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