Ask Richard: Concerned Mother Asks: Is My Teenager’s Atheism “Just a Phase”?


Jan. 20, 2010

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(Author's Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.)

Dear  Richard, 

My sixteen-year-old daughter just told me she is an atheist. I do not know what to do or who to turn to. Other than this, she is a very good girl. Is this a phase she will grow out of, or just one of these things kids just say? I have tried recommending web sites for her to read, but she just brushes them off. I am at my wits end and do not know what to do. Perhaps some of your readers can offer advice.   

Thank You,   


Dear Amelia,

Your daughter is still a very good girl, I assure you.

I commend you for doing a very wise and intelligent thing with your concerns. You're asking atheists about atheism. That ought to be an obvious thing to do, but, sadly, it is very rare. Because your letter is so brief, I have to make some assumptions about your concern for your daughter. I'm assuming that you have heard some very bad things about atheists and atheism, and that you're worried that she will become that awful picture of atheism you have been painted.

I want to set your mind at ease: the typical dreadful things people hear and repeat about atheists are false. Like defamatory things said about Jews, people of color or any minority group, these are lies started by bigots and perpetuated by people who don't stop to question what they hear.

Some of the most common misconceptions are that atheists are evil, immoral, criminal, dangerous, rebellious, self-indulgent and live lives with no meaning. 

I have known several dozen atheists very closely for several years and I have had long conversations with hundreds of others online, and I have never met anyone like that. They have their human flaws, but they are not monsters. If they have shortcomings, it's not because they're atheists. They'd still have those shortcomings if they were religious. 

The atheists I know are good, kind, smart, highly moral and ethical people who go to work, love their families, pay their taxes and live very meaningful lives. They want to live peacefully with their neighbors, they want to participate in their communities, they want to help where there is a need and they want to be treated fairly.

You probably know many people who fit that description, but you might not realize that a few of them are atheists. They tend to keep that private because of all the hurtful prejudice. They sometimes risk serious consequences at the hands of bigots.

So what actually is an atheist if they are not all those awful things? An atheist is a person who is not convinced of the existence of gods.

That's it. That's the whole thing. There's nothing more to it.

Look at your daughter's behavior. She has not suddenly started doing horrible things, and she's not going to start just because she's an atheist. She has morals–she got them from you. She got them a little by listening to you and mostly by watching you. People who do not believe in gods tend to attribute their morality to their upbringing instead of wanting to please a deity.

Since you say that you daughter is a very good girl, then my guess is that she has a strong sense of right and wrong, she has a strong sense of compassion, she knows what good manners are, even if she may forget them briefly as most 16 year-olds sometimes do.  And she knows about telling the truth.

I don't know the circumstances surrounding your daughter telling you that she is an atheist. But she did tell you. Even though you may not like what she said, be sure to honor her for being honest with you. The worst thing you could do would be to punish her or scold her for her honest sharing, and drive her into lying to you and keeping secrets.

Keep the communications open with her. Keep it safe for both of you to talk. That openness is extremely precious. Ask her with genuine, loving curiosity about her thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Just listen to what she says about herself. You don't have to agree with her, but it is very important to not try to force, badger or guilt-trip her into changing her views and agreeing with you. That will not work, and it will definitely make things much worse. 

You ask if this is a phase that she will grow out of or if it is just one of these things kids just say. I have strong doubts that your daughter is just going through a whim. Given the prejudice in society against atheists, "coming out" as an atheist to one's family can be extremely difficult and intimidating.

Moreover, a large number of atheists report that they knew with certainty that they were non-believers at around this age. At 16, your daughter is going into the last stage of her neurological development–most of her personality and her intellect are already set. Over the next several years, she will simply become a more mature version of the person you already see before you. 

Although the two of you may end up having to agree to disagree about belief in a god, you can continue to love each other and treat each other respectfully. You should start now to gradually practice how to relate to her as an adult to an adult, rather than as a parent to a child. It takes some time for most parents to switch those roles, and it's easier if you're prepared when the time actually comes.

Amelia, understand that atheists have as wide a variety of personalities and attitudes as any other group of people. Some are very positive and friendly, and some are not. Those who aren't may be struggling with bitterness or pain from their intolerant family backgrounds. Often they grew up feeling that they were entirely alone and not understood, having to keep secrets in a hostile environment.

So allow your daughter to find like-minded peers. Encourage her to investigate humanism. This is a very positive philosophy that supports and gives structure for high ethical and moral standards of conduct in all aspects of life.

Hopefully, in addition to her friends, she will also have the support of an open, honest, respectful and loving relationship with her mother. You have a great deal of ability to make that happen if you are willing to let go of fear and to accept and even embrace the wonderful fact that your daughter has a mind of her own. I wish both of you the very best.



(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseld more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)