December 21, 2010

What Do We Tell Young Atheists?

Seattle Pride Weekend 2009.
Seattle Pride Weekend 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was over at Think Atheist the other day and ran across a brief post written by a 12-year-old atheist asking for help. It certainly is wonderful that we have the Internet today where our youth can reach out like this!

She described her family as devoutly religious and noted that the same is true of the town in which her family lives. She said that when she confides in others about her atheism, they dismiss it as a phase and "disown me." I suspect that many here will be able to relate to that all too well.

Anyway, here was her question:

I know choosing to be an Atheist is always going to be hard, but how do I cope with all the hate?

I started writing a response, deleted it, and started over four separate times. I soon realized I had no idea what to say.

I wanted to tell her that it gets better, but I couldn't. I am not sure it does. I mean, most of us learn how to deal with it in different ways so that our experience improves, but being rejected because of our atheism is something that most adults continue to experience.

Sure, I have had periods in my life where it was much better because I was around other atheists. And yes, I know it would be better if I lived somewhere outside the Bible Belt. But what use would any of that be to her? She's 12. And even though I can imagine better circumstances for her, that doesn't mean it wouldn't still be hard.

I wanted to tell her that adults will accept her, but that would be a lie. I am sure she'll be able to find adults who accept her, but many more will continue to condemn her as not fully human simply because she refuses to share their delusion. After all, the children who are now rejecting her have parents who are undoubtedly part of why their children are acting this way.

I started to tell her that being true to oneself was always difficult but that it was essential. Essential for what though? Certainly not for happiness. I am far less happy than many religious believers seem to be. And just because I have embraced this path and all that comes with it does not mean I have any right to suggest that she do the same.

Here is what I finally wrote to her:

You are so far ahead of where I was at 12. Actually, you sound like you are ahead of where I was at 15 too.

At 12, you have no control over where you live and who you live with. As that changes, you'll have an opportunity to make things a bit easier. But you are right that they'll never be easy. Atheism is a difficult path. People have been telling me I'm just going through a phase for roughly 25 years now, and I still get disowned by some people I confide in. For the most part, they do this because they are ignorant and scared. Seeing someone living well without gods challenges them, and they lash out.

I don't have any easy answers about how to cope with the hate, but you should realize that you are not alone. In time, I suspect you will find others who are going through the same thing. And until then, you better believe that you can find many of us here who know what you are going through.

It seems so thoroughly inadequate. What would you tell her?