Ask Richard: Young Atheist’s Parents Face Bigotry and Harrassment in Small Religious Town

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

Dear Richard,

My name is Kaitlyn. I’m 15 years old and have been an atheist since I was 10. I’m fortunate enough to have parents that are very open minded and irreligious.

I happen to live in a small, extremely religious town. (There are 19 Christian churches here, and we just reached a population of 2,000 last spring) I’ve become somewhat notorious for my atheism because I’m really open about it. Most people have gotten used to me, I guess. I’m not targeted much anymore.

However, this is not so for my family. My father is a doctor and owns the only clinic in my town. He can’t get through a day without one of his patients commenting about me, criticizing his parenting, or “coming after him” about forcing me to go to church. He has lost business over me. A certain pastor has even advised his followers not to go to my dad, saying a man with an atheist child shouldn’t be trusted.

My parents say that it’s not a big deal but I get the feeling that they’re tired of the harassment. I can’t help feeling guilty sometimes. I’m just wondering if there’s anything I can do to protect my family. And if coming out so openly in such a religious town was a smart thing for me to do.

Dear Kaitlyn,

I greatly admire both you and your parents. You make each other lucky. Your letter shows that you are crossing the line from a child to a young adult who wants to participate in the family’s overall well being. Congratulations.

Bring your concerns to your parents. Tell them that you hear them when they say “It’s no big deal,” and then tell them that you also get the feeling that they’re tired of the harassment. Clarify if there are specific things that you’ve observed about them that cause you to think this, or if you have only a worry that they’re tiring of it. Either way, your impression might be correct, partially correct, or incorrect. Then tell them about your feelings of guilt about it. Say that you’re being frank with them because you want them to be frank with you.

Tell them that as a 15-year-old, you want to be a more involved team member of the family. You want to work with them as a young adult for the whole family’s benefit and protection, and not just passively as a child receive their protection. As time goes by, you and they can adjust that responsibility as is appropriate for your growing level of maturity and abilities.

To do this, you need them to inform you about things like the actual amount of business that has been lost as a result of the community’s reaction, and the amount and kind of stress that your father and mother actually experience. They might at first be reluctant to tell you frankly about such things, wanting to protect their child from the harsh realities of life, but you can patiently assure them that you would not be asking about it if you were not ready to handle it.

Ask your father specifically how he handles these unwelcome remarks from his patients about you and his parenting. Also ask your mother about any similar criticism both overt and subtle that she gets, and how specifically she handles it. From these you can gain an understanding of the level of their stress, and you can also learn what works and what does not work.

If you have siblings, talk with your parents about how any of this might be affecting them, and work out an agreed plan for how you can help to respond to your siblings’ needs. You might actually be in a better position to sense their stress than your parents could, because your siblings might be more candid with you.

You and your parents might not immediately come up with specific strategies for how to deal with the disapproving townsfolk, but the first benefit will be that you will be a more cohesive family team. Being able to see your participation in that team I think will help to soothe your feelings of guilt from the incorrect thought that somehow you brought this difficulty upon them. No, you didn’t.

Remember: You have done nothing to feel guilty about. You have merely openly expressed what you think. The townspeople who badger and harass you or your parents for that are the ones who are practicing something to feel guilty about, intolerance and bigotry.

On the pragmatic, practical side, to come out so openly in such a town was perhaps unwise, but on the principle side, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Your whole life, you will weave your way through the practical and the principled ways to respond to life’s challenges. There are no formulas that will always guide you perfectly. Sometimes you’ll have to be more pragmatic, sometimes you’ll have to be more principled. You’ll have use your judgment to make your choices each time. Getting more skilled at finding the right balances between them is called wisdom.

As you get older, people will begin to see you as more personally responsible for your own views and opinions, so the targeting might shift back to include you again. That might or might not relieve some of the harassment of your parents. If that happens naturally, so be it, but I strongly suggest that you not try to deliberately draw that fire away from them onto yourself in an attempt to protect them. That would be a similar kind of “martyring” that they might be doing with you now if they’re hiding the stress that they’re going through. The important thing is to become and remain a unified, cohesive team where you all communicate frankly and openly, and you can all support each other. You won’t just be family, you’ll be comrades.

I recommend that you get a copy of Hemant Mehta’s The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide. He has excellent insights and suggestions that you can relate to, and that you can build upon.

One more thing: Even in such a small and religious town, in 2013 it’s very likely that you are not the only young atheist. Those who also don’t believe might not feel comfortable coming out, but be on the lookout for them. They feel isolated and frustrated in their secretiveness, and they quietly admire your openness.

I have not been able to suggest specific things for your family to do in response to the town’s attitude, so I would very much like to hear from you again as time goes by. Please give us updates about how things develop over the next several months and years, and how your family team finds ways to cope and to thrive.


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About Richard Wade

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