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.

  • Jeo

    Man the South sounds awful.

    • Autumn Treadwell

      It can sound that way. It can be that way. It can be dreadful. And then you have something like that show “what would you do?”, which puts actors in restaurants and has them say or do something outrageous and then sees how people react. When actors portraying a gay couple were insulted by an actor pretending to be the waitress, no one in the NYC location said a word; by contrast, in Texas, people intervened almost every time to tell the waitress she was being insulting and rude – just two people said something supportive to her. In short – the South is complicated.

      • Rebecca Mullen

        Definitely agree the south is complicated. There is a particular set of problems in the South, but as a non-believer in that area I don’t want to say that it is awful either. I have experienced so many people who not only accept me as I am but would have my back in a difficult situation… And that includes very religious people. Of course, there are bigots, and my life hasn’t been a piece of cake: From using prayer as a weapon to parents not allowing their children to be seen by me for counseling due to my atheism… But I have also had a lot of opportunity to see how kind and caring people can be too, regardless of faith. Yes, it is definitely a complicated place.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          Rebecca, you mentioned counseling. If you are a licensed psychotherapist using evidence-based methodologies, please consider registering with the Secular Therapist Project. You can get referrals to clients who are looking for non-religious counseling. In some regions, this can be difficult to find. Your identity is not revealed to the general public, only to the clients whom you accept.
          http://www.seculartherapy.org

          • Rebecca Mullen

            Hello again!

            I am contracted directly to a particular school in the local school district and am not available for traditional counseling. I work directly with these students and may not expand my clientele beyond that. I would love to help, but I am afraid registering, in my case, would not be helpful.

            I will say, though, that I am already “registered” with every student in my school who can be considered “different” in any way, and word of mouth spreads my name to the newbies. They know to come to me rather than to guidance, where the counselors are nice and caring but very openly religious.

            • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

              That’s excellent, Rebecca. Sometimes being the rational and accepting underground is the way we have to reach young people who don’t follow the status quo. Keep up the good work!

  • Art_Vandelay

    I think part of the problem is that this person looks at their atheism as if they’ve made a choice that they now have to be accountable for and even to an extent feel guilty about. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s unwise to abandon your faith in middle school. You can certainly lie about it but you can’t control what you think. Your life is a series of experiences and observations about reality that lead you to these conclusions. You haven’t abandoned your faith…your faith abandoned you by being so darn implausible.

    Keeping in mind that beliefs are not choices, regarding your mom’s family disowning you…that’s vile and no different than disowning you for anything else you can’t control such as the color of your hair or your sexual urges. There’s nothing about that mindset that doesn’t reek of bigotry. You’re better off not having people like that in your life.

  • Paul (not the apostle)

    Thanks so much Richard for helping young people who have honest questions. There is a desperate need for them to have someone to give them sound advice. I use your thoughts and advice as a model when I talk to young people about the questions they are wrestling with. You are doing a great service not only for them but for all people who reason matters.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Dear Richard,

    I am a Christian in a public school in Mississippi and don’t know what to do. Whenever I and a mob of other kids beat up the one openly gay kid, I get an erection. This makes me want to kill people who are not Christians, but my football coach tells me that Obama made laws that won’t let me. When will I stop being so persecuted?

    Thanks,

    Christian

    • The Other Weirdo

      I don’t know whether to laugh at this, or complain to B/L about unfairly generalizing a massive group of people, which as a Jew I have a knee-jerk reaction to. I am more likely to go with the ‘laugh’ part, mostly because I’ve actually seen people equate anti-bullying laws with persecution because they can’t beat up on teh gaiz.

      • Bitter Lizard

        At least you realized it was a joke. I suspect Poe’s Law got the best of me with this one.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      That’s awful.

      *snicker*

  • Sven2547

    I’m rooting for you and I hope you won’t have to resort to lying about your (non) beliefs in your Salutatorian speech. I feel like it shouldn’t be necessary in an event that is (supposedly) about growth, hope, and the future.

    But that’s easy for me to say. I’m a grown man, completely financially independent, in an environment where I could (hypothetically) go to work, the supermarket, and the local bar wearing an “Atheist” t-shirt with minimal fear of meaningful reproach. You’re in a tougher situation than I’ve ever been in, from a beliefs standpoint. No matter the outcome, I would not judge you negatively.

  • Mick

    What’s this business about being wary of “coming out” as atheists? I was four years old when I told mum and dad I didn’t believe in god and I’ve kept on saying so for the 63 years that have passed since then. Never a problem for me. Not even a little bit.

    • The Other Weirdo

      It’s wonderful to know that because you have not had a problem, that means it exists merely as a virtual problem in other people’s heads.

    • Makoto

      That’s great! I wish everyone could have that experience.. but I know many won’t.

      I personally am not “out” to my parents, as my father has repeatedly stated that “this is a Christian nation, and those who don’t believe should be run out”. Sometimes he includes tarring and feathering, sometimes other things, but the general theme remains the same. I feel that it’s best for our relationship (and his health, given his age) that I don’t reveal the truth about me to him.

    • Chris Harmon

      Maybe because you live in Britain- just a guess from the mum bit. Atheism is not nearly as much of an issue over there as it is in the States…

      • Alan Bloor

        I’m a British Atheist and I must say that I’ve never really had much of a problem even though I went to Catholic schools till I was 18 (I came out when I was around 15). I hear a lot of things like these letters on this site and sites like it and frankly it helps me appreciate my country a hell of a lot more. It’s strange that a nation with Christianity as it’s official religion is actually less Christian and more accepting than one with no official religion.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          America can be weird like that. Weird and confusing.

    • Sven2547

      What’s this business about people going hungry? I’ve been well-fed my whole life! Never a problem for me, not even a little bit.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Lucky you. The same people who kick their kids out of the house at 15 for being gay would also kick them out for not believing in god. It happens and that very real danger ought to be respected.

  • Autumn Treadwell

    So much of this sounds like me in high school! As far as your speech goes – you would be surprised how easy it is to skip any reference to God in a speech or ceremony and not have anyone notice, even in the Bible belt. I had a wedding ceremony and wrote it myself – and it has no references to spirituality, let alone a “God”, and no one in my oh-so-very Christian family noticed. It was because of the words I chose, which were about love and respect and commitment and family. So for your speech, focus on hope, the possibilities of the future, friendship, caring, success, etc. – most people will think they heard you reference a god, even if you didn’t. And when talking about college, focus on the schools you WANT to go to, and say why in relation to what subjects they offer or where they are – be able to say, “Well, I want to study blahblah, and I know their program is better than —fill-in-religious-institution-you-don’t-want-to-go-to-here—.” Argue academics as much as possible. And, finally… accept that you are going to lose some friends once you reveal your atheism. I lost one of my best friends right after high school as a result – then, 20 years later, at my father’s funeral, she approached me to say that dropping me as a friend was one of the biggest mistakes of her life. It’s been wonderful to have her back in my life.

    • cary_w

      Very good advice, I think you are absolutely right that if he keep the speech positive and respectful most people won’t notice that it contains no reference to God. But I would like to add some additional advice to Brett: come up with some answers to why you left God out of your speech ahead of time. You certainly don’t need to say it’s because you don’t believe in God. Instead point out (without naming names, of course) that there are atheist and other non-Christians at your school and explain that you want your speech to be meaningful to EVERYONE. Say that your relationship with God is very personal, and you don’t wish to share it with the world. Or simply say you didn’t feel mention of God fit in with your speech.

  • OkieAtheist

    Man, I wish the Internet would have been more developed when I was Brett’s age.

    I think this statement by Richard is SO important:

    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.

    As an Atheist that was shunned and ridiculed by most of his family and friends after the “news” got out, my new “family” became those friends I already had who either were atheists themselves or who accepted me anyway. I’ve found comfort in this website, in reading about the hardships of others in my situation.

    There is one hard lesson I learned after “coming out”. I tended to “bite back” when family or friends criticized me for not believing in their god. I didn’t make the situation any better by criticizing back or by being just as mean as they were to me.
    You’re very brave, Brett, and as Richard said, you’re obviously very intelligent. We’ve always got your back here in this forum.
    And I know I speak for all here when I say we wish you the best, and if you need anything, any of us will do whatever we can to help you.

    Peace.

  • ZenDruid

    When pressed, and ‘freethinker’ doesn’t satisfy, I can easily enough call myself a Jefferson Christian, which is philosophically on a par with Confucianism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Hermeticism, and so on. My view is that the typical ‘philosophical Christian’ discards the Bible, while regarding the gospel of Thomas as equivalent to the Analects in the broader sense. Or the Jefferson bible.

  • RoverSerton

    I was always pro Gay back in the early 70′s in high school. I caught crap (I’m not gay, btw) but it was not a popular view. I’m 55 now and I just came out to my very religious wife as an atheist. She already knew but I still help in her church. My family knows, hers doesn’t.

    If you have a true friend, put out feelers re: atheism. In your speech, thank those that truly helped you. If God helped you, sure, why not. If your English teacher and biology teacher were more special. thank them! Omitting god if she didn’t truly help you is OK to not mention.

    To yourself be true.

  • Chris Harmon

    This is completely not on the subject, but I realized while reading this that I have always read Hemant Mehta’s name as Mehant.. dyslexia much?
    And, what a great response to this young man’s questions.

  • Carol Lynn

    Hang in there, Brett. You never know. I told my mother I wasn’t a Christian as I didn’t believe in god (I had never heard the term atheist at that time) when I was 16 and she asked me go to church until I was 18 but I could sit at the back and read philosophy during the services instead of following along. (Yeah, my mother always was awesome. I occasionally got finger-whipped – shamed by wagging an extended finger hard onto my shoulder – by old ladies as I sat there quietly reading, but it was worth it.) A couple of years ago, when I was 60 and she was 90, my mother said she’d been thinking about god for a long time and she decided that I had been right all along. She’s not a Christian anymore either.

  • anniewhoo

    The quality of Brett’s letter just made me rethink all of my preconceived views of the Mississippi school system. Brett, you sound like a very intelligent and thoughtful young man, and I think Richard offered intelligent and thoughtful advice. It was wonderful to read an update. Please let us know how your speech goes in the spring!

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

    Dear Brett,

    Richard, as always, has given sterling advice but I would like to add to two points.

    The first has to with Richard’s statement “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.” This is true in as much as you can control when, how much and to whom you reveal your self. You cannot control how those people will react or how what you have told them will spread.

    The second has to do with the prospect of family disowning you. From my personal experience and from what I’ve seen from others is that you experience more suffering from protracted tiptoeing and dissembling then from a clean break. I was going to use the more poetic analogy of being hit by a single huge wave as opposed to a slow, steady trickle that erodes with time; but the old bandaid analogy is better. Yanking it of swiftly will give a sharp pain but it quickly fades. Pulling it slowly leads to a protracted parade of hairs being yanked out one by one.

  • Bama Chick

    Best wishes to you! A little over four years ago I had to write a speech for graduation and said nothing about the Christian God, although I was some sort of Christian at the time. I thought it was more important to talk about how we were able to come together (there was a horrible event that had happened in my town that spring) and achieving our goals. This stems from my thinking that everyone of any identity should be included. My speech was well-received.

    I don’t know whether the religious climate in Mississippi is worse than in rural Alabama or not. From some of details you described, it may be worse. Still, I hope that you will be able to be true to yourself as you write your speech and, more importantly, select schools.

  • Lurker111

    Dear Brett:

    Having attained geezerhood, here are three lessons from life that have served me well:

    1. The unnecessary infliction of pain is evil. Decry it and avoid it yourself.

    2. When someone threatens to use the truth against you in an unethical fashion, LIE and lie convincingly. Assholes don’t deserve the truth.

    3. Once more than one person knows a secret, it ceases to be a secret.

    All that said, I wish you much luck. And if you don’t know how your parents will react to your coming out, keep mum until AFTER you matriculate. I’m talkin’ college, here. Again, good luck.

  • Miranda Flemming

    The speech can mention worthwhile values such as acceptance etc. My family didn’t my ‘coming out’ very well. My sisters don’t speak to me and my parents rarely do after months of not speaking to me (after being attacked). Don’t go to a religious college. My mother was upset that I went to a non-religious university to study science instead of bible college. I’m so glad I did. Be true to yourself and if they can’t handle it, it’s their problem. These days, one can find support on the internet

  • Erp

    My thoughts are on “My friends constantly speak negatively about atheists”. Do they also speak negatively about other groups (e.g., gays/lesbians, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, people of other races/nationalities, people with physical or mental disabilities) and are there members of those groups in the school or likely to be (certainly there will be gays/lesbians but they like the writer may be in their closet)? A safer topic than straight out revealing atheism might be revealing his dislike of the negative language used whether about atheists or other groups to other people he notices not joining in. Is there an anti-bullying group within the school that could be supported? If he wanted to.

    As for the speech, I don’t think people will notice missing references to God; most are probably intent upon their actual son/daughter/relative/close friend getting the diploma not other people’s children.

    Look widely for university/college. Some private secular schools may provide better financial aid for poor to middle class families than some state schools and so are cheaper even though the initial price looks more. For religious schools no harm in looking at those affiliated with some denominations (liberal Quakers, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ [but not the Church of Christ], Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) as many are quite open to students not of their denomination or not Christian or not religious (I believe at least a few have SSA groups).

    • ZeldasCrown

      I agree with regards to the negative speech about atheists. I think there’s a way to address this without bringing up “why are you defending atheists? Are you, gasp, one?”. Things like: “How would you feel if someone who’s never met you said the same things about you because you’re Christian”, or “I don’t think that saying mean, nasty things about people behind their backs/spreading rumors/making up things about people none of us have ever met is very Christ-like. As Christians we can do better.” or “I don’t think it’s right to malign an entire group of people like that, regardless of the group’s identity. So much for loving thy neighbor” or “Gee, I missed the part of the Bible where Jesus said ‘thou shalt be a nasty, judgmental, a-hole’” (though perhaps he might want to re-phrase that last one a bit). Basically address the act of saying nasty things about other people (rather than saying that “atheists are good people” and jumping to the defensive)-bonus points if Brett can find biblical passages to support why “good” Christians aren’t supposed to act that way (passages about bearing false witness and “casting the first stone” immediately spring to mind).

  • Bruce Martin

    Brett, you clearly want to be able to connect with secular people in college. So I would emphasize that a key part of picking ALL your top college choices is to check out their SSA group’s page in each case. If it isn’t active, that place isn’t for you.

    Secondly, be very serious about the possibility of your family withdrawing all financial support from you at some future point. Promise yourself that you won’t reveal your lack of belief to them until their LAST college check clears deposit, even if that means you need to lie straight to your mother’s face. In the long run, if she is reasonable, she will look back and say you did the right thing. And if she’s not reasonable on this one issue, then it’s better for your relationship if this issue never comes up with her, and thus never with anyone she knows.

    The ex-preacher Jerry DeWitt in Louisiana did not intend to reveal himself to others as an atheist, but he posted a picture of Richard Dawkins on his Facebook page and a cousin of sorts then saw it and told his employer and everyone in his family, and he lost his job. It’s unfair, but it’s reality.

    And don’t sweat that speech. Maybe they’ll change the rules and you won’t be giving it anyway. But I agree that you can mention humanist values without using any words such as humanist, and it should go fine. And I agree you should only discuss your potential college choices with other people in terms of academics. The climate in terms of weather OR freethought will not get anything for anyone in discussions at a high school. Study those SSA pages in secret, and comment in blogs in secret only with an obscure alias. Until you are at an out-of-state college, you should assume you can’t discuss this with anyone in person. Maybe you’ll find people in person in the coming year, but don’t risk everything by betting on that for no real reason. Just be patient and then at college you can have lots of long discussions. Meanwhile, just make sure you seem to be a person that your family will feel they want to subsidize in college. You will give them the truth, and your support in return, after you are in a position to do so, after you have a high paying job after college. Until then, don’t let them get worried about you.
    Best wishes.

    • LutherW

      Just sooo christian of them.

  • gsiamne

    Thank you Richard and Brett!!!

  • Alabama Steve

    Keep in mind that one of the under-rated perqs of being secular/atheist is that there is no requirement to profess, witness, or be a martyr … do what you have to do to keep your life manageable and don’t worry about a few lies in the name of self-preservation. It’s only wrong if you are trying to defraud someone, self-defense is a valid justification … as is not totally freaking out sweet old Grannies and such.

    You might consider checking out the Unitarians … they are usually “church enough” to keep people off your back about your “church home,” but secular and open-minded enough to keep you from blowing a gasket. The Baptists will still snark, but it’ll get you thru, and there are usually a few atheists in most Unitarian congregations.

    • cary_w

      Good advice all around! I fondly remember winking at my brother as we took out his earring and my second and third earrings in preparation for grandma’s visits, and then sitting there listening to her go on and on about our cousins and their horrible male earrings and multiple piercings!!! “What on earth were they thinking! And how could their parents let them do that!”

      There is no reason why you have to discuss your religion with anyone, start letting people know that you feel your spirituality is very personal and you don’t wish to discuss it.

      The Unitarians are great, my sister is one, she’s a single parent of two young children, and I think she sticks with them mostly for the support she gets there. She recently told me about a program they had on “defining your own religion” and that apparently belief in God is not a requirement to be a Unitarian, at least at her church. Definitely a good option if are an atheist, but feel the need to still attend a church, for whatever reason.

  • Darrel Ray

    Excellent response. Thanks, Richard for such a carefully thought letter and thanks Brett for your courage and intelligent approach.

  • John Gills

    Brett, there are Christian colleges with Secular Student Alliances. I’m both a graduate of and an adjunct professor at Elmhurst College – a place that values great diversity in our students. Look around and see what schools will fit your educational and personal needs.

  • Marcello Romani

    A great letter and an excellent, moving response.


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