Ask Richard: Atheist’s Parents Keep “Magic of Reality” from Younger Brother January 9, 2012

Ask Richard: Atheist’s Parents Keep “Magic of Reality” from Younger Brother

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

Dear Richard,

I’m the only out atheist in my family. We have the occasional argument or discussion but for the most part we all agree to try and be respectful. Tonight that all seems to have fallen apart, and I’m a little torn on how to proceed.

I just finished reading Dawkins’ newest book, The Magic of Reality and I decided that I wanted to share it with my younger brother since he is who the book is aimed at. He’s in high school and home-schooled with a fundamental Christian curriculum, so his “science” books teach a literal view of Genesis, and they generally teach anything but actual science. I know that my little brother is interested in possibly going to medical school one day and that he has a general interest in the scientific field, even if he isn’t exactly vocal about it. When he asks me questions I have the bad habit of explaining things in terms he can’t completely understand. So I was pretty ecstatic to share with him the knowledge in Dawkins’ book.

However, my mother found the book and took it away from him before he could even get started. She returned it to me without a word but instead with a note telling me “Not now. Maybe when he’s 18 but certainly not now.” I honestly can’t describe how I felt reading and rereading that note: angry, surprised, disappointed, in denial…

She knows that I left religion behind because science explained the world in much more complex but beautiful ways. I think that she is afraid that if my brother starts to read and understand things in the same way I did, that he’ll eventually leave religion behind too. She believes that he’s been called to ministry since he was a child but I know my little brother and he has no interest in being a missionary or pastor.

Unfortunately, I let my emotions take control and my mother and I had a fight about her taking the book away, but we eventually reached a compromise I’m not happy about: She’ll read the book and then decide if he can handle it. I get the sinking feeling that she’ll decide he can’t no matter what and that breaks my heart for a multitude of reasons.

As an undergraduate science major, I want nothing more than to show my brother that the world is a grand and wonderful place, that the knowledge of how it all works is out there even though it might be hard to comprehend at times. I want to encourage him, not to abandon his beliefs, but to look at the world with a skeptical eye and to learn as much as he can. I want to do all I can to keep encouraging him because I can see the beginnings of that mindset taking root.

I have my own apartment while I’m away at college so I can’t always be around to talk to him. I love my family but how do I even begin to try and help my brother to think rationally when he lives with parents who seem to believe they can dictate what he reads, learns, and believes? And how do I help my parents understand that the words in a book shouldn’t be a frightening thing, that they shouldn’t take away the opportunity for him to learn and make decisions for himself?


Dear Victor,

When people are shown the apple of knowledge and then it is forbidden to them, they become much more interested in eating it.

Now that your brother has seen the book and it has been forbidden to him, he’s much more likely to be curious about it. In his mind, the issue is no longer whether or not it’s a useful or appropriate book. Now it is part of a conflict between his freedom and his mother’s control of his freedom. Teenagers are naturally in this conflict with their parents all the time. It’s called individuation, part of their healthy development. Now science and critical thinking will be one of the areas where that struggle is acted out.

Dawkins’ book is a very good tool, but your relationship with your brother will be much more important to help him become a free thinking person. It will be at times a delicate balance between expressing what you would prefer him to do and honoring his freedom:

Show him your letter. Show him that you favor his having freedom to think for himself, that you value his intelligence, and you have confidence in his ability to handle new ideas. At the same time, make it clear to him that you love him for himself, rather than for what opinions he holds. You want him to become his own full self whatever that may be, rather than becoming only what will please you, or his parents, or anyone else.

When he asks you a question, Don’t “sell” your scientific viewpoint over the religious viewpoint. Just try to answer his question from your understanding. If you think you’ll get over his head, tell him you’ll brush up on it and get back to him soon with a more understandable answer. That will send him the message that his question deserves a worthy response. That message is as important as the answer itself, because it encourages his curiosity. By the way, taking the time to compose a simpler answer will greatly enhance your own understanding of whatever the subject is. As Einstein said, ”You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”

Develop an online relationship with him via email. Facebook is not private. While you’re away at college, communicate with him on a regular basis. Tell him of your own challenges and conflicts, your own ups and downs. This will give him permission and a sense of safety to be candid with you in return. Older brothers and sisters occupy a unique position; they’re neither parent nor friend, but someone who can have the best qualities of both.

I wouldn’t call the outcome from the fight you had with your mother a “compromise,” because there wasn’t a mutual give-and-take. Hopefully it was not just a way for her to postpone a flat refusal. Give her a reasonable amount of time, and then without a tone of nagging, ask her if she has looked at the book, and ask what she thinks about it. Perhaps you can start a dialogue between the two of you about it, even if she is still afraid to let your brother read it. Sometimes small steps can reach goals when bold leaps are too scary.

When talking to your mother, you must keep your emotions under control. The virtues of rationalism are not well demonstrated if you lose your temper, and the other person will probably not be swayed by even the most cool-headed rational persuasion if they’ve already lost their temper. Giving you that note about the book suggests that she is uncomfortable with speaking to you directly about such matters because the feelings are too tense. You can begin to relax those feelings between you if you understand her emotional motive.

I think your assessment is correct, she’s afraid. Keeping that in mind can help you to respond with compassion and patience rather than with anger. She sees her sons growing up in a world that is no longer interested in her cherished beliefs. One son has already rejected them, and the other might be showing similar signs. Her fantasy about him going into ministry is comforting to her, but it will probably be self-defeating in the end because she’s paying attention to her desires rather than to his.

You both have fear for your brother’s fate. She handles her fear by trying to overprotect and control him. Make sure you don’t try to overprotect and control him in your own way. As an adolescent, it is part of his nature to resist others’ attempts to mold him to their wishes, both hers and yours. In the end, the one who will be the most influential to him will probably be the one who gave him the most encouragement to find his own way.

He’s a very lucky young man to have a big brother such as you. I hope that everyone in your family can find ways to live in harmony and to keep expressing their love for each other despite differences in their beliefs. This is a time in history when enormous numbers of families are going through the changes and conflicts that you are experiencing. You’re certainly not alone.


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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  • Heidi

    All other issues aside, I really hope their mother actually reads the book. She sounds like she needs to hear the information inside it even more than the little brother does.

    Good luck, Victor. Maybe your mom will end up learning a thing or two in this process.

  • Rich Wilson

    TMOR is a great book , but it’s not the only book out there.  Maybe there are some other books out there that wouldn’t raise a red flag with mom?  I haven’t read it myself, so I’m not sure how applicable the level, but perhaps 

    And does your brother have any un-monitored access to the internet? Khan academy?

  • guest

    Coming from a background similar to the letter writer, I have to say that in many conservative homeschooling Christian families, it simply isn’t the case that teenagers are in the process of differentiating themselves from their parents, because in many instances they haven’t been given the tools or the space to do this. Also, the emotional and practical consequences of any true differentiation can be so severe that it occurs very belatedly, if at all.

    Also, if his situation is anything like mine, the letter writer’s ability to privately communicate with his brother may be severely limited. I know that in my own case, my parents control all avenues of control between my teen-aged siblings and everyone they interact with. They do not have private email addresses, they are not left unsupervised with friends, and they don’t engage in any activities that my parents don’t keep close tabs on. Also, I know that even the most tactful broaching of my views with my siblings could easily result in my parents restricting my access to them, because my parents believe that their parental duty is to shelter them from “sinful” thought processes that could “tempt” them away from the “truth”. It’s a sad state of affairs, one that is only complicated by the fact that in many ways my parents are loving, well-intentioned, compassionate people.

    On the bright side, I absolutely agree that keeping one’s emotions in check and trying to stay compassionate and patient is the best path forward in relationships like these.  And I think tiny, tiny baby steps are the key. It just might be a long time before you can really talk to your brother about these things.

  • guest

    oops–that should be “control all aspects of *communication*”

  • guest

    I’m full of typos today. It should be “control all *avenues* of *communication*” 🙂

  • What’s really shocking is that the parents are censoring the reading material of a teenage boy in high school. It’s not like we’re talking about a five-year-old here. I can just imagine my reaction as a teenager if my parents had tried to stop me from reading a book. I was an atheist kid who devoured everything I brought home from the library or ordered through the Scholastic book club. That included books about Christianity and many other religions. What are fundamentalist parents so afraid of? I think I know the answer, and it has to do with mind control. Better not let the children know there are competing views, or they might start to think for themselves.

  • sky

    Heidi , that’s what I was thinking. Wouldn’t that be cool if his Mom became atheist

  • Trina

    Both a good question and a good response to it.   ‘Guest,’ I really appreciate your take on this, also.

  • Just a question: Who’s paying for the writer’s college education?

  • Parse

    Honestly, I’d be surprised if Victor’s mother actually reads the book before returning it, or just skims it until she finds objectionable content.    But then again, I’m in a cynical mood today.

    In keeping with that cynical state of mind, I wonder if Victor too was homeschooled, or if his mother decided to homeschool the brother because of Victor’s coming out?  That would say a bundle about whether or not his brother would eventually receive the book.

  • Heidi

    Yes, that would be fantastic!

  • Anonymous

    “As Einstein said, ”You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.””

    First of all, I have VERY serious doubts that Einstein ever said such a thing and secondly, the idea that by definition a grandmother is only going to understand the simplest of explanations is so ridiculous — I guess you’ll have to explain it to me in words of one or two syllables. (I’m 70, NOT stupid.)

  • Anonymous

    I’d also try other books that might not set off red flags.

    For instance, I recently read a book called The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York about the coroner/medical examiner in New York City during Prohibition. Interesting stuff about chemistry and employing the scientific method to determine how different chemicals affect the human body. Another could be Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Here’s the bookshelf of a science & inquiry reading group on Goodreads for more suggestions:

    Get your brother to read as much as possible: science, history, anthropology, fiction. It really is the best antidote to an isolated upbringing and indoctrination.

  • Parents will never learn.  That book is now on his “to read” list as soon as he has the opportunity.  The summer after I graduated high school and left home I read every book they’d told me not to read. By the time I got finished with my “to read” list, my parents wished they’d never denied me those cheesy Harlequin romance novels.

  • The very oft-quoted statement does appear in the “misattributed” section of this wikiquotes site,  so, absent future citations that would confirm it was Einstein’s, I give my apologies.  I too was a little uncomfortable with the implication about older people, but then there’s the problem of paraphrasing a popular quotation and somebody saying
    that I’d plagiarized it. Sheesh.

    Nevertheless, I think the idea of deeper understanding of a topic being indicated by the ability to explain it in simple terms is a useful concept.

  • The Other Tom

    Sometimes you have to live with the fact that a parent has total control of their kids until the kids are 18. Victor’s mom is being fantastically rude to take away Victor’s book from his brother, and doing a horrifying job of mothering to keep her younger child from learning about science, but unfortunately any court would let her do it.

    So the only real choice is to let her, and if she won’t let the kid read the book, make sure he gets it on his 18th birthday, and make sure she understands how badly she has ruined her children’s trust in her through her despicable actions.

    And as Heidi says above, maybe the mom will actually learn something. We can only hope.

  • Uly

    Not just censoring it now, but suggesting that they’ll continue censoring it once he’s a legal adult. “Maybe” when he’s 18? Screw ’em!

  • I grew up with fundamentalist parents and was homeschooled, and I have to say, censoring teenagers’ reading material is just par for the course in that community. 

  • This. This is me too, exactly. I was never allowed to be a teenager, to differentiate, to explore. It wasn’t part of the fundamentalist homeschooling program. That had to wait for college and beyond. 

  • Baloo

    To take a page from  creationists.Teach both sides and let the children decide

  • Anonymous

    I agree.  Maybe she is seeing “Richard Dawkins” and imagining some atheist conspiracy.  Pick up some other popular science books aimed at teens like those by Brian Cox or Richard Attenborough (or ones about dinosaurs) and pass them on.  What kind of mom could turn down a book with Brian Cox on the cover?

  • T-Rex

    If you could afford it, I’d have your brother move in with you. You need to get him out of that atmosphere ASAP. Your mother “believes” that your brother was called to ministry since he was a child? How about, she “wants’ him to enter the ministry because her first offspring has “lost his way” and she doesn’t want both sons burning in a lake of fire for eternity. Sorry, but that whole scenario just gives me the creeps. Sounds like a house of horrors and ignorance to me. Glad you were able to escape it. I hope you can save your brother. Good luck.

  • Nude0007

    suggestion: get an audio book of it and tell him you will leave it in a place he can get to it, cautioning him against letting his mother know.  That makes it his decision, you just provide access, and his mom can’t catch him reading it. This way you can claim you left it laying somewhere and couldn’t find it.  “I was wondering where I left that”

  • Kurt

    Agreed!  This whole story could be re-cast as “in a couple years my science-curious brother’s going to be just fine, but meanwhile check out how I got my fundamentalist, home-schooling mom to read a Richard Dawkins book!”  🙂

  • Tom

    Consider that either of Albert Einstein’s grandmothers would probably have been extremely lucky to have even once laid eyes on an electric light bulb by the times they died (1886-7).  Einstein himself, on the other hand, explained the photoelectric effect, discovered special and general relativity, and wrestled with quantum mechanics.  It’s not a question of intelligence or lack thereof; it’s a question of trying to explain something to someone whose primary and secondary education, compared to your own, lacked decades of additional background information that was accumulated at a furious, unprecedented rate.

  • Anonymous

    OK. Then let’s just change it to ”You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandfather.”

    That sounds the same. (And attributing the quote to Einstein doesn’t somehow give it the weight of ‘something that can’t be changed.’.)

  • Rich Wilson
  • Tom

    That does sound the same. I’m not sure I understand what your point is there.

    My point was just that using one’s grandmother as an example might have been meant to simply imply something like “genuinely interested non-expert,” and not necessarily “stupid old person.”

    And indeed, it matters not a whit who actually said it.

  • MariaO

    “Sometimes you have to live with the fact that a parent has total control of their kids until the kids are 18. ”

    This is only leagally true in Somalia and the USA. All other UN nations have signed the Conventions of the Rights of the Child, which gives children the right to be seen as humans in their own right, separte from their parents. as I understand it, the reason USA has not signed is that the religious fanatics would loose their total control of their children and that would cost votes…

    I do not claim that the Convention is followed by all parents in all signee countries, far from it, but at least what they do is illegal.

  • Carrie Clark

    Thank you! That’s what I came down to the comments to point out. Richard, can you please refrain from perpetuating sexist and age-ist stereotypes? This saying particularly bothers me. 

  • Carrie Clark

    Even if the person saying it doesn’t intend to offend the elderly or women, which I’m exceedingly certain Richard didn’t, it still carries the heavy implication of “stupid old woman.” Women being too dim to understand complicated concepts is a cultural trope that continues to be damaging. And subtle expressions of it are still damaging. 

  • Rich Wilson

    Something new every day.  Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    super wctube

  • Anonymous

    And most countries don’t have a homeschooling culture either. This tendency of some Americans to want to control every aspect of their childrens lives right down to their thought processes is more akin to Islamic countries in so many ways than it is to other developed countries.

  • True. Homeschooling is actually illegal in much of Europe, and in most of the countries where it is permitted, conditions and restrictions are placed on it.

  • Anonymous

    It isn’t illegal in England and the only restriction is that some form of education plan should be in place.

  • Yes, homeschooling is allowed in the UK, but it’s not legal in Germany, Sweden, Iceland, and most of Eastern Europe. Several more countries permit homeschooling if the parents submit to certain regulations and government oversight. In America, by contrast, parents pretty much have free reign even in the strictest states.

  • Lwarman

    ‘Homeschooler’ does NOT mean ‘religious fundamentalist’. We homeschooled for many reasons, one of which being that we didn’t like the religious indoctrination presented in our local public school. A survey of homeschoolers done in Alberta, Canada (where I live) showed that religion was a very minor motivator for most families.  The most important were family togetherness and the ability to provide a better learning environment at home.
    Don’t tar all homeschoolers with your brush.

  • Syldita

    Richard, you freaking rule!

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