Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m the only out atheist in my family. We have the occasional argument or discussion but for the most part we all agree to try and be respectful. Tonight that all seems to have fallen apart, and I’m a little torn on how to proceed.
I just finished reading Dawkins’ newest book, The Magic of Reality and I decided that I wanted to share it with my younger brother since he is who the book is aimed at. He’s in high school and home-schooled with a fundamental Christian curriculum, so his “science” books teach a literal view of Genesis, and they generally teach anything but actual science. I know that my little brother is interested in possibly going to medical school one day and that he has a general interest in the scientific field, even if he isn’t exactly vocal about it. When he asks me questions I have the bad habit of explaining things in terms he can’t completely understand. So I was pretty ecstatic to share with him the knowledge in Dawkins’ book.
However, my mother found the book and took it away from him before he could even get started. She returned it to me without a word but instead with a note telling me “Not now. Maybe when he’s 18 but certainly not now.” I honestly can’t describe how I felt reading and rereading that note: angry, surprised, disappointed, in denial…
She knows that I left religion behind because science explained the world in much more complex but beautiful ways. I think that she is afraid that if my brother starts to read and understand things in the same way I did, that he’ll eventually leave religion behind too. She believes that he’s been called to ministry since he was a child but I know my little brother and he has no interest in being a missionary or pastor.
Unfortunately, I let my emotions take control and my mother and I had a fight about her taking the book away, but we eventually reached a compromise I’m not happy about: She’ll read the book and then decide if he can handle it. I get the sinking feeling that she’ll decide he can’t no matter what and that breaks my heart for a multitude of reasons.
As an undergraduate science major, I want nothing more than to show my brother that the world is a grand and wonderful place, that the knowledge of how it all works is out there even though it might be hard to comprehend at times. I want to encourage him, not to abandon his beliefs, but to look at the world with a skeptical eye and to learn as much as he can. I want to do all I can to keep encouraging him because I can see the beginnings of that mindset taking root.
I have my own apartment while I’m away at college so I can’t always be around to talk to him. I love my family but how do I even begin to try and help my brother to think rationally when he lives with parents who seem to believe they can dictate what he reads, learns, and believes? And how do I help my parents understand that the words in a book shouldn’t be a frightening thing, that they shouldn’t take away the opportunity for him to learn and make decisions for himself?
When people are shown the apple of knowledge and then it is forbidden to them, they become much more interested in eating it.
Now that your brother has seen the book and it has been forbidden to him, he’s much more likely to be curious about it. In his mind, the issue is no longer whether or not it’s a useful or appropriate book. Now it is part of a conflict between his freedom and his mother’s control of his freedom. Teenagers are naturally in this conflict with their parents all the time. It’s called individuation, part of their healthy development. Now science and critical thinking will be one of the areas where that struggle is acted out.
Dawkins’ book is a very good tool, but your relationship with your brother will be much more important to help him become a free thinking person. It will be at times a delicate balance between expressing what you would prefer him to do and honoring his freedom:
Show him your letter. Show him that you favor his having freedom to think for himself, that you value his intelligence, and you have confidence in his ability to handle new ideas. At the same time, make it clear to him that you love him for himself, rather than for what opinions he holds. You want him to become his own full self whatever that may be, rather than becoming only what will please you, or his parents, or anyone else.
When he asks you a question, Don’t “sell” your scientific viewpoint over the religious viewpoint. Just try to answer his question from your understanding. If you think you’ll get over his head, tell him you’ll brush up on it and get back to him soon with a more understandable answer. That will send him the message that his question deserves a worthy response. That message is as important as the answer itself, because it encourages his curiosity. By the way, taking the time to compose a simpler answer will greatly enhance your own understanding of whatever the subject is. As Einstein said, ”You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”
Develop an online relationship with him via email. Facebook is not private. While you’re away at college, communicate with him on a regular basis. Tell him of your own challenges and conflicts, your own ups and downs. This will give him permission and a sense of safety to be candid with you in return. Older brothers and sisters occupy a unique position; they’re neither parent nor friend, but someone who can have the best qualities of both.
I wouldn’t call the outcome from the fight you had with your mother a “compromise,” because there wasn’t a mutual give-and-take. Hopefully it was not just a way for her to postpone a flat refusal. Give her a reasonable amount of time, and then without a tone of nagging, ask her if she has looked at the book, and ask what she thinks about it. Perhaps you can start a dialogue between the two of you about it, even if she is still afraid to let your brother read it. Sometimes small steps can reach goals when bold leaps are too scary.
When talking to your mother, you must keep your emotions under control. The virtues of rationalism are not well demonstrated if you lose your temper, and the other person will probably not be swayed by even the most cool-headed rational persuasion if they’ve already lost their temper. Giving you that note about the book suggests that she is uncomfortable with speaking to you directly about such matters because the feelings are too tense. You can begin to relax those feelings between you if you understand her emotional motive.
I think your assessment is correct, she’s afraid. Keeping that in mind can help you to respond with compassion and patience rather than with anger. She sees her sons growing up in a world that is no longer interested in her cherished beliefs. One son has already rejected them, and the other might be showing similar signs. Her fantasy about him going into ministry is comforting to her, but it will probably be self-defeating in the end because she’s paying attention to her desires rather than to his.
You both have fear for your brother’s fate. She handles her fear by trying to overprotect and control him. Make sure you don’t try to overprotect and control him in your own way. As an adolescent, it is part of his nature to resist others’ attempts to mold him to their wishes, both hers and yours. In the end, the one who will be the most influential to him will probably be the one who gave him the most encouragement to find his own way.
He’s a very lucky young man to have a big brother such as you. I hope that everyone in your family can find ways to live in harmony and to keep expressing their love for each other despite differences in their beliefs. This is a time in history when enormous numbers of families are going through the changes and conflicts that you are experiencing. You’re certainly not alone.