Note to readers: The letter writer did not sign a name. To facilitate comments about her, I have given her the name Alice. It means truthful and noble. Just call her Alice without quotation marks. The name fits.
I’m a female high school senior living with my parents. Earlier this year I became an Atheist. At the time I had a very Christian boyfriend and I held off telling him out of selfishness, I didn’t want to lose him. Obviously that didn’t work, I’m a terrible liar, and he figured it out and we broke up. Afterwards I told him flat out, as a gesture of trust, since we resolved to stay good friends.
All seemed well until a month of so later when he called me to tell me that he was canceling his visit to my house (he lives in another state) because he didn’t feel like he could trust me anymore. I was extremely upset and I told him that I would have to tell my parents something different, a thought he did not enjoy. I hung up on him and started to cry. My dad saw me and gave me a big hug. I explained that my friend would not be visiting but not why.
After I calmed down I went for a walk. During that time, my friend called my mom, and told her that I was an atheist. When I got back, my mom was near tears. I was still crying about my friend. My parents are not particularly enthusiastic Christians, but my mom broke down crying about my being an Atheist. I had planned on telling them on my own time, I was going to write it down and read it to them. Now that plan was out the window.
Instead of being there for me, my family sat me down on the couch and grilled me. When I cried, it was because I was hysterical, when I was angry it was because I couldn’t stand to be around the word of god. My friend became the victim of the situation, I had done something terrible to him by being an atheist. I gave terrible answers to hurtful questions. My ten year old sister was the only voice of reason who saw how upset I was and suggested we talk about it another time. No one listened to her. My mom threw one of my books down a garbage chute.
Over the next two days my dad burst into tears whenever he talked to me, my mom called me demon possessed and refused to let me drive. I posted some stuff under pictures of my friend out of anger that set his family off on me. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I told my mom it was all a mistake, and that I was a Christian again. She dropped it and things went back to normal. I got in touch with my friend and he apologized and he ended up visiting me anyway.
Everything that happened is in the past. I’ve even told most of my friends at school about my atheism, and found other likeminded friends. But I can’t let go of what happened. I’m especially angry with my mom for how she treated me, and I think about it every time she tells me she loves me. I don’t talk to my friend much any more because I can’t forgive his family for the things they said to me. I can’t recount the story without crying.
I want to be honest with my parents, there’s a reason that I’m a bad liar- I hate lies, but I know what they’ll do if I tell them. I bring up the book sometimes to my mom, she snaps at me to let it go.
I can’t move on at all. My younger sisters know how I feel and some of my friends. I just want to get over it. It doesn’t seem healthy to dwell on something that happened months ago. I try to avoid my parents when I can. I can’t live associating every ‘I love you’ every ‘I’m proud of you’ every agreement, disagreement and moment spent with my parents with what happened. Am I being an idiot? What do I do?
Your parents do love you and they are proud of you. That part of their view of you is truthful and correct. The fact that they panicked because they have ridiculous misconceptions of what your atheism means does not take away from the fact that they do love you and they are proud of you.
Associating this awful experience with their expressions of love and esteem for you is going to bring you a lot of unnecessary pain. Let’s see if we can separate things out.
Even though they may be “not particularly enthusiastic Christians,” if they have had a typical Christian upbringing, then they probably have been told lies about atheists all their lives. They were taught those lies by the very same people who taught them to believe in God. So in their minds those lies took on just as great an importance to believe as believing in God. It is likely they do not personally know anyone who is an “out” atheist. They only know the scary stories, and so they were scared.
If your mom said that you’re “demon possessed,” then both of your parents probably believe the slightly less ludicrous things often said about atheists, that they are evil, immoral, criminal, dangerous, selfish, hateful, cowardly, un-American, rebellious, self-indulgent, and depressed, to name just some of the nonsensical slander. In short, they think atheists are the boogeyman. Children are afraid of the boogeyman.
And even though they are probably quite grown up in most situations, their reaction to this was nothing less than childish. As adults, they should have carefully and quietly asked you about what atheism means to you, instead of only drawing upon the preposterous propaganda they’ve been fed. But they were raised with religion, and from childhood on, religion does not encourage people to stop, think and find out certain things. It encourages them to believe what they’re told and to not question. Your parents were taught to remain childish about some things, and this is one of them.
So there are two areas where otherwise sensible and clear-headed parents will have a ballistic reaction: a threat to their religion and a threat to their children. The first is learned and the second is natural. In this case those were combined into one big, fat, scary threat.
Now it’s important for me to stop and clarify something.
I’m not offering any of this as an “excuse” for their behavior. It is an explanation. I’m hoping that you will be able to rise above your present villain/victim thinking, and to salvage the nurturing part of your relationship with them from out of this mess. Understanding the motives of a person with whom you are in a conflict helps you to find positive and constructive ways to live together, rather than slipping into the trap of becoming just as reactionary as they are in the opposite direction. You’ve described some angry responses of your own that have backfired. You can free yourself from that kind of impulse.
I know I am asking a great deal of someone so young, but the time has come, even though it was forced upon you sooner than you had planned. This can either be the time in your life when your continuing adolescence keeps you stuck in bitterness and hurt, or when your newly begun adulthood brings you into self confidence and healing. You’re right on the boundary. It’s within your reach.
You’ll probably remain living with your parents for some time, to finish high school, then find work or to go to college, and so you will need to get along with them. You have been browbeaten into telling them the lie that they want to hear, that it was all a mistake, that you’re a Christian again. They immediately relaxed and resumed their adult behavior.
I don’t blame you at all for keeping up this pretense. At this time, it is not in your own personal interest to be honest with them on the subject of your atheism. They have shown themselves to be incapable of handling it as adults. Maybe some day you can have a sane adult-to-adult conversation with them about it, but not while you are still financially and physically dependent on them. Yes, it’s sad that you have to lie, and I’m glad that you are not good at it. I hope you never have to become good at it. But they have not honored your truthfulness on this issue. They have squelched it. Be honest with them about everything else, so that resentment and distrust does not spread like a cancer through your relationship. Try to accept that this is a limitation of theirs. We all have our limitations, and we have to find ways to live with each other’s, not just with our own.
Now for yourself.
You need allies. You need confidants, trustworthy friends with whom you can be frank and open, with whom you can let off steam. You have already mentioned several you have begun to develop, like-minded friends at school. On that topic, go for quality rather than quantity. Don’t indiscriminately tell any and all of your friends about your atheism. Often young people lack the maturity to understand the sanctity of a confidence, as you have painfully discovered. While you are still living at home, be discreet with your friends. Share your thoughts and feelings around your atheism just with a few highly dependable friends.
Atheist blogs and discussion forums for young people are another outlet for you. I have found a few by simply using search engines, but I’m hoping that young readers commenting here will have specific places to suggest, based on their own experience.
As for your younger sisters, a sister can be the best ally you can have. However, be sure to not burden them with a responsibility that they are too young to bear well. They may not fully share your views about religion, which might begin to put them into a conflict. Even if they are okay with that, being younger, they are more susceptible to the pressures your parents can put upon them. They love you and they love Mom and Dad too. They should not be put in a position to be pulled in two directions. Share your thoughts and feelings on this subject with them at levels that are appropriate for their age and their ability to deal with it discreetly.
Finally, it may be hard to hear, but I think you should consider the possibility that your former boyfriend may not be worthy of your trust, ever. You say you’re mad at his family for the things they said to you. It’s one thing to act from the vicious falsehoods about atheists that they and he believe, but he betrayed your trust, he broke the confidence of a friend. He took the initiative to expose your private thoughts to your parents when he didn’t have to at all, and that selfish, spiteful act caused you and your family terrible pain and strife. That is not just ignorance and prejudice, that is treachery. Take a long, clear-eyed look at him.
Alice, your inborn free-thinking nature has brought you to question the things you were forbidden to question. Your inborn honest nature has made it difficult for you as you struggle to protect yourself from the superstition and bigotry of people you love. These inborn qualities are signs of an innately mature person, a person who could become more grown up, more adult than sadly, many people will ever be. Let that maturity help you to let go of your bitterness, to forgive your parents’ specialized immaturity because doing so will strengthen maturity in you, and because you can see their other qualities: their worthiness of love, their caring for you, their endearing protectiveness, their primal, passionate desire for your well being and your success in life. They gave you your life, and now you will begin to make it entirely your own, by way of your intelligence, your courage, your patience, and your willingness to rise above anger and hurt.
Note to readers: Tuesday there will be a post about the other side of this kind of situation, a letter from a mother (not the same one) who is very worried because her teenage daughter has just told her she is an atheist. I am thankful in advance for your helpful comments to both of these people who need and deserve respectful and compassionate advice.