Ask Richard: My Friend is Questioning Her Faith April 7, 2011

Ask Richard: My Friend is Questioning Her Faith

Note: All the names and a few details in this letter are changed to protect peoples’ privacy.

Hey Richard,

I’m a 15-year-old Atheist from a town just outside of a mid-size city in Colorado. My parents are both atheists, and religion was never really talked about when I was growing up. It wasn’t ignored, but I grew up assuming there was no god. That area is extremely liberal, and I went to school there until last year. I’ve never really had any strongly religious friends before, so I don’t have any experience dealing with religious people. Now I go to my new neighborhood school for the first time and most of my new friends are pretty strongly Christian. One of my best friends, Tammy, spent most of our freshman year talking about Jesus. We never really argued about it, but she would always ask me why I chose not to believe.

During winter break this year she went to a prayer event at a very large church with her youth group, including our friend Brad. On the car ride home she woke up to find him sucking on her thumb and grabbing at her breasts. The immediate consequence of this was that we stopped talking to Brad, and Tammy stopped going to youth group. Now Tammy has started to question her faith in God. She can’t see why this would happen to her, especially right after days and days spent praying. She doesn’t understand why a fellow Christian would ever do something like that. And Brad’s frequent attempts to contact her and help her come back to God are only serving to push her further away. She hasn’t discussed it that much with me, except to tell me that she doesn’t know if she believes anymore.

Now I have a dilemma. I want to help Tammy see the truth, but I don’t know if I can or should. She’s in a lot of emotional turmoil right now and I don’t know if any attempt by me to talk to her about God would worsen it. I know I am a strong influence on her, and I wouldn’t want her to feel like she’s being indoctrinated or that disagreeing with me would alienate me. I don’t know if I should view this as an opportunity or if I should simply continue to give her emotional support and keep my mouth shut about my beliefs. I really do want what’s best for her, I’m just having a hard time deciding what that is.

Another issue is Tammy’s mother. She’s never really liked me, and she thinks that I’m a bad influence on Tammy. I’m not a bad kid, and I don’t do any of the things that would traditionally warrant that kind of attitude (drugs, drinking, smoking, cutting, ditching, bad grades… etc). But I think I have affected Tammy’s behavior in that since meeting me she has become more outspoken and independent, and maybe just a bit more disrespectful towards authority. Her mom blames me, and responds by throwing out unjustified accusations like saying that I’m a probably a drug dealer. Now she’s already beginning to blame me for Tammy’s loss of faith, and I’m not sure what the backlash would be if Tammy became an Atheist.

So what should I do?

Thanks for listening,

Dear Ashley,

If you “want to help Tammy see the truth,” let her see the truth that you are a true friend.

A true friend has no agenda for her friend, no requirement for agreement about some belief or view outside of the friendship. A true friend is simply concerned with her friend’s happiness and well-being, and accepts her friend just as she is, a work in progress. Let her be whoever she is; let her be whoever she will be. Tammy is lucky to have so sensitive, thoughtful and conscientious a friend as you.

If you were to use this period of vulnerability to influence her toward your own beliefs, that would be just as exploitative as some Christians who deliberately look for people who are in crises because they’re easy marks for conversion. Becoming an atheist should be about shrugging off the indoctrination and manipulation of people who took advantage, not just being manipulated again in the other direction. Tammy deserves the freedom to consciously discard, alter or retain her beliefs as she sees fit.

Let her know that you will listen to whatever she wants to talk about, without passing judgment on her, and without trying to push her one way or the other. You don’t have to keep your mouth completely shut about your beliefs, but for the most part, let her take the lead on the topic. Say that you’ll answer her questions honestly, but you want to let her make her own decisions.

If she brings up the subject of her faltering belief, tell her that although you haven’t gone through it, you have heard that coming to doubt one’s faith can be a difficult and upsetting process. You only want to be supportive of her as she finds whatever truth she needs to find. Make it clear that whichever way she goes, you want to remain her friend.

I’m sure that you do have a strong influence on her, but don’t be too quick to take all the blame (or credit) for her becoming more outspoken, independent, and challenging of authority. That’s what teenagers are famous for. They’re supposed to do that. It’s a part of a normal process called differentiation. It’s necessary for them to establish a fully developed sense of self. Good friends tend to help each other through the rough spots, both encouraging each other to push the limits, and soothing each other when the limits push back.

This incident with Brad seems insufficient to have toppled her belief all by itself. Perhaps it was really just a trigger, the precipitator of a deeper change that has been building up in her for some time. Differentiation is about both emotional and intellectual independence. Sometimes young people grow very dissatisfied with religion’s often simplistic answers to their questions, or the subtle but strong message that they’re bad people for even having those questions in their minds.

But it remains to be seen how deeply this goes in Tammy, and if she will allow it to go further. She will face a great deal of pressure from her parents, clergy, and religious friends to come back to the fold. She might decide that Brad is just a jerk, and regain her strong belief. Because you were the true friend who respected her process wherever it would lead, you will probably remain friends. If on the other hand she fully rejects the beliefs of her family, her community and her other friends, then she will really need a true friend, because she’ll feel utterly alone.

Either way, she will remember that you were the only one who just cared about her, without any agenda about beliefs.

As for her mother blaming you, don’t take it personally. She sees her daughter’s differentiation happening, and it’s a pain in the neck from a parent’s perspective. If Tammy becomes an atheist and her mom finds out, you’ll probably be blamed for that too. Parents have a hard time accepting that their children might repudiate their traditions and beliefs all on their own. It’s less painful if they can blame some outside influence like somebody else’s kid.

Remain as polite as you can be with Tammy’s mother. If she falsely accuses you of bad things directly, stay calm, and politely reassure her that no, you’re not doing whatever it is. Playing the adult in the room can be very disarming to a parent who’s acting like a child. If you lose your temper, she might take that as confirmation of her suspicions. It’s not a logical conclusion, but she’s looking for a scapegoat.

Sometimes parents can become very reactionary about what they think are threats to their children’s religion, and very often their misguided and heavy-handed tactics only push their child farther away from religion. A possible backlash might be that Tammy’s mother will try to isolate the two of you, but if you’re determined, it’s not likely that she’ll be able to completely succeed. If the two of you can somehow communicate, you can maintain your friendship. It would be great if you could establish an honest, open, and respectful relationship between you, Tammy, and her mother, but from what you have described, don’t count on it.

One final word about being discreet. As Tammy goes through this crisis, be careful to keep your and her thoughts about religion between the two of you as much as you can. With young people who are very much under the power of adults, discretion is essential. You and she should try to have as much control as you can over who knows what and when. Other friends can be disappointingly sloppy with private information, and Facebook has been the tattletale for many young atheists who weren’t ready for their family or community to know. Don’t post anything on any social media that you don’t want getting back to parents.

Regardless of how her beliefs turn out, I hope your wonderful friendship with Tammy thrives and lasts for many years to come.


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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  • Robert L.

    Ashley, if you’re reading this, I sincerely think you should take this opportunity to deconvert Tammy. Deconversion is difficult. It requires getting someone to abandon their faith and question the foundations of their views on life, and it requires a trigger strong enough to initiate this process and make it acceptable to the potential atheist. However, most of all, it needs someone to see it through; to make sure that the person is not simply stuck in doubt; to make sure that the fortunate person who questions her faith is not left floundering between religion and rationalism but stands firmly on the atheist side. The incident with Brad was clearly that trigger, causing the current sequence of events, but I think (and this applies to all atheists in general) that there is a responsibility to help follow it through if you know it’s coming. It will likely be worse if she is left questioning her faith than if she is fully deconverted and given help in hiding her newfound belief in rationality from her parents.

    Frankly, I would encourage Tammy to resist her parents’ domination more, while at the same time denying my influence like an adult (as Richard has suggested), if I were in your position. The end result is that Tammy’s mother, if she responds with heavy-handed measures, will further alienate her and keep her from religion; even if that is not true and she surprisingly does not respond in that way, it will teach Tammy to be more independent. It might be emotionally painful for Tammy in the short run, but console her. In three years (or is it more in America?), she will effectively be free from her parents, and free to go to work (if she doesn’t want to go to college or wants to work her way through college to pay for the fees), or college (if her parents are willing to pay), or work and then get together with a good atheist guy whose parents are willing to pay her college fees (if both she and her parents are unwilling to pay). Alternatively, you could encourage her to deceive her parents into thinking she’s a good Christian and get them to put money in some sort of fund for her where they can’t touch it. Then, when she turns 18 she can head for college using the funds, and thereafter break off relations with her domineering parents (who don’t deserve her love anyway). You are her friend; act like one and encourage her to become atheist and possibly secure her financial position (if she doesn’t mind deceiving her parents).

    Thanks for listening, Ashley.

  • jemand

    I disagree with Robert, I don’t think you should *try* to deconvert her, but I’m pretty sure deconversion is coming anyway.

    Since you never had to go through that, you should probably read some deconversion stories on atheist blogs and forums and elsewhere so you can kind of have an idea what to expect and resources to offer her in understanding what she’s going through– the process of *leaving* religion is quite different from that of *being* simply an atheist.

  • redhairedagent

    Has she even considered pressing charges against Brad? That won’t solve the main problem, but not reporting it will give him licence to sexually assault someone else.

  • Ashley,

    Richard has some very good advice. Just concentrate on being her friend without a “deconversion agenda”. Just show her that a normal well-adjusted person can be an atheist. Just be there for her and let her go through whatever she needs to go through. Its part of growing up.

    I find it sickening when religious people pounce when a person is going through a crisis to “convert them” to a particular religion. I would also find it sickening if it were to happen the other way to. The ends don’t justify the means.

  • Sarah

    A person who questions their faith in the supreme being that s/he has been talking to his/her entire life is already going through a grief period. Realizing that you may have been wrong about everything you thought was true is emotionally devastating. This girl is going through a lot with this dilemma alone, along with being the victim of a sexual assault. It is difficult to say whether you should talk to her about the non-existence of God. I would listen to her as you would any other friend. If there is a crack in her faith, it will soon grow and eventually break it. As for a person’s mother not liking you, don’t give it a second thought. You don’t ever need to win everybody’s approval. You are who you are, no apologies needed. There is no need to help her repair her faith, or break it further. She will make her own decisions on what makes her whole.

  • treedweller

    I disagree with @Robert L. and I also think Richard missed an important point.

    First, Richard, I wish you had mentioned that Brad is an asshole, regardless of what religion the various parties believe (or not). There are plenty of examples of Christians behaving badly, but I don’t think any church condones groping one’s sleeping friends without permission. I know you are actively opposed to xianity, but it works great for a lot of people, and Tammy may eventually find her faith helps her through this situation. I think she should talk to her pastor or another counselor at church. The response she gets from that conversation may do more to get her out of the church than some speech from Ashley, or it may offer her solace that will get her through the experience relatively unscathed. Her ultimate conversion to atheism, if it is in the cards, can wait.

    And Robert must have missed Richard’s point, which is important: pushing her to refute her church at this moment is exploitative and wrong. She needs to recognize that she has been violated by a boy, not a god, and that will still be wrong whether she believes or doesn’t. In fact, to start talking up atheism is apt to distract her from dealing with the abuse, turning this into a confusing muddle that she will have to work hard to sort out.

    If she moves past Brad and still has doubts about church, then Ashley can freely talk about her own beliefs. Right now, back off.

  • I agree with Richard. While I am definitely happy with my belief system (and am happy when people convert to it, not gonna lie), the fact of the matter is that faith brings many people a great deal of happiness. In general, I make a point of not pushing atheism on people who are happy with their beliefs and lifestyle– unless, of course, they are pushing their beliefs on me.

    Of course, in this situation we’re dealing with someone who is increasingly unhappy with her belief system. I would definitely try to help her explore her feelings– but from a neutral standpoint, in a ‘playing the therapist’ sort of way (asking “How have you been feeling about…” questions and being very accepting of any response.) If Ashley pushes an agenda, then Tammy’s new belief system will come no more from her than her previous belief system did– and I imagine Tammy is at an age where she will really have to find her beliefs from within.

    Oh, and a good point from treedweller about the incident with the boy not being god-related either way. totally concur.

  • The Other Tom


    I’d like to make a few additional remarks to Richard’s advice.

    First, it’s OKAY for you to hope that your friend will leave her religion, even as you choose not to actively try to encourage her to do so. Even while you see that it’s not best for her for you to harp on her about it now, it’s in no way immoral for you to hope that as a result of this difficult time in her life she will find the silver lining of leaving her religion. So don’t feel bad about such feelings. It’s always laudable for you to hope for the best for your friend.

    And, it’s important for you to consider that at the moment perhaps the best thing you can do to help her to see reason and leave her religion is probably the very same thing that’s best for her emotionally and most moral for you to do: to simply be supportive of her feelings and care about her as your friend. By being for her an example of a good and caring and moral person who just happens to be an atheist, you are providing for her a role model of what she can be if she chooses to leave her religion, and demonstrating to her (without having to say it) that religion does not have a monopoly on morality. You also provide a good contrast with the abusive and/or difficult people she is presently experiencing who are trying to pull her back into religion.

    So, by all means please follow Richard’s advice. Be emotionally supportive of her, don’t push atheism on her, just be kind and considerate and honest. It’s both the right thing to do, and probably also the best way to help her gently to see that her religion is nonsense.

    Finally, a thought about what to do if she asks you about atheism. Be honest, be direct, but be kind and careful. You may wish to go so far as to tell her outright that you’re happy to answer any questions she has, but that you don’t want her to feel that you’ve in any way pushed your thoughts on her at this time, and remind her gently that if she asks you for your thoughts about religion you’re going to answer her honestly and she might not like what she hears so she should consider extra carefully whether she really wants to hear the answer before she asks. And also if she asks, let her know that you’ll always be there to discuss it in the future if she considers that and decides she doesn’t feel like talking about it now.

    Kudos to you for caring about your friend so much as to not only want her to see reason, but also for seeking out advice and help so you can make the best decisions on how to be supportive to her.


  • Ashley,

    On the topic of discretion:

    Learn it, use it, love it – and you’ll never have to worry about prying eyes ever again (well, at least until quantum computing becomes more than a laboratory curiosity – then again, when that happens, encryption will just become more unbreakable, rather than less).

  • Emma

    I agree with redhairedagent that the letter writer should suggest that Tammy press charges against Brad. Not only is it likely that Brad will molest girls in the future (or worse), it’s also quite likely that he’s done so to other girls in the past.

    However, if Tammy doesn’t want to do that, there’s another issue to consider. The letter writer doesn’t say how frequently Brad calls Tammy, but it sounds like harassment to me (and given the fact that he molested her, it also seems kind of stalkerish). Perhaps Tammy should take measures to prevent him from contacting her, like asking her phone company to block his number or something. It might remove one upsetting thing from her life.

  • phira

    WHOA. Excuse me, folks.

    Richard, I wish you had put a trigger warning at the top of this post for folks who might have PTSD trigger by reading this post. Bad call not putting it there. I’m reading this at work and I was NOT prepared for the contents of the letter.

    What happened to Tammy is called SEXUAL ASSAULT. It’s illegal and traumatizing. It can make a person feel helpless, lost, out of control, depressed, confused, and/or angry, etc. The issue here is NOT whether or not Ashley should take the chance to deconvert her friend. The issue is what Ashley can do to help her friend.

    Many of my friends and I subscribe to the empowerment model of sexual violence crisis counseling. That is, an act of sexual violence is one where one person disempowers another, taking away their autonomy and control over their bodies in a sexual manner. The end result makes the perpetrator feel very powerful and in control, which is the purpose of the assault (as sexual gratification, as many of us know, can be achieved in ways that don’t harm other people). And it makes the survivor feel powerless and not in control of h/er life.

    There’s no cure-all for this feeling to help victims move on to identify as survivors and heal from their experience. However, the general idea of the empowerment model is that empowering the victim to make h/er own decisions and choose what will happen next is the best way to support them and help them heal.

    Put more simply, to help Tammy heal from this experience, Ashley needs to make it clear that she will support Tammy with WHATEVER Tammy wants to do. Does Tammy want to find ways to renew her faith? Support her. Does Tammy want to press charges against Brad? Support her. Does Tammy want to leave this particular church community? Support her. Does Tammy want to keep this event a secret? Support her. Does Tammy want to be left alone for a while? Support her.

    You don’t decide what’s right. Telling Tammy what to do (“Press charges,” “Leave your faith,” “Don’t ever speak to Brad again,” “Tell everyone what happened”), even if YOU think that’s what’s best or what’s right, will make her feel even more helpless, and she probably won’t feel as if she can trust you.

    I’m extremely disappointed in the way that Richard handled this letter, and in the way that most of the commenters are reacting.

  • Freemage

    Brad definitely needs to be called to account for his actions. (Note that “pressing charges” may be difficult and more trauma than it’s worth to Tammy, unfortunately, but he should definitely not be allowed to escape without any repercussions. At the very least, Tammy needs to tell her Mom ~exactly~ what happened, and that that’s why she’s no longer associating with the faith group; the group’s director should then be informed by Tammy’s mother.)

    As for Tammy herself, one question that Ashley can and should prepare for is this: “How would you deal with this?” Ashley may want to talk, discretely, with an adult who can give her some advice on how to speak with coping from trauma from an atheist perspective.

  • The primary concern in this matter should be providing support for the friend who was sexually assaulted. (Yes, that’s right, grabbing someone’s breasts while they are asleep is a form of sexual assault.) Help your friend deal with the emotional trauma surrounding her experience and if possible, report Brad to the appropriate authorities. If he did this to your friend, chances are, he’ll do this again to another girl/woman in the future. He needs to be stopped.

    The issue of your friend questioning her faith is secondary. If she wants to talk about how this experience has caused her to question her religious beliefs, approach the matter as a friend who is trying to lend a supportive, open ear. Richard gave some really great advice to this effect. Do not push an agenda to convert her. Be aware that this has grown out a traumatic experience and being supportive in a way that addresses that experience should be the primary focus. Far too much secrecy and shame exists in our society around the issue of sexual assault.

    Furthermore, questioning one’s faith also comes with the additional burden of loosing the emotional support of one’s faith community, possibly exacerbating feelings of trauma and vulnerability. Again, having a supportive, caring friend is paramount. Be there for her.

  • OverlapingMagisteria

    Robert L. Are you seriously trying to encourage Ashley to pounce in and take advantage of her friend during a vulnerable state? You really want to encourage her family to be torn apart? You want her to actively deceive her parents? For what? Just to score another deconversion?
    I could not read your post without thinking it was some kind of sick joke or that you are a monster.
    Ashley, listen to Richard’s advice and the advice of the rest of the commenters. Be a true friend. That is what Tammy really needs right now and I know you can provide that.

  • Ash

    Ashley, I largely agree with Richard, especially about prioritizing friendship during a rough time. Tammy is clearly going through a traumatizing period and needs a pal she can lean on. It would be wrong to take advantage of that vulnerability.

    That said, there is no reason not to answer any questions she might have honestly. If she asks questions related to faith or reason, you don’t need to be a fence-sitter…tell her what you really think. Be genuine. You don’t need to put down Christianity to do it, either…simply illustrate the power of your reason and clarity in conjunction with your compassion. In other words, you don’t have to talk Tammy out of her faith, but you can provide her a clear and compelling alternative to it.

    And yeah, Brad needs to be held accountable for his actions.

  • Brad needs to be arrested, charged and tried for sexual assault. Period.
    Ashley can do the most good and least harm by being a supporting friend.
    ’nuff said.

  • Tristan Lawksley

    ” Richard, I wish you had put a trigger warning at the top of this post for folks who might have PTSD trigger by reading this post. Bad call not putting it there. I’m reading this at work and I was NOT prepared for the contents of the letter. ” — Phira

    Personal empowerment also includes getting in control of your triggers. As a person who has suffered tremendous losses, destabilizing grief, raging bipolar episodes, and emotional outbursts I’ve learned over the decades to know my triggers, know my moods, and be responsible for how I handle them. If reading about the sexual assault of another person throws you for a loop due to your own history or situations then trigger warnings should be the least of your concerns.

    ” What happened to Tammy is called SEXUAL ASSAULT. It’s illegal and traumatizing. It can make a person feel helpless, lost, out of control, depressed, confused, and/or angry, etc. ” — Phira

    Sexual assault should be reported before Brad decides that everyone is fair game and his behavior deteriorates further. I realize that it may be easier to ignore the occurrence and try to move on but letting an offender off the hook is and should be unacceptable. Yes, it’s harsh, yes it’s traumatizing, and yes it can be hell for the victim but that’s the way it goes — you don’t let people walk away clean to do it to someone else.

    ” Does Tammy want to find ways to renew her faith? Support her. ” — Phira

    While a grand notion I’d find it hard to believe that any Atheist would willingly help someone renew their beliefs in fairy tales. In this case, to say nothing in support of such is truly the best option.

    As for this deconversion nonsense… that’s a line that should be crossed when it comes to people who are in the process of dealing with trauma, abuse, tragedy, or anything else. From personal experience I can tell you in those situations a person already does enough questioning and searching without everyone else telling them what to think about God.

  • Robert Thille

    Nice, her friend Tammy has no problem believing in god when this: happens, but getting felt up while asleep makes her question her faith? Self centered much?

  • ash

    @Tristan; “Personal empowerment also includes getting in control of your triggers.” One of those ways is, when confronted with a trigger warning, deciding if you are in the right frame of mind to cope with a possibly traumatic and reminiscent post instead of accidentally stumbling into it. Congrats to you for dealing with your personal issues, shame on you for never developing enough empathy to realise that different people go through different shit and deal with it in different ways and time-frames.

    Also; “I realize that it may be easier to ignore the occurrence and try to move on but letting an offender off the hook is and should be unacceptable.” What should be unacceptable is the fraction of convictions for sexual assaults that make it to court (never mind even arrest rates), the laughable sentences for those convicted, and the kind of social judgement on the victims that people like you feel free to pass.

  • i’m going to slightly disagree and say that in times like these, a sexual assault survivor could benefit from the healthy and balancing affect of willingness to doubt. i actually have some experience with a similar situation, and while i counseled my friend in her time of deep emotional upset and in a complete non-hostile way let her express her thoughts about religion and doubt, i did maintain a firm line as an atheist. she would say things like “i’ve been reading about this woo from this guy who sells books and is in the NYT religion pages, it only partially comforts me.” and i’d say “you can be satisfied with yourself and your life, and take positive action; that ability is within you right now” because i wanted her to be strong enough to do everything she had to do in that period. which was tough and a lot and involved things like pain and death.

    in the end, she came around to full on atheism. she let go well in time to be the pillar she had to be. i never said “religion is stupid” but i did say “you are strong, you have your own power” a lot, passively taking away agency or supposed reality of woo.

  • mjatheist

    @ Robert Thille;

    You, sir, are a vile asshole. The girl in question is 15! She wasn’t even alive when that picture was taken, and I find it highly unlikely that her religious parents will have educated her on how evil the world can be. Even if she knows about situations like those, it will have been couched in terms of “the devil caused all that suffering, not God”. In addition, what happened to her was sexual assault, and using terms like “felt-up while asleep”, is rape-apologist bullshit. You need to look very hard at yourself to determine why you feel the need to abusively rip into a teenage girl over being upset at the violation she was subjected to.

  • She can’t see why this would happen to her, especially right after days and days spent praying. She doesn’t understand why a fellow Christian would ever do something like that.

    Perhaps that is what Christian heaven is like. An eternal grope.

  • Senpai

    @ Robert L = You are a monster for wanting Ashley to deconvert Tammy. I will not allow atheism to be hijacked by the likes of you who wish to indoctrinate vulnerable individuals. Atheism is about free thought.

    @ Robert Thille = Your post is completely irrelevant. Go take your pity party somewhere it might actually make a difference. Tammy is in no way self-centered for having questions about her faith.

    @ Everybody = The point of Ashley’s letter was to ask advice about how to handle the situation regarding her friend’s struggle with faith. As an atheist and a friend Ashley was looking for advice on how to best approach the situation without compromising her friendship or beliefs. That said, we do not know whether or not Brad the individual who sexually harassed Tammy has been dealt with. We can make no assumptions either way.

    @ Ask Richard = I agree with the majority of the commenters that the issue of Brad sexually harassing Tammy should have received more acknowledgment in your reply. Ashley and her friend Tammy are minors, who have limited life experience, and because of this it is our responsibility as adults to inform them of their rights and encourage them to report the incident to the authorities.

  • John

    @Both Roberts: you’re assholes, plain and simple.

  • e-man

    We all have hot buttons. It’s important to keep in mind the boy you’ve demonized is likely 15 years old or so. He may not have known she was asleep, he may have thought they had a mutually developing sharing going on or he could have been taking advantage –
    He may feel a great deal of shame and embarrassment and feel betrayed himself.. they are kids this is all new.. he may not be the devil. The trauma of being told you’ve been traumatized can be more damaging then the trauma.
    The situation with the other aspects of it should be discussed with compassion and understanding and an eye towards hearing peoples stories and learning from them – so everyone can learn and feel more empowered and unified.

  • Nakor

    We all know that the things closest to us affect us most. Nobody is an asshole for caring more about the starving members of their family than for the staving people across the world. Nobody is an asshole for caring more about stopping their son from being indoctrinated than about religious law in the middle east.

    Nobody is an asshole for being traumatized by a sexual assault just because of starving kids across the world. Not. Even. Close.

    Maybe if there really did exist some objective being outside the situation with the ability to stop either, they would have to make the decision of saving a person’s life in Africa or stopping a sexual assault in the states. And maybe for them the life would be more important, and maybe that’s okay. But humans are subjective creatures with emotions and feeling and pain.

    OF COURSE she was traumatized, nobody wouldn’t be! And that the trauma brought her faith into question is hardly a surprise! Things close to home hit you harder — things done to you hit you hardest. That’s true for everyone, period. To claim she is self-centred simply because being sexually assaulted made her question the existence of a god that would allow such things to happen is heartless and apathetic.


    I agree mostly with Richard here. This is not the time to try to deconvert your friend, this is the time to be there for whatever she needs. If she asks why this happened, you needn’t really say more than that Brad is an asshole. If she asks why God would allow it, you needn’t say more than “I don’t know.” What you do need to do, more than anything is just be there.

    Regarding pressing charges, I would encourage you to suggest it, but I wouldn’t push the issue. Even if, as some above have said, pressing charges takes priority, trying to force her into it is just going to make things worse, and make it less likely that she actually will. If she wants to, then yes, do it! If not, lay off, and in time, when she’s feeling better, maybe she will be better prepared for something like that.

    Now, you mentioned “Brad’s further attempts to contact her.” THAT needs to stop. Now. Posthaste. The last thing she needs while trying to get over this is the culprit trying to press her into staying with the church, or for that matter, talking to her in ANY way other than getting down on his knees, giving a real apology, and then leaving. Somehow I doubt you’ll get that, so best just to be rid of him. If asking nicely doesn’t cut it, and going through his parents doesn’t help, then you might want to consider more legal means of doing so.

    In the mean time, I wish you and your friend the best and then some. These things take time, but they do pass. And it sounds like you genuinely care — that is perhaps the most important thing for a situation like this. Best wishes.

  • Tristan Lawksley

    ” One of those ways is, when confronted with a trigger warning, deciding if you are in the right frame of mind to cope with a possibly traumatic and reminiscent post instead of accidentally stumbling into it. ” — Ash

    As I said, if you fall apart after reading about the things others face and become a human equivalent of soup then you have bigger problems than triggers. Then again, state of mind is everything — Personally I don’t have to ” adjust ” my frame of mind to do anything. It’s a matter of opinion regardless.

    ” Shame on you for never developing enough empathy to realise that different people go through different shit and deal with it in different ways and time-frames. ” — Ash

    Oh I realize it, I’m just not lenient with my empathy. I save it for when it matters. When it comes to the issue of ” triggers ” it’s not warranted, in my opinion.

    ” What should be unacceptable is the fraction of convictions for sexual assaults that make it to court (never mind even arrest rates), the laughable sentences for those convicted, and the kind of social judgement on the victims that people like you feel free to pass. ” — Ash

    I’m not going to comment on the arrest rates, the sentencing the offenders receive, or the social judgments ( I’ve never experienced or seen it first hand. ) that take place. What I will tell you is that I only pass judgment on people who fail or refuse to report predators and crimes — especially when it comes to sex based crimes. If that makes me one of the so-called ” those ” people then so be it.

  • Drew M.

    Awesome advice as usual, Richard.

  • Rollingforest

    I think that Ashley needs to make clear to Tammy that what Brad did was a problem with Brad, not with Christianity. If Tammy can separate the issues of believing in God and trusting her church community, then they can talk about the issue of religion. But if Tammy considers a loss of trust in her church community as proof in and of itself that God isn’t real, then it would be wrong to take advantage of that fallacy to Ashley’s own benefit.

    I agree that adults need to be alerted about what Brad did and that some punishment needs to be given. It doesn’t necessarily need to involve the police and if it does I hope that he is given the proper punishment considering his crime and his age. I wouldn’t support putting him, a 15 year old who groped another 15 year old, on the same sexual predator list as a 40 year old who raped a toddler, as the current American system seems to do, but some punishment should be given. At the very least, we need to give him good reason never to do it again, either because he realized what he did was wrong or because he fears further punishment.

    Also, I don’t mean to be insensitive but why are we focused on putting trigger warnings for issues of sexual assault but not for issues of death, disasters, or disease? Sexual assault is not the only thing that can traumatize a person. I feel like we should put trigger warnings for every type of trauma or none.

    Also Ash said, “What should be unacceptable is the fraction of convictions for sexual assaults that make it to court (never mind even arrest rates), the laughable sentences for those convicted, and the kind of social judgment on the victims that people like you feel free to pass.”

    Keep in mind that many forms of sexual assault, including the one described in the letter, leave no physical evidence. So if you were going strictly by “innocent until proven guilty” then no date rape or sexual assault would ever be successfully convicted because there would be no evidence to prove it and it would just turn into a he said/she said situation. Obviously throwing out every sexual assault accusation for lack of proof isn’t a viable option, but then the court case turns into somewhat of a guessing game as to who is guilty and who is innocent. Unfortunately, that is the way it is and there is no way around it. By very definition, there will be a lot of guilty men set free and a lot of innocent men put in jail.

  • altar ego

    “It’s important to keep in mind the boy you’ve demonized is likely 15 years old or so…”

    Bullshit. He knew what he was doing was wrong, especially if he spent so much time in a church, where he was likely taught about how awful icky sexual things are. The real victim is Tammy.

    Is there anything to suggest that Tammy’s parents are aware of Brad’s sexually assaulting her? It seems odd that they would place the blame on Ashley if they knew about the assault.

    Either way, just be supportive of Tammy. I don’t know how successful pressing charges would be, as there is no physical evidence. But be supportive of her whatever she wants to do–be there for her to talk to. Answer her questions about atheism. Sounds like you’re already being a great friend. And make sure she knows the assault is not her fault in any way.

    @ Rollingforest: to my knowledge, trigger warnings usually include a description of what the trigger would be. For example: “Trigger warning for graphic descriptions of violence/combat/sexual assault.” I think trigger warnings are good to have. If you don’t need one, great. You read a total of 5 more words than you would have otherwise. Get over it. But some people do need and appreciate them.

    Also, seconding what phira and Nakor said!

  • ash


    As I said, if you fall apart after reading about the things others face and become a human equivalent of soup then you have bigger problems than triggers.

    You got the point but somehow missed it. If it wasn’t for the bigger problems, there would be no triggers. I’m curious as to why you find trigger warnings (as altar ego puts it, those ‘5 more words’) so objectionable that you had to comment on it, especially since you personally don’t find them relevant, but oh well.


    I don’t mean to be insensitive but why are we focused on putting trigger warnings for issues of sexual assault but not for issues of death, disasters, or disease?

    If you’d used graphic violence, say, you’d’ve had a point. Death, disaster + disease can and do happen to everyone, and no other person is necessarily involved. Sexual assault and violence are things intentionally inflicted on a person by someone else. By conflating these two things, there is a worrying connotation (not accusing you of making it BTW) that sexual assault + violence are both normal and to be expected.

    Your last paragraph overlooks the fact that I specifically discounted accusations and focused on conviction rates and punishment. A case generally does not even make it to court if it’s merely ‘he said/she said’. Which makes conviction rates…disturbing.

  • Richard Wade


    I think that Ashley needs to make clear to Tammy that what Brad did was a problem with Brad, not with Christianity. If Tammy can separate the issues of believing in God and trusting her church community, then they can talk about the issue of religion. But if Tammy considers a loss of trust in her church community as proof in and of itself that God isn’t real, then it would be wrong to take advantage of that fallacy to Ashley’s own benefit.

    Ashley is a fifteen-year-old atheist born into an atheist family. She has said that she has no previous experience with religion or religious people. She has no qualifications for dissecting such a distinction so that Tammy can start doubting or reinforcing her faith for the “right” reasons, and she has no qualifications or responsibility to intervene to prevent Tammy from doubting or reinforcing her faith for the “wrong” reasons.

    Ashley has said that while she would prefer that Tammy reject her religion, she doesn’t want to take advantage of Tammy in her vulnerable state. Her question is an ethical question. In my opinion, her best course is to follow Primum non nocere, First, do no harm.

    Ashley needs to simply support Tammy emotionally and to be a sounding board for whatever she needs to discuss, whether it’s Brad, or God, or her church, or whatever. When and if Tammy asks Ashley for her view or opinion, she should give it honestly, but as the opinion of a fifteen-year-old with no religious experience and no psychological expertise. To delve into areas where she has no experience or expertise would run a good chance of doing harm.

    From the hundreds of stories I’ve read, and many people with whom I’ve spoken, it seems to me that most people begin their journey away from their religion of origin long before they become conscious of it. The precipitating event that brings the already-in-progress process to the surface is not the original cause. So if that event is mistakenly assumed to be the original cause, it can seem to be an illogical or insufficient reason to begin to doubt one’s beliefs.

    So while the incident with Brad started Tammy talking about her dwindling faith, I think it’s likely that is not where or when the dwindling began.

  • Moose



    That’s all I can say.

  • J

    First of all I want to commend Ashley for being so concerned with doing right by her friend. I would say this is absolutely not a time to try to sway Tammy one way or the other on religion.

    The assault really needs to be addressed though. I think its very important that Ashely encourage Tammy to at least talk to her parents about what happened with Brad. When I was in high school I was assaulted by a boy who was a school/church friend who had become very close to me and my family. I didn’t know how to explain to my parents what this boy, who was practically one of the family, had done to me. It took me over a year to talk to anyone about it. When I stopped attending church and church activities, they started inviting him over more hoping he’d be a “good influence on me”. I finally convinced them to stop bringing him over, without really having to explain why (though i think my mother suspected). In college while talking to a few of my girlfriends for high school I discovered he had done the same thing to at least 3 other girls. One before me and two after. By not coming forward with what happened to me, I enabled him attacking two other girls. I promise that’s not something Tammy wants on her conscience at any point.

    Point being, talking to her family about it makes it possible for them to get her any help she needs dealing with the issue, keeps them from unknowingly making the situation worse, and can keep this from happening to other girls. I really feel for Tammy, but it seems like Ashley is a caring and supportive friend who will help her through this difficult time.

  • Tristan Lawksley

    ” I’m curious as to why you find trigger warnings so objectionable that you had to comment on it, especially since you personally don’t find them relevant. ” — Ash

    What I found objectionable was Phira calling Richard out for not using them. This is an advice column — not your mental illness forum where people constantly share their stories that may or may not be full of triggers. On an advice column anything could be considered a trigger. As such, if you are concerned about where or not something may trigger you then you need to be prepared for it. Chastising someone for not looking out for your triggers is not only illogical but utter nonsense.

    As far as relevancy — triggers have no relevancy for me because I’ve learned to face my personal issues and deal with them. I carry them and if something is said by someone that triggers me I deal with it. What I don’t do is sit around crying because someone with no knowledge of me triggered a painful memory.

    That said, I don’t know you. I don’t know your past. I don’t know what issues you have or don’t have. I don’t know that I’m going to set off one of your triggers with something I write/say. Neither does anyone else. Would you rather everyone walk on broken glass around you in insane attempt to not trigger you ( Again, I’m referring to people who have no knowledge of your issues. ), or would you rather prepare yourself for a life where triggers happen? Personally I think if you need to walk through life with flashing neon warning signs then it might be time to seriously consider in-patient services because its apparent you’re not ready to deal with the world.

    The day I, as a bipolar, put any responsibility of my mental illness’ and issues on the shoulders of everyone else I encounter is the day I need to be confined to a mental institution.

  • Robert L.

    Dear goodness. You call me an asshole? Well, I’m an asshole who’s taking one bite out of organised religion at a time. Can any of you be said to have done that? As Richard has pointed out, the Xtians do that. In my opinion, if we don’t get everyone we can, then we lose the opportunity to save people. Not by “bringing them to the light” or whatever it’s called, but rather by showing them the light. We’re on the side that is right and rational, because we know there is no supernatural power. It is unethical to let people live life believing in a lie when the truth can free them from restraint.

    As to the point on breaking up the family, that’s more to do with the fact that I don’t subscribe to morals but rather a code of personal ethics:

    1) Don’t harm innocents and children
    2) Don’t break the law
    3) Do anything else you want to that doesn’t contravene the first two

    In this case, the parents are actively in the wrong, and clearly placing conditional love on their child if she is rebuked for deviating from Christianity. They are harming a person who is essentially an innocent victim, and they are clearly not innocent. It is better to get rational people out from under the thumb of these irrational religious people, even if the methods involved include deceit; the ends justify the means when the people harmed deserve it. If Tammy is convinced that breaking up with her parents is the right thing to do, and Ashley or another close atheist friend helps assure her she isn’t guilty, then she wouldn’t suffer too much. If she continues to stay in that domineering environment, that would be worse.

    I agree, though, that Brad should be brought to justice. If Tammy doesn’t want to make the report to the police, perhaps she could do it to a responsible adult, or her parents; if it is the latter, they might even be more amenable and understanding to her deconversion to atheism if they see her as a victim.

  • Jill

    I agree with Richard. She needs a friend with no agenda – just being a friend regardless of where she goes with this.

  • Staceyjw

    That Ashley is even asking this question shows a fundamental difference between atheists and xtians. Can you imagine a xtian wondering if this is a good time to try to talk Jesus or convert someone? HAHAHAHA. They PREY on the vulnerable and people at their weakest- how else could you convince people of such nonsense?

    While there are always outliers, converting the vulnerable is a main tenant of xtianity, while thinking and deciding while stable is the atheist position (in general, I know there is no actual belief).

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