May 27, 2015

Helping Atheist Teens

transition away bridge
Back when I was a teenager and struggling to come to terms with the inescapable realization that I no longer believed in gods, the world was a very different place than it is today. I wasn't sure what atheism was. I had never even heard of anyone in the U.S. openly identifying themselves as an atheist. I had no idea that there were many others out there who had similar doubts about what they had been raised to believe.

Thanks to the Internet and other changes, no teenager is going to have that experience today as they transition from religious believer to atheist. And yet, I cannot help wondering whether some of the things that would have been helpful to me might be helpful for others today.

Accurate Information About Atheism

It would have been helpful to me if I had at least heard of atheism so that I would have had some familiarity with the term. It took me way to long to get from recognizing my doubts to understanding that the atheist label might apply to me. My problem was a lack of information. While this is not a problem the kids of today are likely to encounter, they have a different one: widespread misinformation pushed by the religious. I think that having access to accurate information about the nature and meaning of atheism is likely to be helpful today.

We are all familiar with the harmful stereotypes about atheists pushed by some religious believers. We can set the record straight and disseminate accurate information where it can be accessed to those who most need it.

Awareness of Other Atheists

Another thing that would have helped me out quite a bit would have been knowing that there were other atheists out there somewhere. This might have prevented me from suspecting that I was alone and deciding that there must have been something seriously wrong with me. While I find it unlikely that anyone today could fail to recognize the existence of atheists in an abstract sense, I have repeatedly encountered atheists here in Mississippi who have long been convinced that they were alone in their local communities. When if they know that others are out there somewhere, they tend to feel alone and isolated locally. Recognizing that there are others in their communities would likely help.

This can be tricky because being open about one's atheism is still not terribly safe in some parts of the U.S. But for those who can be out and in the open, one's very presence can be a source of inspiration to others. Even better, the presence of atheists in one's community can be a source of many different forms of support.

Good Atheist Role Models

For teenage me, knowing that there were other atheists out there somewhere would have helped. Knowing that there were other atheists in my hometown would have helped even more. But what would have made a far greater difference would have been the availability of suitable atheist role models. In some respects, I think this might be even more important today than it was back then.

Young people coming to terms with their doubts need examples of atheists who are rational, even-tempered, charitable to others, capable of critical thinking, and committed to freethought. They need models who do not hate religious people simply because they are religious. When they venture out onto their preferred social media platforms, it would be great if they saw a bit more intelligent discussion and a bit less of atheists calling religious believers names. They also need models who do not seek to replace religious dogma with other sorts of dogma and who are not preoccupied with the application of authoritarianism to achieve ideological purity among atheists. After all, it is unlikely to be clear to them how this is an improvement over religion. They need models who are willing to admit that they are wrong, able to resist tribalism, and who do not demonize those who disagree with them. In short, they need living examples of how atheism is preferable to religion.

Support for Those in Extreme Situations

In this post, I've mentioned a few things that would have helped me as I was beginning to question my Christian beliefs and that I think are still relevant for those going through this process today. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that many teens today have it far worse than I ever did. Some are being raised in evangelical fundamentalist families that may throw them out of their homes upon learning of that they are questioning the faith of their parents. They are going to need a different level of support, and I wanted to make sure I acknowledge that here.

What would you add? For those of you who made the transition from religious believer to atheist in your youth, what are some of the things that would have been helpful to you that might remain relevant for the youth of today?

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