Recently Carolyn Hax, a Washington Post columnist, replied to a letter from a mother who had raised her daughter as a Christian. The daughter is now an atheist and she doesn’t want to go to church or take part in family prayers. She said she was “‘happy” in her decision and that it just “felt right,” but Mom is shocked and worried: “I simply do not think a girl of 16 has the maturity to make such a life-changing decision. Our pastor cautions me that putting too much pressure on her now might cause her to become even more entrenched in her thinking.” (Good advice.) She then wrote to Carolyn, asking the columnist to help her daughter see the error of her ways.
The Friendly Atheist blog praised Carolyn’s response for delivering “a series of knockout punches,” “politely scolding” Mom for rejecting her daughter’s atheism. Although I mostly agree with the Friendly Atheist’s observations, I’m not enthusiastic about trying to verbally punch each other or knock each other out. And although a polite scolding is probably better than a claws-out confrontation, most people will shut their minds in response to any sort of scolding at all.
In her reply to the atheist’s mom, Carolyn seems to say that she herself is an atheist. Even though this makes it doubly difficult to communicate with the worried parent, I’m glad she was honest. She also tries to be clear, compassionate, and persuasive, and in general I think she does a fine job. For whatever it’s worth, I’ll make a few suggestions — and I realize that it’s always easier to be the “Monday morning quarterback.”
I agree that the concerned mother needs to be challenged, but it probably doesn’t work to start right off by confronting her. Before asking someone to change, we can take a moment to connect in a positive way. For example one might say:
“I fully understand why you would be worried. This is a big change from the faith you hoped your daughter would follow. You seem to be approaching this touchy issue carefully, asking for feedback from people such as your pastor and myself. Evidently your daughter trusts you enough to communicate with you openly. Many youngsters just hide their real feelings about religion till they move out on their own.”
“My own philosophy of life is actually similar to your daughter’s, so I need to express some concerns. I hope you will take these as food for thought, from someone who wants the best for your whole family.”
This sort of preamble is extremely useful when communicating across theological divisions. It can then be followed by comments such as the excellent points made by Ms. Hax. Here are some examples from her column:
“This is the fundamental problem with religion as a family value instead of a personal one: Faith isn’t in the teachings or rituals of the group. It’s in the individual’s belief …”
“Certainly indicating you’re not afraid of Emily’s doubts will make a better case for your ‘Christian values’ than will treating her as if she’s delinquent or mentally ill.”
“If she does rekindle her faith, then her faith will arguably be stronger for her challenging it.”
By the way, notice that Mom thinks 16 is too young to become an atheist, but many churches want children to profess Christianity before they even reach their teens. Understanding theological options requires a level of abstract thinking that doesn’t fully develop until high school. Parents should tell their children that as they gain more brain power they may find themselves changing their minds about philosophical issues. And there’s nothing wrong with continuing to change as they learn and grow.
So good for Mom for reaching out during this difficult time. Good for Carolyn for trying to be honest and yet gentle in her replies. And good for Emily for showing thoughtfulness and integrity, regardless of where she ends up theologically.
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Roger Christan Schriner
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