December 26, 2016

Atheism as the Repudiation of One's Family Values

teenage boy

Imagine that you are a parent of a teenager. One day, your teen sits you down and explains that he or she has decided to reject your values in the most comprehensive way you can imagine. Your child informs you that everything you believe is wrong, that every aspect of what you have tried so hard to impart over the years is flawed, and that he or she is repudiating all that you hold dear. Your child still wants to maintain a relationship with you, but it seems inevitable that it is going to be a different sort of relationship than what you have had up to this point. This probably would not be a pleasant experience, would it?

Right or wrong, it occurs to me that this is how many religious parents perceive the conversation in which one of their children comes out as an atheist. Again, I am not saying that I think they are correct to perceive it this way; I am only saying that I think that many do perceive it this way. And for those who do perceive it this way, it makes at least some sense that it would be upsetting. When we see the videos of Christian parents screaming at their atheist children or read the accounts of atheists who were disowned by their Christian parents, I suspect this perception is at play.

I do not mention any of this to excuse it. As far as I am concerned, there is no valid excuse for a religious parent to disown a child for the perceived offense of atheism. I mention it because I suspect that making an effort to understand the mindset of religious parents might be somewhat helpful to young atheists who are struggling with whether to inform their family of their atheism or how best to deal with the aftermath of doing so. If atheism is perceived as a thorough rejection of the entirety of one's value system, it makes sense that some emotionally unhealthy parents would react in some of the more extreme ways they react.

Where does this leave the atheist youth? When I was an atheist youth struggling with when and how to tell my family that I no longer believed in their gods, I was so focused on myself that I never stopped to consider what hearing those words would mean to them. Sure, I was worried about how they would react in the sense of what they would do to me, but I was not thinking about what it would be like for them to hear what I had to say. I suspect that I might have been more effective in delivering the message if I had thought about that. At the least, maybe I would not have run into as much denial as I did.
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