Thursday, March 08, 2007

From *Ashley

A couple of days ago, I received the following e-mail.
Dear Possummomma,
My name is *Ashley (*name changed) and I am 16 years old. I have been homeschooled for my whole life. My mom is my teacher of course. I have been reading this journal for a long long time. My parents make me go to our family church. Really it is our family's church. My grandpa is the minister. My uncle is the youth minister. My problem is that I don't seem to fit in anywhere. I hate going to church. I wanted to audit a jc course in biology and my parents let me but my grandparents were furious with my mom. Why do they get to say what classes I get to take? My mom is very upset and wants me to withdraw and take an incomplete. You said that your husband is a proffessor so what do you think. My mom is letting me decide but someone is going to be hurt no matter what I choose. My dad is staying out of it. I have never been defiant but all of this arguing is killing me. What would you do if you were me? I thought that I was an atheist a long time ago but now I'm sure that I am one. I just don't belong. :o( What is your advise for me? I admire you.
I hope you repond to me please.

Dear Ashley,
First of all, thank you for taking the time to write me. I'm constantly amazed by the depth of people who read my musings.
Now, on to the crux of your letter. You say that you are "sure" you are an atheist, because you "just don't belong". Let me be the first to caution you that choosing to examine religion, and possibly identify yourself as an atheist, is not a path that generally leads one to feel as if they "belong." In fact, most of the time, you will feel like the great outsider. I don't say this to deter you...only to caution you: atheism isn't generally a position one comes about overnight. In fact, Ashley, you are in a very unique position that I don't think you fully appreciate. Allow me to explain: Many of us, atheists, came to our conclusions after many years of trying to make sense out of what we remembered. I know that, for me, I spent a great many hours recalling things that happened in my past and examining what meaning those things/events would have as an atheist. You, my young friend, are in a position where you can flitter effortlessly within the religion you were raised and examine it with a fresh perspective. If you truly believe that atheism is a position you identify with, then become a silent observer in your church. Instead of sitting in a pew, as I imagine you will be required to do until you are eighteen and out of your family's fold, wishing you were elsewhere,...take this opportunity to consider the biblical passages and sermons for what they are. Instead of uttering prayers by rote, think about them in depth and consider the words you are expected to say. Take this time to see the church, from the inside, with your new eyes and to hear the parishoners with new ears. Whether or not you decide to check the atheist box is really not the point- how you arrived at the position is of the most importance. The best part about this approach is that you need not make claims that will upset family and friends, at this point. You control your thoughts. You owe no one an explanation of them. Your parents and grandparents may force you to attend church. So... attend. Until you're eighteen, this isn't a battle worth fighting. While they may force you to attend services, they do not control your thoughts... just consider that.
Also, don't underestimate the fact that, it would seem, your parents do love and care for you. You mentioned that your mom homeschools you, but I also noted that you are being allowed to take classes. This means that your mother has recognized that you are exceeding her own capacity to educate you. The fact that she allowed you to audit this course means that you are not as trapped as you may feel. I woud urge you to consider how she might be feeling at this point- her father, a minister, is putting pressure on her to control you. As in most instances, whenever you see someone else's bid to usually betrays the controllers perceived lack of power. Those who are free do not seek to control others. Again, you are in a unique position to show your maturity by approaching your mother with an adult's perspective. I would encourage you to have a discussion with your mom. Tell her that you are enjoying your biology class and don't wish to drop out. Be honest with her. Give her the benefit of the doubt until she gives you reason not to. As for your grandfather, your mother may know how best to handle him, but I imagine that if you explain your desire for more knowledge as the innocent pursuit that it is, he may settle down. Remember, your grandfather is most likely threatened by that which he cannot control. You needn't drop-out, but you may need to- for the time being- present this class as less of a threat (to your grandfather). Share with him some tidbit of information you have learned that doesn't seem like you're challenging your grandfather's opinions about science or evolution (which, is what I feel he's probably reacting to). People fear what they do not understand and, if you've been homeschooled, your family doesn't understand why you wish to go outside of that arena. You don't need to change who you are or what you wish to learn/accomplish, but...again, you have the opportunity to be a mature adult and consider the consequences of your actions (however benign and admirable) on others.
Additionally, you mentioned that your mother is going to "let you decide." THIS IS A GOOD THING. It means that she's trusting you. If you are going to be an atheist, then you are going to have to learn how to form arguments and defend your position. Use this opportunity to practice those skills. State your feelings about staying in this class, if that's what you wish to do, and back up your decision/feelings with evidence for why your decision is the best decision. When you have done that, there's little one can do but have respect for your position. :)
Keep your chin up and continue cultivating your mind (and your relationships). ;)


Godless Geek said...

Ashley, sound like you are having much the same thoughts that I had around that age, but I was in public school and didn't have any family in the ministry. My mother was the driving force behind my forced indoctrination.

My advice, as hard as it may be, is to hold your tongue and take any small victories you can until you graduate high school and go to college. At that point refuse to let your family dictate your path. It is your life, not theirs, and you have to live with the results of your actions, not them. Don't let anyone in your family force you into a course of study or career that you aren't happy with, and don't let them guilt you into things you don't wish to do or don't agree with. However, until you are in a position to do that, don't rock the boat too much, or you'll just make things harder on yourself.

Zipi said...

Long time lurker, posting for the first time, P-momma. I love your blog.

For Ashley. Congratulations on your courage! Thinking is always worth it. Learning is always worth it. You are lucky to live in the internet era, where you have more access to educational materials than ever. If your family does not allow to take those outside courses, but you find yourself craving for more, you can, for instance, check out the MIT Open Courseware. MIT offers for free, and readily available online, all the material needed for quality courses on all topics you may imagine. It includes notes, exercices, tests for self-evaluation, ... You only need interest and discipline, as self-learning is hard, but rewarding. Good luck!

ceinwyn said...

Good for you, /Ashley/! It sounds like you have a loving family, and a really supportive Mom. Your family can't give you everything you'll ever need (no one's can) and it looks like you're doing a great job of seeking out additional sources. I think a lot of atheists (if that's what you decide you are. Don't forget, you can always change your mind, as you learn new things, or think about things in new ways)are "in the closet" with some people in their lives. I'm 29, and I keep it from my grandmother. I don't really have any is hard to be different...but I want to tell you you're not so different, we're all here, and pulling for you.

darrell said...

I just wanted to add my two cents in case *Ashley* is reading.

Firstly, follow PMomma's is most likely the correct course of action, especially since you are homeschooled and your family seems to be so closely knit.

However, there is Plan B:

Families are cool. Parents are cool.


Sometimes they're not. Sometimes your family is NOT a good place to be. Your family seems pretty reasonable...they're not physically abusing you, and they don't seem to be mentally abusing you in any serious way other than trying to limit your education, but you are clearly frustrated and unhappy in the situation. Don't let that get out of control.

The best advice I can give is to try to make good friends. Find people you indentify with and who you can trust, build relationships with them. Expand yout definition of family to include people you're not biologically related to.

I know this opinion may be unpopular, but there's no reason to be loyal to your biological family. With the amount of people in this world it's a good chance most are born into families full of horrible people who don't deserve your time and energy. I'm not at all saying this is the case for you, but don't be enslaved by the Christian notions of piety toward the family and parents.

Anyone who loves you is your family.

Rev. Barking Nonsequitor said...

Feeling alienated in church or not liking it is one sign that it doesn't fit with your personality. I never reallly liked going to Catholic mass and I felt worst as became a teen - finally my father said we didn't have to go if we didn't want to - so I didn't! People should goto church if you feel better after you leave - weather this is good for a person in the long run is a different story.

Being an atheist is a reflection of a type of mind you are born with - not unlike homosexuality - there are about as many of them and you usually don't change your mind about it.

Anonymous said...

You may be surprised to learn that you are not alone in being an atheist in a Christian church. See PMomma's post called "Jesus' Lost Tomb - or...aka, 'Holy Assumptions, Batman!'" and be sure to read the comments. In the comments I posed several questions to Reverend Harry T. Cook, an atheist and an active Episcopalian minister from Michigan. Interesting combination, huh? Here's the first question and its answer for your convenience.

I e-mailed Harry at
Question 1:
1. You don't appear to exalt Jesus as divine, a position more similar to we atheists than the run-of-the-mill Christians, so how do you characterize your thoughts about supernaturalism, especially as it relates to religion?

and Harry's answer:
1.Supernaturalism is phony-baloney stuff. Nature is enough for human beings to deal with. I give it no thought whatsoever.

Harry takes questions and most often answers them.

Also, Ashley, studies from various seminaries and divinity schools have as a low estimate about three million atheists in the US who attend Christian church services. I don't know if that is regular attendance or just the Christmas-Easter types. Among the Jewish several percent are outspokenly atheist. Many are "cultural Jews" instead of "religious Jews." More and more American Muslims are identifying themselves as culturally Muslim.

Here at PMomma's, I have seen several comments by people expressing the idea that they attend church and simply are not ready to share their perspective with their friends and families.

So, Ashley, you are not alone in your being a church member while asking tough questions about it.

Kristine said...

Ashley, I think it's important to remember that adults have a lot of anxiety about doing the "right thing" for their children. That is why your grandfather is acting controlling--he is frightened. He is probably thinking, "What's wrong with me, why didn't I raise a daughter [your mother] who can control my granddaughter?" Likewise, your mother may be thinking, "Am I doing the right thing or am I failing my daughter by not coming down more strongly?"

Forgive them their fears, but see their fears for what they are. Do not define yourself in terms of your family's fears! Please don't. You are a fine person, but everyone scares and hurts their family sooner or later. That is a part of growing up. You have no control over what they feel, any more than they can control your thoughts.

I would follow P-Momma's advice and take this opportunity to learn about the Bible as a work of literature so that you can have a foundation for understanding other classical works - Milton, Beethoven, Bach, Shakespeare, etc. I've been an atheist since I was nine, but I was excellent at Bible study because I appreciate literature and anthropology. Learn as much as you can about other religions, too. As the Roman writer Terentius said, "Nothing human is alien to me." Take it one day at a time. You do not have to label yourself or make any big confession to your family, ever. You don't owe anyone an explanation for being who you are - just always be true to yourself.

rebeho said...


I was in a similar situation and all I can say is tread lightly. You may very well have to drop the course but this fight is probably not really your fight, it's your parents and grandparents. Your mother very well could be vicariously breaking with her father through you. She may be asking you to drop, but in her heart she may very well have seen this coming but underestimated the reaction of your grandparents.

As your grandfather is a preacher, this is more than you taking a biology class, this is a direct strike at everything for which he stands, or so he believes. For him this is more than a family disagreement, this is a direct challenge to his authority and faith. It's his status. It's his pride. He won't be very rational.

It may be enough to find out if this is really a case of your mother's own rebellion, it is something you can share and a bond that helps for your struggle down the road. You will have to confront religion someday with your grandfather but save that for later when you are surer about yourself and won't be beaten down by his rhetoric.

Make sure that you don't confuse atheism with your own rebellion as a teenager. I was angry for a long time because I didn't understand that part of my initial rejection of religion had more to do with my own growing up. Later I figured it out but I hurt people close to me and cut myself off from the people who loved me. As you grow older and become your own person you will be able to break the news to your grandparents. I burnt so many bridges that I was never able to confront those close to me and it is a regret I carry to this day.

I wish you the best of luck. Trust your mother and wait for your turn. You were wise to come to this blogger, I have read her for awhile but just lurked. Your letter reminded me of my own situation and I thought I would reply. I can only add my own experience, I hope it helps.

Eva Kopie said...

Dear Ashley,

Please, I would love it if you would email me. I think that I have very recently struggled with the things you are struggling with and I would love to talk about it with you. I am 21 now, glad to be on my own, making my own decisions, at last, after all the time I spent under the iron rule of my parents. My own little sister just turned 17. I have to keep telling her to be patient, that soon she'll be out of the house, on her own, and free. You just have to struggle through the years you have left with your parents and be patient. It will be very, very hard for you, until you turn 18, whatever you decide about what you believe, simply because you want to make the decision about your beliefs for yourself. I will never forget the first time somebody said to me, "No, don't tell me what your religion says, tell me what you think about it."

Please do write to me. I would like to be your friend.