you. For the closet atheists, here are a few of the gems to be directed your way. Best to come prepared.

“It’s just so sad that you can’t believe.”

The go-to play of any theist, this is the great leveller to bring you off your apparent high horse. Your viewpoint is summarily dismissed as a limitation of character, designed to imply there is some capacity for appreciation you lack. Ignore the notion: it is motivated more or less by insecurity. The irony is the statement could just as easily be redirected.

“I failed as a parent.”

This one hurts – a great deal – but is grossly unfair. The implication here that children are mere graded reflections of their parents is dangerous territory, for children have no responsibility to follow their parent’s religious beliefs, particularly when the inculcation begins before they can adequately judge it for themselves. As the atheist catchcry reads, in my case, there is no such thing as a Catholic child, but only a child of Catholic parents. Retort with the fact they should be proud they raised someone who can form thoughts of their own, and not just accept what they’re told.

“You’re just going through a phase.”

A standard parental coping mechanism, this is perhaps the most condescending response you’ll receive. It downplays your position, trivialises your opinions, but at this point, parents aren’t trying to intentionally belittle you. No, they’re scavenging for a glimmer of hope amidst the rubble, for any possible loophole of redemption, and it’s in your best interest not to give one to them. If you do, you’ve rendered all the progress you’ve made null and void, and have Conversation Revisited awaiting you somewhere down the way.

“Why did you have to bring this up? I don’t want to hear it.”

This is the most subtly insidious idea of them all, for it perpetuates a covenant of secrecy. It allows religion to remain a sacrosanct topic, a taboo point of non-discussion. Silence only bestows religion with a greater untouchable power and leaves it immune to critique. The choice to speak is not easy, though. I know for a fact a large portion of la famiglia wouldn’t talk to me again if they found out. I also know that only a few degrees of separation lie between this article and my extended family. All signs point to silence.

However, silence shouldn’t simply be enacted to keep the peace, and closet atheists shouldn’t refuse to speak for fear of reprisal. Religion should be rendered as open and transparent a conversational topic as possible, particularly in spheres where such terrain is risky. To all those hesitant, it’s important to not give religion the privilege of being unanswerable. Start the conversation. Toss the grenade.

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