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.


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.

  • Jeff P

    You are fortunate to have supporting open-minded parents. Rest assured that they are probably already wise to the ways of the world and knew what moving to a small town would be like. Enjoy the freedom to be who you are but try to talk things over with your parents. Perhaps you all together can come up with a plan so you can work together as a team. If you father is indeed the only doctor in town, any lost business will surely be only temporary. Eventually the people will come around.
    PS., my wife and I have enjoyed watching a British TV show called Doc Martin via cable on demand. It is about a high-rolling London surgeon that acquired a blood phobia and was forced to become a general practitioner in a small town in Cornwall England. The show is really funny with the trials and tribulations of when urban meats rural (among other things). You might like it.

  • Machintelligence

    How about founding a chapter of the SSA at your high school. Given the increasing number of “nones” in your demographic there will probably be enough to have one, even in a small, highly religious town.The more common atheists become, the less notable they are. Besides, misery loves company. ;-)

  • Rick Wiggins

    Great advice, Richard. If I may suggest, another thing she can do is to set an example by being a good student, involved in her community, and an overall exemplary citizen. Sounds like she’d have no problem with that, and she’s probably way ahead of me.


  • cipher

    Or they could just move. Her father is a doctor; it isn’t as though he couldn’t find employment elsewhere.

    Tell him to sell the clinic to someone who thinks illness is caused by evil spirits, and get the hell out of there.

  • Miss_Beara

    I hope you and your family can move out of that small minded small town someday.

  • UWIR

    It’s cases like this that lead me to the conclusion that anyone who supports the Pledge of Allegiance must be either willfully and radically ignorant, or just flat-out evil. From here letter, I gather that people would know that Kaitlyn is an atheist even if she did not refuse to say the Pledge, but if someone wants their atheism to just not ever come up in school, they should be able to do so. They shouldn’t have to choose between dishonestly saying a Pledge they don’t agree with, or bringing up the fact that they are an atheist when such an admission, as this letter shows, has serious consequences.

    Also, I find it odd that there is an ad for Liberty University Online at the bottom of this page.

  • bickle2

    You should follow all the advice, because you are outnumbered, and Christians will attack badly.

    What you should do, is learn as much as you can about religion, learn as much as you can about the Bible so you can quote the bad parts, the ludicrous stuff, and the hate and violence chapter and verse. These are the most important weapons atheists have, and learning to hit back on their own terms is a toolset every atheist needs to have. From “kill your sassy children” to “you’re following the wrong ten commandments”, and if you study your history and anthropology hardcore like I did “There are no records of Jesus Christ, he’s a composite character like Robin Hood and other fairy tales”. I was the only outspoken atheist in a high school of 3000, and I’ve been an atheist since I was 7 years old. So I know exactly where you’re coming from on a much larger scale. There were 2 Episcopal, 2 methodist, 3 Catholic churches within 5 minutes of my house, so you can imagine the environment i was in.

    Most importantly, make sure that if you choose to fight intellectually or otherwise, that you are prepared to go for blood, and win definitively. You can’t leave a wounded animal that might heal and strike back at you. If you find going for the “kill” distasteful, question whether you should engage in the first place

    Learn to defend yourself on their terms. You can try to explain science till you’re blue in the face and it’ll do nothing, but “why didn’t you kill your sassy children as God commands? Why do you think you don’t have to obey the OT? Jesus and Matthew think you do”

    Learn your history, learn your anthropology, learn your bible/Koran/book of mormon, learn evolution, relativity, and physics. It’s good for your brain, and it makes sure you’re equipped for your adult life

    Physically learning to defend yourself probably wouldn’t hurt either. It’s good exercise, and when/if they come after you it’ll come in handy

  • Michael

    What would you get from staying and fighting? If you are the only atheist in town, not much. If, however, you think there are other free thinkers who would want to hang out with you, then it may be worthwhile.

    It all depends on what you want for your future and what you want to be known for.

    Maybe you could sponsor a freethought conference and invite other non-believers to town to let the locals see how plain and uninteresting we are.

    Again, it depends on how much time you want to spend on it, and whether you think it would be better to be a big atheist fish in your small pond, or to move on to a place where people just let others be.

    Good luck either way.

  • Guest

    I’m getting really tired of hearing about “Christians love” for others.

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    From personal experience, small-town American Christians can indeed be some of the most obnoxious and hypocritical people around. I stopped attending church in the town I grew up in for this very reason.

    However, to boast of holding fast to an opinion on such an important matter as the existence or non-existence of God, when formed at the age of ten (or as one commenter below mentioned, the age of seven) seems rash and silly. Don’t get me wrong, children can often be wiser than adults in many ways, but you should take into account that your views have been and are being shaped by your environment, which sounds like it is not conducive to genuine open thought and reflection on spiritual matters. And I have to question the wisdom of anyone whose opinion on any topic remains unwavering since pre-pubescence, whether theist or atheist.

    Not attending church or committing to a particular organized religion is one thing but, and I apologizing for offending people here, it is foolish not to believe in God.

  • Anna

    Don’t get me wrong, children can often be wiser than adults in many ways, but you should take into account that your views have been and are being shaped by your environment, which sounds like it is not conducive to genuine open thought and reflection on spiritual matters.

    You know, that would mean more if Christians didn’t work tirelessly to indoctrinate small children. Most churches are not “conducive to genuine open thought and reflection” on these matters. Adults in those churches tell children that the supernatural exists, that a particular god is real, and they teach children to pray to that god, sing songs to that god, and form an emotional attachment to that god.

    Kaitlyn describes her parents as “very open minded and irreligious” which you have somehow taken to mean that they are dictating their daughter’s thought processes or that they are hostile to her forming her own opinions on religion. Where are you getting that from?

    And I have to question the wisdom of anyone whose opinion on any topic remains unwavering since pre-pubescence, whether theist or atheist.

    Really? So you question the wisdom of people who have believed in a god their entire lives? Yet you go on to say that it is “foolish not to believe in God.” I’m not really understanding your position here. It seems quite inconsistent.

  • Sven2547

    it is foolish not to believe in God.

    Imagine a little girl’s letter about how her family was persecuted for their Christendom, and that her friends had been told that Christians are untrustworthy and should not be associated with. Imagine how outrageously stupid and insensitive it would be, if someone came along and told her “but it is foolish to believe what you do.” You are no better than the people bringing her down. In fact, now you’ve joined their ranks.

    The callous indifference of your remark aside, why is it foolish to disbelieve in the existence of something that is visibly, audibly, and tangibly indistinguishable from nothingness? Why is it foolish to not believe in something whose “acts” are indistinguishable from random chance?

  • RobertoTheChi

    What wonderful, helpful advice. Perhaps you should also warn her of the perils of eating yellow snow or playing in traffic.

    So deciding that she’s an atheist is silly because she decided at a young age? You do realize that would also mean anyone who believes in a god and have believed from a young age would be silly as well, right?

    And out of curiosity, why exactly is it foolish to not believe in god?

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    If someone’s views on God have remained unchanged since they were seven or ten years old, then yes I would question their wisdom, regardless of what particular belief it was. That’s why I wrote “theist or atheist.”

    That doesn’t mean they can’t be wise, only that it would seem highly questionable to me. It also isn’t meant as some sharp insult. Most people are not very wise, including myself.

    Finally, you’re not understanding my position because you seem to be bringing a lot of your own personal baggage and unwarranted assumptions into what I’m saying. But I’m not currently interested in arguing this topic for the millionth time, so cheers to you.

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    Easy, tiger. If my comment is the worst thing that happens to her today then she’ll be doing alright. You must lead a very sheltered life, yet I apologize for upsetting you so dreadfully.

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    What part of the phrase “theist or atheist” do you people not understand? I don’t care what the belief is, if it has remained COMPLETELY unchanged since one was a young child then that seems quite obviously indicative of a stubborn refusal to examine and question one’s own beliefs and basic assumptions, something that any rational person of any age should do from time to time. Did any of you actually read what I wrote?

  • Anna

    What on earth? Own personal baggage? Unwarranted assumptions? I was trying to follow your train of thought, which seems remarkably inconsistent to me.

    You say you question the wisdom of those whose “views on God have remain unchanged” since childhood, so what option does that leave? The only wise people are those who were taught to believe in a god, then stopped believing in that god, and then started believing in the god once again?

    You’re the one who seems to be making a lot of unwarranted assumptions. Kaitlyn described her parents as “very open minded,” yet you seem to be implying that not only are they not open minded, they have not raised her in an environment which is “conducive to open thought and reflection on spiritual matters.” Where are you getting that from?

  • Sven2547

    It’s sad (and telling) that your response is still to insult and condescend.

  • jasmine999

    …the kid is atheist. Her family is being persecuted for her beliefs. As part of your response, you wrote “it is foolish not to believe in God.” What part of that do you not understand?

  • Richard_Wein

    My beliefs that Santa Claus does not exist and that the Earth is round have remained unchanged since before the age of 7. How stubborn of me not to change them.

    The fact that someone has continued to hold the same belief does not necessarily mean that they have refused to re-examine it. They may have re-examined it and continued to find it warranted. Or they may have come across no good reason to seriously re-examine it.

  • islandbrewer

    Still don’t believe the Earth is flat and held up by elephants on the back of a turtle? You’re so close minded!

  • cest_moi

    it is foolish to state “it is foolish not to believe in God.” as a form of rebuttal to atheism ……. no matter what age an individual determines their place in existence

  • Bdole

    Your meandering, self-contradictory opinion and concluding, baseless assertion aside, that’s not really the issue. Surely even a convinced theist can appreciate that, regardless of the perceived validity of a young person’s opinion, they should be allowed to develop their worldview without a community coercing them by punishing her father?

  • Bdole

    You are presumptuous. She may very well have thought about it and still arrived at the same conclusion. You are talking out of your ass and blaming people here for not coddling you.

  • Bdole

    I should’ve read ahead before responding to this guy/gal. (S)He sounded sincere, but now I think:

  • Anna

    That’s the disappointing thing. My original post wasn’t even the slightest bit inflammatory, and yet he responded with a rather bizarre accusation of me having “personal baggage” and a refusal to discuss things further.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    What will this accomplish? It sounds like ways to confront and deconvert and yell “You’re wrong! I’m right!”. She is right, they are wrong, but so what? Will this make her life more bearable? Will people treat her better? I’d recommend challenging their bigoted assumptions about the secular, not challenging their religion directly. It’s highly unlikely she’ll deconvert anyone, and trying to do so will just make the hostile even more hostile. It is far easier and more beneficial to her to explain and show she is good without god, worthy of respect and dignity and equal protection under the law, than to “go for blood”. You can’t “win definitively” with such people, they will simply not acknowledge you’re right, and if you make them doubt or question, they’ll just hate you for it. You can show some of them you’re not the atheist bogeyman they thought you were, and some will even feel shame when you do.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    My views about the non-existence of the tooth fairy, leprechauns, and vampires have remained unchanged since childhood. I don’t believe in any of them, since there is no evidence for their existence. Those views have never wavered, since no evidence has ever appeared. I guess that makes me foolish.

  • chanceofrainne

    I was 7 when I first realized that the whole idea of god, especially the one they teach in Christian churches, was totally preposterous and less believable than the easter bunny. I’m now 35, and a lifetime of examination and study has led me to believe that I was right when I was 7, and the foolish person is the one who needs to believe in an imaginary friend to get through the day.

  • chanceofrainne

    Yeah. I wrote up a response to an earlier comment, then got to that and realized there was a troll in the dungeon.