Ask Richard: Mom Tells Teen Not to Rally the Atheists

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

Hi Richard,

I’ve got a bit of a problem with my family. I’m only 16 and I’m currently enrolled in college but due to my age I’m living with my mother. Most of my family lives out here in the bible belt and I’m a non-believer. I’m the only one in my family who does not have any shred of faith left, and everyone else is deeply religious. I went to the college orientation the other week and I actually ran in to a couple of non-theists who were curious about secular clubs at the school. Not one was there and so it perked my interest as I ran one previously at my high school. I want to start a group but I’m tied to an agreement I made with my mom not to “rally the Atheists” as she said it previously. To give you an example of how bad it can be at times, I mentioned that I wanted to go to the Reason Rally on Facebook and half my family jumped my case about “rallying the Atheists” out here. What can I do to stay active and keep my mom off my back? Or should I just lay off until I’m done with my short term here?

Brandon

Dear Brandon,

First of all, I commend you for running a secular club at your high school. That takes uncommon courage.

Your family already knows that you’re an atheist, and you have survived coming out. That gives you much more ability to determine your own path and to defend your rights. When people have to keep their atheism a secret, they’re at a distinct disadvantage.

I also commend you for wanting to be conscientious with your agreement. It’s important to keep your agreements, and it’s also important to remember that agreements are made in a context. If that context changes, or if the agreement was made under duress, or if one party had a lack of bargaining power at the time, then it can and should be renegotiated.

By agreeing to not “rally the atheists,” what do you get in return? Was it a one-sided promise she asked of you as a favor to her, or is there something she has agreed to do for you on that condition, such as to pay for your education?

You have to assess what is actually at risk and what is the likelihood that you can make a case for more latitude. There is no “right” or formulaic solution to challenges like this. If there is a serious loss at stake, then generally a short-term loss for a long-term gain is probably better than a short-term gain for a long-term loss, but the best solution depends on the details. Only you can know the details, and a few of them you’ll have to guess.

If you decide to try to renegotiate, here are some loose suggestions. Express them in your own words, and only if they apply:

It sounds like your mom wants you to not repeat running an atheist group as you did in high school. Whatever her objections were then might not be pertinent now. Perhaps she was embarrassed because the smaller social circle surrounding your high school exposed her to criticism from other parents, but that is not nearly as likely in a college setting. Perhaps she still clings to the fantasy that you’ll “return to the fold” if you stay away from atheists.

She might have other emotionally based concerns. Ask her about them, wanting to understand them accurately. You don’t have to come up with remedies for each one. Remedies for her feelings are her responsibility. Sometimes just being understood can allow people to let go of trying to control others.

Understanding her fears and her hurts will help you to gently and patiently show her that restricting you in this way will not soothe them, and that it will do nothing but stifle you and foment resentment. Do not present this as an emotional blackmail. You’re not saying, “I won’t love you unless you let me ‘rally the atheists.’” You’re saying, “I love and accept you as you are, and I don’t demand that you stay away from people who share your views. You should give me the same courtesy. I’m very young, but I’m becoming an adult. As an adult, I must take responsibility for my decisions, and I also expect the freedom that should come with that responsibility.”

Express your gratitude for her support while you attend college, making it clear that you don’t take her help for granted. Point out to her that for a college education to be valuable, you must be free to explore new ideas and views, and free to express yourself. You have already shown leadership in high school, and in college that should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Also point out to her that since you have become a non-believer, you have not become a bad person. You’re honest and caring. That’s exactly why you’re talking about this openly with her right now. You have done well enough in high school to enter college at an earlier age than most students. You fully intend to make her proud of you because of your conduct and your accomplishments rather than your beliefs.

Now as to the half of your family who “jumped your case” for wanting to attend the Reason Rally: At 16, you’re just beginning to build your adulthood. With every decision you make right now, you are laying the foundation for the adult you will be for the rest of your life. At 16, it can be intimidating to stand up to family members who disapprove of you. But you have already taken a very brave stand by being open about your non-belief. That is a huge step that many people older than you have not been able to take.

Don’t meet their fire with fire. Meet it with ice. You can respond to those family members in a cool and dispassionate way, playing the role of the confident and secure adult that you want to become. Every time you play that part, you will become that adult more in reality. In a cool, calm voice, say, “I’ve listened to your concerns, and I will follow my own conscience.” If they persist, just repeat that over and over in an earnest and sincere tone, never letting smugness or anger slip in. Anger will weaken your position. A confident and secure adult doesn’t need to use anger to assert what is rightfully his, the right to follow his own conscience.

They’ll try guilt trips, absurd accusations, scary scenarios, and emotional blackmail. You don’t have to argue against the details of those manipulations. Just say, “That’s a guilt trip,” “That’s an absurd accusation,” “That’s a scary scenario,” or “That’s emotional blackmail.” Then add, “I have listened to your concerns, and I will follow my own conscience.”

You might be trembling inside for the first couple of encounters, but just stick to your cool, calm, dispassionate, confident, and secure façade. In time, it won’t be a façade; it will be the real adult that you have sculpted from the clay of your own adolescence. In a very real sense, you will be a self-made man.

Brandon, if you have the means and opportunity to legally and safely attend the Reason Rally, then you definitely should go. Attending that has nothing to do with your agreement with your mom about college, and your family should mind their own business about that. You have listened to their concerns, and you will follow your own conscience.

I’m flying from California to be at the Reason Rally. I’ll be proudly standing on the National Mall amidst tens of thousands of other people who are following their own conscience. Whether or not you are able to attend, and regardless of how you handle your agreement with your mom, I proudly stand with you wherever you are as someone who follows his own conscience, because you’re already doing that.

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.

  • http://twitter.com/patchnix Patrick Nix

    I’m a Christian and often read your posts.  I appreciate your ‘friendly’ approach.  But I found it amazing how many Biblical principles you used to answer “Richard’s” question … It’s true that wisdom is wisdom – even when wielded in the hands of the unwise.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1198150213 Joe Murray

      That is because your bible does not hold ownership of “the right thing”.  Common sense, courtesy and morality were all there well before the bible was ever compiled and will be long after it is gone.  Just because we do not recognize the validity of your god, nor any god for that matter, does not mean that we don’t know what morality is.  We are a social animal and things we consider moral or right are very much hardwired into our brains.  It is how we evolved as a social animal. 

      • Matto the Hun

        Also, if we were actually taking “Biblical principles” into account, Richard’s advise would be more akin to the following:

        Dear Brandon… Are you nuts?! Deuteronomy 21:18-21 man! Your parents can stone you in the village square for being unruly. Just shut up and keep your head down bro!

    • Anonymous

      How are they specifically Biblical principles if they’re not based on the Bible? Maybe the Bible inherited them from elsewhere.

      > It’s true that wisdom is wisdom – even when wielded in the hands of the unwise.

      I know some very nice Christians who generally show good moral judgement- with a few disturbing exceptions. :) 

    • Anonymous

      How are they specifically Biblical principles if they’re not based on the Bible? Maybe the Bible inherited them from elsewhere.

      > It’s true that wisdom is wisdom – even when wielded in the hands of the unwise.

      I know some very nice Christians who generally show good moral judgement- with a few disturbing exceptions. :) 

    • Heidi

      With “the unwise” being, whom, exactly?

    • Heidi

      With “the unwise” being, whom, exactly?

    • Matto the Hun

      1. I think you meant Brandon’s question as this is an “Ask Richard” post. Though I suppose one day he may endeavor to ask and answer his own questions.

      2. You comment sounds awfully like a very backhanded compliment.

      To start you make a very vague claim to “Biblical” principles w/o stating what those are. I saw nothing in Richard’s tone or tactics regarding this issue that are Biblical or exclusively Biblical. It is very much the rationale a person of most any creed or culture could come up with on their own.

      “wisdom is wisdom – even when wielded by the unwise”; so let us be crystal clear, that read as “your advise was very wise even though you are not wise”. If I read that wrong please let me know, because it really looks to me like that’s what you are saying.

    • Anonymous

      I believe this is called a backhanded compliment

    • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

      What you’re referring to as Biblical principles should be re-framed as principles that are in the Bible.

      The former implies that the Bible is itself the source or the font of the principles found within its pages. However, this neglects an important fact: The Bible is a text that had to be written down.

      This means that the principles recorded the text had to have existed before the act of recording them. This remains true regardless of whether or not the human authors were divinely inspired.

      Principles that pre-existed the Bible must therefore exist independently of the Bible.

      So it should not be amazing at all that anyone, even non-believers, can derive and deploy such principles without reference to the Bible.

      To the contrary. It should be expected that this should be the case. 

      Anything less is to risk worshiping the Bible itself as an idol… I seem to remember something in the first half of the text saying negative things about the worship of idols.

      And that jab about the ‘hands of the unwise’ was uncalled for.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Hello Patrick, welcome to Friendly Atheist. I’m glad that you often read my posts.

      This appears to be your very first comment here. I hope that you are not turned away by the replies. They are not unfriendly, just challenging. If you ask us open-minded and open-hearted  questions about ourselves, you will learn about us more accurately and quickly than if you just make assumptions from a distance.  I wish you well.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Dear Brandon:

    1) Tell your mother to stop “rallying the theists” against you.

    2) Start up a student organization geared toward skepticism or critical thinking instead of atheism per se.

    3) It gets better.

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      I agree with Reginald,

      Your mother probably has an erroneous mental image of what it means to be an atheist.  Rallying skeptics, critical thinkers, or secularists may get around the problem your mother has with “atheism”.  It is interesting that in American history, the Baptists were initially very supportive of the separation of church and state because they didn’t want the mainline protestants too much in bed with the state governments.  Now that the Baptists have their numbers way up, they are the ones wanting to be in bed with government. 

      There are lots of battles to fight.  Perhaps you can concentrate on some battles right now that aren’t necessarily coupled with atheism but a more general concept like secularism.  Even religion benefits from secular principles.  It is possible that your mother may be able to understand that if presented in the right way.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Don’t meet their fire with fire. Meet it with ice.

    One of the more effective methods is to meet fire with dry ice, i.e. solid carbon dioxide. As it heats up, it turns into gaseous carbon dioxide, which starves the fie of oxygen.

    Science is cool.

  • Anonymous

     An idea for what it’s worth. You don’t necessarily have to rally the atheists. But there is nothing from stopping your friends from rallying the atheists and you joining. There’s loopholes in everything.

  • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

    A trick I’ve successfully used in this kind of situation:

    Get a pen and a scratch pad.

    Ask the other party to express what it is that they actually want. This can take some time and discussion. You need a one or two sentence summary. Important thing is that the other party is on board and accepts the summary as an accurate representation of their position. You don’t want to engage in pointless semantics.

    Keep going until you have all the wants down on a piece of paper – usually I expect three or four.

    Then put that piece of paper to the side and start a new one. Interrogate each want. Why do you want that? Is it an end in itself, or is it a means to another end? If so, what is that end?

    The bit that makes this work is to externalize the wants onto the paper. It always feels a bit stupid to write down the things that you or another person wants (at least, it does to me) but it really does help.

    Externalizing the wants onto a foreign object makes it easier to analyse them critically rather than just being swept along with them from an emotional standpoint.

    The reason I think that this is interesting here is because ‘don’t rally the atheists’ is a highly specific thing for your mother to want. It’s not the sort of thing people usually want as an end in itself. There is very probably a deeper want or set of wants lurking behind that request/agreement/desire, and it would probably be worthwhile for both you and your mother to investigate those deeper wants and get them out in the open.

  • Erik

    Fighting fire with fire is how we lost the train station.

    you’re really brave Brandon, to be tackling theism, family issues, and college at 16. Atheists should be proud to count you among their numbers. In your position I would probably back down until I were financially independent, but maybe you can do more than that.

  • Anonymous

    Not entirely related, but some general advice would to not have family members as “friends” on Facebook. They’re your family, not your friends. Keep those lives separate if you have to.

  • cipher

    @Matto the Hun : You comment sounds awfully like a very backhanded compliment.

    @Stev84: I believe this is called a backhanded compliment

    @Daniel Schealler: That jab about the ‘hands of the unwise’ was uncalled for.

    Guys, Patrick Nix is a cradle fundie and pastor of an Independent Baptist church: http://www.lighthousetaylorsville.com/html/pastor_nix.html

    I’m sure he thinks he was being polite.

    • Matto the Hun

      And that’s the problem with religion, at least with those more than ankle deep in it.

      It takes people who w/o it would be nice, they want to be nice, they are absolutely convinced they are being nice, but instead their religion makes them into total dicks.

  • Karen

    Dear Brandon,
    Somewhere inside you know what you want to do.
    It’s your life.  Live it with integrity and live it without seeking permission!
    Let us know how it goes!


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