Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
I found your site while looking for help for my daughter, and you seem to be an expert. My sixteen year old daughter just told me she was an atheist. I do not know what to do or who to turn to. Other than this, she is a very good girl. Is this a phase she will grow out of, or just one of these things kids just say. I have tried recommending web sites for her to read but she just brushes them off. I am at my wits end and do not know what to do. Perhaps some of your readers can offer advice.
Your daughter is still a very good girl, I assure you.
I commend you for doing a very wise and intelligent thing for a parent with your concerns. You’re asking atheists about atheism. That ought to be an obvious thing to do, but sadly, it is very rare. Because your letter is so brief, I have to make some assumptions about your concern for your daughter. I’m assuming that you have heard some very bad things about atheists and atheism, and you’re worried that she will become like whatever are the awful things that you’ve heard.
I want to set your mind at ease that the typical dreadful things people hear and repeat about atheists are false. Like defamatory things said about Jews, people of color, or any minority group, these are lies started by bigots and perpetuated by people who don’t stop to question what they hear.
The most common misconceptions include that atheists are evil, immoral, criminal, dangerous, selfish, hateful, stupid, cowardly, un-American, rebellious, self-indulgent, depressed, and have no meaning in their lives.
I have known several dozen atheists very closely for several years, I have had long conversations with hundreds of others online, and I have never met anyone like that. The atheists I know are good, kind, smart, highly moral and ethical people who go to work, love their families, pay their taxes, and live very meaningful lives. They want to live peacefully with their neighbors, they want to participate in their communities, they want to help where there is a need, and they want to be treated fairly.
You probably know many people who fit that description, but you might not realize that a few of them are atheists. They tend to keep that private because of all the hurtful prejudice. They sometimes risk serious consequences at the hands of bigots.
So what actually is an atheist if they are not all those awful things?
An atheist is a person who is not convinced of the existence of gods. They have no belief in gods.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. There’s nothing more to it. All that bad stuff is just propaganda. Their humanity is the same as anyone else. Like everyone else, they feel love, anger, sadness, happiness, hope, fear, boredom, excitement, jealousy, loyalty, and all the other things that make us human.
And they have morals. There are many excellent arguments for why, but the easiest way for you to know is to just look at them.
Look at your daughter, at her actual behavior. She has not suddenly started doing horrible things, and she’s not going to start just because she’s an atheist. She has morals, and she got them from you. She got them a little by listening to you and mostly by watching you. People who do not believe in gods tend to do the right thing just as much as anyone else, but if asked why, they will usually attribute that to their upbringing instead of wanting to please a god or to avoid displeasing a god. Since you say that you daughter is a very good girl, then my guess is that she has a strong sense of right and wrong, she has a strong sense of compassion, she knows what good manners are, even if she may forget them briefly as most 16 year-olds sometimes do,
and she knows about telling the truth.
I don’t know the circumstances surrounding your daughter telling you that she is an atheist, but she did tell you. Even though you may not like what she said, be sure that you honor her for being honest with you. The worst thing you could do would be to punish her or scold her for the content of her honest sharing, and drive her into lying to you and keeping secrets. When you’re done reading this, click here to see what can happen when parents punish a child’s honesty because they don’t like what she honestly shares.
Keep the communications open with her. Keep it safe for both of you to talk. That openness is extremely precious. Ask her, ask her with genuine, loving curiosity about her thoughts, feelings and beliefs, don’t tell her. You don’t know what they are because you’ve been told false, scary stories. Let her safely tell you about herself. Just listen. You don’t have to agree with her, but it is very important to not try to force, badger, or guilt-trip her into changing her views and agreeing with you. That will not work, and it will definitely make things much worse.
You ask if this is a phase that she will grow out of, or if it is just one of these things kids just say. I don’t know for certain. 16 year-olds are going through complex upheavals and transformations physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. They can be all over the place from one week to the next.
But I have strong doubts that your daughter is just going through a whim. Given the prejudice in society, expressing this to one’s family can be extremely difficult and intimidating. It is usually not tossed out casually like something about the latest fad or fashion.
Do not dismiss this as nothing more than her being rebellious. Take what she says seriously, listen to her respectfully, even though you disagree or wish she saw things your way. Otherwise, you just might trigger rebellion out of sheer frustration on her part, and that will only muddle things up.
A large number of the atheists who share their stories here on this blog will tell you that they knew with certainty that they were non-believers at around this age. Your daughter is going into the last stage of her neurological development. Most of her personality and her intellect is already set. Over the next several years, she will simply become a more mature version of the person you already see before you.
So this is most likely real. It is not a terrible thing. She is not broken; she does not need fixing. She will probably grow up to be a fine person of whom you can be very proud.
But this moment is a crisis for your relationship with her. You can make it better than ever, or you can ruin it. You can accept her as she is, or you can try to pressure her or force her to comply with your image of what you wanted her to be. If you do that, you’ll drive her away, and the responsibility for the estrangement will be on your shoulders.
What makes her different in this way about belief? The basis of atheism is skepticism. Skepticism does not mean refusal to believe. The word comes from the Greek word meaning “to look.” So a skeptic is a person who tends to hold back belief about all sorts of things until they can see for themselves. By their nature, they’re just not easily convinced of things. They need more than words to convince them. They need to see convincing evidence.
Skepticism is a good thing. It protects us from being fooled by con artists, or believing harmful rumors. We all have some skeptical instinct, but I think that some people are born more skeptical than others. Your daughter may be one of those. It is simply a difference, like being taller or shorter.
Although the two of you may end up having to agree to disagree about belief in a god, you can continue to love each other and treat each other respectfully. She’s an adolescent now, but in the blink of an eye, she’ll be an adult. Believe me, as a father I know. You should start now to gradually practice how to relate to her as an adult to an adult, rather than as a parent to a child. It takes some time for most parents to switch those roles, and it’s easier if you’re prepared when the time actually comes.
Amelia, now you’re going to read the comments by readers of this blog. Most of them are atheists, and there may be a few believers too. Understand that atheists have as wide a variety of personalities as any other group of people. Some will be very encouraging, and some will have some bitterness or pain to express. Some will identify with your daughter, and some will empathize with you as a parent. Some will tell you about how she may need to find like-minded peers for support, living in a prejudiced world. That’s one of the main things we do here, giving support to those who are having a tough time.
Hopefully, she will also have the support of an open, honest, respectful and loving relationship with her mother. You have a great deal of ability to make that happen if you are willing to let go of fear and to accept and even embrace the wonderful fact that your daughter has a mind of her own. I wish both of you the very best.