The Ethical Dilemma: Lonely Only Atheist

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Lonely Only Atheist: I’m the only atheist student in my class, and sometimes the religious students keep bringing up topics on religion which pisses me off. I don’t know what to do because I can’t stand them.

—In a Class By Myself

Dear Class,

You should just go with the flow and get into God like your classmates do. The important thing is to conform—since pretending is almost as good as believing.

April fools! Of course that’s not what you should do.

When you say you can’t stand “them,” do you mean the religious topics, the religious students, or both? I think your question is what can you do to get you through this situation until such time as you can get out of it, and teasing out exactly what you can and can’t stand might help.

The nice thing about any class is that it ends in a relatively short time (despite feeling like forever), so even if it goes into June, you’re already nearly finished. And even if you’re in a school where you really are the only atheist in the whole place, in all likelihood it can’t be more than a few years before you’re out of there and will have the opportunity to continue your education, or start your career, in a more secular environment. If your situation is or becomes truly intolerable, you might be able to transfer to a school that suits you better. Can your parents or another adult (relative, friend, teacher) help you to determine what alternatives are available to you?

But regardless of whether you get out of this sooner or later, what can you do right now? First of all, it’s not helpful to lump everything/everyone together in one negative glob. Maybe you hate the religious topics, but there must be other topics you don’t hate. Maybe you hate the religiosity of the other kids, but even if you are the only atheist student you are aware of, it sounds like not all the other students are uniformly religious. Perhaps you can team up with the less religious kids and avoid the ones who bother you the most.

And students who are extremely religious can still be pleasant in other respects. So instead of focusing on what you can’t stand, identify things about them you can stand or perhaps enjoy, and devote your attention to those. Maybe some of these kids are excellent teammates, or talented musicians, or have a great sense of humor, or make good study buddies. Look for things you like about them and help them see things to like about you rather than butting heads on your differences or just withdrawing into yourself. It’s also possible you could manage some friendly debates on religious topics—but arguing with dogmatic people is often just a frustrating waste of everyone’s time.

Perhaps you go to a religious school or live in a very religious community, where any complaints you have about sectarian issues in school may fall upon deaf ears or hostile authority figures. But if your school is public or a secular private school, you might want to speak to someone you trust (a teacher, counselor, or other staff member) about any inappropriate religious pressuring that may be going on. Even some religious schools make allowances for students who are not members of that religion, and the administration may step in and tell the other kids to lay off. The AHA’s legal arm can help you determine whether you have grounds to lodge a complaint, whether doing so might be constructive, and if so, help you figure out how best to go about it.

If you really are stuck in the midst of Bible thumpers for now, do your best to face your predicament with grace and humor—while planning your getaway as soon as you can get away.