Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I just stumbled across your site a couple hours ago and have been reading your Ask Richard articles and I thought maybe you could help me. I am not quite an atheist, but I am close. I don’t believe any religions have it right from what little knowledge I have of them, but I still can’t help but think there must be a god or some other force at work. I am the youngest of 4 (I am 31 years old right now) and my brother is an atheist, but my sisters are quite religious. My oldest sister has recently gotten my mother hooked on her religion (Baptist) to the point where it’s annoying. Whenever I am around them, I am bombarded with their religious beliefs. I haven’t been very clear about my beliefs with them since I really don’t know what I believe right now. I think that they think I might be atheist, but I’m not sure since I try not to discuss it with them. I don’t know what I should do. I’m wondering if I should maybe read up on all the different religions just to have something to back up my thoughts. I have no clue where I would start that process though. I imagine it would take a long time to read all that stuff. To top it all off, I am horrible at arguing. I have a hard time getting my point across. Just writing this email has been a challenge. Do you have any thoughts on what I should do? I’m sorry about how long this email has been, but like I said, I’m no good at this stuff 🙂
I think the first thing you should become very clear about is that you don’t have to justify anything about yourself to anybody. You don’t have to even reveal anything about yourself to anybody. You don’t have to explain, defend or excuse how unsettled and vague your beliefs currently are. You don’t have to please theists or atheists. If anybody has a problem with where you are right now, that’s their problem, not yours.
If you’re not good at arguing, you don’t have to argue. If being bombarded by your sisters’ and mother’s beliefs is annoying, you don’t have to sit there taking it. Quietly walk out and find something more pleasant to do.
If someone confronts you with a challenge to argue about your beliefs, you have every right to calmly, politely, but firmly say something like, “I’m not interested in discussing that. Let’s talk about _____ instead.” If they persist, asking why you don’t want to talk about it, just repeat your response, word-for-word, more quietly and slowly until they give up.
Accept yourself exactly as you are right now, which includes the desire to change. You don’t have to become stronger, or more confident, or more knowledgeable, or better skilled at something first, and only accept yourself after some kind of successful confrontation with someone else. Politely refusing to play someone else’s game is perfectly legitimate. No explanation, justification, or excuse is required. Paradoxically, such permission-to-be-you can have an effect of gradually giving you more self confidence and the ability to change.
If you want to educate yourself about religions and about freethinking, do so just for your own interest and for your own comfort. You don’t ever have to prepare for “belief combat” with someone else. Many people on blogs such as this love arguing. Some have samurai-like skills, while others just like to brawl. But that’s not the only way to participate. You can share your ideas and views, but if sparring isn’t your sport, you can skip that.
I mentioned educating yourself for your own comfort because I get the impression that just within yourself, you are uncomfortable with things being unresolved. Doubt and uncertainty are the very healthy “discomforts” of thoughtful people, so never be entirely free of them. They help to keep us honest, humble and human, and they help to keep us inquiring.
You don’t have to be a dedicated scholar while learning about these things. Enjoy the process, take your time, and don’t make it a chore. General works on comparative religion for the layperson might be a good place to start. Include a collection of ancient mythology. Myths can be fun to read just for their own sake. If books are discouragingly too long, (as they are for me with my snail’s pace reading speed) essays can be very efficient at crystallizing ideas for a searcher who is in the fog. For insights about atheism, try old classic essays like Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, or The Gods By Robert Green Ingersoll or many of his other remarkable essays.
Here and on other websites you can also begin to learn about yourself from others’ stories that resemble yours. While your path in many ways is unique to you, it also is very much the same as the paths that other people have walked before you. Some of those people might introduce themselves here today…
Being able to talk openly with someone about your unanswered questions and under-construction ideas can be very helpful, but it’s easier with someone who is not invested in getting you to eventually think what they think. Such people can be rare, but they do exist. They just want to help you find whatever you’re looking for. They care about you, rather than about your conclusions.
I don’t get the impression that your sisters and mother would be able to be that free of agendas. Generally, very religious people are “under orders” to turn everybody else into very religious people. Your atheist brother might be able to accept you as you are and as you will be, but sometimes people just can’t get their own preferences out of the way. Perhaps someone who is not part of the family would be able to be impartial.
By the way, even though you said that writing your email was a challenge, It is clear and concise, and it portrays your feelings well, in a way that makes it easy to care about you. So you already have good expressive skills; it just gets easier with practice. Keep coming to sites like this, and share your reactions to things with your comments a little at a time.
There are many other readers lurking out there who feel as undecided as you do. You’re all welcome. Hi there! Say hello! Some of the more outspoken people here might want you to eventually see things as they do, but they’ll generally be up front and honest about it. You don’t have to argue with them; just take what works for you, and keep thinking. Others like myself will only want whatever helps you to discover you, with no agenda for you to agree with any particular view. Agreement is not important. Only understanding is.
Erik, I hope that we hear from you on this site as you gradually feel comfortable to express yourself, and as you gradually see yourself more clearly. The people who are in flux, in process, in transition to wherever they’re going can add vitality to our discussions.