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Friday, July 1, 2011

Help a fellow LAFer with some needed advice

Hey there everyone at Living After Faith!

My name is ____. I am 17 years old.

Something happened just recently in my family that I really want to share with you as well as other atheist communities. I could really use some advice- this problem has been present for as long as I've come out as an atheist and seems to be deteriorating my family the longer I remain an atheist. I desperately need some feedback because, at this point, I don't know what else I can do.

Last night I was watching television, and completely unannounced to me, the entire youth group of the church I used to attend came to my house- my little brother being the driving force. Needless to say, I was extremely nervous, but I knew what they were here for and decided to just push through it. Of course, it was about an hour of preaching directly to me under the watch of my previous Christian peers, Christian friends, and Christian family. I'm not going to try to be noble and say I fared well- I don't think I've ever been shaken up so badly. I cannot ever accurately portray the guilt I felt when my brother, unable to speak and overcome with tears, confesses to me how much he loves me and looks up to me followed by how my entire family and the church thinks my life has become "dead" for not having Christianity the driving force of my existence.

What I find interesting is that I've just recently been able to cope with numerous anxiety problems I've been having due to leaving religion. Although I wouldn't say it is post-religion PTSD, (although I've learned a lot from you both about the problem and I do seem to exhibit the majority of symptoms) I've always known I have not necessarily been as stable since I've had to deal with these issues. Obviously, I've never been able to meet with a physician due to the nature of the problem, and my family's dismissal. It is, of course, a "non-existent" problem that can only be cured by their religion. This past year, I've finally been able to gain control of my anxiety. And although episodes can still be triggered by church services or late-night surprise preaching, I finally came to a point where I felt like I could be a normal kid again. Christianity is what made me "dead."

I was really shaken and scared last night but I understood their good intentions. I simply responded after the hour "Thank for guys for coming. I think it's very sweet that you're concerned about me. But I've grown up in the same upbringing as all of you, and I've made my decision." I was careful to be very polite, although there were a few choice words I would have liked to say. Regardless, there is no point in arguing with them.

Afterward, I was ranting to a good friend who is also an atheist and understands when I need to vent. He actually brought something up that I can hardly force myself to consider, but I fear it may be my only option. He suggested that I just tell my family I'm a Christian. Go along with it. Not to be neutral or even passive, but just to pretend I buy it. Maybe it'll make things easier while I'm still living here. Although saying I'm a Christian may be easy enough (if we aren't considering my flaming pride-fullness), pulling off such an act would require me to completely dive into my Christian life before I came out- events, services, friendships, worship, praying, and all. (At least while my family is looking.) Like I said earlier, the thought of this is enraging to me because I want so badly just to be myself and for that to be okay. But I'm afraid it will never be okay until I finally leave.

Of course I'd still be an atheist, but this idea has really been bothering me. I want to be proud of who I am as a non-believer, but if it is tearing my family apart, is it selfish for me to even acknowledge my beliefs? Part of me says they are selfish and playing the victims, but the other part of my is just exhausted of all this and wants to just breathe freely again. The only thing I'm truly worried about is if giving in to this idea and throwing my alter-ego into Christianity will once again trigger the anxiety issues I've worked so hard to overcome.

I understand this is a lot to process, but I really need some help.
Is it worth it to tell my family I'm an atheist if it only causes chaos? Should I just pretend I believe for their sake, and continue my life as an avid non-believer under-cover?

Please let me know what you think and feel free to have members give feedback- I want as many points of view as I can get.

Thanks so much for all you do. You make this bearable for me and I can never thank you enough,


  1. As an unbeliever, my instinctive answer is "Oh hell no!" The funny thing is that as a school counselor, my answer is still "Oh hell no!"

    For two reasons:

    One: To put yourself through the grind of attending events, pretending to pray, etc. would be torture. From the point of view of this moment, when you have just been through this manipulative "intervention," ANYTHING else would look easier. But the day to day hell of participating in a farce would be just as painful, and probably more difficult.

    Two: What would this accomplish in the long run? Would you do this forever? When your younger brother is grown with children of his own, would you still be faking Christianity? If not, when would you break character and show your true self?

    See, the problem is that unless you actually maintain this act forever, eventually you will come out as an atheist again -- and a liar. How does that serve your cause? At that point your family would have no reason to take you at your word about anything, including your true beliefs.

    You seem to be a strong, thoughtful person. Very strong and very thoughtful for someone your age. My suggestion, since you asked, is to breathe through this moment. Do what it takes to pull it together after a traumatic event. Get out in the world and do your thing, whatever that thing is. Reward yourself for making it through last night without losing it in front of all or them; have a sundae or see a big dumb movie or buy a book you've been wanting or something.

    Tell your brother that you let him and his friends give it their best shot, but that's it. If they come to your door preaching again, they are not welcome and if he invites them in you will simply leave.

    Then move on into your future. From what I see of your intelligence and courage, it's a bright one.

  2. I grew up in a fervently religious family. I took on this faith from a very young age (pre-school). For me, I certainly put everything into my faith but it never really worked. My prayers weren't answered, I never found God the way that others in my family and church claimed to.

    For me, it was quite an epiphany when I realized there probably was no God, so many things made much more sense to me and I've been far happier and confident in my life since.

    However, due to pressure from my family and friends in the church it was quite difficult to leave.

    What concerns me about the approach of your family is the way they tried to make you feel guilty. As a Christian, I always felt guilty and that made my life a lot harder and far less happy than it is now.

    To me, guilt is not a healthy motivation to go into faith. I'm concerned it will add to your anxiety. I cringe when I hear the altar calls where the speaker cries out how unworthy he is as a sinner and how coming to Jesus takes all that away. The whole concept of original sin is a fundamental flaw in Christianity.

    Believing in original sin and feeling unworthy caused me many years of angst. Thankfully that is gone for me now, I'm not a sinner and it feels great to say and know that.

    I agree with Rebecca's comment to tell your brother you let him give it their best shot but that's it.

    Hang in there, your future certainly is a bright one. These kind of challenges are not easy to get through but as a person who's on the other side of faith, I can assure you it can be a life filled with light, truth and joy!

  3. I don't know how qualified I am to offered a shared understanding of what you are feeling. But I do want to share my agreement with Rebecca and Tony.

    It is obvious that you can see that care that your family has for your well being, the certainly love you, but can not understand where you are coming from. For someone who believes that if you don't believe in something you will end up suffering forever, the important thing is to make sure those you care about believe it. However, their love and actions I don't think so that they respect your position or trust your judgment.

    If you choose to fake it, and play the role of going back to the Christian faith, they may accept you back, but probably under scrutiny, but they will not be taking you, your true thoughts and dreams back. Not only will it be lying, which they will eventually have to be let in on (unless you continue for a rather long time), but you will be intellectually dishonest and hurting yourself.

    The situation is difficult, you have to consider everything, but importantly, your own well being. Family dynamics changes, they have to, as people within it grow and change. Everyone wants to be accepted by their friends and family, but for it to be genuine, it can't be a mask they are accepting.

    Truly, we support you and hope for the best. There are numerous possibilities out there, with many great people to share ideas with and meet. Your relationship with your family will always be undergoing refinement, I know mine still does and I have been living apart for years. As you change and as they change the relationships change.

    Learn, love, live.

  4. Everything that has been said already has been great, so I don't have much to add.

    1. Your brother claims to respect you, ask him to prove it by showing you some respect.

    2. Sit your whole family down and tell them how much you love them and want to have a continued strong bond for many decades to come. Then tell them how they're making you feel. Point out that they are making you miserable and that if their hope is to win you back to the faith, that its failing. What they're doing is just driving you further way, not just from their faith, but from them. Also let them know that if they pull tricks like this again that you'll just remove yourself from the situation. Go to your room or leave the house.

    What ever you do, do not start lying to them about some new conversion. Not only will that make things worse when they find out the truth, but it would only encourage them to force as much religion as possible on you. While it may solve one problem, it'll just create more.

  5. Coming from a family of ultraconservative fundamentalist I have encountered this religious "intervention" tactic more time than I care to recall. If your "intervention" was anything like mine it was 3 parts guilt trip, 1 part condescension, along with a dash of veiled threats about what their "god" will do to you. The most disgusting tactic was to fill my then 8 year old daughter's head with lies about how the devil made me sick until she was good and upset and then bring her in the room to sob through a prewritten plea in an attept to guilt me back into the faith.

    As far as pretending to be a christian for their sake.... I cannot find enough ways to say "No". A life lived for for someone else's benefit is no life at all, Everybody derserves to live their life for themselves and to live it on their own terms. Just going through the motions of being a believer will show and you will likely find your sincerity questioned and being put into a position to defend beliefs you don't even hold.

    Your beliefs may have changed but you are still the same person you were before and i'd recommend sitting your family down and asking them outright if their admiration and love was for you or for what you believed. You are not the problem, nor is your atheism them problem, the problem lies with those who cannot find it within themselves to accept you for who you are without caveat. Love, admiration, and friendship should never, ever be contingent upon holding a certain belief.

    - J.N. Hudson

  6. J.N.: that's a horrific story about your daughter! Awful! Bad enough the day my daughter came home crying from daycare because another child had told her I was going to hell... but family!!! Ugh.

    As to the original situation, this just rips my heart out. I think the advice you've gotten already is awesome. If your family didn't know yet, there might be some argument for keeping your head down and not rocking the boat until they have less direct control over your day-to-day life, but in this situation, I agree with the others that backing down will just make for more agony for you and more trouble later as well. Good luck---I sincerely hope that you can make them understand that they are harming, not helping, you. And hopefully sooner rather than later, you will be out from under their thumb.

  7. I'd say the cat's already out of the bag, and agree with others that "faking" Christianity at this point would not be worth it; Indeed, can you imagine what a propaganda tool the Church would view you as if you did feign re-conversion? "Look, everybody, at the so-called Atheist we rescued back to the faith..."; it's inevitable you'd be used in that way. Given the lengths they've already gone to, I wouldn't put it past them at all.
    Screw that noise--seriously.

    I don't think you give yourself enough credit here; I think you handled yourself extremely well with good grace and diplomacy. Probably far better than I would have.

    Of course, I had the good fortune to be raised by a closet-atheist father and an at best nominal Christian mother (weak-tea Presbyterian)...the only hardcore fundies I've ever been up-close and personal with were my former in-laws, and it was everything I could do to keep a straight face and not laugh at them.

    Your friend would have a point if your secret wasn't already out, but since it is, there's no going back. Keep connecting with other atheists online and, even better, in your local area, and just grin and bear it until you can move out on your own and be independent. If there weren't two active wars raging, I'd even suggest a stint in the military before college, but since we are in de-facto if not de-jure war, I can't personally recommend that course of action in good conscience. But if your parents try to shoehorn you into a religious university or threaten to withhold a college education from you, then, if you are willing to accept the risks, maybe the military road to the GI Bill for college may enable you to strike out on your own as a freethinker if it comes to that. I don't wish that upon anyone, but for some less fortunate in our society, it's the only road up and out of bad situations, financial or otherwise.

    Best of luck to you and my hat's off to you for having the courage of your convictions and a commitment to truth and testable reality, however uncomfortable it may be.

  8. Telling the truth is being true to yourself. It also aids others with doubt who know your stance. I think it even benefits the nontheist community in that it shows your christian friends and family that one can live a happy, honest, full life without faith. The faithful grow stronger with every person who claims to believe. Lets not help aid a direction that may claim goodness while it spreads evil in many ways. It is very possible that a world without faith can be a better world. Please help snuff out that cancerous cigarette.

  9. I know this is a month late but I commend you on being authentic and coming out atheist. I can only imagine the guilt I'd feel if my old youth group (who, for the most part, I'm still friends with on FB)ambushed me at home. but i can tell you from Personal Experience that the cognitive Dissonance the goes along with prentending to make others happy, takes its toll on you mentally and emotionally. But being authentic to yourself is the most valuable things you can do in life. I hope what I've said has some value/meaning for you.

  10. I'm struggling with when and how I will come out to my family. It's hard to know that they'll always think I'm going to hell, but I think what one person said above is so true:

    "A life lived for for someone else's benefit is no life at all. Everybody deserves to live their life for themselves and to live it on their own terms."

    Great reminder. Good luck to all!

  11. I wrote a blog post a few days ago about my sister telling me I'm going to hell and how to deal with that. I guarantee that as uncomfortable as it might make things and as awkward as it can be, it's not that bad, and certainly better than living a lie.

  12. I STRONGLY recommend Dustin Williams' blog. I wish it was there when I was in my struggle. Fortunately, for many here, it is available for you, and it's an excellent resource. Well-written, well-researched, and both emotionally and intellectually honest.

  13. Rich, thank you and I can say the exact same thing about your show.

  14. Do you have the link to Dustin's blog?

    When I first left the church I was in, I got a long winded letter from a close friend exhorting me to keep the faith, the usual stuff.

    Now 20 years later when I look at how much happier I am after leaving faith, I'm so glad I didn't let his emotional and religious bullying affect me.

  15. Sorry to hear that you're having such a hard time.

    I grew up in a very devout Seventh Day Adventist home. I went to church school for 8 years. Then at 16 I read the entire Bible for myself and realized that it didn't come close to agreeing with what I'd been taught. I left the church and went through quite a bit of persecution from family and friends. I was kicked out of my house because of religion. My parents went back on their promise to help me with college. I had a number of really bad lies told about me. And I was still a serious Christian. Luckily I didn't have a group intervention though. That sounds horrific.

    Fast forward 20 years and just recently I began to question the Bible itself and the completely faulty logic that Christianity uses on a regular basis. I've come out as an Atheist to my wife and I know she's scared that I'll become an angry person. I don't think I will. I hate the lies and unreasonableness found in religion, but I know too many decent religious people to hate them.

    I'd say you've already seen the worst that you're likely to see. I hope so anyhow. I don't know if I'd recommend that you attempt to pretend to believe. That probably will just increase and prolong your anxiety.

    Good Luck. Keep us updated.

  16. Consider reading this book...

    "After speaking with dozens of victims, perpetrators, and experts, and reviewing a myriad of court cases and studies, Heimlich explains how religious child maltreatment happens. She then takes an in-depth look at the many forms of child maltreatment found in religious contexts, including biblically-prescribed corporal punishment and beliefs about the necessity of "breaking the wills" of children; scaring kids into faith and other types of emotional maltreatment such as spurning, isolating, and exploiting; pedophilic abuse by religious authorities and the failure of religious organizations to support the victims and punish the perpetrators; and religiously-motivated medical neglect in cases of serious health problems."

    "Scaring kids into faith" sounds like what your family may have been doing.