Ask Richard: Atheist Teen Endures an Oppressive, Cultish Family

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

Dear Richard,

I’m a 17 year old atheist who came out to his parents about 6 months ago. My parents were shocked to hear it. They didn’t know what to do. My parents are extremely fundamentalist Christians. Its more of a cultish Christianity. Women must wear skirts to the ankles, stay quiet, etc.. My parents don’t listen to anything I have to say anymore because I’m an atheist and they think I’m just pushing an agenda.

In response to telling them I was an atheist, they started bringing me to a stricter church where I go twice Sunday and once Wednesday. They are getting counseling from the pastor there, who said they should force as much Christianity on me as possible. It’s painful to even be there. The few people I know there, know that I’m an atheist and judge me for it. If there is a heaven, I hope I go to hell just to get away from people like that. I don’t know what to do with church. I have done what most people recommend, which is go and ask questions. That doesn’t work for me because it ends in getting grounded or being sent to the pastors office. I skipped church once, and my parents had a serious talk with me about kicking me out. They can’t legally do it since I’m 17 and I don’t think they will anyways.

I should also note that I am homeschooled. I have a regular Bible class and a “creationist science” class everyday. Everyday throughout those classes, my mom makes remarks telling me that I need to pay close attention. This usually ends into an argument when I explain the flaws in the logic used. I hate to argue but my mom always escalates a debate. So I should stay clear of that. My parents are very condescending towards me. They don’t do it to my brother because he is a Christian. It is impossible for me to respect someone who brings so much pain into my life and holds me back from the real world. Ironically my mom makes most of the decisions at home. She is very unapologetic with the house rules when it comes to church and Christianity.

As for friends, its hard to make new ones because I’m homeschooled. Also my parents won’t let me make new friends without their approval. So getting an atheist friend is not even an option. I’ve never even met an atheist in real life. The friends I do have accept me, but criticize my unbelief all of the time. I doubt I can go a day with one of them without an atheist joke being brought up.

I would move out but my family would not help me through college if I did. I also need to finish high school. I know you said to be concise but I must thank you for your lectures and books. They were one of the many sources which lead to my atheism. I appreciate the help.

Brandon

Dear Brandon,

Your very last remark about my “lectures and books” sounds like you may have mistaken me for the luminary Richard Dawkins. I’m Richard Wade, a very minor player in the atheist movement. This has happened on several occasions. If that is the case, I’m very glad that you have had access to Dr. Dawkins’ wonderful lectures and books, especially given the risky and restrictive situation you are in. Keep reading and listening to them, and carefully protect your access to them.

I usually have to receive several letters from young atheists to find as many of the difficulties that are contained in this one. I’m considering writing a book for the religious families of young atheists, and this letter will fill most of the chapter on what not to do.

Forcing much more religious indoctrination down your throat will only backfire. Coercing you with disapproval, derision, retraction of love, browbeating, belittling, insulting, grounding, taking away privileges, forbidding contact with friends, isolating, threats of abandonment, threats of withdrawing support for college, and even worse things that fortunately you have not described don’t work. They never have and never will produce a sincere, deeply-held belief. It’s idiotic to think that they would. The only thing that coercion, blackmail or intimidation ever produce is a false compliance with the outward appearance of belief. Anyone with an IQ of 50 or higher would realize this, so the appearance of compliance is what your parents want.

So give them what they want.

Your parents and their pastor have repeatedly demonstrated that they are incapable of listening to you, and they are intractably entrenched in authoritarianism. They are very reactionary, and you are in a very vulnerable position. Don’t make the mistake that Galileo made. He thought that reason should persuade, but he was up against powerful people who thought that authority must dominate. After threatening him with torture, they “grounded” him in his home for the last nine years of his life.

Your honest expressions of your feelings are answered with punishment. Your reasoned differences of opinion are answered with punishment. Your asking earnest questions are answered with punishment. So just as you’re doing with the futile and abusive “debates” that your mother keeps trying to start, steer clear of all of that.

Give them the appearance of compliance. Pay attention during your creationism classes enough to not provoke your mother. Avoid head-to-head confrontations that accomplish nothing except to get you more punishment. Give non-provocative, noncommittal, minimal, apparently compliant responses to your parents’ questions. Give them nothing to argue with, nothing to feed the fire of their fear and authoritarianism. Do not be sullen, or surly, or impolite. Just be bland in your interactions with them so they’ll relax and back off of you.

Meanwhile, in your high school classes and any classes that will actually be important to your getting into college and possibly getting a scholarship, work your ass off. Apply yourself as if your life depends on it. It does. Good grades are keys to your freedom. Collect as many as you can.

Privately read good books on evolution and whatever science and history has been poorly taught in your homeschooling. Get Hemant Mehta’s The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide, perhaps in digital form if that is easier to conceal from snooping family members. The internet is your window on the real world. Don’t give your parents reason to clamp down on that. You must protect your access to things that inspire and inform you, such as Dawkins’s lectures and books. Do not reveal anything about your lack of belief on Facebook. That is a privacy destroyer, an outing device. Set your browsing history to “off” or “private.” Visit the excellent blog, Godless Teens and start making online friends.

About your current friends: You’re clearly a very articulate and intelligent young man, but you cannot entirely avoid the emotional challenges that come with your youth. For most 17-year-olds, friends are extremely important. The need to fit in and be accepted drives much of their behavior. It’s a natural part of their social and psychological development. Sometimes young people can become desperate for friends, so they lower their standards for what is acceptable treatment from their friends.

You say the friends you have “accept” you. If they constantly criticize your unbelief, and you can’t go a day without one of them making a joke against you, then they don’t accept you as you are.

If and only if you feel comfortable doing it, confront your friends one at a time when they’re doing these things to you. In a cool, calm tone, tell them that this is not what friends do. The criticism and derisive joking must stop. Make it clear that the topic of your belief or unbelief is closed. About that, you will be bland and blank. Talk about the things that 17-year-olds usually like to talk about.

I don’t suggest this lightly, as if any 17-year-old should easily be able to assert himself like that. If you’re not ready, that’s perfectly understandable. Just let the empowering idea grow in you that you should not have to put up with unkind treatment from friends just to maintain an illusion of being “accepted.”

Although you think you have “never even met an atheist in real life,” it’s likely that you have, but they’re being more cautious than you. They’re biding their time for when they can express themselves openly without the kind of absurd and useless penalties you have been receiving.

When you get to college, you will be astonished by the new world that will open up to you. You’ll encounter new ideas, new friends, including atheists who are frank about it and who will understand what you have been going through. See if there is an atheist club, such as the Secular Student Alliance. Find part-time work and save your money, but keep your grades your top priority. Patiently build your freedom and success.

Do not indulge in heavy drinking or drugs to soothe the pain of your anger. You must stay healthy, and you need every brain cell working at full capacity. Try to let go of your bitterness toward your parents. It does nothing but sap your strength. Get counseling if your pain is too great.

The time will finally come when you are independent. Your long-prepared escape will be accomplished. You can fully be yourself. If your family ever gains the maturity to accept you as you are, wonderful, and if not, that’s a sad loss for them, but not for you. You have your own life to live and your own family to create. Flourish.

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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.


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