Columnist Offers Great Advice to Mother Concerned About Daughter’s Atheism

Normally, when a syndicated newspaper advice columnist tackles a question about atheism, I cringe. It’s never good information and you’re left wondering how the person earned a column in the first place.

That’s not the case with Carolyn Hax, writer and columnist for the Washington Post.

A mother wrote to Hax concerning her daughter… who just became an atheist:

I love my daughter dearly, but I am troubled by this turn of events. She has never seriously misbehaved or otherwise given me cause to worry before this. Emily insists she is old enough to make up her own mind, but I simply do not think a girl of 16 has the maturity to make such a life-changing decision. Our pastor cautions me that putting too much pressure on her now might cause her to become even more entrenched in her thinking.

How can I help my daughter see that she is making a serious mistake with her life if she chooses to reject her God and her faith? Can I just chalk this up to teenage rebellion, something she’s bound to outgrow, or do you suppose this is a precursor to some deeper psychological problem?God-Fearing Mom

To her credit, Hax delivers a series of knockout punches in her reply:

Please tell me it’s not either-or.

And please also tell me what you would have Emily do — pretend she believes? Pseudo-pray?

So I’ll ask again, what would you have nonbelievers do? Lie? Even people who want and try to believe just … can’t. Or don’t. I’m living proof. (No nagging psychological problems to pin it on, either.)

… Certainly indicating you’re not afraid of Emily’s doubts will make a better case for your “Christian values” than will treating her as if she’s delinquent or mentally ill…

Skepticism is no less personal than faith. Accordingly, I speak only for myself, but I didn’t throw out what my childhood, including my church, taught me; I still apply what I believe in. I just apply it to a secular life.

What a terrific response. She offers good advice while still politely scolding the mother for thinking there was something wrong with her daughter in the first place.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Glasofruix

    She has never seriously misbehaved

    So now being an atheist is a misbehaviour?

    I simply do not think a girl of 16 has the maturity to make such a life-changing decision.

    Life changing? It’s not like she decided to abandon medical studies in the third year of college to follow her boyfriend who wants to be a rock star…

    • amycas

       I find it particularly aggravating that if this were the other way around (a 16 year old becoming a Christian), then the teenager would be lauded with praise for her wonderful and “mature” decision.

      • Georgina

        Only by christians – as an atheists, I  would feel that it was more likely the 16 year old was infatuated with a girl/boy from the church and wanted to be “worthy”. 

        And if the “16 year old becoming a Christian” was a muslim previously, she might even have to run away from home.

  • jdm8

    It’s annoying that at any age it’s OK to make a life-changing decision – for Jesus. For any other belief, or for non-belief, a teen is too young to ever understand how it’s going to destroy them. Like how the Cranston school banner was written by someone when he was a 12 year old, but the same person says a 16 year old can’t possibly be of the right mind to make an informed decision about God and Jesus.

    • mike

       You’re never too young to make the right decision and never too old to make the wrong the decision.

      • jdm8

         The technical term is special pleading.

  • Michael

    The only thing missing is the point that once someone pretends to believe to avoid the ire of others, they will assume that is what everyone else does when they act like they believe. That will stop them ever seriously considering a return to their old religion.

  • http://twitter.com/reneehendricks Renee Hendricks

    I read this a few minutes ago and was shocked as well. Usually those sorts of “letters to …” end up with a lot of information on how to “reeducate” the “wayward son/daughter”. It was a refreshing change!

  • Sharon Crawford

    I too reacted to the ” I simply do not think a girl of 16 has the maturity to make such a life-changing decision” statement. No one has a problem teaching God/Jesus/Allah/whatever to toddlers who, I think we’d all agree, lack the maturity not to run out in front of cars.

    But a 16-year-old is too young to know what she actually believes.

    Good for Carolyn.

    • Glasofruix

      Also the part where she compares atheism to psychologhical problems makes me want to puke…

  • Aljaž Kozina

    Really, this is a terrific response.

  • SeniorSkeptik

    Overall I think she gave a great response. I emailed a pat on the back to let her know how much I appreciated a healthy, humanist response.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Ms. Hax gave a very good response. This letter reminds me of one I answered in January of 2010. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/01/12/ask-richard-a-concerned-mother-asks-atheists-about-her-teen-daughter’s-atheism/

    • Luther

       We can appreciate the answer in the Post, but also know yours is the more thorough, thoughtful, and complete. Thanks for reminding us.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      Yes, when I saw the response in today’s Post, my first thought was that it was an answer almost worthy of Richard Wade.  Carolyn Hax has always been one of my favorite advice columnists, and now I have even more respect for her.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Scoggin/100000044792747 Aaron Scoggin

    So wait, making a life-changing decision to “follow Jesus” is acceptable from the time you’re 5, but making a life-changing decision to follow your own path isn’t acceptable until… Well, I don’t know (never?)

    Seems pretty hypocritical. What’s even more annoying is that whenever someone decides to choose their own beliefs, it’s “rebellion”. Likely, this mother didn’t change her mind and will be doing all she can to win her back to Jesus or something.

  • Amakudari

    [She] suddenly announced she had “given up believing in God.”

    How can I [her] if she chooses to reject her God and her faith?

    What a great example of indoctrination. Churches will teach their flock that atheists can only reject god, which is absurd, when the reality is that most American atheists I know, myself included, tried far harder than more credulous worshippers and simply couldn’t maintain such a belief.

    • Jean1

      That is the thing, isn’t it?  I tried so hard to accept the faith of my boyfriend.  I studied.  I listened.  I thought.  The more I worked at it, the less sense it made.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    It would be nicer to see advice like this given from people that aren’t atheists themselves. Even a religion believing person should be able to understand that humanism, secularism, and skepticism are not qualities of the delinquent rebellious mentally ill. This response from Carolyn Hax should be the same coming from a Christian.

    • Tyrrlin Flamestrike

      Certainly it would be nicer, yes.  But unfortunately, the popular going image of Athiesm is that we’re godless hedonists with no moral compass or human compassion.  I too would love to hear a very religious person say, “it’s all right to be an Athiest, you don’t have to believe in God, it’s your own private business” but I’m not going to hold my breath over it.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    The only thing I didn’t like about Carolyn’s response was this line: 

    Certainly indicating you’re not afraid of Emily’s doubts will make a better case for your “Christian values” than will treating her as if she’s delinquent or mentally ill. Consider how you view adherents of other faiths, after all — particularly those who observe as their families taught them to. 

    There are quite a few religious people, especially among Christians as fundamentalist as this woman sounds, who regard adherents of other religions, often adherents of other sects of Christianity, as deluded about the validity of their faith, as well as doomed to hell.

  • Joseph

    Whenever I read comments like the one by this “concerned mother,” all I can do is feel sorry for them.  How simple-minded and naive they are, like little children (or sheep, to use the more appropriate Christian analogy).  I’m sure that sounds condescending, but I find it depressing to think that these people vote, and make decisions that affect others. 

  • John of Indiana

    Wow. They watered-down that column for the Lafayette, IN “Journal and Courier”. Nothing in there about Hax being a Skeptic or non-believer, indeed, they cut out about 4 paragraphs of her answer…
    They also cut out the bit about  a “precursor to some deeper psychological problem”.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Ha — Can you send me a picture of that column?

  • The Man Beast

    Atheism is not skepticism.

    • Piet

      Not sure if troll..
      Atheisme is the logical result of scepticism.

  • Keulan

    16 is not mature enough? Really? I became an atheist when I was 14, and it wasn’t out of rebellion. It certainly wasn’t due to any sort of mental illness either. I became an atheist when I realized that there was no evidence for gods.

    It was nice to see a more reasonable response to this sort of situation in a newspaper advice column, that’s for sure. Hopefully the girl’s mother learns a few things from it and from her daughter. I’m not very optimistic about that though, since it sounds like the mother believes several misconceptions about atheists.

    • melissa woodall

      At 10 I told my mother I didn’t want to go to church anymore and she accepted that. However, when I told her I was an atheist at 17 (I hadn’t believed in anything for awhile) she was upset. She (and my father) think that you need to believe in something. Pretty much the reaction was ANYTHING, but an atheist. My parents still occasionally ask questions (22 now), but all and all leave it alone. My extended family is not so courteous. I once got PATTED on my head and told “we will get you yet”. How freaking patronizing. 

  • Baby_Raptor

    This woman is pathetic. That’s really all there is to it. I feel sorry for how completely brainwashed she is. 

    It’s fine to believe what you want to believe. That’s not what makes her pitiable. It’s the way she reacts to her daughter daring to not toe the line. Suddenly her daughter is misbehaving and in danger, simply because she decided that the religion she was raised in wasn’t for her?

    And the complete hypocrisy is beyond sickening. Christianists push children as young as 2 and 3 to “decide to follow Jesus” and say nothing about maturity. But a 16 year old can’t decide she doesn’t believe?

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Here is the primary source (why link to DNJ instead of the Washington Post?) with the full response: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/daughters-turnabout-on-religion-shakes-mothers-faith/2012/09/04/1e6ead68-f3a9-11e1-a612-3cfc842a6d89_story.html

    Here is an example I happened to find of a cut-down version of the response (in a Seattle paper, surprisingly): http://seattletimes.com/html/living/2019066764_hax09.html

  • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

    Sixteen is too young to make a decision about one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof?  She should try telling that to all the churches that perform the rite/sacrament of Confirmation on youths between 6th and 10th grade.

  • Octoberfurst

     That columnist did a wonderful response! But I too was very irritated by the hypocrisy and ignorance of the mother. If her daughter decided to “accept Jesus” at age 5, 7, 9 or whenever mom would have been fine with that decision–despite her daughter’s young age. But claiming to be an atheist at 16?? Whoe! Hold on! She’s way too young to make such a crucial decision! Oh please.  And then good old mom want to know if her daughter’s atheism is a result of some deep psychological problem.  Oh yes, anyone who is an atheist is OBVIOUSLY mentally ill!  Some people are totally clueless and I am glad that mom got set straight.  


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