I was raised in a Christian home, and taught that god is the only way to pretty much do anything. Most of my family is so-so with their religion, and while they believe, they do not attempt to shove it down other’s throats or make a show of their all knowing religion, however there are some exceptions to this. My grandfather is incredibly religious, and can work god into any subject. He’s constantly talking about this and taking me aside to pray, alone. Most of my great uncles and aunts are pastors or otherwise work for the church.
As you may know, Easter is coming up. I would prefer to not spend my Sunday at a church whose religion I do not believe in. I’m not quite sure how to go about this, as I’ve not yet “come out”. I worry about doing so, as I’m still considered a minor (I’m 14) and have no way of finding a new home for myself should the worse happen. I’d like to know if you have any tips for a situation like this, and I would like to know how to convince my family that it is not a phase, but my religion, should I end up “coming out”.
Worried and Wondering
Dear Worried and Wondering,
A 14-year-old atheist in a family such as yours has much more at risk in coming out than a 24-year-old, and even they sometimes have reason to pause and carefully consider what would be the prudent thing to do.
We have lately been inspired by the courage and pluck of teens such as Jessica Ahlquist and Damon Fowler, who not only outed themselves as atheists, they also stood up to illegal religious activities in their respective high schools. Jessica and Damon have both faced very difficult backlashes from the public, including threats to their lives. But Jessica had one big advantage. She had the support of her parents and family. Damon discovered that he did not. According to this story, his family threw him and all of his possessions out of the house and left town. Fortunately for him, his brother was supportive and willing to take him in.
Both Jessica and Damon have received rewards for their courage and activism from atheist groups because their struggles were with public institutions, and so there was a great deal of media attention. Teens being kicked out of the house by their family, or more likely simply being made miserable by their family’s fear, anger and reactionary browbeating will probably not be able to count on that kind of attention or support.
You say that most members of your family are relatively mild in their religiosity, and that it’s generally the older generation, your grandfather and your great uncles and aunts who are the more devout ones. That might mean that you won’t face such extreme consequences as Damon did, but it still might mean some very unpleasant conflicts. Your closer relatives might pressure you to “toe the line” for grandpa’s sake, and that might be enforced with threats of disagreeable penalties.
Only you can determine the likelihood of these complicated contingencies, and even a family insider might find such predictions difficult.
If you decide to come out to your family, I suggest that you start with one person, whoever is the one you trust will be the most receptive, understanding, and discreet. That person might be able to help you determine who, when, how, and if you should tell someone else.
Avoid calling your atheism your “religion.” I assume that you meant that it is a strong and long-lasting conviction you have, rather than just a phase or a fad. If your family tries to dismiss it as such, don’t spend a lot of frustrating effort trying to convince them otherwise. It doesn’t matter what they think about that. What matters is what you think, and that you keep on thinking as clearly as you can. As time goes on and you remain true to your convictions, your family will have to face the reality that this is where you stand.
Keep all the rest of your conduct and performance to a high standard. Keep your school grades up, diligently do your family duties and chores, and generally stay out of trouble. You don’t want your atheism being blamed for failures in such areas. As ridiculous as that is, it seems to be common among religious families with a young atheist member.
If you decide to wait and not come out yet, then you’ll probably be required to at least attend the Easter service. I have suggested to young people in similar predicaments that they might reduce their frustration, boredom and discomfort by adopting what I’ve called the “undercover anthropologist” stance. Basically, think of yourself as studying a group of people from within their midst, just as western anthropologists do when they win the trust of aboriginal people in the rain forests and live with them to study their culture. It can give you some emotional separation, and you can find such observation interesting on an intellectual level. This would be better than sitting there thinking of yourself as nothing more than a helpless victim being forced to endure something.
I think you might be getting old enough to be a little more assertive with your grandfather if he wants to take you aside for some private prayer together. You might gently tell him that you prefer to contemplate such things by yourself and in your own way. This is a delicate matter on several levels, so think it over carefully.
I know you’re in a tough spot. You want to live according to your own convictions, yet you don’t want to cause upset in your family if it can be avoided. You love your family, and you also want to be true to yourself. You would rather not have to pretend that you believe and have to attend religious events, but you might have to face some undesirable reactions.
Find some peers. Find some discreet friends who have similar feelings and views. Be very careful to assure as best you can that they are trustworthy. You will be less tense at home if you have been able to share your thoughts openly with someone outside your home. There have been several attempts at discussion websites for young atheists, but they don’t seem to last. The most recently active one I found is Young Atheists, an Atheist Nexus site. Its latest activity was a month ago. DO NOT post your atheist views on Facebook. That will result in your being outed before you’re ready.
Face these challenges with patience and clear thinking. How you handle this will help to mold you into the both principled and pragmatic adult you want to become. Outing yourself is generally a one-way-only decision. Often the outcome is optimized not by how you do it, but by when you do it.
Please write again to let us know how things develop. As a community, we need to gather the wisdom and experience of as many of our members as we can, to best learn how to help ourselves and each other. We also simply care about you, and want to support you in whatever ways we can.
The issue of young people coming out is a huge section of the hundreds of letters I have received. Here are just a handful of other Ask Richard columns dealing with the same problem:
Atheist 8th Grader Wants to Confide to Someone in the Family
Young Atheist Considers Coming Out to His Grandparents
Young Atheist Considers Leaving Church and Coming Out
Family Finds Out, Shuts Out, Loses Out
Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 1 of 2
Should I Come Out to My Parents? Letter 2 of 2
Parents Rendered Deaf by the Word “Atheist”