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