Monday, March 9, 2015

For Atheist Youth: It Gets Better

The It Gets Better campaign, started by Dan Savage, is a joy to behold: an effort to get the word out to gay youth that life does get better, and that no matter what you are facing now, you can get through it and not just survive, but flourish.

Gay youth deserve such a campaign, because they can be bullied in their own homes, not just at school or in public spaces. In small towns in particular, they can lack any sanctuary that will get them away from humiliation. The treatment they receive often goes beyond just parents or family members who aren't supportive; family members can threaten to withhold financial help to fully participate in school activities or to go to college or a university, they can keep their children from their friends, can they can threaten them with physical harm.

Many atheist youth can identify with the plight of gay youth. When a teen realizes he or she is an atheist, it can often mean having to live a lie for years, because to tell the truth results in oh-so-many negative consequences. That means going to church services and religious events, joining in family prayers and sitting quietly while the family members, friends and church members talk about the evils of non-believers and deride atheists as being un-American, immoral and incapable of being good. atheist youth are often in a situation where they don't dare talk about questions or emerging non-religious values, for fear of not only creating tense situations with family, at school or with friends - but also, being ostracized by friends, family - even an entire community. And, as an atheist youth, you may have to live that lie even after you turn 18 and move out, because you need your family's financial support to go to a university - or you join the military and realize just how Christian-based the US military is (just google harassment US military atheist if you doubt that).

Many atheist youth look at Damon Fowler, and how he's been treated by parents and his community, including his school, including TEACHERS at his school, and decide to remain quiet about their atheism, for fear of being subjected to similar treatment. Not every teenager could survive that.

So, atheist youth of America, let me tell you: survive these days at home with your parents, in a community that might reject you, or is already rejecting you, for your atheism, any way you can, because life DOES get better. You will eventually move out of your family's home, and maybe away entirely from a religious community, and you will not only create a home and a life for yourself where you don't have to pretend to be something you aren't, or where you won't be harassed for your lack-of-belief-in-the-supernatural in your own home (though you still may face that sometimes in public life), you will flourish.

You will meet people - religious and non - who won't criticize you for not believing in the supernatural and won't balk at the idea that you self-identify as atheist. You will meet people who believe in and celebrate science - including many religious folks who are able to accept scientific truths, like evolutionary biology, and be religious. Best of all, you will meet people who delight in our Godless reality. You will have friends who, like you, have a reverence for rational, independent thought, who delight in the joys of intellectual exploration and feel the rapture of scientific revelation - or just the thrill of finding out there is still so much more to learn. You will be able to say, I'm an atheist, and not fear being thrown out of your home, because it's the home YOU have made.

You will continue to have morals that guide your life and your actions. You will have a philosophy that isn't based on belief in the supernatural but, rather, the ongoing wisdom of humanity, that ever-compels you to do certain things in order to have meaning and joy in your life. You will live in a world no less wondrous than the one your family and community back home believe in - maybe even more wondrous, because it has no boundaries based on fear or self-imposed ignorance. You will be loved, even cherished - first, by your own self, and then by others. And life will feel so authentic!

For many years as a child, I not only went to church every Sunday, but also, weekly church choir practice and frequent church pot lucks - and, every summer,  to Vacation Bible School. I went because I had SO much fun at such - even as I kept waiting for the epiphany that Jesus/God was real, that he would, at last, reveal himself and I could stop doubting, and I could get all this comfort that everyone said would come with that epiphany. But the more I read the Bible and immersed myself in religious activities, the more questions I had. At first I asked them - and at first, the questions were simple enough, as was my mind, to be easily answered by the Sunday school teacher, a pastor or a parent. But the questions got more complicated, and so, when adults couldn't answer them, I started getting the you-just-have-to-accept-and-believe answers. Just have faith! I started to feel the tension in the adults and fellow students hearing my questions they couldn't answer, so I shut up. And I tried to do everything with even more passion - pray, sing, whatever - thinking it would cure me of my doubts and help me believe the way everyone else was telling me they believed. If I out-Christianed the Christians, I'd finally have that feeling and assurance everyone swore they felt, right? It didn't work.

I dared to voice my doubts about religion to just a few very close friends in high school - and I lost two friends over my asking questions. Those questions challenged my friends to question their own beliefs, and so they each told me that they had to break off our friendship, since they couldn't have a God-doubter in their lives. I was heart-broken - and, as a result, kept my lack of belief to myself until I went to university, where questions and doubts were welcomed by most of my fellow students. MANY years later, one of those two friends called me to apologize for breaking off our friendship. She said our conversation had haunted her for years, even as she attended an evangelical university. She was still a believer, but not at all the way she had been back then, and she noted how unhealthy it had been to remove everyone from her life that made her think and question. That phone call meant the world to me.

I never dared to express my doubts to family. I knew they would be broken-hearted. So I stayed silent.

Life got much, much better for me as an atheist after I left home and got out into the world. I have a nice career, wonderful friends - a mix of non-religious and religious friends - I volunteer, and I delight in the world in a way I never did when I was desperate to be a believer.

Life will get better for you too. I hope you can realize your strength, tap into it and get through your teens - and, eventually, be open about not only your atheism, but the sources for your values and joy. It gets better. I promise.

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