Ask Richard: Young Atheist Feels Trapped in Religion March 14, 2011

Ask Richard: Young Atheist Feels Trapped in Religion

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.


I recently came out to my mam as an athiest. You see im 15 and at first my mam brushed off my ideas as “teenage hormones”, but when I pushed further saying that I have already decided to be athiest she said that as long as I live here in their house I have to be a catholic and go to mass. Now im just confused and weight of my athiest secret has not left as I hoped it would when I finally told my mam what should I do? I feel that im now trapped in religion until im 18. :'(


Dear Sean,

You’re not trapped in religion. People who are trapped in religion are those who don’t even consider questioning their beliefs, or are too afraid to allow their questioning to go too far. Religion protects itself by strongly discouraging asking one’s self or others tough questions, and by severely punishing anyone who takes those questions far enough to come to the conclusion that religious beliefs are false. Those people are made an example to frighten anyone else who might be secretly allowing questions to live in their minds.

Religion claims to reveal “Truth” with a capital T, what is alleged to be a sacred kind of reality that somehow is above being questioned, and beyond any answers other than “Just believe.” That’s not an answer, that’s a command that shuts down questions and answers.

The rest of human endeavor is concerned with truth with a small t. This is the common what-is-actually-happening kind of truth that we must live in, live with, and live by every day. We often suffer painful consequences if we make decisions without knowing it well, or if we try to cover it up with lies to others or to ourselves. Never make an enemy of the truth with a small t. It never gives up trying to be known. You might be able to keep it hidden for a while, but it is always digging, digging trying to get out.

Religion tells you to ignore or dismiss any small t truth that contradicts its capital T Truth. In other words, it tells you to be dishonest to yourself.

By having the courage to let your questions go all the way to the conclusions you’ve reached, you have freed yourself from the trap of religion. Even inside of you, the small t truth was digging, digging trying to get out. For many young atheists, letting it out can be a great relief, but for many others it’s a disappointment, because they also wanted to be accepted by their family and no longer required to participate in the rites and activities of the religion. For a few, it’s the beginning of hardships much worse than what you have described.

Your mam’s religion demands that she protect its capital T Truth from being challenged by ignoring the small t truth that you are no longer a believer. So she insists that you continue to go through the motions. Keeping up appearances is a very important activity in religion; in fact, maintaining tattered illusions is its main activity.

Sean, even though you have not made small t truth your enemy, you do not have to make your mam your enemy instead. She’s probably doing what she’s doing because she loves you and wants the best for you. She is doing what she was taught to do to be a good parent. Most of the other things she does for you are probably wise and healthy parenting. So don’t treat it all with disdain and resentment because of this one part. Keep your heart open to accept the love behind her actions, and try to live in harmony with your parents as best you can.

Depending on where you live, turning 18 can mean you are legally an adult, but until you are also financially independent from your parents, you’ll probably still be living in their house, and still subject to their rules. It’s sometimes difficult for 15 year-olds to summon patience to work quietly for a long term goal, but that’s what you’ll need. Looking ahead at the next few years may seem very long, but I assure you, looking back they will seem very brief.

Your predicament is similar to another short letter from a young person I received. My response and many of the readers’ comments there may be of help to you, so I won’t repeat much of it here.

Try to relax your tension so that you can enjoy your youth and your private mental freedom. Find friends with similar views so that you don’t feel entirely isolated. There are many like you, but they may be keeping it private, so you’ll have to hint and fish.

Continue to negotiate respectfully with your parents from time to time about church attendance. Keep your temper in check, and keep your behavior respectful. That way the controversy will be about ideas instead of being about who’s in charge. They may eventually give in on some of their requirements, especially if you project yourself as a reasonable young adult. Playing the stereotypical out-of-control teenager would only make them think you need more of the controlling influence of church. Stay in school and get the best education you can, keep your brain free of alcohol and drugs, develop marketable skills, and eventually you’ll be able to have the physical freedom to match your mental freedom.

Remember that you are very rare and very fortunate to have this liberation of mind while so young. I admire you, and I wish you the very best.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Claudia

    Sean, I know this is a really intense part of your life, and it feels like every day, week and month is forever, but please try to remember that you are very close to finishing school and then your life is likely to change radically.

    Now, this is perhaps reading a little too deeply into your letter, but the only people I know who say “Mam” instead of “Mom” or “Mum” are Scotts and my beloved friends from North England, though judging from the “catholic” part I wonder if it’s not Ireland instead.

    Have you thought about what happens after school? I hope college figures into it, and if so I hope a good school is on your mind. Right now you need to apply yourself to your studies and get the best grades you can. This is actually relevant to your situation on different levels:

    1. It will give you something legitimate to do instead of religious activities. Your mother may hesitate about loading you up with “godly” activities if it might interfere with your studies.
    2. Many parents fear atheism because they think it makes people immoral. Showing yourself to be a good student and son will prove that your atheism has had no effect on your moral character.
    3. You know where there are a lot of atheists? College. You know where there are even more atheists? Prominent colleges. You know where there are a TON of atheists, skeptics groups, humanists etc.? Oxford and Cambridge. Pretty good education too 😉

  • CJ Klok

    You could also see this two to three year period, during which you will be ‘obliged’ to endure church attendance, as an educational opportunity. Start reading intensively on critical thinking, religious and biblical history, logical fallacies, morality, ethics and multiple other topics, that you as a thoughtful and intellectually responsible young atheist should know. Then use the church as a living laboratory to hone your skills. Try to identify the blindingly mindless logical fallacies used by the priests to prop up their inane doctrines. Keep an eye open for fraudulent histories, hypocrisy and many of the other mental dirty tricks and intellectually vacuous strategies employed in the church’s communications to their hapless congregations.
    Once you get more confident in your newly honed skills you can start to voice these. Always try to phrase these as questions. This is a useful rhetorical strategy that places the responsibility of thinking through the answers on those who would want to oblige you to keep up the religious charade.
    As their cognitive dissonance become uncomfortable the help of one or more priests and/or religious elders might be called in to ‘set you straight’. If you have done your homework and exercised your critical mind, this situation should be small potatoes to you. It is useful to let this ‘setting straight’ occur in the presence of you pro-church family. This way you can expose the emptiness of the religious elders to your family in a respectful but definitive way.
    Once this happens you will have gained a level of respect that is impossible to deny without the level of dishonesty often seen employed by the church.
    Turn this potential obstacle into a productive opportunity.

  • Gordon

    They might be able to make you go to church (bring a book, it’s boring) but they cant make you catholic.

    And really, by church rules, as a non-believer you are not allowed to go up for communion.

  • David

    I’m in Sean’s position. I came out as an atheist during my senior year of high school, and my parents made me go to church all the same. Now that I’m at college, I have to go whenever I’m home and not complain, else my parents threaten to disown me, etc.

    Sean, whatever you do, realize that your family has no ill will towards you. Know why you’re an atheist; do some reading. I highly recommend George H. Smith’s book, “Atheism: The Case Against God”.

    If you have to discuss it with the fam, be CALM and rational. Don’t let them goad you into an emotional shouting match. They probably have preconceived notions that atheists are bad or evil. You can’t let them attach that to you.

  • Roxane

    Your body may be stuck in church, but clearly your mind isn’t.

    When I was in your situation, my church had a day care room where people could park their kids during the service, which was “thoughtfully” piped into the room so that the babysitters didn’t “miss” anything. I volunteered down there a lot. I played with the kids and talked to the other babysitters and hardly noticed the service at all. If your church does anything like that, it could be one way out.

  • flawedprefect

    I hear ya. If you have to go to mass cos it’s the house rule, there are small things she can’t control. Refuse to take holy communion, for instance. It is perfectly acceptable in Church to sit and be alone with your thoughts during communion. When you eventually move out, you can stop going, cos then it’s YOUR house rules. Respect for your parents is an honorable thing, and you’ll be surprised how much it counts, even when you’re a parent yourself, some day (should that be your wish).

  • Paul

    Sean, I hope that you never forget that there is that voice inside you that always tries to figure out what is right – regardless of who approves – or what is true and correct. No matter what you believe, you will meet many people who tell you you are wrong. All you can do is to keep an open mind, be willing to change your mind when you are wrong, try your best to discover what is true, and be with people who are doing the same thing.

  • Richard’s first sentence snags me:

    “You’re not trapped in religion. People who are trapped in religion are those who don’t even consider questioning their beliefs, or are too afraid to allow their questioning to go too far.”

    Not everyone trapped in religion doesn’t consider questioning their beliefs, or are afraid to allow their questioning to go too far. I’m a good example. When I was a Christian, it wasn’t a choice, it was mandatory. I could’ve questioned my religious instructors all day long, but it wouldn’t have freed me. Besides, they weren’t my beliefs in the first place.

    It’s very important to remember that millions of people are trapped in religion, not by their fault at all. Many are simply born into a religious family, and raised that way, which has a solid effect on the psyche in regards to skepticism.

    For me, religion was a prison. Sure I questioned it all, a thousand times, but only to myself. I wasn’t worried that my questioning would go too far with anyone, because I couldn’t safely go anywhere with it in the first place, except in my own mind.

    I believe that millions of people in all major religions are actually unwilling participants. Essentially it’s religious slavery. Especially for kids. As long as parents are allowed to have that much control over their kids, and that’s not changing anytime soon, religion will always have that foothold. But for sure, we shouldn’t ever discount the slavery factor.

    Of course I really appreciate Richard for giving out good advice to so many of our fellow Freethinkers. :o)

  • jumping in unread, once again i have to slightly disagree with the Big Man R. if we’re going to call this a “coming out” there’s really only one way to do it. take it from us queers. believe me, we know all the ways this goes down, every sticky one of them. here’s the best way:

    R is right: depending on where you live, legal emancipation is possible as early as 18, and even younger, if you’re willing to fight it out in court. and here’s the thing- except for the most extreme parents, when you lay down the law and make them make a choice, they won’t kick you out. sure, it’s a risk. but if you’re prepared for that, it’s even better. there’s no greater power than saying to a family member who loves you but wants you to conform to their beliefs, “it’s me, or your beliefs.” 90% of parents and family members will whine and moan and cry, but in the end, they’ll choose you.

    don’t go to church. don’t profess. don’t confess. just don’t do it. show her by example you’re a moral, decent person who “christ” would like, with charity and honesty and compassion in your daily action. quote bible stuff at her, like “don’t pray in public” and “many false prophets will come after me claiming to know the “Truth” and “don’t eat shrimp or have a cheeseburger” but stand firm. this is your most and first truly important test of your atheism. do this with your family, and doing it in public and for the rest of your life will be a snap.

    R is right; if you found this blog, you can follow the blog roll. i have many friends i made via internet sites about those issues that concern me most. gay people know: find your Tribe, and it all gets better. atheists should act similarly. go join a local skeptics group, or UU group, or whatever works for you. it takes time to let go of the kiddie raper club called the catholic church, fine. but do it. you won’t be sorry. there is no regret on this side of that fence; we don’t rape children, they do. if honesty and morality mean something to you, make the obvious choice.

    you’re not rejecting the exploration of your humanity and our universe. you’re rejecting the cult and mythology and hypocrisy of an organization mostly dedicated to raising money, keeping women down, and telling people ‘do what we say, not what we do.’

    letting go of that? easy, healing, and wonderful. even if it means a few years while you’re young working two low paying jobs to support yourself in your own apartment. i know young lesbians from churched families who’ve done it, and made it. you can too. best of luck, young atheist. and have Courage.

  • J.


    And really, by church rules, as a non-believer you are not allowed to go up for communion.

    I’m assuming Sean, you were given first communion around second grade, or so. Any time after that one is allowed to take communion. From your letter, It sounds like not taking communion would force an unneeded confrontation with your mother. So for family harmony, you may find you need to play the part.

  • J.


    there are small things she can’t control. Refuse to take holy communion, for instance. It is perfectly acceptable in Church to sit and be alone with your thoughts during communion.

    Then let me amend my comment. I was coming it at as a never-Catholic person, and it would be inappropriate for me to take communion.
    As an atheist, you know there is nothing magical in the communion wafer, so no need for you to take it. Tell your mom/parents you’d rather be alone with your thoughts, if they question why you didn’t take it. Or take it, as part of the ritual custom, if you prefer. But know it is your choice.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Does your Mam also make you go to confessional? I was never catholic, so I’m not entirely sure of the rules there, but I understand that the priest is supposed to keep confidential anything said in the confessional. If that’s true then this opens some really interesting possibilites as to what to talk about. Instead of confessing, you could confront the priest with a bunch of difficult questions, and all the problems you see with the church. Instead of the usual grovelling, you could have some really interesting conversations, and he couldn’t tell anybody about them!

    I also concur with CJ Klok – you are no longer be a worshipper, but you can be an observer. Learn about that religion, pay attention to what is actually going on instead of what they tell you is going on, take notes. Don’t think of yourself as trapped in religion, think of yourself as a spy in training, gathering intelligence for the other side.

  • Ubi:

    From what I understood as a practicing Catholic, the priest isn’t allowed to reveal anything that was confessed. He probably could, however, talk to Sean’s mam about anything else said in the confessional, and confrontation doesn’t seem to fit the “confession” mold, really. Or he could just confront her about how he’s worried about Sean and his irreligious tone/behavior/whatever.

    To be fair, though, I’m rather twitchy when it comes to confession, as it was generally a part of the punishment for any of my wrongdoings while living in my parents’ house, to the tune of “We think you’re lying to us. You’re grounded for a month. Now ride your bike down to the church and confess.”

  • Joe


    I’m assuming Sean, you were given first communion around second grade, or so. Any time after that one is allowed to take communion. From your letter, It sounds like not taking communion would force an unneeded confrontation with your mother. So for family harmony, you may find you need to play the part.

    Actually, by formally renouncing the faith, Sean has latae sententiae excommunicated himself by way of apostasy, so if his mam is really Catholic, she should want him to avoid communion. Sean, if you do decide to press the issue with your mam, a quick wikipedia search for latae sententiae will give you links to the relevant canon law. Canon 1331 S.1 is particularly relevant. You may also want to point out to your mam that there’s nothing in the canon about eternal condemnation, burning in hell, etc, just a statement that since you aren’t a practicing Catholic, you shouldn’t participate in Catholic sacraments, including the mass, as if you were one.
    Disclaimer: I am a practicing Catholic. That being said, I can’t prove that God exists, that the Catholic Church is correct about anything, or that the Bible isn’t the deranged writings of a bunch of drunken fishermen. I fully respect the views of anyone who has examined the world around them and determined that atheism is the most accurate world view for them to hold. Sorry about all the crap you get from most “believers”

  • Richard Wade

    Joe, thank you for your support of Sean, and thank you for your positive, honest, and respectful attitude.

  • Jane Smith

    Hi Sean

    Do you agree with me that Friendly Atheist gives such good advice that he should have been a priest?!

    I think the best suggestion you’ve had so far is the one that says: devote yourself to your studies as much as possible. 15 is a hellish age with or without religion, confrontations with one’s family etc. I well remember it – and it was studying, NOT partying that got me through that difficult time.

    And Friendly Atheist is so right. Studying will give you real rewards, whether you are studying mathematics or fine art.

    Not all priests are fools and child abusers. Many are highly educated men who are well aware of the problems of god and theology. If you have to practise Catholicism outwardly, then see if you can find a sensible priest to talk to.

    Keep studying.

  • Amphigorey

    This is off-topic, but you have this verbal tic in every letter I’ve seen you write for your advice column: at some point, usually about halfway down, you say the letter-writer’s name.

    Why do you do that? It reads very strangely. It’s not like you need to get the person’s attention; either they are still reading, or they’re not. You’re already talking directly to them, so why do you need to re-address them? It throws off the rhythm of the whole column because it looks so weird.

  • I have occasion to go to Christian services but I never go up to the communion even though I’m often invited to – mainly because I don’t do disrespect for the sake of it.

    Sean’s case is different though – his mother, though entitled, is the one being disrespectful, so he should make his life easy and just eat the bread, it’s their loss.

    I love the ‘you have to be Catholic’ nonsense. I’ve heard that one more than once – doesn’t say much for Catholicism. Reminds me of the Northern Ireland line: “I know you’re an atheist: but are you a Catholic atheist or a protestant atheist?”

  • Richard Wade

    Yes, I say the writer’s name again to get his attention. His emotional attention. It’s usually when I’m talking about the most emotional part, or the most difficult part, or simply the most important part. You’re hearing my intensity, passion, earnestness, and caring running over. It’s where if you could see and hear me, there would be a crack in my voice and moisture in my eyes, and I’d be putting both of my hands on both of his shoulders. It’s when I’m the most aware that this is more than a hypothetical interpersonal problem, more than an abstract idea; this is about a real and specific person who is in real difficulty or pain, and people he loves are in pain as well.

    I’m sorry if that seems gushy, but that’s what I do and what I am. I can’t be aloof from these people. I can’t talk about them, I have to talk directly to them. It’s personal. I understand what you’re saying, but if the rhythm is thrown off, that’s okay, I’m not writing poetry. You hear the unsteadiness because these people really matter to me.

  • ellie

    Sean is a braver kid than i ever was. i was raised in a catholic home too, and had about 10 years of catholic education (totally not worth all the money my parents spent on it). to my friends, and to one of my sisters, i have come out as an atheist. however to my parents, that is one closet that i am still in. they know that im not particularly a fan of religion but i dont think that they know that i dont believe at all. i am waiting until i am more financially independent before i try coming out of that closet. i have already come out as bi, which was easier becuase there was already out lgbt cousins in the family. as far as i know, im the only nonbeleiver, so thats gonna be a harder discussion. especially with all the guilt that my parents pretty much wasted so much money on my education in that way.

  • Freemage

    Sean, you should definitely speak to your church’s priest. You may not be able to get out of attending Mass, but sincere Catholics really do believe that it would be better to not participate in the Sacraments without the underlying faith. Telling the parish priest the truth is, in fact, being respectful of his faith. I wouldn’t even suggest doing this in the Confessional, as that is part of the Sacraments as well; instead, you should ask him to meet with you sometime, privately, so you can tell him of your decision directly.

  • Our Lady of Couch Sleeping


    I totally faked it to keep the peace in the house until I graduated from high school. It was a chickenshit way to deal with it, but it worked for me. No one can make you catholic, and it’s totally silly for your mom to tell you you have to be catholic under her roof.

  • James

    I’d like to add all of my support to Sean, and hopefully, make a suitable response to Claudia’s comments. I began this wishing to also engage with Richards original post, but found myself running out of space. I apologize for the lack of brevity, and hope that in spite its length, my post seems clear and well-ordered. Basically, the polar opposite of a rant. I’ve just discovered your site, and am really impressed by it- I’m looking forward to becoming a regular commenter. I hope it is immediately and consistently clear that I am a Catholic, but one who tries to live that Catholicism by valuing both the dignity of all humans and the human capacity for rational enquiry.

    Claudia, there are indeed tons of atheists, skeptics, and agnostics at all levels of Oxbridge membership. There are also those of us like myself who contribute to the life of both the university (Cambridge, in my case) and the faith by applying the critical reasoning that makes these academic institutions so well-respected to the fundamental challenges, paradoxes, and problems of both divine revelation and human dogma.

    I realize the obvious response to that combination might seem to be the famous (and incredibly true) criticism of Christian Rock: ‘You’re not making Christianity better, and you’re making Rock worse.’ Many Evangelicals (and uninformed/blind Catholics) claim rational enquiry grounded in classical and contemporary philosophy makes no contribution to Christianity. Some even go so far as to claim incorrectly that it represents a sinful pride and lack of faith. On the other side, I’m well aware that some secular thinkers claim such a method cheapens and co-opts rational enquiry; thankfully there are those like the Friendly Atheist who seek to act with respect, compassion, and tolerance. There are those on both sides who could learn from his example.

    But rational enquiry of faith has long proven useful to both the sacred and secular worlds. Any number of examples may be cited, but for brevity’s sake it is probably more useful to conclude with my essential opposition to Claudia’s final statement: Pointing to Oxbridge as evidence that atheism is entirely correct (and thus all faith and religion entirely incorrect) is on two counts a fundamentally flawed but nonetheless common argument.

    I realize Claudia mentioned Oxbridge to help and encourage Sean, as a worthwhile goal and a place where he will find a supporting community, and I completely agree with her on both those things. Unfortunately, her advocacy seems to imply the common misconception that only the naive and those of mediocre intellects have faith. The two flaws in the specific instance of using Oxbridge to make this case are as follows:

    1. It discounts those faithful of us here of ability equal to those aetheists you mention. At our best (which like all humanity, is unfortunately reached all too rarely), our curiosity, methods of enquiry, and conclusions bear the same weight as our atheist colleagues, and we are happy to subject them to the same scrutiny.

    2. If such scrutiny means that many of our colleagues do not share our views, it is because the combination of faith and reason admittedly accepts a belief in a Truth that can not be empirically proven. But the number of those who disagree with an idea, however intelligent and talented they may be, is not evidence of its falsehood. Admittedly, it is an exceptionally appealing argument as democracy is one of the greatest human institutions, but claiming the majority may determine not policy, but truth, is a logical fallacy.

    Before Copernicus and Gallileo, the majority did not believe in the truth of the heliocentric solar system. Indeed, after these men made their tremendous contributions in the face of overwhelming resistance from the Church, the Aristotlean understanding of the Cosmos changed only a little. It would take much longer before the truth was realized to be that we only live in a heliocentric solar system; the cosmos is something else entirely.

    Similarly, on matters of ethics, justice, and even ontology and faith, consensus can never in itself indicate truth. The consensus may coincide with truth, but whether it is to religious or secular ends, whenever it is held up as evidence, as in the Oxbridge Fallacy and its figurehead Professor Dawkins, it can not stand.

    I realize there are many challenges that may be made to my argument, an essential condition of dealing with these most complex of issues. I look forward to all replies, and am sure they’ll prompt some worthwhile and fascinating consideration. Again, I’m sorry for the lack of brevity- but as we’re pursuing the interests of understanding, it seems likely there can never be too many words, so long as they’re said in respect and with a spirit of openness, and the author is ready to shut up and listen to others.

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