Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
I am thirteen, almost fourteen years old, and recently my parents have been bugging me about confirmation.
At the church that I attend (for social reasons), children are confirmed during their freshman year of high-school. Both of my parents are aware that I am an atheist, and my mother is in fact agnostic, but, again, they both are insistent that I be confirmed into the Christian church.
My mother’s argument is that it’s just a ritual, and something that must be done when you’re young, and that if I want I can consider it entirely meaningless. She already made me get baptized last year, and I found even that to be degrading and opposed to my morals.
My father wants me to go along with the confirmation classes and to not get confirmed. My stepmother is actually strongly opposed to me getting confirmed, as she considers it an insult to her religion. However, it feels like there is an ulterior motive to them wanting me to go through the classes. It feels like, even after all this time, my dad and step mom are trying to convert me.
I don’t want to waste time on confirmation, but at the same time I don’t want to disappoint my parents. Also, even if I only go through with my dad’s course of action, there is always the possibility that my mother will make me go through with the actual confirmation anyway, if only to spite my father, which will be insulting and degrading.
It would pain me deeply to be forced into accepting a deity that I have specifically stated that I do not believe in, more than I can describe, and more than anything I do not want to give up my pride as an atheist. How do I convince my parents that under no circumstances will I indoctrinate myself into this religion?
Pluck: courage and resolution in the face of difficulties; spirit.
I admire your pluck.
I have received letters from several people your age who are facing pressure to do religious things that they don’t believe in, but seldom have I met one who has so clear and strong a commitment to holding to her principles.
I want to encourage that, but I also don’t want this family to split worse than it is now. There may be a way for you to remain true to your values, yet do it in a way that increases mutual respect in this family rather than decreases it.
Ironically, your religious stepmother has given the best argument against going through with the confirmation; it is an insult to her religion. It’s also the most honest reason as well.
Your mother’s argument for just doing it, that it’s “just a ritual,” is a good argument against doing it. That seems to be about keeping up appearances in order to please social expectations, and has nothing to do with genuine devotion.
Your father’s and stepmother’s suggestion of attending the confirmation classes but not the ritual itself makes no sense. Yes, it does sound like a setup, a manipulation to either try to convert you during the classes, or to increase the social pressure from your peers in the classes, or, as you suspect of your mother, once you have completed the class requirement, to simply force you to fulfill the ceremony. You’re clearly too smart to fall for any of that.
One encouraging thing is that all three of them seem to be bargaining or negotiating with you. None of them have simply said that you will do this, period, and there will be no further discussion. So use that latitude to help them understand the ethical conflict that they are proposing. Read what I suggest here, pick what is true for you and tell them in your own words, either spoken or written:
Tell them that they have always raised you to be an honest, ethical and moral person, and you are very grateful for that, and you have every intention of continuing to be honest, ethical and moral.
BUT for you to attend the confirmation classes would require you to pretend that you are accepting and believing what is taught there. That would be phony and dishonest. If you were to be forthright and tell them how you see things, it would be upsetting to the other attendees in the class. That would be unkind. The time spent on you in this would be disruptive and would take time away from the others. That would be selfish.
So making you take the classes would force you to either be phony and dishonest, or unkind and selfish.
Then, to go through the confirmation itself would be to stand up in public and tell a lie. It would make a sham and a mockery of something that other people take seriously. The only way that you could make that right that would be to loudly announce right there during the ceremony that you don’t believe in any of this, and you are being coerced by your parents into doing it. So this would force you to either be a public liar and a fraud, or to humiliate and disgrace your parents and to upset everyone there. You would never do any of these things voluntarily. You would have to be forced under severe duress. So to give in to whatever that coercion would be would be cowardly.So going through with the ceremony would involve dishonesty, fraud, disrespect, unkindness, and cowardice.
In short, they want you to do several immoral things, but to be true to the way they raised you, to honor your parents in the deepest, most sincere way possible, you must not do those things.
Bernadette, this is a lot to say, and you’d probably be interrupted. It’s essential that you remain calm and rational in your discussions with them. That isn’t easy.
But you write well. If what I have suggested makes sense and is true for you, perhaps you could write it down in your own words in a letter, and give them all a copy simultaneously. Tell them that you are writing it so that you can really make clear to them what is in your heart, along with the great love that you have for them.
Now there are some side issues that bear some consideration:
You said that you don’t want to disappoint your parents. They may be disappointed, but in what exactly? Perhaps they will be disappointed in not getting their way rather than disappointed in you. They might even be privately impressed by your strength of character, although they might not admit it right away.
You remarked that your mother might make you go through with the confirmation just to spite your father. Sadly, some divorced parents use their kids as weapons or leverage against each other. As parents, their duty is to your well being, and they must not indulge their spite for each other at your expense. It’s a touchy issue, but if you think you can risk it, ask them gently to not put you in the middle, to not use you to get at the other.
You said that you attend the church “for social reasons.” I’m not sure if that means you benefit by having friends there, or if that means your parents benefit from keeping up appearances in the community, or some combination. Either way, if you forego confirmation, that might begin to single you out as not belonging. It depends on how rigid and demanding for conformity the social structure is at the church. So be prepared that you might eventually have to stop church attendance. However, as you continue in high school, you’ll probably have a variety of other sources and venues for social interaction.
Even if you end up having to go through this charade, you cannot be “forced into accepting a deity.” You can only be forced into participating in their ritual, which because of compulsion has become a ridiculous travesty. It’s not the ruining of your principles. It is the ruining of theirs. You’ll be angry, but it doesn’t have to be a deep humiliation for you. Your pride is still safe deep inside, because that is about what you do, not what someone makes you do. After a time, for your sake rather than theirs, forgive them. They know not what they do.
And remember, although most of us are a little older than you, you now have several friends and admirers here at Friendly Atheist.
I wish you and your family the very best possible of outcomes, as unpredictable as it is, and as imperfect as it will probably be. I know if you were my daughter, even if the selfish part of me was frustrated by your disagreement, I would also be very proud of your principles, your pride, and your pluck.
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