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Dr. Saltzman,

 I am a 17 year old male in the Dallas area. I am an only child, atheist, and living with Christian/Catholic parents. All my life I have attended Christian schools. I currently go to a Catholic High School. The reason I am writing is because I cannot, by any means, get my parents to accept my disbelief. I understand it may be extremely difficult for them to do so- as I am their only child, and they probably have always hope for me to follow in their footsteps. My parents do not FORCE their religion on me, yet, they do not accept my atheism. This is very disappointing. As an "immature" 17 year old, I am able to accept their Christianity. Who am I to judge their personal beliefs?

 I only want my parents to be at peace with my personal beliefs, and not constantly try to "change my heart". For example, we do pray before meals, however, I do not close my eyes. My mother, almost overtime, will do a quick glance to see if I am praying. One time, she said aloud, "God, soften his heart. Make him see the truth." A passive-aggressive statement such as this is actually on the verge of being offensive. My parents and I have had discussion after discussion about why I am not a Christian. I try to be cordial and respectful. However, these discussions always end with my Mother getting emotional and upset. She will end it with a statement, such as, "You just need to have faith! How can you reject God?!" And so, my explaining to them why I am atheist will never work. I consider it an endless circle. What should I do? How can I make them come to peace with my beliefs? I do not want my parents always hoping for me to change. To use a statement from the bible: "I am who I am."

 Faith is an attribute which I do not have. I seriously do not believe I can help the fact I am atheist. (The same way homosexuals can not help the fact they are homosexual). Anyways, I would deeply appreciate any advice. Thank you.

Sincerely,

John







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Hello, John--

Thanks for writing. Yours is a very common problem which comes into play not just vis-a-vis religious beliefs, but in regards to any particular set of beliefs to which parents cling and wish to impose upon their children. Regrettably, many parents expect their children to adopt a particular way of looking at the world as if somehow the parents knew more or knew better than their children, which often is simply untrue.





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I imagine that some of your mother's call for you to "have faith" is rooted in a sincere desire that you find "God," and so come to enjoy what she imagines are the perks of the religious believer: answers to all the uncomfortable existential questions during life, and "heaven" in the imagined afterlife, and that this desire is so urgent for her that she fails to understand, or even to suspect, that her attitude implies a profound lack of respect for you as an individual who has a right to his own beliefs. But another aspect of her demands is not so innocent, nor so loving. As I have written elsewhere, "faith" is simply another word—a better sounding one—for credulity, for having faith really means believing something, not on evidence, but simply because some authority (in your mother's case, the Church, or the Pope, or whatever) has decreed it to be true. This belief based on authority is the abdication of human intelligence—the conversion of a human being into a sheep, huddled together for security, safety, and a sense of direction with all the other sheep.



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Indeed, many religions speak explicitly of the priest as a shepherd, and the masses as his flock without ever even noticing the irony in that language. This tendency to want to be treated like a member of a flock--to be protected, and shepherded (until the shepherd wants lamb chops, that is) is, like the abdication of human intelligence, another childish manifestation: the infantile desire to merge with the parents and let them direct ones life. Such a merger may be appropriate in a young child, but sad to see in a supposed "adult."



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Lacking a basis in any real evidence, faith, no matter how strong, must always contain a seed of doubt, and so in addition to wanting, like your mom and dad, to share their fantasies about "God" with others in a sincere wish for their "salvation," religious believers are motivated also to try to paper over their own doubts (usually unconscious) by trumpeting their beliefs instead of just having them, and by converting others, thereby adding to their numbers, as if the popularity of an idea said anything at all about its facticity.



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You asked for my advice, John, so here it is. While appreciating your desire for cordiality in your relations with your parents, I think it is time for you to understand and accept that your parents will never come to peace, as you wish they would, with your atheism, for to do so would call their own beliefs into question, and that is something they cannot abide. Imagine being a believer (filled, as I said, with unconscious doubts) and having to put up with an atheist residing right there in your home, a living example of an entirely different way of approaching the mystery of human existence. You, the believer, imagine that you have all the answers, that you live in a well structured, totally safe universe with an omnipotent king, "God," sitting on a throne in charge of everything--all human perplexity already resolved with perfect certainty--while the atheist casts doubts upon the integrity of the foundation of that stucture, and even upon the very existence of the entire organization. Of course you have to keep trying to convince that person. Othewise you must live every day with doubt (including the personification of your own unconscious doubts) staring you right in the face.



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Now, since your parents will not accept your atheism, but will always be waiting for you to "come to your senses," and accept Christianity as "truth," you are faced, as I see it, with a developmental challenge, one which is entirely appropriate to your age and stage of life. To a young child, its parents are all-knowing, and all powerful, but, as the child matures, that illusion must been seen through and completely discarded. Otherwise the child will never attain full emotional adulthood. (Indeed, the reluctance to discard the illusion that some all powerful and benign parent is watching over one may be a major reason why the God idea has such deep roots in the human psyche. In other words, many religious people may be humans with adult bodies, but who have failed to grow up emotionally.)



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John, you must now begin to understand that your parents are just two people in this world who have no particular authority, no particular intelligence, and whose points of view are not necessarily worthy of any particular respect. Yes, you ought to respect their right to believe as they do, but that does not mean respecting their beliefs, only their right to have them. Sooner or later, John, you will have to make this clear to them, for, as an atheist, you do not respect their beliefs, you deny them, and for you, atheism, which is the denial of their beliefs, is as deeply rooted and as natural to you as your sexual orientation. In other words—your words really—you can no more help being an atheist than you can help being heterosexual; it's just the way you are. And if your parents do not accept that, they do not accept you, but only who they want you to be or wish you were, which is only an illusion having nothing whatever to do with you, but only with them. This, as you pointed out, is quite analogous to a parent wishing to change the sexual orientation of a child. It is a failure to see and appreciate the child for who he is, and, in my view, an abusive violation of the child's very being.





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The situation in your home is not just an argument, not just a debate, between two opposing intellectual camps—the believers versus the skeptics—it is much more than that. This is the beginning of leaving home and making your own life, and, since your parents are so parochial and, apparently, so determined to change you into a copy of themselves, you will have to fight for it. I counsel you to look deeply within your own being and to ask yourself why you hesitate to stand up for yourself. Is it just a desire for cordiality, or is fear involved? And if fear is involved, of what are you afraid? Please look into it.

Be well.





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