Professional Counselor Advises Mother on Her Son’s Atheism

I’ll say it again: Dan Savage is the only advice columnist worth reading.

This advice columnist, who works in the town next to mine, should have just skipped over this question or passed it along to someone more qualified.

Here’s the letter sent to “licensed clinical professional counselor” Doreen A. Zaborac:

Dear Counselor: I have a 15-year-old son who has always been a great kid. He obeys the rules, gets good grades, and never causes any problems. Lately, he has been more defiant and rejecting all the good values we have taught him. Worst of all, he is declaring himself to be an atheist and is telling everyone, including his 8-year-old brother, that he no longer believes in God.

My husband and I have raised our two children in the protestant church and have always tried to model Christian behavior in our home. We are devastated by our son’s determination to walk away from his faith. The more we try to argue our point or convince him he is making a horrible mistake, the more he talks about his disbelief. We are also concerned about how his younger brother looks up to him and may follow his lead. What should we do? – Concerned Parents

Here’s the answer she could have given:

Dear Concerned parents,

Your son sounds like he’s doing just fine.

Being defiant isn’t that atypical for a teenage boy. You’re making it into a much larger issue than it needs to be.

You’re also vague about what “values” he’s rejecting, but they can’t be too bad since, according to you, his becoming an atheist is the “worst” of the problems.

He’s telling your other son about his atheism? Good for him! For most teenagers, coming out to anyone about being an atheist is a difficult thing to do. It’s impressive that he’s taking those steps.

This is much different than, say, your teenager actively trying to turn your other son against you and using arguments against faith to do it. All he’s doing is telling your other son he’s not religious.

I understand you’re devastated he won’t grow up in the Christian faith, but he’s old enough to think about religion critically.

And unlike the idiotic copywriter who wrote the headline to this column, your son is not “trying on” an identity. This isn’t a phase. He’s not going back to church. He’s not making a “horrible mistake.”

Once you go Bright, you’ve seen the light.

Arguing with him is the wrong move. It’ll just push him further away from you.

Instead, listen to him. Find out why he’s now an atheist. You might learn something in the process. If your Christianity-talking-points are coming from your pastor, you may want to try a different source. Those arguments rarely hold up and your teenager will most likely have a counter-argument for everything.

If your eight-year-old has given any thought to the matter, he probably has rebuttals as well.

Your only concern should be whether he’s still the boy you raised him to be (minus the religion). Is he still respectful of others? Is he still maintaining his grades? Believe it or not, many Christian “values” are shared by atheists, too.

You can expect *some* backlash from him as he grows into his newfound atheism. He’s going to be upset/angry with you and his (former) church for some time still… that should pass.

He just needs time to work through his new understanding of the world and rejigger what he’s been taught in the past.

In the meantime, the last thing you want to do is have another Christian “talk” to him.

As for your younger son, you should be so lucky if he’s intelligent enough to ask honest questions about the faith in which you’re raising him.

Hopefully, you’ll be prepared with some solid responses.

That’s what Zaborac could have written.

She didn’t.

Let’s see what the expert said instead:

… As teens begin to separate from mom and dad, they often adopt different opinions and beliefs than their parents. They “try on” different looks and identities and want to be seen as unique individuals. Even kids who have conformed to please parents begin asserting themselves and often rebel against parental control.

… You also may want to set a limit with your teen in terms of sharing his atheism with his younger brother.

The teen years are a time of experimentation that can include risky behaviors and erratic thinking. It is always ideal to discuss all of the potential outcomes of your teen’s decisions with him…

What the hell…

Atheism is not synonymous with risky behavior. If this kid is acting erratically, something else is the issue.

This counselor knows next to nothing about atheism. And I would hope a “professional” might limit her answers to areas she knows a little bit about.

Of course, I am just picking out the parts Zaborac’s response which stuck out to me. To her credit, she does promote the idea of honest and open communication, and she urges the parents to not lecture their son. But essentially, she advises them on how to deal with a rebellious teenager, not a teenager who’s finally thinking rationally and has chosen to walk away from his faith.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Mriana

    I like what you said a lot better, Hemant, even if I would have said it a bit differently. I definately would not have said what the advice columnist said. If this is a true senerio, the young man needs his parents support. He is growing and becoming his own person. What they as parents need to do most of all is avoid preaching at him and I do mean at him. It will just cause conflict and resentment to do so. He’s of age to make his own decisions about religion, including rejecting it. He’s not 2 years old, in which he has to go everywhere his parents go.

    In fact, maybe they should explore his philosophy, as you suggested. My older son chose to be a Sufi for a while. I checked it out. Didn’t like it, but even so, he declared himself a Buddhist 3 years later. I checked it out too and found it a little more compatible with Humanism. I can tolerate it, which was something else you mentioned- that atheists and Christians do share similar values. However, I think that is the difference between non-theists and theists. Non-theists are more willing to ask questions and do research, basically they want to go outside the box and learn something about other philosophies. Theistic parents, esp those who are extreme, don’t want their children to think outside the box, explore, and acquire values and beliefs they can claim as their own. They want their children to believe as they believe and nothing else. Such relationships end up becoming strained when parents are not willing to allow their children to chose their own beliefs.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Doesn’t one of the ten commandments cover this situation?

    Something about stoning I think… I hope it wasn’t one of their good values.

  • Shane

    I like this line:

    If your eight-year-old has given any thought to the matter, he probably has rebuttals as well.

    Because it seems like you’re implying that even an eight-year-old who has put even a little thought into it can easily rebut Christian arguments. But I’m sure you didn’t mean it quite like that because you are the friendly atheist and much too nice for that (not being sarcastic at all–I know Hemant really does try to be understanding and inoffensive).

    I, however, think it characterizes Christian arguments pretty succinctly.

  • Cade

    To be fair, not everyone necessarily comes to atheism for good reasons. Sometimes it is a phase, and sometimes it’s for bad reasons.

    That being said, the writer assuming that the kid was just being rebellious and difficult wasn’t the right thing to do.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I don’t really agree with Hemant’s or the counsellor’s response. I agree more with Cade.

  • Dylan Armitage

    Mriana, I basically agree with you. However, I would like to point out an exception.
    My parents would fall under theist, especially around the time I was born. I was raised in the church. However, they always encouraged me to seek out my own knowledge and conclusions rather than rely solely on them. While they may not agree with everything I think and do now, they at least ask me about it, research it, and respect it. (I haven’t told them about my atheism, as I’ve heard my dad say some rather disrespectful comments. My mom would probably be fine with it, but I don’t want the word to spread to the rest of my family.)

  • http://www.runicfire.net ansuzmannaz

    It seems like the counselor is trying to reassure the parents that their kid will, regardless of his own intent, turn out just like them.

    It’s a stereotype that I find annoying in this culture. The notion that you rebel when you’re a teen, you conform when you’re weaned. Hard to say how true it is, but where is the happy medium of thinking for your own self?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    What really got to me was this:

    You also may want to set a limit with your teen in terms of sharing his atheism with his younger brother.

    WTF?

    Let’s translate this into what it really means:

    Your eight- year- old is in his prime indoctrination years. You may want to limit the amount of exposure he has to points of view that differ from yours.

  • Erik S.

    When I read the parent’s question, I saw both a legitimate concern and a manufactured concern. The legitimate concern is that their son is rebelling and they feel like the most troubling way he is doing that is via his newfound atheism. I doubt that’s the only thing, however. As conservative christians, they’re going to frame everything around how it affects the religious life of their son. So I expect that there are other rebellious issues at play and the counselor was advising them properly in that case.

    However, the counselor was too dismissive of the atheism as a phase and I promise that if the parents try to treat it like a virus, something that will just pass with time, their son is only going to hate them more. While apparently she did recommend that they have open and honest communication, the parts that talk about his new belief as a phase are the ones the parents will latch on to. Anything not to admit that their son is “going to hell”, right? In doing so, the counselor gave the parents false hope and provided them with a paradigm (“it’s just a phase”) that will taint their discussions with their son because they won’t be taking him seriously. So the counselor showed a lack of understanding from both the Christian and the atheist side in that her advice is going to undermine both sides.

  • Mriana

    Dylan Armitage said,

    May 21, 2008 at 2:13 am

    Mriana, I basically agree with you. However, I would like to point out an exception.
    My parents would fall under theist, especially around the time I was born. I was raised in the church. However, they always encouraged me to seek out my own knowledge and conclusions rather than rely solely on them. While they may not agree with everything I think and do now, they at least ask me about it, research it, and respect it. (I haven’t told them about my atheism, as I’ve heard my dad say some rather disrespectful comments. My mom would probably be fine with it, but I don’t want the word to spread to the rest of my family.)

    I think I clarified some where in my post that mostly extremist theists are closeminded. If I didn’t I apologize. There are some good theist parents who will do the research and not strongly impose their beliefs on their children, but they are few and far between. The problem is, Evangelicals are the worst when it comes to their children disagreeing with them and taking on their own beliefs. Since they are so loud about everything concerning religion, they drown out those who are moderates and liberals.

  • Dylan Armitage

    Mriana said,

    May 21, 2008 at 9:24 am

    I think I clarified some where in my post that mostly extremist theists are closeminded. If I didn’t I apologize. There are some good theist parents who will do the research and not strongly impose their beliefs on their children, but they are few and far between. The problem is, Evangelicals are the worst when it comes to their children disagreeing with them and taking on their own beliefs. Since they are so loud about everything concerning religion, they drown out those who are moderates and liberals.

    If you did, there was a chance that I didn’t notice it. I was getting fairly tired then, so my mind may have skipped it accidentally. I apologize if that’s the case. It happens.
    But yes, I definitely agree with you.

  • Mriana

    No problem, Dylan. It happens to all of us.

    I just read what I said and I did somewhat clarify:

    Theistic parents, esp those who are extreme, don’t want their children to think outside the box, explore, and acquire values and beliefs they can claim as their own.

    It just was not a blantant clarification and very easily missed if one is tired, in a rush, unfocused or what have you, because it was so brief. Like I said, it happens to all of us. Don’t worry about it. :)

  • Jennifer M

    I have a suggestion. Now would be an excellent time to let the child know that it’s impossible to change other people’s beliefs. I wish my parents had taught this to me.

    How about advising the parent to say something like, “Son, if you don’t believe what we believe. It’s OK. You have the right to disagree with us. But what you need to understand is people are not going to like you if you don’t respect their beliefs. It doesn’t matter if they’re Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim, you can’t change their beliefs but you can make them angry. Therefore, in this household you will be respectful. If you’re not, you’ll be punished.”

    This way neither the son nor the parents would feel discredited and all would learn tolerance for those who don’t agree.

  • http://intj-mom.livejournal.com INTJ Mom

    Mriana said:
    “The problem is, Evangelicals are the worst when it comes to their children disagreeing with them and taking on their own beliefs. Since they are so loud about everything concerning religion, they drown out those who are moderates and liberals.”

    Mormons tend to be this way as well.

  • Richard Wade

    Hemant, it’s a good thing you’re not a counselor. Your response to this family might have caused more strife for this family and could possibly have lost you your job, and that would have nothing to do with any value judgment about atheism.

    Family counselors are trained to provide therapy for families that are having a wide range of relationship difficulties. Unless they are specifically practicing as pastoral counselors they are supposed to remain neutral about individuals’ religious choices. Their goal is to help the family establish enduring patterns of interacting that nurture all the individuals as they go through their various life stages, and to teach them coping skills for handling conflicts and crises. The non-pastoral counselor advocates open communication, not a specific stance on religion. She is supposed to be an advocate for every member of the family, not just the one who shares her preferences.

    In your response several of your statements strongly inject your own bias toward atheism in a way that conflicts with your neutral role, and they would interfere with helping this family learn to resolve the conflict in a way that works for all the individuals.

    Your response gives some good advice about open communication, but Zaborac’s letter actually puts it better. Her response is so brief, two-thirds the length of yours, that I don’t understand why you didn’t just print the whole thing. I’ll paste it here and emphasize the most important parts that you left out:

    Dear Concerned Parents: Adolescence is frequently marked by a dramatic change in behavior and an increasing movement toward independence. As teens begin to separate from mom and dad, they often adopt different opinions and beliefs than their parents. They “try on” different looks and identities and want to be seen as unique individuals. Even kids who have conformed to please parents begin asserting themselves and often rebel against parental control.
    Try not to overreact to your son’s discussion of atheism, but be open to honest communication about this topic. Even devout Christians sometimes question their faith, and it is not unusual for high school and college students to challenge what they have been taught to believe. Trust that you have planted the seeds of values that eventually will lead him in the right direction. Forcing your son to adhere to your beliefs probably will push him in the opposite direction.
    It is OK, however, to have expectations and house rules to maintain important standards. Your son may have the right to his spiritual beliefs but may be expected to accompany the family to church. You also may want to set a limit with your teen in terms of sharing his atheism with his younger brother.
    The teen years are a time of experimentation that can include risky behaviors and erratic thinking. It is always ideal to discuss all of the potential outcomes of your teen’s decisions with him. Communication with your teenager is key. Use empathy, and think back about how you felt at his age.
    Avoid lecturing – it won’t work! Be aware of warning signs that may signal more serious distress such as sleep problems, extreme weight change, failing grades or skipping school, change of friends, drug or alcohol use and talk or jokes about suicide. These symptoms indicate a need for medical intervention from a counselor or doctor.

    I disagree with her statement about limiting the boy’s communication with the younger child. That is possibly her bias slipping out. It sounds absurd and it is futile anyway. If I was training her I would have elbowed her in the ribs. She’s supposed to be building doors rather than walls, so she goofed there.

    In the last two paragraphs she is not saying that “atheism is synonymous with risky behavior” as you suggest. She’s trying to bring up the parent’s awareness about possible serious underlying causes of their son’s tension. The parents’ brief letter does not give enough information to know what is really happening in the family, so Zaborac is covering all the bases including the possibly dangerous ones. That is an essential part of her job. It may be his legitimate exploration and expression of his own well considered outlook. With a 15 year old that is possible but not necessarily a given. It may be part of the natural process of an adolescent’s differentiation from his parents. With a 15 year old that is very common but it should not be dismissed as that out of hand, and I don’t really think that Zaborac is necessarily doing that. Here she’s responding to the chance that it might be something that could put him at risk, such as substance abuse or depression.

    An advice column is not therapy, nor are the popular radio or television shows that feature people presenting brief descriptions of their predicaments and a therapist giving brief snips of advice. That stuff is education at best and entertainment at worst. Family therapy is intricate, slow and hard work. It is never perfect but it has a much better chance for an outcome that is beneficial to all family members than these imitations that rely on so many unconfirmed assumptions, and deliver so many vacuous platitudes. Zaborac is trying to work in a very limited forum, one that I would never even attempt.

  • Richard Wade

    Hemant, I realized I should have started my post above with “Hemant, you know I love you but…” :)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Richard — When I read her response, it did seem to imply that atheism was not an acceptable option… and later portions of her letter (like the “risky” part) seemed affected by that — I didn’t read it as a separate piece of advice regarding troubled teenagers. I tried to separate “atheism” advice from “teenage/danger/rebellion” advice, but since the question didn’t give much information regarding what he was doing wrong, I took the advice to be directed at his decision about religion, not covering all possible bases.

    As always, your thoughts are appreciated :)

  • Maria

    To be fair, not everyone necessarily comes to atheism for good reasons. Sometimes it is a phase, and sometimes it’s for bad reasons.

    That being said, the writer assuming that the kid was just being rebellious and difficult wasn’t the right thing to do.

    I agree


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X