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Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Richard

I recently came out to my mam as an athiest. You see im 15 and at first my mam brushed off my ideas as “teenage hormones”, but when I pushed further saying that I have already decided to be athiest she said that as long as I live here in their house I have to be a catholic and go to mass. Now im just confused and weight of my athiest secret has not left as I hoped it would when I finally told my mam what should I do? I feel that im now trapped in religion until im 18. :'(

Sincerely,
Sean

Dear Sean,

You’re not trapped in religion. People who are trapped in religion are those who don’t even consider questioning their beliefs, or are too afraid to allow their questioning to go too far. Religion protects itself by strongly discouraging asking one’s self or others tough questions, and by severely punishing anyone who takes those questions far enough to come to the conclusion that religious beliefs are false. Those people are made an example to frighten anyone else who might be secretly allowing questions to live in their minds.

Religion claims to reveal “Truth” with a capital T, what is alleged to be a sacred kind of reality that somehow is above being questioned, and beyond any answers other than “Just believe.” That’s not an answer, that’s a command that shuts down questions and answers.

The rest of human endeavor is concerned with truth with a small t. This is the common what-is-actually-happening kind of truth that we must live in, live with, and live by every day. We often suffer painful consequences if we make decisions without knowing it well, or if we try to cover it up with lies to others or to ourselves. Never make an enemy of the truth with a small t. It never gives up trying to be known. You might be able to keep it hidden for a while, but it is always digging, digging trying to get out.

Religion tells you to ignore or dismiss any small t truth that contradicts its capital T Truth. In other words, it tells you to be dishonest to yourself.

By having the courage to let your questions go all the way to the conclusions you’ve reached, you have freed yourself from the trap of religion. Even inside of you, the small t truth was digging, digging trying to get out. For many young atheists, letting it out can be a great relief, but for many others it’s a disappointment, because they also wanted to be accepted by their family and no longer required to participate in the rites and activities of the religion. For a few, it’s the beginning of hardships much worse than what you have described.

Your mam’s religion demands that she protect its capital T Truth from being challenged by ignoring the small t truth that you are no longer a believer. So she insists that you continue to go through the motions. Keeping up appearances is a very important activity in religion; in fact, maintaining tattered illusions is its main activity.

Sean, even though you have not made small t truth your enemy, you do not have to make your mam your enemy instead. She’s probably doing what she’s doing because she loves you and wants the best for you. She is doing what she was taught to do to be a good parent. Most of the other things she does for you are probably wise and healthy parenting. So don’t treat it all with disdain and resentment because of this one part. Keep your heart open to accept the love behind her actions, and try to live in harmony with your parents as best you can.

Depending on where you live, turning 18 can mean you are legally an adult, but until you are also financially independent from your parents, you’ll probably still be living in their house, and still subject to their rules. It’s sometimes difficult for 15 year-olds to summon patience to work quietly for a long term goal, but that’s what you’ll need. Looking ahead at the next few years may seem very long, but I assure you, looking back they will seem very brief.

Your predicament is similar to another short letter from a young person I received. My response and many of the readers’ comments there may be of help to you, so I won’t repeat much of it here.

Try to relax your tension so that you can enjoy your youth and your private mental freedom. Find friends with similar views so that you don’t feel entirely isolated. There are many like you, but they may be keeping it private, so you’ll have to hint and fish.

Continue to negotiate respectfully with your parents from time to time about church attendance. Keep your temper in check, and keep your behavior respectful. That way the controversy will be about ideas instead of being about who’s in charge. They may eventually give in on some of their requirements, especially if you project yourself as a reasonable young adult. Playing the stereotypical out-of-control teenager would only make them think you need more of the controlling influence of church. Stay in school and get the best education you can, keep your brain free of alcohol and drugs, develop marketable skills, and eventually you’ll be able to have the physical freedom to match your mental freedom.

Remember that you are very rare and very fortunate to have this liberation of mind while so young. I admire you, and I wish you the very best.

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 in a timely manner.