I‘m a high school student, and while my parents know this, my Christian mother insists on sending me to church Youth Group every Friday. It doesn’t really bother me, but submitting to church feels as though I’m submitting to my mother. She believes that this is a “phase” and that it will “disappear” if I keep going to church. Some of my friends know that I’m atheist, but my church friends/acquaintances have no clue. I don’t like telling people about my beliefs because of all their misconceptions and prejudices about atheism. I’ve been struggling with whether I should stop going to church.
I love being an atheist and I’m proud of my beliefs. I feel like I’m a coward for not coming out and continuing to go along with my mother, but being a teenager makes it difficult for people to take my beliefs seriously. I’m a bit scared of how my peers will react and how my mother will react. My church has “presentations” for the preteens, which I used to have to attend. They basically make atheists out to be people in denial who are in a conspiracy to fool the rest of the world into believing in evolution. Needless to say, I didn’t really want to come out then. My mother has always had a tight control on the big decisions in my life (I’m an only child) and I’m afraid that this might elicit a bad reaction from her. She makes it a point to pray for me, pointedly mention God and church in front of me, and leave Christian magazines around.
If I stop going to church, I feel as though I should come out of the closet, especially because I don’t want to allow my church friends/acquaintances to continue to believe that I’m Christian. I know that word of my atheism will spread throughout the church community and make my family “look bad” in the words of my mother. (My church community is very conservative, and appearances are very important.) I don’t feel that my church acquaintances will understand my beliefs and will either attempt to distance themselves from me after they fail to convert me or take me on as a project of sorts. My church also has a policy that you “cannot be good friends with atheists or gays” lest we “lead good Christians astray onto the path of sin”, so I am afraid that the adults in my church community will discourage their children from speaking to me or getting too close to me.
So my question is: Should I stop going to church? If so, should I come out?
There’s a familiar paradox in life, repeatedly portrayed in literature, poetry and song. Young people, who have a great deal of time before them, are generally impatient, in a hurry to get what they want right now, while older people, whose time is dwindling, are generally very patient, willing to wait for what they want.
I think that part of the explanation for this is that the older people have learned, often the hard way, that the consequences of getting something you want too soon can be worse than not getting it at all.
I have received many letters from people of high school age who are eager to “out” themselves to their parents and their communities. In so many of these letters, they build a very convincing case for the storm of fear, anger, hurt, accusations, slander, unwanted proselytizing, ostracization, persecution, abuse, and financial or even physical abandonment that they will bring down upon their own heads if they announce the simple fact that they don’t believe in the local god.
It sounds like really good reasons to keep their mouths shut, doesn’t it?
But on the other side of their quandary, they say things like, “It’s tearing me up inside to not tell them,” or “I hate feeling like a liar,” or similarly to your remarks, “I don’t want them thinking I’m still a believer.” They all share this burning impatience to get it out right now!
Stop for a moment, take a few deep, slow breaths, and take a long, skeptical look at this imperative urge to bring down the avalanche of trouble that you have so believably described.
From early childhood to around mid twenties, people go through a process called differentiation. Gradually, children discover that they are not just an extension of their parent’s bodies and minds. Step by step, they realize that they have their own bodies and minds which can move and think in different ways than those of their parents. In the teen years this becomes acute, and sometimes those young developing selves seek out controversial ways of asserting their independence just for the sake of asserting it. It’s natural for them to do this.
Given your mother’s heavy parenting style, I can understand your desire to be free, but don’t sacrifice wisdom in the headlong pursuit of freedom. Your differentiation is progressing along and is inevitable. There’s no need to get unnecessary bruises in a process that will run its course anyway.
Coming out as an atheist is what is called a precipitous action. Precipitous as in precipice, as in cliff, as in jumping off. You set into irreversible motion whatever consequences will happen. You’ll land safely or not, but the thing is done before you land.
Like those cliff divers in Acapulco watching the incoming waves, good timing can make a big difference.
Do you really need to take this precipitous step right now? To come out now, before you have enough financial, social, educational and personal independence firmly established, before you have resources upon which you can fall back, is like jumping out of an airplane without having completely strapped on your parachute or having learned how to operate it. The plane is not crashing.
Of course, every person’s situation is different, and so I’m not advocating a blanket “Wait!! Don’t do it!” response for all young atheists. I’m saying have your eyes wide open, and your mind very clear, and your feelings well understood.
Here’s the question you should ask: There are clearly bad consequences for coming out too soon. What would the bad consequences be, if any at all, for coming out too late? When would “too late” be, if ever?
It sounds like stopping church attendance is an option for you that will not result in much serious difficulty. If that is correct, then take it. Just don’t link that to coming out to the whole community as an atheist. There’s no logical necessity of the one requiring the other. If people ask you why you’re not attending, you need say nothing more than “It’s just not for me,” or “I’m not interested any more,” or “I’m done with that,” or “It’s time to move on.” Don’t give them any bait, and they’ll leave you alone.
As an atheist living in a hostile environment, you don’t “owe” telling this truth about yourself to anyone. You tell it if, when and to whom it pleases you for your own self interests, period. If someone assumes you’re a believer like them, so the hell what? If and when you want to face the slings and arrows that out atheists often do, then come out and kick ass. If you don’t want to, there’s no cowardice involved in using discretion. You’re doing nothing more than taking care of yourself, and no one can condemn you for the strategy that you choose, and you should not condemn yourself.
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