Ask Richard: A Follow-Up Letter from a Teenage Atheist Four Years Later

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

Dear Richard,

I wrote to you back in 2009 when I was in the 8th grade and you really helped me and I wanted to thank you for that. I just recently rediscovered your blog and I figured I would write to you again. I’m now a senior in high school and in the time since the 8th grade I’ve completely reassessed my faith. For a little while I kept trying to be Christian, and for about a year I was. I feel like that was good for me though. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s a very unwise thing to completely disown one’s faith in middle school. I have, however, come to the conclusion that I am an atheist, and I honestly do not see that changing. I’m just worried about any fallout caused by this, and I don’t quite know how to approach certain situations that I face on a near daily basis. I’m trying to get some answers to questions preemptively in hopes that when I’m faced with these situations (either once again or someday in the future) I will know the best way to handle them.

I’m not planning on “coming out” so to say until I go to college a year from now, and that will probably only be to my college friends and perhaps my agnostic father as I live in Mississippi. I wish I could do it earlier because lying and saying I’m a Christian kills me. My friends constantly speak negatively about atheists without knowing that I am one and it makes me realize that were they to find out the truth I would probably lose their friendship. I don’t know how to respond when they start bashing atheists. I would like to say something but at the same time I’m worried that doing so will trigger a line of questioning about why I don’t think atheists are idiotic, hell-bound heathens bent on destroying everything good in world and who have absolutely no morals. When my friends start speaking negatively about the nonreligious, I feel incredibly awkward. What would be the best way of responding to this?

Many people have suggested that I look into religious colleges (some of which are very good) and I have to come up with some flimsy excuse as to why they don’t interest me besides their religious affiliation. What would be a good way of responding to this besides saying “Well I’m not Baptist”? That doesn’t seem to be working so well as many people will argue that I’m Christian which means denomination shouldn’t matter.

I have a friend who I believe is atheist or at the very least agnostic, and I would love to be able to confide in him but I don’t know if this would be a good idea or not. I think he’s trustworthy but then again I don’t know for sure. I’d hate to confide in him and then have people find out my religious non-affiliation. It would make my senior year hell, but telling someone trustworthy would take a weight off of my shoulders. What would you advise? Should I wait a year until I’m in college or say something to this person I think might be trustworthy but I don’t know for sure.

There’s also a good chance that I will be making a speech at my graduation (I’m Salutatorian), and if I do I will of course be expected to recognize the Christian God as everyone who has ever made a speech has. If I don’t, it will be highly suspect. Should I honor my non beliefs and make no mention of a God or just say something to avoid suspicions?

I’m also worried about my mother’s side of the family. They’re very devout Christians which I have respect for. I know that this problem isn’t one that I’ll have to deal with for a while, but I’m quite worried that in a few years when they find out (which they have to eventually seeing as I’ll be getting married one day and no mention of religion or gods will be made during the service) I’ll be completely disowned. Of course I will wait as long as I can to say something to them, but I don’t know if I could handle being the family pariah. How do I handle being the only nonreligious family member (excluding my dad but my parents are divorced so he doesn’t count) in a very religious family?

Sorry for this being a bit long and all over the place, I just really need some guidance right now.

Thank you for everything.
Brett

Dear Brett,

Coming out as an atheist should be only for your wants, only for your needs, and only on your time. It can be a controlled process, rather than a sudden, chaotic, and often destructive event. You can do it when, with whom, and as fast as whatever suits your own personal interests. To accomplish this you must find the right balance between the inner pressure to express yourself openly, and the outer pressures from the situation around you that warrant caution.

It’s wonderful to hear from you again. Since your first letter, almost exactly four years have passed. Both of your letters demonstrate your high level of intelligence, and both demonstrate the emotional and social difficulties that go along with adolescence. Please understand that this remark is not a put-down. It is simply a fact of human development that even though some people’s cognitive intelligence can be well advanced beyond their years, for most of us our emotional and interpersonal development is closely tied to our physical development, and that requires time passing. Very often we simply have to wait out the years while our bodies mature so that our emotions can mature.

At the time of your first letter, you were in the first part of your adolescence. One of the most important concerns of adolescents is to be accepted by peers, to fit in socially, and to avoid being an outcast. It’s a normal and sometimes painful stage.

Now you are moving out of adolescence and into your young adulthood. Over the next few years you will probably notice a shift from wanting to please and fit in with friends to wanting to be true to your own convictions. Your personal integrity will become more important, while popularity and being accepted will become less so. The tension you’re experiencing right now when you say “lying and saying I’m a Christian kills me” is that process already underway.

As this process continues, instead of pretending to be what your friends approve of, you will begin to look for new friends who accept you as you are. If your current friends are unable or unwilling to accept you as you are, then you are going to drift away from them anyway, even if you don’t tell them the truth about your atheism. In college, you will have a far wider selection of potential friends from which to choose.

Given the situation and environment that you have described, I agree with you that it’s probably wise for you to wait until you’re out of high school, one year from now. I can certainly understand your wanting to continue to be discreet in your senior year. Although your inner tension to be open and frank is increasing, the reality of the hostile environment in a Mississippi high school remains a constant. I don’t know what to suggest about your friend whom you think might be an atheist and whom you think might be trustworthy. If that friend’s failure to be trustworthy will “make your senior year hell,” then perhaps it’s better to not risk it. You don’t need the extra burden and distraction of being socially ostracized and harassed while you concentrate on maintaining your high grades that will give you a broader choice of colleges, and possibly scholarships. This is an example of weighing that balance between inner and outer pressures I spoke of at the beginning.

However,

your Salutatorian graduation speech is the very last thing you’ll do in high school. You might also consider it the very first thing you’ll do in your young adulthood. Perhaps it’s better to not start your new stage of life with a public lie.

I think it’s likely that most of the people in your high school you will never see again. If any of their tongues wag just because they noticed that you didn’t mention a supernatural being in your speech, so what? You don’t have to announce, “Hey everybody, I’m an atheist!” if you don’t want to, but you can certainly make it a speech about what is important to you as you face your future with both hope and rationality, and you can leave out things that are not important to you. As Salutatorian, you have earned that privilege.

Begin to realize that as an adult you don’t have to give everyone clear, thorough, and completely self-revealing answers to every one of their nosey questions if that is not in your own best interest. If people ask you about your speech, try shrugging your shoulders. Say something about how several other people mentioned God or Jesus, and you wanted to talk about other things. That response will just have to do for them.

Picking the college of your choice should be just that, your choice. Choose according to what will be best for your education and your career, and for your mental health. Definitely don’t go to a religious college if that means you’ll have to continue pretending to be something you’re not and covering up who you really are. Develop a response for anyone who might ask why your choice isn’t a religious college. Say something like, “I’ve carefully weighed all the factors, and this college will be the best for my needs.” A response like that is honest yet not revealing, and it has a slight tone of finality, even dismissal to it, subtly implying that further discussion is not necessary.

Check to see if any of the colleges you’re considering have a Secular Student Alliance or a similar support group for non-believing students. It’s one more plus for that institution. Selecting a college with a significant distance from your home town, such as out of state will be much better for your privacy. Get an electronic copy (easier to conceal) of Hemant Mehta’s The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide: Helping Secular Students Thrive. It has many useful insights and suggestions.

If your parents will be helping you with college expenses, then unfortunately your discretion with them about your atheism might still be prudent at least until you’re well established at the college of your choice. I have received several letters depicting parents who have either threatened or actually cut off funding for their child’s college education unless they renounce their atheism and “come back to the fold.” Such attempts at religious extortion are as ugly as they are ridiculous, and you don’t want to have a similar experience if you can avoid it.

Finding atheist friends at college will probably relieve much of that tension of needing to be yourself with people, and that might help you to bear keeping the charade up a little longer with your family until you’re no longer dependent on them. Your family is on a need to know basis about this, and given the attitudes that you have described, they don’t need to know yet. I’m not advocating secretiveness. I’m advocating well-considered prudence. You have the right to decide this just for your own needs.

But I think that eventually you’ll have to be open with them for two reasons:
1) Continuing to pretend for decades to come will keep you in an adolescent role with them, making it difficult for all of you to finally transition from parent-to-child relationships into relationships of adult-to-adult.
2) The truth tends to get out. If it gets out in a way that is not controlled by you, it can result in reactions of fear, anger, and hurt that you might be able to minimize if you are able to tell them in your own terms and on your own time.

Your father seems to remain the enigma that he was four years ago. If you have gained any inkling that he would at least be discreet and possibly even receptive to your atheism, he might have insight and advice to help you with the rest of the family.

If by the time you have established an independent life of your own, and you have found someone with whom you want to share your life, but your family members still cannot accept you as you are and they “disown” you in one way or another for being an atheist, then let them. Move on. I admire the loving kindness you show for your family, and I know this will be difficult, but families are supposed to nurture their members. If your family stifles, belittles and condemns you, then clinging to their approval will only harm you more, and it won’t do them any good either. If it comes to this, tell them that if they ever find love somewhere in their misguided hearts, they can contact you, but not until they are willing to accept you as you are and to treat you respectfully. As the emotional maturity and self-confidence of your adulthood comes to its full blossom, this will not be as hard to do as it might sound now.

Be yourself. Be Real. Be free. All that is a process, not a sudden event. Choosing the timing and pace of that process for your own self-interest is an important part of the balance of freedom and wisdom that you are practicing right now.

Please keep us updated as important things develop, and please be sure to tell us how it came down after your graduation. I and several people here care about you, and we would very much like to know.

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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