Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I was a Catholic, but when I made my confirmation last year I was already an atheist. That felt extremely wrong to me; the other teenagers that were making theirs believed and it was a big deal to them, but to me it was just silly. I begged my parents to not make me but it wasn’t up for discussion. I made it anyways and then my family stopped going to church because of the fit I would throw over it, but I thought finally I was done with religion.
Now my younger sister is making her confirmation and my parents want me to be her sponsor. This requires me to go to church with her every week, go to a retreat, meet with the priest, and walk her up to the alter during the ceremony. I think you can see why this would be a problem. I told my parents that I couldn’t do it, but once again it was not up for discussion. I thought maybe I could get out of it because the age requirement for a sponsor when I made it was 18, now it’s only 16, so I have no excuse.
They don’t know I’m an atheist and I’m really worried that if I told them I was they would make me go back to church; I’m almost certain that that would happen actually. So I was just going to wait out telling them until I moved out and was financially independent of them. But me telling them really isn’t the problem at hand, what I want to know is if there is any way I could get out of being her sponsor, and if not what I should do in the meantime.
I think you’re sensible to not reveal your atheism at this time. You’ve made it very clear to your parents that you don’t like church, but sometimes parents become very reactionary when they hear the “A” word.
Teen atheists who are under the thumbs of parents who are both religious and dictatorial often must choose between unpleasant options. They try to preserve the few good things they have in their situation, such as you have in no longer being forced to go to church all the time.
From your letter, it sounds like you’re sure that your situation will get worse if you tell your parents that you are an atheist. So the option that is less unpleasant is probably the one that will last the shortest time. The process of sponsorship has a set length. If you were to reveal your atheism now, forced church attendance and who knows what else could last much longer, perhaps as long as you are financially dependent on them.
So if you’re stuck with having to do this, then create something positive, valuable, even wonderful with it. Build a strong alliance with your younger sister.
The two of you probably have a few differences in your personalities, but sisters who have domineering parents often form close bonds to help each other endure until they are finally free to live as they choose.
Talk to her. Use your role as sponsor to your advantage, and create a just-between-the-two-of-us partnership, a rapport. Tell her that whatever she shares with you will remain confidential. What are her feelings about all this? Is she happy and excited about her confirmation? Is she nervous? Neutral? Apathetic? Conflicted? Is she a strong believer, marginal, doubtful, or does she secretly think it’s silly like someone you know?
As she begins to confide in you, honor her trust and take in whatever she shares with complete acceptance. This will probably cause her to be more receptive and accepting of your views, and more trustworthy of holding your confidences. Gradually, one step at a time the two of you can build a friendship wherein you can both be fully yourselves.
Regardless of where she stands on religion, think about how you can rise above the conflict you have with your parents, and be supportive of her, sister-to-sister. Love for our family members does not have to be canceled out by differences in religious views, and it’s a tragedy when so often people on either side choose to let that happen.
Let your basic task be helping her get through this with the least amount of difficulty, one way or another.
If she’s fully behind the confirmation, don’t spend all that time in the church and at the retreat being tense and impatient, rolling your eyes and muttering resentfully. That will just make it awful for both of you. You don’t have to pretend enthusiasm; just be easygoing and get the job done. If she has some doubts about any of it, those areas might be your opportunity to discreetly plant some seeds that might later sprout into critical thinking. If her attitude is already similar to yours, then as the two of you sit through the process you can share knowing glances and snicker about it later, and your bond will become even stronger.
Cecilia, if you focus on supporting your sister in whatever she needs rather than on your resentment for being forced to do this, you will probably end up with a friend, a confidante, a comrade, an ally. Whether she turns out to be a devout Catholic, or a freethinking atheist, or something in between, she will be a treasure in your life. Brothers and sisters who are also allies can have a unique closeness that makes them incomparably valuable throughout life.