Paul and his mother continued discussing religion, even though the conversations were tense. Carl similarly described the tension that arose between him and some of his religious family members. But when it does come up, yes, it can create some conflict.
In his discussion of stigma management techniques, Goffman suggests that one way to reduce tension is to shift attention away from the stigma—in this case, the atheistic worldview—to another topic. In this study, we sought to understand how coming out as an atheist affects family relationships. We used the Circumplex Model of family functioning as a framework for analyzing interviews with 80 atheists about their coming out experiences.
On the cohesion spectrum, familial relationship quality tended to be preserved during the coming-out process when families exhibited a moderate level of closeness, with a sense that the family can remain cohesive even when individual family members may hold varying theological opinions. In this study, family members exhibited cohesion when parents and spouses remained supportive and religion was considered to be inconsequential to the quality of the relationship. Relationship quality suffered, however, when family members exhibited disengagement, anger, rejection, despair, or an inability to relate to one another after a family member came out.
A lack of adaptability, or rigidity, was problematic for relationships, leading family members to regard the revelation of atheism with denial or dismissal, or to try to silence, convince, proselytize, or pressure the person into religious participation. Some participants reported being able to discuss their atheism with family members, but others noted that limiting or altogether avoiding theological discussions with their believing family members was the best approach for preserving positive family relationships.
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Communications scholars Afifi and Guerrero identified, based on numerous previous studies, that one of the primary reasons for topic avoidance is relationship protection. They note that social bonds and the need to belong are powerful drives in humans, and, although self-disclosure generally facilitates social bonding, people routinely avoid topics that are perceived to threaten the relationship. Recent research confirms that people attempt to protect their social relationships by avoiding discussion of topics perceived to threaten the relationship.
The varying dynamics and contexts within families preclude any prescriptive recommendations for families regarding discussing atheism, other than perhaps kindness and respect. Which of these three characteristics—cohesion, adaptability, and communication—is most important?
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Each is important, but kind and respectful communication seems to facilitate movement within the healthier realms of the cohesion and adaptability spectrums. Additionally, communication is often the element that individuals seem to be most aware of and most able to control. This is prescriptively important because it implies that, even when families have a pattern of rigidity or disengagement, being intentional about how one communicates can potentially soften the impact of disclosure.
Cohesion, adaptability, and good communication should not be regarded as three separate and discrete characteristics, but rather are interrelated. The third characteristic—communication—helps to reveal whether family relationships are cohesive and adaptable, with messages of acceptance, support, and love. Communication also reveals a lack of cohesion through messages of anger and rejection, or a lack of adaptability through messages of shaming or pressure to conform.
There are several limitations to this study worth noting. First, ours was not a random sample, so the reader is encouraged to use caution when transferring our findings to similar populations. Second, family members were not interviewed. Future research might use specific interview questions designed to investigate the nature of family relationship dynamics during the coming-out process. Despite these limitations, this study confirms what previous research on coming out as an atheist has found: that atheists are often subjected to statements and behaviors that are unsupportive of familial relationships.
This study contributes to the literature regarding the specific behaviors that family members may display given their location within the Circumplex Model. For example, the Circumplex Model would predict that when a family member comes out as an atheist, the family characterized as flexibly connected in most familial interactions is likely to be accepting and supportive, whereas family members who are rigidly disengaged in most of their interactions can likely expect some pressure to remain silent or to return to the fold.
This study also informs and contributes to an understanding of how atheists manage their identities.
This study suggests that one of the reasons for the development of an atheist community in the U. Finally, our findings suggest some implications for psychologists, therapists, and counselors. As with other aspects of identity that may differ between therapists and their clients, therapists should be aware of their own religious perspectives and take a nonjudgmental stance toward clients who identify as atheists. Further, therapists might wish to familiarize themselves with local atheist groups that might provide much-needed social support to those who might be feeling isolated or who could benefit from socializing with others to help solidify their atheist identity.
Therapists who work with couples or families in which a family member has come out as atheist might underscore the respectful communication and adaptability that can help protect familial relationships, and that how they treat one another is more important than attempting to reconcile differing theological opinions. Given that the data for this study were drawn from individuals rather than from families, additional research on the familial relationship outcomes of coming out as an atheist that gathers data from other family members would be enlightening.
Additionally, further research from a family strengths-based perspective would provide insight into how family members maintain healthy functioning when family members may hold differing or even conflicting theological perspectives. Polemicists and theologians have long offered this argument in some form. Adams, M. Readings for diversity and social justice. Afifi, W. Balancing the secrets of private disclosures. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. Alberts, T.
“Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer”
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The process and experience of deciding to live openly atheist in a Christian family: A qualitative study Doctoral dissertation , Retrieved from UTI. Altemeyer, B. Amazing conversions: Why some turn to faith and others abandon religion. Amherst: Prometheus. Astin, A. Barker, D. Berkeley: Ulysses Press. Blumenfeld, W. Investigating Christian privilege and religious oppression in the United States. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers. Boghossian, P.
A manual for creating atheists. Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing. Bramlett, D. San Jose State University. Bregman, H. Cimino, R. Secular humanism and atheism beyond progressive secularism. Corbin, C.
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Nonbelievers and government religious speech. Iowa Law Review — Cox, J. Craddock, A. Family of origin qualities as predictors of religious dysfunctional perfectionism. Cragun, R. On the receiving end: Discrimination toward the non-religious. Edgell, P.
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Firth, J. Fitzgerald, B. Atheists in the United States: The construction and negotiation of a non-normative identity Unpublished doctoral dissertation.