Ask Richard: A Concerned Mother Asks Atheists About Her Teen Daughter’s Atheism

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Hello Richard,

I found your site while looking for help for my daughter, and you seem to be an expert. My sixteen year old daughter just told me she was an atheist. I do not know what to do or who to turn to. Other than this, she is a very good girl. Is this a phase she will grow out of, or just one of these things kids just say. I have tried recommending web sites for her to read but she just brushes them off. I am at my wits end and do not know what to do. Perhaps some of your readers can offer advice.

Thank You,
Amelia

Dear Amelia,

Your daughter is still a very good girl, I assure you.

I commend you for doing a very wise and intelligent thing for a parent with your concerns. You’re asking atheists about atheism. That ought to be an obvious thing to do, but sadly, it is very rare. Because your letter is so brief, I have to make some assumptions about your concern for your daughter. I’m assuming that you have heard some very bad things about atheists and atheism, and you’re worried that she will become like whatever are the awful things that you’ve heard.

I want to set your mind at ease that the typical dreadful things people hear and repeat about atheists are false. Like defamatory things said about Jews, people of color, or any minority group, these are lies started by bigots and perpetuated by people who don’t stop to question what they hear.

The most common misconceptions include that atheists are evil, immoral, criminal, dangerous, selfish, hateful, stupid, cowardly, un-American, rebellious, self-indulgent, depressed, and have no meaning in their lives.

I have known several dozen atheists very closely for several years, I have had long conversations with hundreds of others online, and I have never met anyone like that. The atheists I know are good, kind, smart, highly moral and ethical people who go to work, love their families, pay their taxes, and live very meaningful lives. They want to live peacefully with their neighbors, they want to participate in their communities, they want to help where there is a need, and they want to be treated fairly.

You probably know many people who fit that description, but you might not realize that a few of them are atheists. They tend to keep that private because of all the hurtful prejudice. They sometimes risk serious consequences at the hands of bigots.

So what actually is an atheist if they are not all those awful things?

An atheist is a person who is not convinced of the existence of gods. They have no belief in gods.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. There’s nothing more to it. All that bad stuff is just propaganda. Their humanity is the same as anyone else. Like everyone else, they feel love, anger, sadness, happiness, hope, fear, boredom, excitement, jealousy, loyalty, and all the other things that make us human.

And they have morals. There are many excellent arguments for why, but the easiest way for you to know is to just look at them.

Look at your daughter, at her actual behavior. She has not suddenly started doing horrible things, and she’s not going to start just because she’s an atheist. She has morals, and she got them from you. She got them a little by listening to you and mostly by watching you. People who do not believe in gods tend to do the right thing just as much as anyone else, but if asked why, they will usually attribute that to their upbringing instead of wanting to please a god or to avoid displeasing a god. Since you say that you daughter is a very good girl, then my guess is that she has a strong sense of right and wrong, she has a strong sense of compassion, she knows what good manners are, even if she may forget them briefly as most 16 year-olds sometimes do,

and she knows about telling the truth.

I don’t know the circumstances surrounding your daughter telling you that she is an atheist, but she did tell you. Even though you may not like what she said, be sure that you honor her for being honest with you. The worst thing you could do would be to punish her or scold her for the content of her honest sharing, and drive her into lying to you and keeping secrets. When you’re done reading this, click here to see what can happen when parents punish a child’s honesty because they don’t like what she honestly shares.

Keep the communications open with her. Keep it safe for both of you to talk. That openness is extremely precious. Ask her, ask her with genuine, loving curiosity about her thoughts, feelings and beliefs, don’t tell her. You don’t know what they are because you’ve been told false, scary stories. Let her safely tell you about herself. Just listen. You don’t have to agree with her, but it is very important to not try to force, badger, or guilt-trip her into changing her views and agreeing with you. That will not work, and it will definitely make things much worse.

You ask if this is a phase that she will grow out of, or if it is just one of these things kids just say. I don’t know for certain. 16 year-olds are going through complex upheavals and transformations physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. They can be all over the place from one week to the next.

But I have strong doubts that your daughter is just going through a whim. Given the prejudice in society, expressing this to one’s family can be extremely difficult and intimidating. It is usually not tossed out casually like something about the latest fad or fashion.

Do not dismiss this as nothing more than her being rebellious. Take what she says seriously, listen to her respectfully, even though you disagree or wish she saw things your way. Otherwise, you just might trigger rebellion out of sheer frustration on her part, and that will only muddle things up.

A large number of the atheists who share their stories here on this blog will tell you that they knew with certainty that they were non-believers at around this age. Your daughter is going into the last stage of her neurological development. Most of her personality and her intellect is already set. Over the next several years, she will simply become a more mature version of the person you already see before you.

So this is most likely real. It is not a terrible thing. She is not broken; she does not need fixing. She will probably grow up to be a fine person of whom you can be very proud.

But this moment is a crisis for your relationship with her. You can make it better than ever, or you can ruin it. You can accept her as she is, or you can try to pressure her or force her to comply with your image of what you wanted her to be. If you do that, you’ll drive her away, and the responsibility for the estrangement will be on your shoulders.

What makes her different in this way about belief? The basis of atheism is skepticism. Skepticism does not mean refusal to believe. The word comes from the Greek word meaning “to look.” So a skeptic is a person who tends to hold back belief about all sorts of things until they can see for themselves. By their nature, they’re just not easily convinced of things. They need more than words to convince them. They need to see convincing evidence.

Skepticism is a good thing. It protects us from being fooled by con artists, or believing harmful rumors. We all have some skeptical instinct, but I think that some people are born more skeptical than others. Your daughter may be one of those. It is simply a difference, like being taller or shorter.

Although the two of you may end up having to agree to disagree about belief in a god, you can continue to love each other and treat each other respectfully. She’s an adolescent now, but in the blink of an eye, she’ll be an adult. Believe me, as a father I know. You should start now to gradually practice how to relate to her as an adult to an adult, rather than as a parent to a child. It takes some time for most parents to switch those roles, and it’s easier if you’re prepared when the time actually comes.

Amelia, now you’re going to read the comments by readers of this blog. Most of them are atheists, and there may be a few believers too. Understand that atheists have as wide a variety of personalities as any other group of people. Some will be very encouraging, and some will have some bitterness or pain to express. Some will identify with your daughter, and some will empathize with you as a parent. Some will tell you about how she may need to find like-minded peers for support, living in a prejudiced world. That’s one of the main things we do here, giving support to those who are having a tough time.

Hopefully, she will also have the support of an open, honest, respectful and loving relationship with her mother. You have a great deal of ability to make that happen if you are willing to let go of fear and to accept and even embrace the wonderful fact that your daughter has a mind of her own. I wish both of you the very best.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Deiloh

    An item that might set a mother’s mind at ease and provide positive role models for a teen is a list of people that have done good without religion.

    List of non-theists:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nontheists

  • Carla Barbera

    I would also love to see Amelia’s reply to this elegantly written reply. Fantastic, well thought out answers. You are awesome.

  • http://paigebruce.wordpress.com/ Paige Bruce

    I think you’re a fantastic parent for reaching for information before thoughtlessly judging and pushing her away. I had this conversation with my mother when I was around the same age, maybe younger, and the fact that she was willing to listen to me, treat my beliefs intelligently, and simply agree to disagree has only strengthened our relationship over the years. I’ve had some fantastic discussions with my mother over the years and it’s usually left both of us with something to think about.

    Even if you wish that she could come back to theism, she is only one that can decide that. The best thing you can do is separate her beliefs from her morals and everyday behaviour and focus on those, rather than on where the motivation may stem from.

  • Amy

    As Richard stated, I began doubting religion when I was your daughter’s age, but back then there was no internet for me to discover like-minded individuals. After 15 years of essentially keeping it to myself, I finally found others (online and in real life) who were also atheists and developed a great network through them.

    My mother does know, and she in some ways considers it a failure on her part. She also thinks that I am trying to be ‘difficult’, like I was when I got my first tattoo or when I got my tongue pierced in college 12 years ago. What I tell her, though, is that this is not something I just woke up one day and decided to be. For me, it was a gradual, sometimes painful but mostly refreshing, release from the dogma I had been raised to believe. I told her that she should be prooud of herself for raising a child who is able to critically think about things and not just accept them because they seem like nice things to believe or because ‘everyone believes it’. I only hope that my children will grow up to question everything and think for themselves.

    You, too, should be proud of that in your daughter, at the very least. It sounds like you have raised a fine young woman and I seriously doubt you have anything you should fear in regards to her future.

    Best wishes to both of you in the future.

  • JulietEcho

    What a wonderful step this mom has taken! Richard, you hit the nail on the head when you say that she’s found the right place to learn about atheism – from actual atheists.

    Amelia, I grew up with very religious parents, who not only believe in God, but also believe in fairly strict religious living. When I gradually stopped believing the religious teachings I learned as a kid, I’ll tell you what I didn’t lose: I didn’t lose the compassion or the sense of justice that my parents taught me. I didn’t lose the positive life lessons and the good examples that my parents set for me.

    Yes, I lost some beliefs that came with my religious teachings (I re-examined issues like the death penalty, homosexuality, abortion, etc. and came to my own conclusions). But I never lost my “moral compass” or the desire to be close to my family.

    The saddest part of my journey to atheism has been the fact that it distanced me from my family. Religion is such a huge part of their lives that I only fit into it in a smaller, limited way now. The fact that you’re trying to understand your daughter, and that you recognize that she’s still “good” shows that you’re already light-years ahead of many parents whose kids admit their atheism. And your daughter has shown that she trusts you and wants you to be “in” on how she’s maturing and what she’s thinking. Lots of teenagers distance themselves from their parents while they become more independent, and in the process, some parent-child relationships suffer. She’s showing you that you mean a lot to her, and that she still wants you in her confidence.

    You don’t have to pretend to agree with her conclusions, but by encouraging her to keep thinking and sharing with you, you’ll strengthen a relationship that’s invaluable.

  • http://atheonomics.blogspot.com Richard H

    To add a small thing regarding ethics, atheism is to Humanism as theism is to Christianity.

    Neither atheism nor theism has any moral imperatives. But, there are moral philosophies within both theism and atheism. Most atheists I meet seem to be secular humanists.

    I would recommend looking into the Unitarian Church (which has many atheistic members) and the various humanist societies around the US. As a rule, these groups have tolerance and respect for others as core principles.

  • http://consequence.freehostia.com timeeeee

    if someone becomes an atheist it will either allow them to be more true to who they are and how they see the world, or be an important step on whatever religious/spiritual(/scientific?) journey they need to have to get to that point. hahaha this sounds like some crazy bs when i write it

  • Kim

    Great response, Richard, and thoughtful comments here as well. I would also suggest to Amelia checking out Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” because I believe she speaks very poignantly and accessibly to this specific parent-child conundrum.

  • dave

    Wow! I’m a little surprised that “Amelia” had the insight to write such a letter. But you answered them quite well. Like Carla, above, I too would be interested in hearing Amelia’s response. Getting dialogs like this happening is so very important.

  • Brian E

    I applaud Amelia for reaching out to Richard! Thank you Amelia, for taking the time to try and understand atheism first instead of just listening to biased opinions and knee-jerk reacting based on those. Who knows, perhaps you and your daughter can become an example to your congregation regarding true harmony between people of different (and no) faiths. Isn’t that what we all want, after all?

  • Lifer

    Your daughter is lost to you now and she’ll burn forever in hellfire!

    Sorry, that was the theist response to this situation.

  • http://foo.ca Not That Richard

    First, I’m glad that this mother didn’t outright condemn her daughter. We’ve heard too many stories of people shut out and abused by family for not buying into religion.

    I hope that Richard’s answer above helps to ease your concerns; I wish more people did research rather than react on their ‘gut feeling’ toward new things.

    However…

    I can’t help but wonder how asking actual atheists is any better of a choice than asking some other, unbiased source.

    If we atheists DID sacrifice goats and eat Christian babies, would we tell people that? Being “well-known” immoral liars, would we tell people that we’re immoral liars? Of course not.

    I wonder if replacing the word “Atheist” with “Scientologist” reads the same way…

  • NewEnglandBob

    Well said, Richard.

  • http://mimi-n-moe.blogspot.com/ Karen

    Amelia, I would try to withhold judgment, and instead offer this advice: This is something people have always struggled with, and part of growing up is asking questions and finding answers. Ask her how you can help her in this process. I would withhold judgment and instead offer support. No matter what conclusions she draws, in the end she will remember her mother being a supportive and caring mom. Remember she is only 16.
    ~Karen

  • Simon

    Wow. What a great reply Richard!

    I am keeping this to show people who ponder about atheism and the prejudices against it.

    As a side note to Amelia. I was the same age when I became an atheist. My mother is a Christian and still is. She knows I’m an atheist. It means the world to me that she still cares for me to her utmost. She might not agree with it, but she still loves me, and THAT made my life so much better. It also gave me confidence in my own belief to not judge and have prejudices against other religions.

  • Katie

    Quote: “…The most common misconceptions include that atheists are evil, immoral, criminal, dangerous, selfish, hateful, stupid, cowardly, un-American, rebellious, self-indulgent, depressed, and have no meaning in their lives. I have known several dozen atheists very closely for several years, I have had long conversations with hundreds of others online, and I have never met anyone like that. The atheists I know are good, kind, smart, highly moral and ethical people who go to work, love their families, pay their taxes, and live very meaningful lives. They want to live peacefully with their neighbors, they want to participate in their communities, they want to help where there is a need, and they want to be treated fairly….”

    In the spirit of being skeptical, is this really true? You’ve never met an atheist who is selfish? Any atheists who aren’t that bright? Not a single atheist doges their taxes? Either you’ve met a very special group of individuals, or they simply aren’t reflective of everyone. The point is not that atheists are inherently special, but that they are not necessarily wrong or evil, and that Amelia’s mother should give atheists the same benefit of the doubt she might to anyone else.

  • Tina

    Using my emotional teenage years as my basis of understanding the teenage girl psyche, putting atheism aside, Amelia’s daughter may not want to discuss her atheism with her mother. If Amelia’s daughter sticks with her new belief, as she gets older and more mature, she’ll eventually open up about it. So, my advice to Amelia would be to keep “faith” in her daughter, even if she’s is not ready for an adult relationship with her mother just now. :)

  • Haley

    I myself am in your daughter’s position now. I’m sixteen years old and have recently started telling people, including my parents, of my atheism. My situation may differ slightly, as neither of my parents have been particularly active church-goers, but between my mother and my overly-religious relatives, I have always had Christianity pushed on me. Still, the whole idea never really seemed to make sense to me, even when my grandparents would take me to church when I was little. I suppose I was technically always an atheist; I just never knew that there was a specific term for it or that it was even allowed. I first identified as an atheist at thirteen, but I didn’t start telling people about it until this year.

    Luckily, my parents were relatively accepting of my decision. They try to avoid talking about it whenever possible and they also seem to think it’s just a phase that I’ll grow out of (which, of course, it isn’t), but they don’t try to press any other beliefs on me. I have yet to tell my more religious relatives, but I have a feeling that my parents will defend me if and when I do.

    This isn’t to say my confession has been completely problem-free, however; my friends and classmates at school have been considerably less accepting. I’ve been told that I’m destined to be a horrible person, that I’m going to hell, and all sorts of hurtful things–even from people I considered to be my friends.

    Amelia, if your daughter is telling or has told other people about her atheism as well, then she is likely going through similar problems. Now, more than ever, she needs to know that someone supports her, and I’m sure it would mean the world to her if it was you. She’ll need someone to talk to who won’t bite her head off for the slightest suggestion that religion isn’t as great as everyone makes it seem, and believe me, it can be extremely difficult to find someone like that.

  • En Passant

    I am so impressed that Amelia chose this route for asking advice; as Richard and others have noted, it’s a rare occurrence!

    If I may offer some humble advice, Amelia, I too realized my atheism as a teenager. As supportive as my parents have tried to be since then, there are two things I wish they had not done.

    1) They initially explained to me that I was going through a phase, instead of trying to understand. I know now they were trying to rationalize my choice to themselves because they were afraid for me, but it was condescending and hurtful from my perspective.

    2) As I mentioned, they were afraid for me. I think they were genuinely concerned I would go to hell. This caused them so much unnecessary anxiety and stress, and it really prevented us from communicating effectively. Eventually, my parents reconciled their Christian beliefs with my atheism, believing that a just and loving God would either forgive me my “sin” or understand why I feel the way I do. So now we disagree about whether I’m going to Heaven… but it’s a much less upsetting conversation!

    However, my parents were wonderful in their ability to see exactly what Richard explained — I am an ethical, thoughtful person with a fulfilling life. I am grateful for the upbringing I had and the mutually respectful relationship I now have with my parents. I truly hope you and your daughter can achieve the same thing! Best of luck,

    EP

  • Allison

    I too became an atheist at 16. I am now 21, and even after attending a fairly religious and conservative university in Texas (because they had the program I wanted,) I am still a very happy atheist. I am getting married (to another atheist, who I was lucky enough to have met at this school,) have been accepted to law school, participate in volunteer organizations and, not to be high-and-mighty– but for the sake of your daughter– I am a pretty darn upstanding citizen if I do say so myself. She can be all of this and more, too, if you just accept her. Trying to convert her back will be counterproductive; trust the advice of the experienced.

  • Ron in Houston

    I do not know what to do or who to turn to.

    Why must you DO anything? Why not for once trying to accept what is?

    Other than this, she is a very good girl.

    Why must you stick her with your definition of “good” or “bad?” As Richard said, you’ve created this fictional strawman in your head.

    I have tried recommending web sites for her to read but she just brushes them off. I am at my wits end and do not know what to do. Perhaps some of your readers can offer advice.

    Yes, stop being a control freak. Stop thinking your daughter MUST be a certain way.

    You are apparently quite good at creating suffering for yourself.

  • sc0tt

    Amelia – thanks for coming here, it shows you’re interested in who we are.

    One other thing I’d like you to think about though – the possibility that your daughter may be RIGHT and that religion really is just a superstition. Just consider it and be honest with yourself and maybe it’ll lead to some conversations that bring you two closer together.

  • Ashley Moltzan

    I really liked Richard’s advice. I wish my own parents would read the same advice…

  • Jim H

    Hi Amelia. I could echo what Richard and others have said…

    Quite a few parents have dealt, and will deal, with hearing that their child is gay/lesbian. Those parents have two choices: accept the child as him/herself, or build a wall between them. I think you have the same choices with your daughter.

    She is not evil. She still has the same name. She is not taller than yesterday (well, probably, and not much if he is). She is still the same person, and she still loves you just as much.

    In reaching out to you, she is also more courageous than I am.

  • Trace

    Amelia,

    I can see your are deeply concerned for your daughter. Thanks for letting us share our perspective with you. My advice, please be there for her and help others in the family to respect her decision.

    I too was an atheist by the time I was a teenager. Having my parents (both of them Catholic) support me was helpeful.

    Remember that being an atheist does not mean you are a bad person. Heck, my son and I even deliver meals to old ladies on a weekly basis ;) It doesn’t mean either that she will not keep a respectful relationship with believers (friends and family).

    Try to listen to what your daughter has to say and understand her. It will make a great difference in her life and will help your relationship in the long term.

    Best of luck to both of you.

  • J B Tait

    What a wonderful mother.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Amelia,

    Even though I’m an atheist, I have participated in adult bible study (small group) with evangelical Southern Baptists who talked a lot about some of their own children who were atheist. These Baptists (and VERY concerned parents) believe in heaven and hell and take the bible very seriously and literally. As believers, the way they ended up dealing with their children’s atheism was with the following understanding of the concept of grace. They believe that even though the way to get to heaven is through repentance and accepting Jesus as your personal savior, they also believe God has the ability through grace to allow good people to enter heaven even if they did not accept Jesus as their savior. They believe grace comes from God and is ultimately up to God alone. They believe that accepting Jesus helps (a lot) but God is free to bestow grace as He sees fit.

    I don’t know what your religious views are on God or the concept of grace, but believing in “grace for good atheists” has given these Baptists I know some inner peace and allowed them to maintain good healthy relationships with their children while not compromising on their own religious beliefs.

    Respectively, Jeff

  • JulietEcho

    @Jeff – Wow, if you wouldn’t mind taking the time, do you think you could post about your experiences with that small group on the forums? We have several Baptist (and close-to-Baptist type) theists who are regulars in our discussions, and I think reading about what you described in your comment about could spark some fascinating conversations about beliefs.

    If you’re not registered at the forum already, you might have to wait an hour or two to be accepted (it’s the only way to keep the spammers out).

  • Claudia

    Amelia, just the fact that you decided to ask an actual atheist what your daughters atheism meant means you took a step in the right direction. I would like to assume that an impulse to inform oneself before emitting a judgment is something you do often. If so, your daughter may have well learned it from you and done the same thing with your religion, only to come to a different conclusion from you.

    In regards to this:

    My sixteen year old daughter just told me she was an atheist. I do not know what to do or who to turn to. Other than this, she is a very good girl.

    Now I understand you mean well, but I would caution you to look at that phrase from the perspective of an atheist. In case you’re not seeing it, let me rephrase it: “David’s a Jew. Other than that he’s a a great guy.” You see the problem? Your daughter’s atheism should not be held to be something that makes her “bad”. Let her behavior be your guide to whether your daughter is good or not. If she’s good “other than being an atheist”, than she’s good, no caveats.

    I wish you the very best of luck. I’m aware that this may be very new territory for you, but as long as you treat your daughter with love and respect, and she treats you likewise, I’m certain you’ll both be fine.

    Cheers.

  • Reckless

    Amelia -

    I commend you for doing your homework. You’ve obviously been reading up on atheists online if you’ve found this site. The fact that you’ve taken this step is illustrative of a desire to understand your daughter. This is wonderful, both for you, and her. You mentioned she was disinterested in the links you provided her with. What were the nature of these links? Would she be more receptive if, perhaps, you encouraged her to provide you with citations to books and websites she found to be influential? The most important thing to do in situations like these is to open a dialogue, rather than a lecture. Be sure she feels that she can talk to you about her thoughts and beliefs without feeling that she is being judged or condescended to.

    Will your daughter remain an atheist? Probably. It’s certainly possible that she may turn back to a religious or spiritual community later in life, but I wouldn’t hold out for it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful relationship! Many of my relatives are religious, and I’ve spent four years now with a wonderful man who has far more spirituality than I do. By simply agreeing to disagree and showing mutual respect, I have kept happy and fulfilling relationships with all these people in my life.

    Your daughter does not need help – just the love, support and understanding of her mother, who clearly cares for her.

  • Captain Werewolf

    I first began questioning my faith around 13 or so, and by around 18 or 19 self-identified as an atheist. My parents and I don’t see exactly eye-to-eye on all matters, but I am extremely close with them, and their acceptance of my views (and I of theirs) has strengthened our relationship. I applaud Amelia for recognizing how valuable her relationship with her daughter is and for making an attempt to understand what is going on in her life.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    @JulietEcho – I don’t want to break the commandment “what goes on in small group stays in small group” but perhaps I could share some general viewpoints. I’m already registered in the forums but I haven’t actually gone there in quite some time.

  • Carlie

    Amelia,
    Again, thank you and congratulations for being so calm about your daughter’s assertion, and for asking actual atheists about it. I grew up as a very devout Southern Baptist and didn’t lose faith in religion until my 30s. I also wondered at the time if it was a phase, but my inability to believe only became stronger the more I tried to find factual support to shore it up and realized that support was lacking. So be braced for the probability that it isn’t a phase for your daughter.
    However, what I want to tell you is that it’s ok on the other side. My moral compass has not changed; I still believe deeply in the basic morals and ethics that I was raised with. The biggest difference is that instead of worrying that I’ll let down God if I falter, I worry that I’ll let down myself, my loved ones, humanity at large. This is both more pressing and yet more comforting at the same time. Believing that this is the only life I have and that I have to make it a good one leads a person to think about their actions in multiple directions; how will this affect my future, how will this affect my relationships, how will this affect my society. That’s more introspection than simply wondering how it will affect my interaction with God. Bluntly, it’s harder. But it often leads to better actions than I would have had even when I was most deeply in religion, teaching Bible study classes and witnessing and going to church three times a week. Clearing up the time I would have spent in church also freed up space to have deeper relationships and volunteer more for charities, which also helps to make the world better.
    Losing my faith has also made me a better person internally. I don’t get sick at the thought that I might not be on the correct path God has chosen for me. I don’t constantly measure and find myself wanting, never quite up to God’s standards. I don’t repeatedly remind myself that without God I’m nothing, and that my only real worth is through Him. I’m a happier person now. I know that I deserve to be treated well, and that I have the responsibility to treat others well in turn. I forgive myself when I’m not perfect. I empathize with others when they’re not perfect, either.
    Amelia, right now you’re worried about your daughter on several levels. But as for worrying about her ability to remain a “good girl”, I think she’s on more solid ground than you realize. If you’re worried about having moral guidelines, I’d encourage you and your daughter to check out some humanist groups; I think you’ll find that they encourage a lot of the same core beliefs that you have, and might be a good way for you and your daughter to develop common ground together.

  • June

    Amelia, this is a great time to explore philosophy websites with your daughter. There are many different world views out there that can be lumped under “atheism” and just because your daughter has figured out something she doesn’t believe in (gods, the supernatural) doesn’t mean she can easily articulate what she DOES believe in. You can help her figure that out and in the process identify how your world view and hers match up.

    Personally, I like the Brights movement (www.the-brights.net) as a starting point for a young person. It emphasizes how religious and non-religious people can work together on common goals. What fun if you two could plan activities that united your church and her atheist friends in something you all agree is worthwhile?

    Also, remind your daughter that she doesn’t have to abandon any aspects of religion she DID like. Used to using prayer to help sort out the day? Meditation or a journal might be a good substitute. Atheists can enjoy religious movies and novels as fiction. Things like that.

    Lastly, your daughter may be looking at colleges right now. Some universities now have “humanist chaplains” (FriendlyAtheist.com has a post listing a handful, somewhere). If you had hoped your daughter would join a student church organization in school, this might be something to learn more about.

  • Joffan

    Katie:

    The most common misconceptions include that atheists are evil, immoral, criminal, dangerous, selfish, hateful, stupid, cowardly, un-American, rebellious, self-indulgent, depressed, and have no meaning in their lives. … I have never met [an atheist] like that.

    In the spirit of being skeptical, is this really true? You’ve never met an atheist who is selfish? Any atheists who aren’t that bright? Not a single atheist doges their taxes?

    I’d give Richard a little room for poetic licence here. I read this as meaning he’s never met an atheist who conforms to the complete negative description, not that they’re all impeccable characters who have no negative traits at all. Admittedly his subsequent praise of atheists he knows pushes my interpretation off-balance a little, but only a little, as nice people tend to know nice people. It’s certainly an empirical counterweight to the wholly negative view of atheists promoted by some.

  • http://twitter.com/bjorntipling Bjorn

    This is very good advice.

  • http://www.twitter.com/shocktwist Brittany

    I’m so glad to see a mother actually reaching out to atheists instead of simply believing the lies or trying to force someone into some they’re not.

    My mother, while not telling me directly to my face, confessed to my sibling that she thinks I’m just going through a phase.

    Whether you’re 16 or 30, it is annoying to be treated as if you don’t know what you’re doing or what you’re capable of thinking. I know that I resent my mother for saying such things behind my back instead of talking to me, and it’s put a strain on our relationship.

    Don’t be that kind of parent. Be there for your daughter and love her the way she is.

  • Carolyn

    As a 17-year-old atheist, I’d like to second what Richard said. My parents, when I informed them of my atheism, were not as open as I would have liked. As a result, I now have to keep some information from my mother for her sake, to not upset her, and my sanity’s sake.
    Encourage your daughter to be open with you! If you’re understanding about this, she’ll be more likely to confide in you in the future.

  • James

    To echo some of the advice given above, the best thing is to treat your daughter’s belief as one developed by an intelligent and thoughtful person and not simply dismiss it as a phase. It may very well be a rebellious phase, but saying that it is only a phase will simply build a wall between you and your daughter. Also, and this is just from my own personal experience, don’t see all of her decisions through the lens of atheism. After I told my parents that I was an atheist, all my decisions were analyzed through my atheism whenever I had a conversation about what was occurring in my life. It has severely stressed my relationship with them because all I’ve become is their atheist son. On the other side, my brother (who is an evangelical Christian) simply talked to me about it and accepted that I had come to my own decision. Over the past 3 years, our relationship has become stronger than it ever was before when I was hiding my atheism. We still debate politics, choose our draft picks for fantasy football, and recently we have even had very good conversations about belief and the role it plays in our lives. My advice is that this might be an opportunity for you and your daughter to become even closer now that she has made herself very vulnerable to your judgment by telling you that she is an atheist.

  • http://notapottedplant.blogspot.com/ Transplanted Lawyer

    Amelia, you have one world view and your daughter has another. If you and she disagreed about a political issue or whether a particular movie or kind of music was enjoyable or not, you might sluff it off as “no big deal,” but you’d also recognize that you aren’t going to change each other’s minds about that issue. I’m not going to tell you that religion is “no big deal,” but I will tell you that it is something that is very difficult to change another person’s mind about. Your daughter has shared something with you that she no doubt recognized would cause you some concern, and your job as a parent now is to respond to that concern by making it clear that no matter what, you love her and will always do so. If you’ve done a good job as a parent — and the fact that you’ve come here for advice strongly suggests that you have — she’ll be a good person and a good daughter and a good friend to you all your lives, and at the end of the day that’s all we can ask of one another.

  • Anon

    Amelia, as a 19 year old atheist I would like to thank you for writing this letter. I still have not told my parents for fear they would respond badly, you have given me hope that they might understand. I might show them this letter when I do come out as an atheist. Thank you so much from your daughter and from me for being understanding in this confusing and scary time. It is terrifying to disagree with your core support group and it sounds like you are definitely part of that for your daughter.

  • Ani

    Love all that Richard said.

    Amelia, I would like to share my own experience. I’m a 25 year-old atheist and daughter to a Lutheran father and a Catholic mother.

    My parents both made the decision not to raise me into a religion. I had exposure to God, of course, and growing up believed. From middle school and into high school I searched through different religions for help, guidance, understanding, and my “place” you could say. My dad was always supportive of me and simply told me not to get into anything that would hurt myself or others. My mother never took an interest in it and never seemed to “listen” to my concerns and problems. . .even when I approached her with questions regarding Catholicism.

    Now at 25, I am finally being more open about my religious stance and getting involved with a secular group who wants to be involved in helping the community. I have a wonderful relationship with my dad even with all our differences of opinions. I still look up to him. My mother, sadly, jokes that I have joined a cult of sorts and I can’t tell whether or not she is joking or is being serious. All that I know is it hurts not being able to have a close relationship with her like I can with my dad.

    I think reaching out as you have is wonderful! I think the best thing you can do is let her know you love her and will always be there for her. And listen. Support is huge and it is possible to support each other even if you don’t think the same way in this area.

  • Jim

    Amelia – In addition to all the good words and advice above… I’m a 49 yr old parent myself. Please keep in mind that you love your daughter, not just her beliefs. I have seen too many people disowned and shunned from their families just because of their beliefs, and that’s certainly not a good reflection on the family’s beliefs!
    Secondly, this could be an extremely difficult and lonely stage for your daughter. If she has atheist friends that’s great. If she doesn’t, don’t deny her that or you will only alienate her (speaking from experience, other situations though). Instead help her find a social outlet she may need to replace the parts she might lose by coming out with her beliefs. Help and encourage her to look for meetup groups, student clubs and organizations, and other ways she can find stable social relationships. This internet thing is great, but it should augment real life instead of replacing it.

  • Matt

    Man, all this just kills me, because the last time I admitted to my mother that I wasn’t going to follow her stripe of christianity, let’s call it “Lutheran” for now, I was given a look and a short response that made me feel like I was going to sink into the floor. “Well I guess I’ll just stay Lutheran for now” I had to say, as I had just come out as more of a Deist.
    That was probably 6 years ago. I’ve come out to my stepdad who won’t tell her but warns me not to tell her either because he (and I) think the consequences will not be good.

    Also, bravo Amelia. My dad and stepmom just send me stupid emails like “I’ll pray for you” and such.

    I’m just hoping to be out of college and on my feet financially soon and then I can say what I want.

  • Greg

    It’s hard for me to say anything that hasn’t already been said, but being from the UK, which is a far less religious country than the US, where I presume you are from, I can give, perhaps, a slightly different point of view.

    Over here, religion isn’t an issue, as a general rule, if someone’s an atheist, or a Christian, it doesn’t really matter as to how they are treated. And yet the society still functions. There isn’t mass pillaging and raping! Being an atheist doesn’t mean you aren’t a moral person.

    Two things you might care to think about. If I’m wrong, and you’re right, and Christianity is completely true, then even before Christ came, people were doing many of the things that Christians consider moral. This must mean that your God created us all with an inherent sense of right or wrong. So do not worry that your daughter is going to suddenly become immoral because she does not believe in a god. As a general rule, we humans seem to be much happier when those around us are happy, so even being selfish would make us wish to help others!

    The second thing is that there are many people who move away from theism because of the high standard of their morals. I don’t expect you to agree with whether they are right or not, but hopefully it might again ease your mind as to whether or not atheists can be good people.

    You may or may not have heard of what is grandiously termed ‘The Problem of Evil’. This is basically that some people find it hard to believe there can be a god with all the bad things that happen in the world. Whether this argument works or not is irrelevent to what I am trying to say – the point that matters is that these people don’t believe in god because they, say, find killing to be offensive and immoral. Or in other words, because they are moral people!

    Finally, be warned that if she has really put thought into this, then telling her what to think, rather than discussing the subject like two adults will likely drive her away from theism even more, and maybe seriously impact your relationship.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    The fact that Amelia actually contacted atheists to ask about this makes me hopeful that she’s open-minded enough and sufficiently willing to learn to get through this. I wish her luck.

  • muggle

    Richard, your answer was perfect.

    Amelia, just the fact that you’re asking shows some insight and thoughtfulness. I’m betting the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Your daughter is most likely a thoughtful girl because you have set her a good example. Don’t worry. This is not going to change.

    Katie, true but I suspect “good” and “bad” morals run in very much the same percentages in Atheism and theism. People are who they are when all is said and done despite their worldview. I have been Athiest, Jewish, Agnostic and Christian and I’ve pretty much remained the same throughout morally speaking.

    The only difference is I left some rules behind as I discarded the rulebook but even this had more to do with life experiences.

    I left narrow views of gays behind (in my Jewish stage) when two of my first and closest friends upon leaving home were a gay couple. Before I knew it I was evaluating men’s looks with them without a thought. Knowing them knocked out stereotypes about gays. And, hell, their “marriage” lasted three times as long as mine (also in quotes though legal) so I couldn’t exactly throw any first stones.

    Likewise, it was giving birth, not becoming Agnostic that changed my mind about abortion.

    You live and grow and become who you were meant to be. Regardless of your religion or absence thereof, you will be who you are dependent on how much you learn about life as you go through it and how open your mind is to the experiences you gain as you interact with others.

  • http://www.blog.vestigels.com/ JJ

    Other than this, she is a very good girl

    I was going to comment on this but Claudia above beat me to it and with a better analogy (about Jews) then I would have offered.

    I’ve seen the same kind of slip ups with people that are racist but insist that they are not. They will make some comment like the one quoted that betrays what box they put a person/group/belief into.

    It’s this kind of taking it for granted that atheism is a bad thing which is most disappointing to see in a lot of people of faith.

    Regardless, excellent response Richard.

  • Greg

    I’m always impressed by Richard’s replies and I have to say Amelia already is on the right track.

    I transitioned to atheist (despite being exposed to religion at a very young age) when I was in 6th grade, when I learned of my friend’s father having terminal cancer. It made me question death. In 5th grade, we did the rudimentary investigation of other world cultures and religions and the two forces combined made reach the ultimate conclusion that there was no god and when I died, I was dead.

    My parents tried to convince me otherwise and as much as I wanted to believe I couldn’t. It scared me for awhile as much as I’d like to think as myself as being intelligent for my age, I still wasn’t really equipped to handle and rationalize everything. My parents never forced their views into me, and had they, I probably wouldn’t enjoy the relationship I have with them today as an adult.

    Eventually they followed suite and transitioned to agnostic and atheist as we exchanged our views as both were mostly “Christian” out of what was deemed socially acceptable and never adhered to most of the common views of religion, but even if they hadn’t, we’d still be on good terms.

    I’m currently back in college for a second time and part of a college atheist group, as an older member of the group I can attest most of the members do not enjoy the same relationship as I do with my parents. There is a segment of our members that still haven’t told their parents about their atheism. Let that be a comforting thought that she trusts you well enough to tell you. The “coming out” stories are always of huge interest to other atheists, hopefully your daughters will be a memory that she felt accepted for who she is like mine, too few of us have that pleasure.

  • Alice

    As someone who has been on the other side of your predicament, I would suggest talking to your kid at a time when you aren’t ‘at your wit’s end’. Talk to her about what she believes because you want tounderstand her, not because you expect to change her. If you try to talk to her just toget your argument in, it will only end with mutual frustration. Until this talk happens, don’t treat her any differently. Don’t make any comments like ‘well if you think there’s no god then why…’ at random, inappropriate moments that put her on the defensive. It’s just a very unpleasent situation to be in. You don’t know if it’s rhetorical or if you should answer it. I’m not assuming you would do that- but it’s important to have a level playing field if you’re asking about her beliefs.

  • ddr

    Amelia,
    Religion is just not for everyone. Some people simply cannot believe. I’m one of those people.

    I went to church as a teen with my grandmother. I didn’t really care about church, but I didn’t want to see her go alone. When I got married at 20, my wife was involved in the church she had been raised in. I also got involved in the church and did 15 years of bible study and at one point was on the church board of directors and the youth group leader.

    I liked the people and there was a great deal about my church involvement that I enjoyed. But I never believed. I was never able to get past stuff like miracles, the virgin birth, and the resurrection. No amount of praying for Jesus to come into my heart ever helped. I was completely unable to turn over control of my life to something I could not see. I was always looking for an explanation. I had no faith; I have always been a very evidence based person. If there was evidence for God you wouldn’t need faith.

    In my 40’s I had to admit to myself that I really didn’t believe and I had to stop calling myself a Christian. I was a cultural Christian. I believed in many of the values. But I don’t believe in God and never have been able to.

    So if you are right and there is a God, I may end up in Hell. But there is nothing I can do about that. Two decades in church did not make me a believer at any point. Going to church would just make me a hypocrite and still send me to hell. My only choice is to be at peace with the way I am and be honest with those around me and myself.

    I am a happy and well liked person. Most people who don’t know me well peg me as a Mormon because I’m that nice. I’m moral and kind because I like to be, not because I’m afraid of an invisible guy with a big stick.

    Your daughter may be like me. If so, no amount of guilt from your end will make her believe. It will just make her lie to you. I don’t think you want a relationship based on lies.

  • NeuroLover

    I don’t think I can be an atheist anymore– Richard is god.

  • Myles

    Amelia,
    I have a few crucial pieces of advice for Amelia. When listening to your daughter, remember that she is only 16. Her answers to some of your questions may seem to be sophomoric, unfounded, and ineloquent; but remember, she isn’t a college professor and therefore will not be able to present her ideas and answers in a highly educated way (not to say that she doesn’t have this capability).

    When I came out to my mother, I wasn’t able to give her the answers that I wanted because I had so many thoughts running through my head (I came out at 19). She wanted me to give her simple answers to her questions, but when my answers were five minutes long, she would stop me and say that I was wrong because it took so long for me to explain my position. There are many books out there that say exactly what she is thinking, but she may not have read them yet, and therefore can only rely on her own wordings and conjunction of ideas to explain herself, which is a very daunting task when trying to explain away the creator of the universe at 16, believe me. Don’t condemn her for this, for it will only create a schism between you. Understand that she does not have the adult capacity to juxtapose such extremely complex ideas about philosophy, morals, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and the like into a five minute conversation. They may seem scrambled and hard to understand, but these are the arguments that atheists use against theists, and they are very vast and complex ideas about the workings of the universe and of the psyche of the human race. Please give her some leeway.

    I commend you for coming to the source, and not seeking the advice of a pastor or other religious figure as my mother did. By coming here you can understand how we operate and why we believe what we believe, therefore avoiding the many lies that theists perpetuate about us. As a 21 year old college student who underwent the same thing as your daughter (I lost many friends and a lot trust from my mother) I am here to tell you that this is not and will not be an easy time for her. She really does believe what she is saying, and to say it out loud is a very powerful thing, as well as an extremely difficult thing. Please be conscious of this and don’t make it any harder on her.

    I know this is long but, again, I’m glad you came here. Also be aware that you may actually strengthen her position by asking her certain questions, especially when you give your answer to the said questions. When she says that she believes in evolution (which she inevitably does) your response that god created us will sound silly to her, as it does to us, and will only serve to strengthen her conviction that she has the right view. Because she has a skeptical mind as Richard mentioned, she will in fact listen to your questions and answers and think hard about them, probably forming her own opinions which will probably be different than your own.

    Your conversations will seem daunting to her, as she is trying to convince an adult that she is right, which is like trying to convince a hippy that weed is bad. Be aware of this and be encouraging to her, letting her know that you yourself are critically thinking about her responses and not just letting them go to the wind. This is an extremely important fork in the road in your relationship. I hope that you choose the right path, otherwise it could be devastating to you both.

    Best of luck to you both

  • WK

    I don’t think that anyone has yet to say this, but perhaps in her panic Amelia misunderstood the premise of this site.
    I say this because she doesn’t seem to want to know how to deal with her daughter’s atheism but rather to know whether or not she’ll grow out of it, or is just saying it to rebel. She gave no: ‘what if she really means it’ option in her terse email.

    Richard, you are assuming that Amelia believes what she does because of hearing bad things from her community, but have not mentioned the possibility that she may belong to a religion that believes that salvation is only possible through belief in god, and Jesus as the messiah.

    It has been mentioned many times before on the blog that to people who believe that the only way to heaven is through Christ, a loved one who doesn’t believe is similar to a loved one who has a serious drug problem, but worse because the drug addict can be saved if he accepts Christ, even if he dies from his addiction while the nonbeliever puts her eternal soul at risk. Asking them to be okay with a loved one who doesn’t believe is like asking someone to be okay with a loved one who has a heroine addiction.

  • Richard Wade

    WK,

    Yes, I was aware of the possibility of that Amelia’s concern might be more about her daughter’s soul than about the negative stereotypes about atheists’ moral conduct and behavior. I had to guess at all of it, since she simply expresses concern and a feeling of helplessness. The only clue pointing toward the moral issue was her statement, “Other than this, she is a very good girl.”

    I considered including a paragraph about considering that God would know better than anyone exactly what her daughter needs to see and experience to become a believer, and would provide that if he so chose. However I do not feel qualified to engage in such theological speculation, and since I don’t share the belief, my questionable credibility in that area would be a distraction.

    I’m weak on theology and strong on human relationships, so I decided I’d better talk about what I know, and not pretend about what I don’t know. I would rather risk an error by leaving that issue alone, rather than blunder around, possibly making things worse, possibly so badly that Amelia might disregard my other suggestions about improving their communication and their relationship.

    I hoped that a reader with more expertise would address the salvation issue in a comment, and fortunately one very adroitly did an excellent job. See Jeff’s comment of January 12th, at 1:17 PM where he talks about grace. It’s succinct, persuasive and far better than my effort would have been on that topic.

    This illustrates a theme in all my posts and comments. I never spend any time arguing with a believer about the existence or nature of a god. It’s fine for others, but for me it is a futile waste of time because my puny skills are no match for the iron grip of blind faith, and despite my trying to remain open-minded, their best efforts bounce right off of me. However I feel very strongly about challenging the bigotry, fear and loathing of atheists, and I have been able to make inroads there, helping people to rethink and reject such prejudice.

    I consider this Ask Richard column a team effort. I am very grateful for the positive, compassionate and insightful comments that readers offer on my posts, including those who disagree with me. Puffing up our egos by winning agreement is pointless and vain. What is important is for us to grab every opportunity to alleviate unnecessary suffering, and there is so much of that in these letters about theist-atheist conflicts. Because of all of your caring and intelligence, this place is a treasure house of useful collective experience and wisdom. Thank you, thank you, all.

  • Carlie

    Also, it depends on Amelia’s church’s views on salvation. If it is a “once saved always saved” mindset, her daughter’s in the clear, whether she “backslides” or not. If it is one where salvation is through works and can be lost, then it’s a bit trickier, and the best theological advice is indeed to rest assured that God will handle it somehow in the future. Either way, Amelia hopefully knows already that bullying someone into religion never works.

  • http://www.davehitt.com Hittman

    Amelia,

    Many parents in your situation have responded by pushing their children out of their lives. Congratulations for refusing to do that and hunting down information from the source.

    I’d suggest visiting Ask The Atheists, where you’ll find hundreds of answers to questions posed to atheists (http://www.asktheatheists.com/) You can post your own questions as well. Note that there are quite a few disagreements there – atheists only agree on one thing.

  • D

    Also, it depends on Amelia’s church’s views on salvation. If it is a “once saved always saved” mindset, her daughter’s in the clear, whether she “backslides” or not. If it is one where salvation is through works and can be lost, then it’s a bit trickier, and the best theological advice is indeed to rest assured that God will handle it somehow in the future.

    There is a third possibility, which I’m sort of sensing from the “is this just a temporary rebellious thing and not a true belief (or lack thereof” tone of Amelia’s letter: somewhere in the Bible (I think it’s in the book of Hebrews, don’t have time to look it up right now), there is a brief passage that basically states an exception to the “once saved always saved” doctrine, namely, that one sin is unforgivable: apostasy. If Amelia (as my mother did) takes this passage literally, then her daughter’s statement of nonbelief – if genuine – is non-retractable and a one-way ticket to Hell. No amount of good works, recanting, church attendance, prayer, etc will ever get Amelia’s daughter re-saved. This is why she isn’t offering the “it’s real, her daughter is an atheist forever and she really means and believes it” option: to her, this may mean condemning an otherwise “good” 16 year old girl to Hell, with zero chance of redemption.

  • absent sway

    Hi Amelia,
    I want to offer a related consideration that I hope will be encouraging at this difficult time. The fact that your daughter is grappling with issues of faith head-on at this age and that she honestly trusts you is likely a sign that she will have worked things out and be in a stable position concerning these things in the future, when perhaps more is at stake. Many of us have gone through these dark nights of the soul while married to a believer and fearing for our marriages, or raising children and fearing for the confusion we might cause them, or working at a church and fearing for our livelihood. Your daughter is brave and possibly lucky to wrestle with her doubts now. Do everything in your power to keep the lines of communication open and you can navigate this change together with mutual loyalty. I wish you all the best.

  • Bill Green

    What excellent advice. This column should help millions.

    It seems obvious that years of incorrect information promulgated by the religionists has meant that most US citizens have no idea what an atheist is except that it is bad. Even worse than the devil because the devil being a fallen angel supports belief in god. Whereas no belief at all is the one thing that is dangerous to all religions as it demonstrates the delusion all too well.

    In the past atheists have sat in silence but now thanks to Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris etc we are becoming vocal. There are more of us than we know (over 1 billion globally and growing http://www.adherents.com) Hence why religions think they are being attacked whereas what is happening is truth is being defended.

    I would like to add one comment. You state

    “An atheist is a person who is not convinced of the existence of gods. They have no belief in gods.”

    Having been an atheist since the age of reaching rational thought I used find the standard response to saying I am an atheist was people saying so you don’t believe in god. Which always seemed like a free pass for god. “So god exists but you just choose not to accept this”

    So I now answer as follows I believe that god or gods (or other supernatural beings) are man-made constructs, myths and legends. As such the concepts of god are not meaningful. This is what an atheist is.

    I feel this is a much more positive approach than just saying atheists do not believe in god. It also means that statements like I lost my faith are no longer relevant either. As an atheist you do not lose anything. As you know, you gain immeasurably in all areas.

    Consequently whenever I see someone who wishes to stand up for Atheism but they still take the view of loss rather than gain I have my own campaign to offer this perspective to them.

    The BBC our national broadcaster took the old view but when I wrote to them with this perspective they agreed and changed their website. No one was more pleased or surprised that they did this than I.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/atheism/

    I welcome your comments to my idea and hope you will join me in my campaign to persuade others to take this approach.

    Make Atheism Positive (not the greatest catch phrase and I hope someone can think of a better one but until then MAP it is). Lets all MAP atheism.

  • Jeff Dale

    Make Atheism Positive (not the greatest catch phrase and I hope someone can think of a better one but until then MAP it is).

    Great comments, and I like your campaign. Are you referring to an organized campaign of some sort? Or at least an online community or website or blog, to which we could refer other atheists who could benefit from the message?

    Candidate for catch phrase: Atheism is Positive (AIP).