Advice for a Teenage Atheist Still in the Closet

“Advice experts” rarely say positive things about atheists. Pat Robertson is no exception.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see Amy Dickinson writing exactly the right thing for a teenage atheist who wants to come out to her friends:

Dear Amy: I am 16 and an atheist. I’m sure of it.

All of my friends are serious, hard-core Episcopalians. We’re all really honest with each other; I know their secrets and they know mine, except that I’m an atheist! I want to be completely honest with them, but I don’t want them to feel weird or disown me because I don’t believe in their God.

So what do I do: not tell them and hope their suspicions don’t grow? Or tell them and hope for the best?

The advice is spot-on:

Amy says: Thank you for introducing me to the concept of “hard-core Episcopalians.”

Your friends have a right to their beliefs. And you have a right to your nonbelief. This should not be a secret, and your friends should not “disown” you for your stance.

I see this as an opportunity for lively, spirited discussions among you and your friends.

Faith is an extremely important topic, and this is exactly the sort of conversation that people your age should be having, as you figure out who you are and what you stand for.

There is nothing shameful about being a nonbeliever, and you should be willing to disclose this and engage in this vital conversation with your friends.

I love to see that in a mainstream syndicated column: “There is nothing shameful about being a nonbeliever.”

Finally, advice worth taking.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    No, it is not shameful. But it could trigger disapproval in others. As in a similar previous post, there is no mention of what the 16-year old’s parents and family think about this.

    At 16, you are not in complete control of your life. Survival is important. If coming out of the closet would cause severe repercussions (and it is not clear that this is the case in this example) then I see no problem with staying in the closet until you reach an age where you can move out on your own, or go off to college, or take other actions which would give you the independence to be your own person.

  • http://None Anonymous

    Other than the fact that my conservative Southern Baptist friends believe that I’m going to hell, they never disowned me or were mean to me for being atheist. We get along just fine, and we exchange theological literature (in my case scientific literature) among each other.

  • Todd

    There is nothing shameful about being a nonbeliever

    Kind of sad that this even needs to be said.

  • littlejohn

    Hardcore Episcopalian??? I was raised Episcopalian and I don’t even think our priest believed in god. The sermons were about liberal politics and gay rights.
    Amy’s response didn’t surprise me. If you ever listen to her on NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” you’ll realize she’s no humor-challenged prude. She sounds like one of us.

  • Anonymous

    …and your friends should not “disown” you for your stance.

    And people should never kill or rob each other. But is that a good reason to walk the alleyways of a major city at 3 AM?

    And people shouldn’t refuse to date you simply because of the way you look. But is that a good reason to let yourself go?

    It’s always uplifting to hear some blather about how if someone doesn’t like you, you shouldn’t want to be their friend anyway. But politically correct blather it is. Every day we have to deal with people around us whether we want to deal with them or not. Better to keep your neighbors polite and helpful than have them close their doors to you for no good reason whatsoever.

    Maybe this sort of idealized blather works in World of Warcraft. But In the real world, once the cat is out of the bag, it has long-term consequences that can’t be reversed. You can’t undo coming out of the closet once it is done, and if the consequences for you are horrible, you can always never speak to your family again, or uproot your life and move somewhere else. And for what?

    All and all, it’s obviously worth the risk ;rolleyes;

  • atomjack

    I’d like to chime in with the observation that my Episcopalian chums call it “Catholic light”. Heh, a “hardcore” Episcopalian is a contradiction in terms. Honestly, when I went to church (rcc), people kind of looked sideways at people who seemed especially devout (like a loud “AMEN”, for instance). The kid is likely to get a frownie face from mom and dad over this, but that’s all. Good for him/her and those reasoning skills popping the religious lock!

  • zoo

    There is nothing shameful about being a nonbeliever, and you should be willing to disclose this and engage in this vital conversation with your friends.

    True, but that doesn’t always translate well in real life. If someone else thinks it’s shameful, or even if they simply don’t understand how something can be possible (see: reaction to people with mental illness) they’re going to treat you like it is, and that hurts whether you agree or not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=34367344446 Jeremy D

    General advice can often miss the fine points of a situation.

    In the case of a 16-year-old, the fine point is that there is likely at least one friend he or she can absolutely 100% trust with this secret. Tell them first, then have them get your back if you face any repercussions from friends.

    Once you have your friends, THEN you take on the parents.

    And then you start an atheist club at school and cause all sorts of fun ruckus and scandal.

  • http://www.coloncleanseadvice.net/ Jeremy D

    General advice can often miss the fine points of a situation.

    In the case of a 16-year-old, the fine point is that there is likely at least one friend he or she can absolutely 100% trust with this secret. Tell them first, then have them get your back if you face any repercussions from friends.

    Once you have your friends, THEN you take on the parents.

    And then you start an atheist club at school and cause all sorts of fun ruckus and scandal.
    BTW I love your blog!

  • http:/www.lyvvielimelight.blogspot.com Lyvvie

    I think the advice, although sound and positive, is a tad reckless. We know how that lonely atheist is going to be treated, even by her closest friends. She’ll undergo some form of conversion intervention and ultimately, if she maintains her atheism, she’ll be shunned by some. Peer pressure and conformity is the rule at 16. I think advice to talk about this only if she’s mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with the possible rejection from her friends would’ve been better.

    Although, I’m not very sure how liberal Episcopalians are.

  • lurker111

    I fear I’ve become old and cynical. I say, stay in the closet until you’re no longer dependent on others for survival. Period.

    Telling a 16-year-old to out themselves is, as stated above, reckless.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    I agree that her friends should not disown her, but that certainly does not mean that they will not do so. We live in an age where intolerance and bigotry against atheists is commonplace and generally considered acceptable.

    It is easy (and probably correct) to say that she should disclose her atheism because she would not want to be friends with people who would reject her for it. However, this is one of those things likely to be far easier for we adults to do than someone who is 16.

    I’d want to make sure she has a handle on the potential benefits and risks so that she can make an informed decision.

  • SarahH

    Thanks for pointing this out, Hemant. I like that you post examples of awesomeness (i.e. people thanking rescue workers and doctors instead of God in articles, good publicity, good advice columns) and not just the bad. It’s easy to focus on how often atheists are misrepresented or demonized, and it’s great that you post examples of the good along with the bad.

    The girl didn’t give any specifics about her family – perhaps they’re not religious either, or perhaps she’s already out to them and it’s not a big deal. She was just asking about her friends. And, worst case scenario, she learns that they’re not very good friends and she needs some new ones. I think it was great advice.

  • Anonymous

    I fear I’ve become old and cynical. I say, stay in the closet until you’re no longer dependent on others for survival. Period.

    I think I beat you in the cynical department. I say, stay in the closet as long as you are more comfortable there, which may well be for the rest of your life.

    Experience has taught me a valuable lesson: If there is no good reason to do something (or tell someone something), and there is even the slightest chance that doing (or saying) that thing will come back to bite you in the ass, it’s better not to do it at all. Imagine all of the hassle you will have saved yourself! (Or could have, if you were foolish enough not to live by this sort of rule.)


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