This letter is from the Philippines, but it is worthwhile reading for anyone because the issues apply almost anywhere. Whether they live in the South or Midwest United States, the Philippines, Brazil, Ghana, or Iran, young people living wherever religion has an iron grip on the minds of the general populace will recognize the challenges facing this young woman. In our struggle for acceptance, respect and justice, we have brothers and sisters around the world.
Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
“Finally an adult, but I still have no voice.”
I’ve recently turned 18 years old, but I have pretty much known most my life that I didn’t believe in God. Heck, I knew I didn’t believe in God even before I knew that was even possible. I live in a very Catholic country (The Philippines) and though my family is not very religious, they are religious enough to know for a fact that God is real and God is good. I have attended Catholic school my entire life (even my current university is Catholic), but I still do not feel this connection with God that most people have. I go to mass but I feel like I’m just taking up the space of someone who actually wants to be there. It feels wrong, for me, to go to mass and pretend to believe in something I absolutely do not care for. I even kneel and go to communion, and it feels so wrong! I want to stop.
Most of my friends (save maybe 2 or 3) are quite religious and are very uncomfortable with the idea of atheism. I tell no one at all that I am an atheist, except for those who tell me that they are atheists first. I don’t want to make my friends uncomfortable, or give them any reason to dislike me, so I just keep my mouth shut. Some of them are so extreme as to even dislike cursing, which is very difficult for me!
The whole point of this is, I am sick of staying in the shadows. I want people to know and respect me for my lack of faith, but I don’t know how to pull it off. I don’t know how I can keep the respect my friends and family have for me. I am afraid of losing my friends. I am especially afraid of my father, who is quite hot-headed and closed-minded.
Do you think I should just stay quiet or let them know?
The age of majority in the Philippines is 18, so just as you say you are legally an adult. But like young adults all around the world, until you are financially independent from your parents, just as you say you won’t fully have your voice. Your freedom to express yourself can be limited. At any stage of your life there will be consequences for coming out as an atheist, but the consequences can be severe if your family threatens to withdraw their help for your food, housing, or education in an attempt to pressure you to continue practicing their religion.
This kind of tactic downright silly, since no amount of coercion will ever result in sincere and genuine belief. At most, it can only force a resentful pretense, and it just deepens your conviction that it is all a sham. Yet parents try this often. I wonder if some of them know they can’t compel authentic faith, but just want to keep up appearances in the eyes of their extended family and the community.
My general advice for any young person in your position is this: Before you do any self-disclosure of your atheism, carefully and discretely assess any risk to you physically, financially, and socially, in that order.
The physical risk might come from your “hot-headed and closed-minded” father. It’s certainly not conclusive from just that description that he would be capable of violence, but it’s important to weigh the likelihood from your experience.
The second assessment would be for your financial risk. This usually involves a lot of guesswork. Use your overall impression of how your parents or other authority figures in your family deal with conflicts. Do they reason, argue and negotiate, or do they coerce, intimidate and punish? If a roof over your head, or a meal on your table, or the next semester in your university is in jeopardy, then keep quiet to them, and bide your time. Since your family is apparently not very devout but they are adamant about the existence of God, you might be able to negotiate skipping mass, but dropping the “A-bomb,” telling them that you’re an atheist, might not be prudent.
One other complication can be if you have younger siblings. You might not face physical or financial intimidation, or you might be willing to endure it. However, if you reveal your atheism, your younger brothers or sisters might come under increased scrutiny or pressure to “not be like their atheist sister.” You can’t necessarily make all your decisions for their sakes, but it’s just one more wrinkle to keep in mind.
Finally there’s your social risk. Begin by nurturing and strengthening your friendships with the two or three friends you mentioned who are not religious, and find new nonreligious friends. Before you tell anyone about your atheism, make sure they are discreet, that they know how to keep a secret without any exceptions. It is possible that some of your more religious friends will reject you if they find out, or you’ll simply drift apart because you cannot be fully yourself around them.
It’s important to have control over exactly when, how and with whom you share your non-belief. If you want to write about your views about religion on Facebook or some other social media, make certain that you cannot be identified. These are very efficient privacy-destroying devices. Many young people inadvertently “out” themselves before they’re ready by foolishly assuming that their Facebook “friends” are going to know that some information is not to be repeated, or that their parents won’t visit their page. Use a pseudonym when you comment on blogs like this. Do not use an avatar with your face, and give no clue to your identity. Erase your browser history every time you leave your computer. Assume that people will snoop.
You’re in luck. The Philippines has a very vital, active and courageous society of atheists called the Filipino Freethinkers. They’re young, strong, determined and bright. Last April, in support of women’s rights and secular sex education for the public, they took on the Catholic Church’s 16-year long blockage of the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill. For two years I have been impressed and inspired by them. Here is their Facebook page as well. There is also the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society, PATAS. Both of these groups know what you’re going through. They’ll reach out to you.
Find them, and find your voice with them. They might not be physically close enough to meet them face-to-face, but an online support group of people who care about you as an individual can be of tremendous value. They can get you through the next few years as you build your independence and start using your voice in broader areas. I wish you all the best in your efforts, and I hope that you can enjoy happy and eventually fully honest relationships with your family and friends.