Ask Richard: Parents Rendered Deaf by the Word “Atheist”

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I’m 18 years old, and have been an atheist since I was about 13, although back then I certainly wasn’t the confident, unashamed non-believer that I am today. I am fortunate enough to have been raised in a very liberal and open-minded household; my parents are pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-birth control, pro-tolerance, anti-war, the whole 9 yards.

During my childhood, however, my mother insisted I attend church (albeit a very open-minded non-denominational one, almost UU) along with her. She believes in God for personal reasons; whereas my father has never said but a few words regarding religion, and I believe his mother (my grandmother) was an atheist. Once I reached the age of 11 or 12, she stopped forcing my attendance; and in hindsight, I’m glad she did. It was about that age I started truly questioning things and began doubting religion. I shudder to think how I might have turned out if she had forced my participation in more religious activities…anyway, that is my family situation.

My mother has known my religious doubts for a long time, as we often had spirited discussions and debates about various aspects of faith. I was under the impression she knew I didn’t believe in God; I was wrong. I came home one day wearing an atheist t-shirt, and she was shocked (although she had seen it before; I suppose it didn’t register the first time). After the surprise wore off, she wasn’t angry, although she began admonishing me: “An ATHEIST? I mean, it’d be fine if you were just agnostic, but how can you be an ATHEIST? How do you have any hope?” My father, surprisingly, jumped in and seemed to also concur that he would rather me be agnostic. He said, referencing the word “freethinker” on my shirt: “Being a freethinker precludes being an atheist.”

My mother then started to write me off, saying to my girlfriend “Do you know why he thinks he’s an atheist? Because he hasn’t had any big traumas in his life. You’ll see…there isn’t a godless man on a battlefield…” She continued dismissing my atheism as something I only “think” I am; a “phase,” something childish that she reckons I’ll abandon at the first sign of trouble. I tried explaining to her that atheists have hope because they believe in their own potential, and work through their own issues, but to no avail. I left the subject for a while, and when I brought it back up the next day she continued saying “I can’t believe you think you’re an atheist…how can you have any hope? Why do you even bother getting up in the morning?” I countered with the fact that regardless of her belief in God, she doesn’t get up every morning simply because of that fact either. She ignored that, talking about how she “knows” she’s seen a dead pet in heaven (in a dream) and how she “knows” there’s a god.

There is no animosity between us, as she doesn’t associate with the darker side of religion; she simply believes in God, and I don’t. Regardless, I find myself deeply affected by her reaction; she will never agree with my atheism, but how can I get her to at least be at peace with it? Accept it, acknowledge it, and stop belittling it? Is there anything I can do, or will it simply take time?

Sincerely,
Trevor

Dear Trevor,

Behold the awesome power of the “A” word. It can instantly paralyze a healthy, intelligent mind with fear, making it an impenetrable fortress incapable of receiving any new information. Some of the beliefs that many otherwise well-informed and open-minded people have about the word “atheist” are more absurd than their beliefs about gods. This is both tragic and comic because unlike evidence for gods, there’s an enormous supply of good evidence against their beliefs about atheists all around them. To be free of their fear, and the resultant anger, sadness, and damaged relationships, All they have to do is to talk to atheists. All they have to do is to be willing to listen. All they have to do is to stop being willfully deaf.

Your parents are demonstrating several of these irrational, reflex beliefs. They aren’t listening to how you use the word. Your voice is drowned out by their misconceptions roaring in their heads:

“How do you have any hope?” seems to mean she thinks the only thing that gives life hope is an afterlife. What a sad way to live. Your hope is for this life. You hope to find love, success, happiness, and a chance to be a part of something helpful, and as you said, you’re basing that on your own potential. She would probably be proud of that if she could hear you.

“Being a freethinker precludes being an atheist.” seems to mean that he thinks all atheists always adhere to a prescribed ideology and a set of dogmatic beliefs, such as “There is no God.” Again, that’s him listening to his own beliefs, and not hearing you.

“There isn’t a godless man on a battlefield.” seems to mean that she thinks the root cause of god belief is the fear of death. In a way she’s partially right, but she fails to see the irony in her statement. It could then be argued that if there were more godless men, there would be fewer battlefields. You have decided not to base your life on the fear of death because that amounts to a fear of life. Would she actually prefer you to be on a battlefield just so you might come to agree with her beliefs? Probably not, if she was able to hear you.

Trevor, if there’s no animosity between you, then step back from this conflict and ask yourself why you’re letting it so deeply affect you. I don’t think you should bother with trying to get your mother to be at peace with, to accept, acknowledge, and not belittle your atheism.

Your atheism is not you.

Don’t make your atheism an ideology or an identity. It’s just your lack of belief in gods. It’s only one small aspect of a person who is far more complex and encompassing than that. It’s only one result of how you think, how you observe the world, and how find your way through it. It’s only one outcome from practicing the rare virtue of skepticism.

Yes, I know how extremely frustrating it can be to not be listened to, and to be misunderstood by people who should be trying to understand you rather than change you. You can at least make sure you don’t do the same thing. Start by taking your focus off of trying to change their attitudes, and try to understand where those attitudes come from.

Your mother isn’t rejecting you, she’s recoiling from fear.

Generally I think people’s fear about atheists and atheism comes from three sources. One source is the many slanderous myths spread for millennia mainly by clerics to isolate their flock from contagion by unbelievers. The hatred and derision shuts up the doubters in their midst, and if they dare speak up anyway, they’re driven out.

The second source of fear is the threat to their own fragile faith when they meet an intelligent, sane, decent, and successful person who just isn’t convinced of their cherished belief. The scary implication is that if this person doesn’t buy it, then maybe they shouldn’t either.

The third source is usually reserved for parents. Their child’s unbelief might suggest to themselves that they are failures as parents, and suggest to their community that they are deficient in their own faith.

I usually encourage people to talk, talk, talk to each other, but in this case, that mode isn’t working. Pounding on their soundproof stone citadel with rational arguments will probably not help much. You’ve already tried, and your efforts bounced off.

Since they cannot or will not hear you, try patiently coaxing them out of their dark fear fortress with what they can see rather than hear. Live in the sunlight of your optimism and self-confidence. Rather than talking, let them see your hopefulness in how you prepare for your short term and long term future. Let them see your courage as you rebound from setbacks. Let them see your joy as you celebrate a goal reached, a love found, and a life lived. Let them see the boy they love turning into the man they will admire.

When you become very clear that you are far more than just your atheism, they probably will begin to also. When their opinion of your atheism doesn’t matter to you, they probably will begin to not care either. Just keep living your life well. I think with patience your parents’ ability to hear has a good chance of being restored.

Richard
You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Adam

    This is just your mother being a product of her upbringing. She grew up in a different time in which nontheists were less outspoken, and even being as progressive as she is, it is the majority assumption of many people that everyone else at the very least believes in a divine being, and it’s alien or foreign to think otherwise. It’s merely social conditioning that keeps the word and label of atheist as taboo.

    It is one of the words that save for a remote few groups, always gets the most disgusted looks. The worst two insults you can call an American are not actually banned on television, they’re “atheist” and “communist.” But it sounds like once she gets over it, your mother will come to accept you for who you are.

  • Steve

    Trevor, I don’t mean to belittle your situation but you might have more accepted if you’d said you’re gay. As Adam says, she is the pruduct of her upbringing, no matter how much she may regard herself as a liberal, religion still has a death grip on her. Sorry for being so outspoken, just that I’ve never been in your situstion, my parents weren’t religious in the slightest, although my dad had been born Roman Catholic, I knew from the age of 6 or 7 that it is all nonsense, a long time ago!! I suppose I’m lucky to live in the UK, religion takes a back seat to common sense.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Well I’m glad that someone stopped her putting so much salt in the frying pan. What was she cooking, slugs?

    I’ve been an atheist all my life. I’ve been an atheist long before I even knew what the word meant. When I heard it and understood what it meant then I thought “Hey, that’s me. I don’t believe in gods. I’m an atheist.” It sounds like Trevor’s mum doesn’t know what “atheist” means. She just needs to have it explained to her.

  • Christophe Thill

    I want that “WWBRD ?” t-shirt…

  • Joey

    Do people update Richard on how his advice is working out? That’d be interesting to read

  • entertaining.doubts

    Spot-on advice as always, Richard! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    “Being a freethinker precludes being an atheist.”

    Really? Does being a freethinker also preclude being an a-unicorn-ist? An a-leprechaun-ist? An a-Zeus-ist? Do you also have to be equally open to the geocentric model of the solar system, or the stork theory of human reproduction?

    Atheism is not about absolute certainty of the non-existence of gods; it’s about the abysmal lack of evidence for any proposed theistic model of the universe. As such, it’s perfectly compatible with freethinking/skepticism.

    To quote another eminent Richard (Feynman): “Keep an open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out.”

  • Skimmer

    Very good advice.

    My mum always knew that I just wasn’t interested in religion, and wasn’t too bothered by it until the day when she asked if I’d occasionally darken the door of a church while at college. My answer “Well mum, as an atheist the odds are statistically against it.” Was delivered humorously, and said everything I wanted to say about a rationalist approach to life, but confronted her with the ‘A’ word – if in her head that moment had had a soundtrack, it would have went “dun dun daaaa!!!”

    We never had a row about it, and fair play to mum we both just agreed to disagree, but I’d still get the occasional “Where did I go so wrong!?”

    That was 16 years ago. Since then I have lived life to the full. I’ve gotten my degree, partied like an animal, had a thousand nights tearing up the dancefloor with absolute bombshells, travelled the world, got an amazing job making good money with one of the biggest hedge funds in the world, and recently married a wonderful and extremely beautiful girl. You know I haven’t heard the “Where did I go so wrong!?” in quite some time.

    As Richard says your actions will speak allot louder than any words. Obviously having a great life has its own virtues too. As you develop and find your own feet no doubt you’ll meet plenty more intelligent, knowledgeable, and thoughtful people. As time passes you parents will have to grapple with many aspects of looking at you as a self determining adult and not their little boy.

    Still, if all this sounds too easy and predetermined (if slow), don’t worry! Down the line there’ll be the wife & her family to win over too :)

  • Ron in Houston

    I think Adam has a good comment about the Mother’s age and upbringing. I’m old enough to remember when “atheist” was perceived almost as being a freak.

    So Richard’s cartoon makes a lot of sense. There is a lot of negative history to the word “atheist.”

  • http://everydayatheist.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    Richard said:

    Your atheism is not you.

    Don’t make your atheism an ideology or an identity. It’s just your lack of belief in gods. It’s only one small aspect of a person who is far more complex and encompassing than that. It’s only one result of how you think, how you observe the world, and how find your way through it. It’s only one outcome from practicing the rare virtue of skepticism.

    I struggle with how far this really goes, given the current state of the world. Yes, nonbelief should be a minor issue, and is just the result of a skeptical-thinking way of life. But with churches on every corner and a culture saturated with religion, it’s unavoidale that one might stake at least a part of one’s identity on nonbelief. It shouldn’t overwhelm everything else, but I don’t think it’s bad to consider it part of you. I describe myself online as “husband, dad, son, brother, uncle, friend, lawyer, atheist, amateur astronomer, wine lover, decent cook, blogger and wanna-be author.” That’s a list by priority for me.

  • P. Coyle

    You’ll see…there isn’t a godless man on a battlefield…”

    Let me guess — she’s not only never been on a battlefield, she’s never read much about battlefields.

  • http://www.sketchsepahi.com Sketch Sepahi

    This is a really good post but I just have to comment on this one little thing.

    “It could then be argued [from there not being a godless man on a battlefield] that if there were more godless men, there would be fewer battlefields.”

    I’m sorry but that just doesn’t follow. It’s a wrong direction fallacy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrong_direction

    You can’t go from “battlefields cause less godlessness” to “godlessness causes less battlefields.”

    Mind you, I don’t at all agree with the mother and, as I said, I really like this post. Nonetheless, fallacious reasoning always rubs me the wrong way.

  • Ryane

    Richard, thank you so much for answering this letter. It could have been written by me, our situations are so similar. I’ve been frustrated by my mother’s insistence that my atheism is just a phase, that “you’re not really an atheist, you’re just young”, that kind of thing (after the initial shock, of course, during which she implored me never to use the word atheist again). I’ve found myself more or less following your advice anyway, just trying to be the best person I can and letting my parents know through the way I live my life how truly happy I am. It helps that I am in college and have the support of a recently-started SSA group (we actually had Hemant speak for us last year!)

    So is it working? Not yet, but I only “came out” to my parents last year. I have a lot of hope that, as you say, my mom will someday understand my beliefs just based on the person I become. And I sincerely hope that the letter writer can come to peace with this idea as well, and just build on what sounds like, minus the atheism bit, a pretty good relationship with his mother as he gets older. Our actions will speak louder than our words, in this case.

  • Rieux

    I usually agree with Richard’s advice, and more than once I’ve commented in support of it in the face of others here who strongly disputed it.

    But here, I simply can’t agree with the tack this post takes—beginning with this line:

    Your atheism is not you.

    Don’t make your atheism an ideology or an identity. It’s just your lack of belief in gods.

    In this context, I think that’s a notably ugly sentiment. It’s a counsel of shame.

    To the contrary, my atheism is me—in much the same way that my sexual orientation is me, my ethnicity is me, and my political and philosophical ideals are me. (For the record, I’m not “Trevor,” though I have had experiences that are somewhat similar to his.)

    It seems to me that suggesting that Trevor downplay (more inwardly than outwardly, but I don’t think that helps much) his own atheism as an important part of who he is is poor advice—especially in light of the context, i.e., in the face of a bunch of ignorant and bigoted nonsense he’s getting from parents who style themselves as tolerant liberals. Trevor has every right to expect his parents to respect his freedom of conscience and to cut out the “no atheists in foxholes” crap. Suggesting that he respond to this bigotry by downplaying the very thing that his parents are prejudiced against seems to me bad advice.

    I’m not suggesting that, in Trevor’s place, a more confrontational strategy would necessarily be a better one—though if there’s a place for confrontation, this might well be it. Trevor’s parents’ ideas about atheism are wrong, provably wrong (see, for example, here), and I can imagine one hell of a presentation he could make, contrasting his parents’ supposed liberal ideas with their backwards attitudes about the despised minority group he belongs to. Getting in the face of a Christian fundamentalist parent and demanding that he accept an atheist (or gay, transgendered, etc.) child is very likely pointless—scripture and doctrine are reasonably clear about these things—but a self-identified liberal parent is, at least in theory, capable of seeing how her treatment of her son conflicts with her own purported ideals.

    My main concern isn’t about confrontation or lack of same, though; quite possibly it would do more harm than good here. The bigger immediate problem, for me, is Richard‘s notion that Trevor needs to recognize, internally, that his nonbelief is “only one small aspect of a person who is far more complex and encompassing than that”—as a direct response to atheophobic bigotry. I really don’t think that would be the answer Richard would give if this episode were about Trevor coming out as gay to a pair of homophobic parents.

    I think Richard’s quite wrong about a fundamental point here: in a religion-drunk society (and religion-pressured family), a conscientiously reached atheism very much is an “identity,” is a strikingly important part of who a person is. I think telling anyone to downplay that idea, even inwardly, is awfully ugly.

    Trevor has every right to be proud of his atheism, for all the same reasons that gays and lesbians have every right to be proud of who they are and whom they love. Confronted with ignorant prejudice directed at that aspect of who he is, Trevor is not obligated to concentrate, inwardly or outwardly, on the aspects of his identity against which his parents don’t happen to be bigoted. Richard’s advice gives Trevor’s parents and their intolerance vastly more power than they deserve.

    Given the deaf ear Trevor’s parents are turning to his attempts to refute their ignorant misconceptions about atheism, there may be no solution to this problem in the short term. (The same, obviously, goes for implacably homophobic parents.) But, contra Richard, Trevor ought to be who he his—”as atheist as I wanna be”—and not allow his parents’ bigotry to drive that underground.

    Sure, there are always “other aspects” to all of us, regardless of which piece of our identity someone decides to demean. I think the latter section of Richard’s answer, which suggests that bigots have not just the power but also the right to force us into the closet, is seriously wrongheaded.

    • Ateu, e dai?

      So, I guess you´re agreeing with Richard. Your atheism is not you. It´s A PART of you, as much as everything you said.

  • http://thatsmrsbitchtoyou.blogspot.com Mrs. Bitch

    As an atheist who has never actually come right out and self-identified as such to my parents, I have danced around the issue with my mother and gotten much the same response.

    I think a major issue for parents of atheist children is that they fear those children will suffer the eternal-damnation afterlife that many religions teach about. Unfortunately, there is no way to placate that fear; if parents believe, they also believe their children will go to hell if they don’t believe in god.

    Oh, and as a cancer survivor I can safely assure your mother that facing down your own mortality will not make a believer out of a person. If god spared me, then god certainly singled me out for cancer in the first place. A draw, in my eyes.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Perhaps you can explain your atheism to your parents in the following way:

    Consider a religion that gives one hope that after you die you will have an extended existence for about 5 minutes where all the mysteries of the universe are explained and you become one with the cosmos. Then with a state of total contentment, you are recycled into the void and cease to exist. Atheism is kind-of like that except for that last 5 minutes. But with atheism, one can strive to reach contentment while you are still alive and that can give you hope.

  • http://atheos-godless.blogspot.com Barry

    It’s a bit late for Trevor, but for anyone else who might be thinking of “coming out” as an atheist to religious family members, I would suggest simply avoiding the word “atheist”. Instead, just tell them you no longer believe in God.

    Yes, we all know it means the same thing, but by avoiding using the word “atheist” you avoid the negative connotations it has for many believers.

  • Rich Wilson

    You’ll see…there isn’t a godless man on a battlefield…”

    Nor a godless man with stage 4 cancer.

    oh, wait.

  • ButchKitties

    “Being a freethinker precludes being an atheist.”

    Really? Does being a freethinker also preclude being an a-unicorn-ist? An a-leprechaun-ist? An a-Zeus-ist? Do you also have to be equally open to the geocentric model of the solar system, or the stork theory of human reproduction?

    Atheism is not about absolute certainty of the non-existence of gods; it’s about the abysmal lack of evidence for any proposed theistic model of the universe. As such, it’s perfectly compatible with freethinking/skepticism.

    Exactly. It might be helpful here to draw a distinction between knowledge and belief, because atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. They describe different vectors of a person’s worldview.

    I have no direct knowledge that no god exists (such knowledge would be impossible) so I am agnostic. However, given the dearth of positive evidence for god’s existence, I hold to the null hypothesis and do not believe god exists, which makes me an atheist. The null hypothesis is why I also do not believe in unicorns or leprechauns. I’m agnostic about those beings, too.

    Atheism and freethinking are not incompatible as long as the atheism isn’t dogmatic. Show me some good evidence that a god exists, and I will change my mind. Show me conclusive proof that leprechauns are real, and I’ll suck Eric Cartman’s balls.

  • Rich Wilson

    I would suggest simply avoiding the word “atheist”. Instead, just tell them you no longer believe in God.

    You could seed the moment by first mentioning that you don’t believe in Zeus. And a few days later mention that Krishna seems kind of silly. And Thor might make a great comic book, but obviously a work of fiction.

  • http://slckismet.blogspot.com Mike

    I found your website on google. I’m also an atheist and much of what I find here rings true. I come from a family of them; my father over Christmas was confronted by a neighbor that could not grasp that we weren’t all criminals. He said, “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from just doing whatever? I mean, atheists don’t have morality.”
    I just shook my head.

  • Jeff Ritter

    “There isn’t a godless man on a battlefield.” I love the “no atheists in foxholes” fallacy. It was actually the battlefields in Afghanistan that was a turning point for me. It was there that my life long doubts of the Christian faith my parents raised me in came to a crashing halt with the realities I witnessed. I didn’t admit being atheist for many years to come but looking back on the road, it started on that battlefield. Yes, there are godless men on battlefields.

  • Josha

    I have had the same reactions to the “A” word and have heard the exact same arguments from my family and some friends too. I’ve come out to friends recently and I explained to them what I do (and don’t) believe in. I preempt some of their questions by saying what does give me hope and that I am happier without religion. I make it clear I am an atheist, then use the actual word. I let them slowly get used to it.

    My parents were shocked at first, even though they knew I wasn’t religious. Hearing that I was an atheist was hard for them. But it’s been a year and they have learned a lot. Just recently I was explaining to them why I wouldn’t suddenly become religious when faced with death and how I can have hope too. Since I used to be very religious I understand the differences in how we perceive the world. So I explained to them exactly how I, as someone who has no god-belief, sees the world and understands how it functions. How someone who is a skeptic/atheist won’t turn to god on the battlefield as opposed to someone who just left religion may find a renewed belief in god. The more we discuss the more they come to understand me and I hope have come to understand how I can still have hope without believing in a higher power.

  • Joan

    I agree with Richard’s advice for the most part but, like Sketch, the “battlefield” reasoning didn’t work for me. I would simply point out that the widely-held “no atheists in foxholes” belief is wrong: http://www.maaf.info/expaif.html

    I personally identify as an agnostic, not because it’s a softer word, but because I feel that it better describes my personal belief. But those who identify as atheists should be able to come out and say it without repercussions, particularly from those close to them.

    Trevor, I wish you luck. I think you were right in suggesting that it will just take time.

  • Richard Wade

    Joey asked,

    Do people update Richard on how his advice is working out? That’d be interesting to read

    Yes they often do, sometimes by leaving a comment on the post, and sometimes by email. Whenever they give an update by email I encourage them to share the information in a comment on the post, but I won’t do that myself without their specific permission.

  • Sebastian

    Trevor’s mom seems to be equating atheism with gnostic atheism: “I know that there is no god”, whereas Trevor is most likely is an agnostic atheist: “I think there is no god but I cannot know for sure”.

    The definitions of the labels we put on ourselves and others around us need to be mutually agreed upon and clarified before fruitful discussion can happen, otherwise we just talk past each other.

  • BrettH

    I had a similar conversation with my parents, and I think careful handling of the word “atheist” were what made the whole thing turn out well. I told them that I didn’t believe in God because it didn’t seem like there was good evidence, but that I wasn’t going to abandon the good things I learned from my religious upbringing (the golden rule, for example)or start ignoring new evidence if I saw anything that made me reconsider belief in a god. She asked if I considered myself an atheist and I said I used that word to describe myself because most people who believe the same things I do use that word, but people who disagree with us don’t always understand what we mean by it. I think she liked that answer because it let her disassociate me with negative things she had heard about atheists at church. For the record, my parents are fundamentalist evangelicals.

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    Is there anything I can do, or will it simply take time?

    Trevor, it sounds like your parents will come around eventually; all it will take is time and patient discussion. As the months and years go by with an unrepentant atheist in their midst, they will eventually realize that the caricatures in their minds are wrong.

  • Rieux

    Hamilton:

    As the months and years go by with an unrepentant atheist in their midst, they will eventually realize that the caricatures in their minds are wrong.

    I agree, but it seems to me that Richard’s advice clashes significantly with Trevor acting as an “unrepentant atheist in their midst.” Lines like “[Your atheism is] only one small aspect of a person who is far more complex and encompassing than that” encourage Trevor to be anything but unrepentant, around his parents, regarding his nonbelief.

    Minimizing and downplaying Trevor’s atheism, as Richard suggests, is nearly the exact opposite of being unrepentant about it—and I can’t imagine how the “Oh, it’s not an important part of me” attitude could actually lead Trevor’s parents to reconsider their atheophobia. To the contrary, they’d be more likely to decide that his sunny disposition shows that he’s gotten over his stupid atheist phase.

    As I said, Richard’s advice is a counsel of shame, not unrepentance, and I think it’s the weakest thing he’s posted here.

  • beckster

    My mom had a similiar reaction six years ago. Her religious beliefs seem very similiar to the letter writer’s mother. My mom is now over it and told me recently that I have taught her “a lot” about what atheism is and is not. I am sure this mother will come around too.

  • Anon

    It’s ironic – a few years ago I chided my youngest son (then a young teen) for having announced that he was an atheist. I tried to tell him that maybe he should think of himself an agnostic until he had more experience, etc. Guess who’s finally accepted that she’s really an atheist, not an agnostic after all….yup, me.

  • http://girlofthegaps.blogspot.com/ Nicole Schrand

    My parents took a similar line when I came out of the atheist closet a few years ago. Mind you, they’re very Catholic, so I didn’t expect them to take it well, but three years later, I’m still not permitted to call myself an atheist while in their house, nor do they want me to admit my atheism to the rest of my extended family.

    It’s only recently gotten to the point where they don’t admonish my “youthful rebellion” with the it’s-just-a-phase argument and worse every time I see them. Mostly I just try not to bring the topic up.

  • http://puzzlingchristian.blogspot.com PuzzlingChristian

    It seems like that church was not that open-minded.
    I believe love is the strongest thing that keep us together, regardless of our religion or non-religion.

  • SwimsWithSharks

    This story is a slightly more drastic version of my own coming out to my mom. She dismissed it at first, even admitting to me it was mainly because she thought it was just a phase. But when my grandpa died recently, and I didn’t come running back to her god for comfort, she got kind of mad at me and refused to talk about it… where before we’d actually been having nice conversations about the topic. She finally realizes that I am truly the “A Word”.
    I wish you luck with your family! They’ll probably come around soon.

  • Chris

    When speaking to friends about my atheism they said- but what does your MOTHER think about it??!!! My response- I’m pretty sure she’s ok with it as it is how she raised me…
    ..not maybe that helpful in this situation- but just wanted folks to know that not ALL moms freak out over the word atheist.. ;D

  • Christophe Thill

    I suggest Mum goes see her pastor and tells him about her “dead pet in heaven” dream. I don’t think he’ll take it as a proof of the existence of god.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Rieux,

    I think you’re reading too broad and too political a meaning into my remarks to Trevor. He’s faced with parents who are being willfully obtuse and who have already ignored his well-crafted arguments more than once. His mother dismisses him as being in a youthful phase, an allusion that he is immature. If he were to become more confrontational with them, she would only consider that to be confirmation of his immaturity.

    Trevor already supplied the best option for himself in this case, to simply let the process take its time. But in the meantime he’s becoming frustrated. If he loses his temper with them, his credibility will be reduced even further in their eyes. So my advice about seeing himself as more than his atheism is strictly to help him detach himself from this particular opinion his mother has. It’s for entirely an interior purpose in this particular situation.

    There’s nothing in what I wrote counseling “shame” or weakness, or contrition or apology or being subservient, or to hide or hold back his atheism with them or anyone else. So far he hasn’t. Good for him.

    I’m telling him to see that he’s a lot bigger than her silly opinion of this one thing, so he can relax. Save his strength for useful efforts instead of banging his head on a stone wall. There’s no wisdom demonstrated by doing that. You don’t win a fight by exhausting yourself in futile flailing. Let your opponent do that.

    By detaching, he’s not giving away power to his bigoted parents and all other bigots in the world. He’s actually retaining his power by seeing that in this case he doesn’t have to react and defend. His “innermost being” is not threatened. He’s showing strength by keeping his dignity and shrugging it off. She will probably become more pliable as time goes by, and then he can reason with her.

    He has many interpersonal modes at his disposal, and seeing himself as having many qualities and many parts to his identity gives him the option to easily switch from one mode to another. If he dismisses his mother’s thick headedness for a while, that in no way means he has to become timid in the face of other misinformed or even bigoted people, and I wouldn’t expect him to do so. He doesn’t have to react to some bigot on the street the way he does with his mother, and he doesn’t have to react to his mother the way he does with some bigot on the street.

    I agree with much of what you say in general about being strong and forceful in the face of the crap that bigots hand us. Sometimes we have to just slug it out. Other times it’s better to step nimbly aside and let them stumble over their own feet.

  • Helene

    I just wanted to jump in, Trevor, and say I feel your pain and confusion. My mother very actively raised me to be a questioner, a freethinker, in a sense. I was always encouraged to investigate, never accept the standard version of anything at face value. At a time when high school history was mostly “yeah, the Indians were here first and we could have been nicer but we needed the land” she gave me “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” to read. She absolutely put me on the path that eventually let to atheism.

    My mother considers herself a deist. She believes in a God who created the universe, but doesn’t actually believe that he involves himself at all with our lives now. So no one was more shocked than me with her reaction to my atheism. She hates it. She can’t stand the idea that, as she puts it, “You believe in NOTHING!” Whenever she mentions anything about God, she does this passive-aggressive thing where she has to point out “I know you don’t believe in any of that . . . ”

    The thing is, we can have great discussions about the historical accuracy of the Bible or whether Jesus as a person ever existed, and she always agrees with me. It’s just that one little God thing that trips her up.

    I’m 44, so this has been going on a while! All I can do is agree with everyone else – enjoy your relationship and the places where you DO agree. I hope it all works out for you!

  • Demonhype

    Gah, my parents are about as liberal as yours and my mom did the same thing: told me this was a phase and someday I’ll come back to God, and at one point I overheard her telling someone on the phone that “someday she’ll have something horrible happen that will show her how important Faith in God is”.

    When that didn’t happen and, in time, it became inescapable that I really meant everything I said, I was indeed an atheist, I was impervious to her emotional manipulation and unapologetic about my atheism, and that I was still a very principled person who held to all the same practical morality that she did–in fact, more, since she loves the death penalty and I oppose it even though she admits that her feelings are in hypocritical opposition of Jesus’s teachings of forgiveness and turning the other cheek that she loves so well–well, she finally had to back off the stupid “it’s a phase”, “someday you’ll need God”, and all the other BS.

    Of course, at that point, she said, “I don’t know what went wrong with you, you used to love Jesus once.” And I gobsmacked her by saying that I never once loved Jesus, that corporal-punishment-lovin’ parents who force their kids to go to a Catholic school where they make the kids pray and write missives of love to Jesus and stand on stage singing about how much they love Jesus should not be fooled into thinking that there is any necessary genuine sentiment behind the words. I just didn’t want the shit beat out of me for refusing. She said she wouldn’t have hit me for having doubt, and I told her she was full of it.

    She still gets a bit squiffy and makes the occasional smart-assed remark about my disbelief to third parties (sister, brother, aunts, my dad, etc) when she knows I can hear her. She shoehorns her various spiritual beliefs into all manner of discussions too. I’ve recently put my foot down on the subject because we always get into an argument. She still brings it up and tries to back me against a wall, and when I just sit there quietly she continues to get squiffy and makes a number of insulting comments about how I’m shutting down conversation because I know she’s right and I’m just militant. I point out that these conversations don’t go anywhere, we bite each other’s heads off by the end, and I’d rather just leave this particular subject on an “agree to disagree” so we can continue to have a pleasant relationship, and she’s the one being militant by trying to force the discussion through anyway. That often stops her–for the moment.

    One thing that helped early-on in my “outing” was that I asked her point-blank about her beliefs about my atheism–in short, does she believe that I will burn in hell for not believing in God, Jesus, or the supernatural? She said she didn’t believe that, that the only thing that really matters with that is how you treat others and such. I asked her whether she thought my disbelief would have any negative impact on me at all, and she didn’t think so. So I asked why it was so infernally important that I come back to Jesus when she doesn’t even believe that my disbelief will damn me or ruin my life, and how she was any different from all those “Jesus freaks” she so abhors, and she didn’t have any answer. Not that it stopped her entirely from trying to win me back to belief, but it gave me an edge on her from then on and she did scale back some of the vitriol. I think I gave her something to chew on!

    I wouldn’t advise the downplaying either. I wouldn’t make it overt either, but in my experience, downplaying one’s skepticism, atheism, or disbelief is often seized upon by believers as weakness and uncertainty, which is then seized upon as an invitation to march right in with the big guns (or what they consider the big guns, anyway), because many will take downplaying or any kind of seeming deference as an admission that you secretly believe, that your request to be left alone should be ignored, and that you can be “won” back to God if only they continue to hammer away with righteous certainty. I can be polite with religious people and I can avoid being unnecessarily overt, but I will not give them any false hope that they might convert me if they just push the issue.

    That doesn’t mean they won’t try–look at my mom!–but at least then you’re not as good as inviting the religious harassment (in their minds, anyway).

  • Demonhype

    @Helene:

    My mom does that too! And she also thought I was making up the term “passive-aggressive” because the words are mutually exclusive. She didn’t say mutually exclusive, but I can’t recall the exact term she did use and it basically meant the same thing.

    This from the woman who thinks she’s some kind of psychology expert (because she reads books on serial killers) and goes around offering little tidbits of unsolicited psycho-analysis to anyone she feels needs it.

    She also accuses me of using big words to make her feel stupid, which is another reason I won’t have those discussions with her anymore. She wants to discuss subjects involving cosmology and consciousness and all sorts of subjects of a large, often abstract nature, but she lacks even the most basic vocabulary in which to clothe the ideas. And rather than try to pick up some words she might not have heard before that might be a lot more useful to her in the future, she accuses me of being an arrogant elite who is just trying to make her feel stupid so I can “win”. How the hell do you carry on a conversation with someone like that?

    Well, good luck to the letter writer and everyone else on the subject of atheist-phobic mothers! :)

  • Rieux

    Hello, Richard.

    I hope you noticed that I wasn’t centrally advocating that Trevor confront his parents over this. As I wrote, “quite possibly it would do more harm than good here.”

    My main concern is your comments about atheism, identity, and the proper response to atheophobic bigotry, all of which—whether you recognized it or not—are much broader than Trevor and his parents.

    You wrote this:

    Your atheism is not you.

    Don’t make your atheism an ideology or an identity. It’s just your lack of belief in gods. It’s only one small aspect of a person….

    You’re just wrong about that, and Trevor’s story is potent evidence of that fact. (And I simply cannot imagine that you’d ever say anything like that to an 18-year-old gay man being harassed by his homophobic parents. “Your homosexuality is not you./Don’t make your queerness an ideology or an identity. It’s just the people you’re attracted to. It’s only one small aspect of a person….”? You wouldn’t have the gall.)

    To the contrary, as I said, and I wish you’d addressed in your response, atheism is an identity in an atheophobic culture and family, and Trevor is absolutely justified in “becoming frustrated” at his parents’ ignorant prejudice. You suggest that he respond to that prejudice by deciding that his nonbelief is “just a small aspect” of him, not an identity—and I don’t see anything else to call that but advising him to reward bigotry by downplaying and marginalizing (here, internally; later, not so much) the portion of him that his parents irrationally hate.

    There’s nothing in what I wrote counseling “shame” or weakness, or contrition or apology or being subservient, or to hide or hold back his atheism with them or anyone else.

    I can’t understand how you can claim that. Minimizing atheism as “small part” non-identity counsels exactly that, as does this line:

    When you become very clear that you are far more than just your atheism, they probably will begin to also.

    “Far more than just your atheism”? What function does that phrase have other than sidelining Trevor’s nonbelief? Which, in this context, means rewarding bigotry? (I think the same substitution reveals the ugliness of what you’re saying: “When you become very clear that you are far more than just your homosexuality, your parents probably will begin to also”? Is that a constructive way to deal with homophobic parents? Do you think GLBT folks would be eager to come to you for counseling if you delivered messages like that one?)

    I don’t see anywhere in the original post where you mention that Trevor ought to be just as open and overt about his atheism around his parents as he has been to date. Indeed, you strongly imply that he shouldn’t: that would obviously interfere with any attempt to show his parents that he is “far more than just [his] atheism.” How can he do that without hiding it?

    Like a member of any other despised minority, Trevor can and should respond to the intolerance he has faced with pride, not “oh, well, it’s just a small part of you anyway” trivialization. “Black is beautiful” and “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” are constructive responses to intolerance, and they can be communicated (or just internally held) in ways either quiet or loud. In at least three places, though, your post communicates nearly the directly opposite message.

    I’m telling him to see that he’s a lot bigger than her silly opinion of this one thing….

    No, you never contrasted those two things. You told him that he’s a lot bigger than his own silly (or at least “small”) opinion of this one thing. I think that’s far different than the pride that’s called for.

    Trevor’s here, he’s a nonbeliever, and his parents need to get used to it. I don’t see where anyone gets the right to demand that he prove he’s somehow “more than just” that.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    It’s funny all the arguing people do with the intention of getting someone to immediately change their beliefs about something. I’m convinced that when people do change beliefs, it happens subconsciously over time – never as the direct consequence of an argument.

    Most arguments are really just rationalizations to support beliefs that the person already holds.

    You either believe in the Jesus supernatural stuff or you don’t and participating in an argument about it with someone is not going to immediately change either of their minds. It might, though, be a contributing factor over time but never as a direct consequence of the argument.

    If red is my favorite color, you are not going to talk me into thinking blue is my favorite color. although, I guess I could wake up one day and really think blue is my favorite color. But that change would have happened subconsciously.

  • Richard Wade

    Rieux,

    You are beginning to resemble the very same deafness that Trevor’s parents are doing. You’re repeating the same misinterpretations of my remarks despite my attempts to clarify my meaning. If my words in the original post were not clear enough for you to get my intended meaning, then I’m sorry, and I’ll have to be more careful to guard against the possibility of someone writing far more meaning in between my lines than the lines I actually write. Please listen to my words now.

    I am not telling him to “minimize” or “downplay” his atheism. Those are your words and your misinterpretation. You can let go of that now, or continue to argue like a lawyer about my original phrasing, but I’m not going to continue to belabor this. One last time, I’m telling Trevor to let go of the importance of his mother’s opinion about his atheism. His opinion about atheism can still be important to him, but he doesn’t have to give a damn about her opinion of his opinion. If he thinks that her opinion is about his deepest, deepest essence, then letting go of the importance of her opinion will be hard for him.

    You seem to be assuming that his atheism is at least close to his deepest essence. Maybe your atheism is for you, and that’s fine, but not every atheist is like that. My general impression of Trevor’s letter is that atheism is important to him, but not necessarily his central identity. Your general impression seems to be that it is. Okay, our impressions are different.

    You said, “Trevor is absolutely justified in “becoming frustrated” at his parents’ ignorant prejudice.” Yeah, he is, and I never said that he isn’t. But being “justified” in a feeling doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wise to act on it. In my opinion, venting his frustration directly to his parents would only set back their coming to be more respectful of his right to his views. And yes, I knew that you were not centrally advocating that Trevor confront his parents over this, and I was not implying that you were.

    You keep repeating this analogy about giving similar advice to gays or blacks. That doesn’t fit, and repeating it doesn’t make it a valid analogy. One’s sexual orientation and race are far deeper and broader than the religious opinions of most of the atheists I’ve gotten to know. It’s important to them in varying degrees, but it seldom compares in intensity or centrality to something like being gay or black. Again, it may be very importantly central to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but not all atheists are like that. Again, our impressions of Trevor from his letter seem to differ on that.

    Rieux, I could go on addressing your several other objections to the exact wording of my original post and now even my attempts to clarify, but at this point there’s no point. You can adhere to your original interpretation, or you can accept my clarification, or something in between. I’ll now be doing what I suggested to Trevor, and let go of the importance of your opinion of my opinion.

  • Rieux

    Richard:

    You’re repeating the same misinterpretations of my remarks despite my attempts to clarify my meaning.

    No, I’m pointing out what your remarks actually say. Your clarifications are nice and all, but they are not in the original post here. What you said in your response to me is fundamentally different from what you said in the post. It appears that you just did a poor job of getting the ideas across that you now assert you had in mind.

    You can let go of that now, or continue to argue like a lawyer about my original phrasing….

    I am a lawyer (how’s that for standing up to a potshot at one’s identity?), and your “original phrasing” is precisely what is at issue here. Very few people reading the original post are going to dig thirty-plus comments into this thread to see you take back what you said in the post itself. “Don’t make your atheism an ideology or an identity. It’s just your lack of belief in gods” and “When you become very clear that you are far more than just your atheism, they probably will begin to also” are still right up there, and they say what they say. If you didn’t mean those things, I suggest you revise the post.

    You seem to be assuming that his atheism is at least close to his deepest essence.

    I think Trevor makes it extremely clear that it, and his parents’ ignorant intolerance of it, are very important to him, yes. And as a result, I think your decision to respond with “Your atheism is not you./Don’t make your atheism an ideology or an identity. It’s just your lack of belief in gods” was a very poor one.

    …similar advice to gays or blacks. That doesn’t fit, and repeating it doesn’t make it a valid analogy.

    Repeating it appears to have prompted you to respond to it this time, though. I can’t say I regret the repetition.

    One’s sexual orientation and race are far deeper and broader than the religious opinions of most of the atheists I’ve gotten to know.

    That’s nice. But we were talking about identity, not simply depth and breadth. For many thousands of us, atheist is who we are; it’s a major part of how we are connected to (and disconnected from) the world around us. Trevor, for example, describes himself in his opening sentence as a “confident, unashamed non-believer,” and the entire conflict he has written to you for advice about stems from that identification. If he were as disinterested in that identity as you appear to be, he could have responded to his mother’s shriek by conceding the word—let her hound him into saying he’s actually an agnostic, or just resort to label-less unbelief. Instead, he stuck to his scarlet-A guns. Come on: that’s an assertion of identity.

    Read your own cartoon: the clause that makes Mom flip out is “I am an atheist”—a statement (of identity…) that is obviously a huge deal to at least one character in that cartoon, to say nothing of billions of people in the real world: at least thousands of us ourselves, and the couple orders of magnitude more on the planet who are happy to tell you how much they can’t stand us.

    Trevor didn’t write you about his “religious opinions,” he wrote you about an attack his parents have launched on him because of what he has told them he is. As I’ve said, I think it was a notably poor decision to preemptively deny the very possibility of atheist identity, and then belittle it with phrases like “small aspect of a person” and “far more than just your atheism.” (I note that neither of your responses to me explains why you picked those words to transmit a message that you now claim is entirely different than what they denote. Your descriptions of the intentions you say you had in mind are nice and all, but I’m actually more interested in the stuff that made it to your keyboard and into that blog entry. It seems you’ve lost interest in that.)

    it may be very importantly central to you….

    I’d say it’s “very importantly central” to a whole lot of people—including, according to his own testimony, Trevor.

    Your outright declaration that atheism isn’t an identity is an aggressive and heavily political assertion, one that is hotly disputed by more than a few of us. If atheism isn’t an identity, a large number of people who write you desperate letters seem to be wasting an enormous amount of their energy fixating on their silly little “opinions.” It’s passing odd that people have suffered what they have suffered in the name of their atheism without conceding it (how’s that for “depth and breadth”?), if all that was actually at stake was just some minor, ancillary notions that crossed their minds.

    I have to say I’m shocked that you, having seen what you’ve seen of the brutality that many atheists have suffered—and more importantly persevered through—from religious believers, deal with issues of atheist identity so flippantly and dismissively. It’s very disappointing.

  • MTran

    Rieux,

    I think you might be well served to look at the context of the issue posed by Trevor. Trevor was seeking a way to deal with his mother’s negative reaction to his atheism and a way to deal with his reactions to hers.

    He says that there is no animosity between them. He is not in a situation where he is being disowned by a family he loves. He has a mother who appears to be bewildered and distressed. He seems to care about his mother and his mother’s opinion about him.

    This is a family where a longer term strategy is likely to be an effective and less stressful method than one that is inflexible or needlessly antagonistic.

    To best implement a long term strategy, it is important to have some tactics. Simple but persistent tactics can be very effective. Richard has described some of them.

    One of the reasons that parents become distressed about declarations of atheism by their children is that they suddenly wonder if they have misunderstood and misjudged their child. They wonder if they have failed as parents in providing a source of values and spiritual comfort.

    In a longer term strategy, there is an opportunity to demonstrate, through consistent behavior, that the child is, indeed, the well balanced, ethically responsible, person they appeared to be. It gives an opportunity to show the parents that their efforts at having their child grow into a happy, healthy adulthood have succeeded, albeit in an unanticipated way.

    If Trevor were in an abusive situation, or being subjected to work place discrimination, I would have some very different (litigation) advice for him.

    But Trevor raised specific issues. By arguing about different issues, you have misunderstood and applied the wrong rules to Richard’s advice. (IRAC, ya gotta love it. IAAL too ;-))

    I also think you are a bit self contradictory when you claim that your atheism = you when you also claim that your politics, ideals, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are also “you.” How many “yous” are there? It seems to me that each of these qualities are separate attributes which are combined in “you.”

    Still, I’ll give you credit for your passion.

  • Rieux

    Counselor:

    I think you might be well served to look at the context of the issue posed by Trevor.

    Oh, I certainly already have. I think you’re responding to things I have not said—in notable contrast to Richard’s unhappiness that I’m concerned about things he did say but claims not to have meant.

    [Trevor] is not in a situation where he is being disowned by a family he loves. He has a mother who appears to be bewildered and distressed. He seems to care about his mother and his mother’s opinion about him.

    All of which is fine. I didn’t argue that he should have gone to the mattresses and started issuing ultimatums. I suggested one hypothetical mode of confrontation he could choose, and then recognized that “quite possibly it would do more harm than good here.”

    The real problem here is not what’s going to happen to Trevor. As Richard said in his first response to me, “Trevor already supplied the best option for himself in this case, to simply let the process take its time.” I agree; that option is far better than any advice Richard actually delivered in the original post.

    The problem is the rather ugly statements that remain in Richard’s post—statements regarding atheism, identity, and the proper way to respond to ignorant prejudice directed at same. I can certainly agree with Richard’s, er, amended pleading: telling Trevor to

    (1) remain as open, overt, and proud about his atheism as he feels moved to be while

    (2) “let[ting] the process take its time”

    is an immeasurable improvement on telling him to

    (3) decide that, regardless of what he thought about himself last Monday morning, atheism is actually only a “small aspect” of his person and certainly not (horrors!) an “an ideology or an identity”… and then

    (4) mount some kind of concerted effort to show his parents that he is “far more than just [his] atheism.”

    Richard’s post never provides the slightest hint that (1) and (2) are good courses of action; instead, it advocates (3) and (4), which are at best extremely difficult to reconcile (I’d say they’re fundamentally incompatible) with (1).

    In comments, Richard seems to be denying any intention of communicating the very things he actually wrote in (3) and (4). I guess I have to take his word for that, but the post still says what it says. If he really didn’t mean it, my suggestion remains that he revise the post. (Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(2), the Court freely gives leave to amend when justice so requires, but generally a party still has to want to do the amending in the first place.)

    But Trevor raised specific issues. By arguing about different issues, you have misunderstood and applied the wrong rules to Richard’s advice.

    No, that misses my basic points entirely. I’m not terribly worried about Trevor, because he’s pretty clearly comfortable enough with his (ahem!) identity as an atheist to be able to brush off his parents’ nonsense and give them time to get over their ignorant prejudice. He’ll be fine; here I’m only miffed on his behalf for the message he’s getting from Richard, not from his parents, whom he can clearly handle.

    The “issues” I am discussing are ones Richard, not Trevor, raised—they involve the former’s dubious declarations regarding atheism and identity. Trevor’s problems are only relevant to this exchange insofar as those problems provide the context for said declarations.

    And it certainly seems to me that issues Richard himself raises are centrally relevant material for comments on this blog.

    I also think you are a bit self contradictory when you claim that your atheism = you when you also claim that your politics, ideals, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are also “you.” How many “yous” are there?

    Are you serious? Do you really contest the notion that we all have numerous aspects to our identity, any one of which can render us susceptible to intolerant attacks that we have every right to regard as identity-focused?

    If I’m a Black male-to-female transgendered lesbian paraplegic Haitian immigrant to the United States who finds myself harassed by several different varieties of bigot, each focused on a different minority status I possess, am I required to pick a single “me” that corresponds to a single one of those bigots and concede that the rest must not be attacking my identity?

    If not, what exactly is the content of the line “How many ‘yous’ are there?” supposed to be? There are as many mes as there are aspects of myself that I regard as significantly vital to who I am. Do you seriously dispute that?

    In this thread I have repeatedly cited the ubiquity of atheophobic prejudice in our society, mainly because that’s a huge part of the reason that atheism is an identity. (The reality of religious privilege is a another similarly big part.) We are treated as atheists, as members of that particular category of people, by the billion or so humans on the planet who bear serious ill will toward us. No mere “small aspect of a person” can possibly have that kind of societal salience. Moreover, Trevor is living in, and his letter arises directly out of, just that context: his parents are intolerantly attacking him for asserting that aspect of his identity.

    I cannot avoid pointing out that Richard’s response to that situation, which climbed on top of the parents’ bigotry in order to tell Trevor that atheism is not and should not be part of his identity, is seriously ugly.

  • MTran

    Rieux,

    WTF? Are you serious?

    Atheism is not an ideology.

    Atheism can be an aspect of a person’s identity, a significant one. However, it does not comprise the entirety of a person’s identity. Recognizing that reality is not tantamount to shame of any sort.

    You asked: “Do you really contest the notion that we all have numerous aspects to our identity, any one of which can render us susceptible to intolerant attacks that we have every right to regard as identity-focused?”

    I see that you have a greater problem reading for comprehension than I realized. And you can save your rage for some one who is willing to be persuaded by it.

    It was you who stated that an attribute = you. I pointed out that atheism is only one of many attributes a person may have and that a person is more than any single, or even multiple, attributes.

    You have described enduring specific types of bigotry. But just because there are legislated categories of protection for those who face unlawful prejudice, it does not mean that a person is reduced to being nothing but a legalistic category or set of categories.

    Are you really nothing other than a legal category? Because ultimately you are arguing that you are merely a collection of categories rather than a person.

    But I don’t buy your argument.

    You are a human being who is more than the sum of your attributes. Unfortunately, you are also a person who is not worth any additional effort.

  • Jaime

    Stepping away from the current argument, I wanted to comment about one of then things Trevor’s mother said to him. As several people have suggested in previous comments, my disbelief in god evolved over time. I waffled about what I really thought for many years. For a long time I considered myself agnostic, but eventually I realized I truly just don’t believe in god. His mother’s comment to him Trevor “you’re just young and have never experienced any big trauma”. I found this statement very interesting. It was actually a traumatic event in my life (witnessing the death of my brother) that enabled me to finally conclude that I am indeed truly an atheist.

  • Marley577

    I am 17, 18 in two days, and I had a very similar story. I became an atheist at around age 12 and firmly believed and argued its viewpoint. I was quite the activist about it. However now I see things differently. I do recognize that “Atheism” was in fact a phase. I totally side with your parents and more with your dad on this one Trevor. From a scientific perspective, atheism is as much of a belief system as is any other religion. Agnosticism is a more viable option as it posits nothing on the existence of a god due to lack of evidence in either direction. This does not mean that the Judeo-Christian religion is correct, as obviously we can see many historical inaccuracies and contradictions within their holy texts. It simply means we have no evidence of or against some sort of powerful, external being. I prefer to take a stance of Theological Noncognitivism, simply not allowing the discussion as it is not framed in viable terms. Such as you would not enter into an argument on the question of “How many bananas is an orange?” I would not enter on the question “Is there a god?” The word is much to broad to be scientifically viable or falsifiable. I see this viewpoint as the one approached by the most rational thinkers and is developing as the new neo-atheist movement, perhaps they all realized they were behaving just as ignorantly as the zealots.

  • Rosita

    I find the complaint that atheism is something central to one’s life rather odd. When I was an evangelical Christian my god beliefs were a central part of my life and who I was. After I lost my beliefs in the supernatural life just closed in the gap. I simply lack a set of untested beliefs that I once held. It does not define who I am, and never did.

    I think Richard is right to suggest that non-believers do not define themselves by their lack of beliefs but by the beliefs they do have. This is a positive view of who one is and what is important to them.

    Those of you who are still unconvinced might like to think about the importance to the sum total of who they are of their current failure to believe in the existence of Santa, the tooth fairy, trolls, leprechauns, goblins, Superman and Zorro. I’d add Elvis, but I’m agnostic about that. :-)

  • klaus

    WWBRD?

    What Would Burt Reynolds Do?

  • http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/igniteme/reviews/ IgniteMe

    Sketch Sepahi – I think you should reread Richard’s sentence again – he said: It could then be argued that if there were more godless men, there would be fewer battlefields.

    He didn’t say it could be proven – just that it could be argued. And in my opinion, argued well. There is quite a bit of evidence that godless people *as a group* are much less prone to violent behavior. Do a bit of googling on the subject…. You’ll see for yourself.

  • matthew

    It seems you and your family misunderstand what agnostic and atheist mean. They are mutually compatible concepts. Observe:

    On the Gnostic/Agnostic scale, one either believes that god can be proven, or god cannot be proven.

    On the Theist/Atheist scale, one personally either believes that god exists, or does not exist.

    Explaining this would probably goes a long ways toward forming a new more mature relationship with you parents.

  • Richard Wade

    matthew,
    That is a useful differentiation between agnosticism and atheism, but I would quibble with you on a detail of your Theist/Atheist scale:

    On the Theist/Atheist scale, one personally either believes that god exists, or does not exist.

    I would amend that to:
    On the theist/atheist scale, one has the belief that god exists, or does not have any belief that god exists (weak atheist), or has the belief that god does not exist (strong atheist).

    It’s an important difference. Going the unnecessary further step to hold an assertive belief that gods do not exist sets one up for having to support that claim with evidence, just as the theist’s claim requires. It’s not easy to prove a negative, especially when you have to depend on the slippery, coy, and caveat-laden definitions and descriptions of gods offered by the believers.

    Why work so hard? Make them do the work.

  • Anonymous Joe

    As far as the “no atheists on a battlefield” thing, I would refer the reader to this video:

    http://youtu.be/Huyg8SiDa7k

    An interview between Bill Maher and Richard Tillman, the brother of Pat Tillman, who famously left a career in professional football to join the army, who was killed by friendly fire, and whose death was covered up and spun by the government.

  • athensguy

    @Richard Wade:

    The way I see it, Matthew’s scale covers both “strong” and “weak” atheism.

    Gnostic is claiming to know for sure that something is true (strong)

    Agnostic is not claiming to know the topic for sure (weak).

    In general, Agnostic/Gnostic is pretty useless for me because I can’t claim to know anything perfectly. I’m agnostic about everything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe things.

    In other words: There’s no god. I can’t claim that 100%, but without any reason to believe in one, I have no reason to doubt that no god exists.

  • Abigail

    I’m guessing you’re all from America because in England most people are atheist and christianity is in minority, as opposed to being the other way round. I’m atheist and I always have been. This is because most English kids aren’t brainwashed into believing something from when they start school but make the choice for themselves about what they believe. Christians base their life around god and do things for god, but atheists don’t do things because they are atheist. They have no gap in their life, but often still have christian morals as in be nice to people (love thy neighbour), and doing the right thing. Their life is not based around theit religion/lack of religion but is based around living life, achieving their potential, and enjoying life as they go through it.

    • Pissonhuffinton

       just because you are a piece of shit atheist don’t think you are better -you are not and England is disgusting-stay there and don’t ever darken our country

  • rat

    how much salt is she putting in that dinner?!?!? any more and that lad will be a step closer to God!

    • Pissonhuffinton

       idiot

  • ARW

    Since it is impossible to prove the non-existence of a deity, god, etc., simply label yourself as an “agnostic” and have a less stressful life. Of course, should you want to generate conflict, you can even be more irritating to believers if you want; simply put god on the same level as leprechauns. After all, my (and your) belief in the existence of god is the same as my belief in the existence of leprechauns and fairies.

    • Pissonhuffinton

       you are a real idiot also-you can’t prove anything you terrorist

  • Pissonhuffinton

    and a nasty piece of shit ass-hole to boot-  why would anyone get marriage counseling from a filthy demonic man like you?


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