Update: The letter writer has written a follow-up letter four years later.
I’m in 8th grade and have been “officially” Atheist since the beginning of 7th grade. I think I’ve been subconsciously Atheist since about third grade, though. It was then that I started thinking “How do I know this is true and not Hinduism, Islam, etc?” As I grew older I would avoid any quizzes that my friends would see that asked anything about religion because I have one very religious friend. Her dad’s a pastor and she got mad at me once for skipping her youth group. I had been to it before and all it did was bash other religions (“Buddhism/Hinduism/Islam/Judaism/Mormonism is stupid because the Bible says so.”). I didn’t agree with any of it and convinced my mom not to make me go. She made me start searching for another. It was around this time that I officially became Atheist.
I tried to deny it because I knew how my mom would react. She’s a very religious Methodist. She has almost 20 books on Christianity and God and hates it when we miss church. When I asked her religious questions she got suspicious and asked me if I was Atheist, but she avoided using the word like it was a bad word so I said no. She once said “No child of mine will not go to church” and I knew she meant, “No child of mine will be Atheist.” After this she said something about how Atheists are miserable, intolerant people without morals and I knew I couldn’t tell her that I was Atheist any time soon.
My dad’s a different story. He’s not religious at all and will skip church any time we do go. One time he said to me “If there is a God and there is a heaven and hell, he wouldn’t care if you went to church because there are so many countries that don’t have churches.” I think he might be Atheist or Agnostic, but he was raised by a devout Catholic. If he’s still Christian, he’s probably Methodist. I’m not sure. Once while on a tour, the tour guide was talking about ghosts and he said “If you believe in God, why shouldn’t you believe in ghosts?” On the other hand, one time I asked him why he didn’t say I was 11 to get a cheaper meal like he would sometimes do and he said “If there’s a heaven and hell I don’t want to go there for a few dollars because we don’t know if there is a heaven, hell or even a God, right?” I said yes to this, but when he said “In fact there’s no God at all,” I said nothing because I didn’t know if he’s joking. Whatever he is, he’ll probably be the one of my parents that will accept me being an Atheist best.
I want to tell someone in my family that I’m Atheist, but I don’t know how they’ll react. My siblings probably don’t believe in God either so I could tell them without them going all “Ooooooh, you’re going to hell,” but I’m worried they won’t be able to keep it a secret. I have the same concern about my dad. If my mom finds out, I’ll probably be forced to go to church more. At the same time, I want to tell someone. Right now only one person knows and that’s because she has no contact with anyone at my school. For a while I was hoping to wait until I was in college, but I don’t want to wait five years. At the same time, I don’t want to have the tension I know I’ll feel for five years. I don’t know what to do.
You are very articulate for an 8th grader. You observe people carefully, and you seem to assess them quite accurately. You appear to have a mostly grown-up mind, but being so young, you have to submit to doing what is expected of a child. That has to be a very frustrating position. Even though you are intellectually ahead of your years, you may not have the patience that comes with physical age. So it is very understandable that you are so eager to have at least one ally in your family, someone with whom you can release your frustration.
Your dad sounds like most likely candidate, but it is certainly not a sure thing. He could be the most unbelieving in your family besides yourself, but even if he is, he has divided loyalties. Keeping a secret between his child and his wife can be an uncomfortable quandary. His remarks about not knowing if there is a god or heaven or hell, followed by his statement “In fact there is no God at all” sound inviting, but you’re not sure. It’s just a hunch, but I don’t think he was just joking. He might have been trying to express himself honestly to you, or he might have been fishing to find out what you believe. Is he as frustrated and eager as you are to have a confidant in the family, or was he told by his wife to find out what you believe? Even if he is ambivalent in his own beliefs, he has to find ways to get along with her.
In face-to-face conversations, there are thousands of non-verbal cues that go back and forth between people as they talk. Their tone, their facial expressions, their meaningful pauses, their eye contact, their body posture, even their pattern of breathing and many other things add enormous extra meanings to the words that they are saying. A tiny raising of the eyebrow can add emphasis to a person’s statement, or it can be a signal trying to say that he doesn’t really believe it at all. To understand all these extra messages, you have to listen with your eyes as much as with your ears. It takes practice, but you seem to already be a keen observer of people.
I can’t say with confidence where I think your dad stands on this because I wasn’t there to see all those non-verbal cues. You weren’t sure if he was joking or not. I’m not sure either. So I can’t definitely suggest whether or not you should confide in him.
If you get into another one of these conversations with your dad, you do the fishing. Ask him about his beliefs, rather than trying to read his ambiguous signals, trying to figure out if you are safe to tell him your beliefs. He’s the adult. Let him take the first risk to be open with you. Your own non-verbal cues can tell him that you will keep this between the two of you, or you can overtly say so.
For example, if you were to re-live that tête-à-tête with him where he ended with “In fact there’s no God at all,” instead of remaining silent because you didn’t know if he was joking, you could say, “I don’t know if you’re joking or not, Dad, and I’d really like to know.” That is an honest statement about yourself at that exact moment, but it does not put you at risk. It puts the responsibility to be clear and frank onto his shoulders, where, as an adult and a parent, the responsibility belongs.
If he tries to turn it around and fish for your answers first before revealing his, you can finally take advantage of your role as “the kid” and say that you don’t know, you’re just thinking about it, and ask him again, seeking your father’s wisdom and guidance, “I’m not sure, so that’s why I’m asking you. What do you think about all that stuff, Dad?”
That may be putting him on the spot, when he has pressures from his wife and pressures from society to “say the right thing” about religion and faith being important virtues and so on, even though privately he may not believe it himself. But as I said, he’s the adult. It’s his job to deal with tough situations to help his kids. You should not have to keep taking upon yourself the risky and perplexing duties of an adult long before society finally grants you the autonomy that goes along with those duties.
This “feeling him out” may take longer than you wish, so in the meantime, I suggest that you expand your contacts with other young people who have similar views and predicaments, so that you have some source of companionship. There are some discussion groups for young atheists that might help you feel not so alone. I’m suggesting one below. I hope that the readers commenting here can recommend other resources that they have found valuable. Hey you young lurkers out there, speak up!
Atheist Nexus is a social site for adult atheists. “Young Atheists” is an Atheist Nexus group for people 20 and younger, and it looks very positive.
Although I’m sure that you are savvy enough to know, I feel obligated to remind you to be very careful while sharing personal information online. There are predatory impostors who prowl the internet, extremely skilled at manipulation. Do not arrange to meet them in person, and do not reveal any clues to your identity or location.
I also want to recommend a website, About Dot Com. It has many very well written articles that I have found useful. On the particular page I’m linking are several articles pertaining to situations that many young people face, such as those you have described. Take the time to peruse them, and you may find better advice than I’ve offered you.
Alone, I wish that I had a simple and easy solution to your dilemma, but I don’t. Your isolation is painful, but there are risks for “coming out” to your family, or even one member at this time, because you just don’t know with much certainty how they will respond. Approaching your dad may result in a much better situation, a worse situation, or no appreciable change at all.
Rational people who live surrounded by others who would be very harsh on them if they revealed their disbelief, face these dilemmas their whole lives. Some tough, bold ones are completely open about their atheism, and while they don’t have to tiptoe around, they sometimes face difficult consequences. Others keep their views a secret to all, and suffer the loneliness that you are experiencing. Many are discrete with their beliefs, confiding in a few trusted friends.
My point is that there is no single “right” solution, no approach that is somehow superior or more virtuous than others. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. You have to find what works for you. Your solutions will probably change as you move through your life stages. Just consider that once you take a step to reveal your atheism to someone, there is no going back, and you must depend on that person’s discretion. So be as patient and as circumspect as you can, weighing the pressure from within you against the likelihood of benefit that you will receive.
I wish you the very best of outcomes. Please write to me again when something new develops. I’m sure that we would all like to know, and that you and we would benefit from the sharing.