The Ethical Dilemma: Advice for an Isolated Teenage 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.

Isolated Teenage Atheist: I’m 15 years old and I’m atheist. I study in a Catholic school and all my classmates and family members are Catholic, so I’m the black oveja of the family. I really love my family and my school but they see me like a monster. What can I do? Let them get involved in my point of view, in my life, in my rights? If don’t let them, they will shun me. Really I prefer to be alone than change my ideas, but what about my family? What do you think about this?


Dear Black Sheep,

You really are not a black sheep, or any sheep at all, since you don’t follow the herd. And you are not alone, although it may seem that way right now. Very few atheists were raised in atheist families, and many of us started parting ways with religion early on, so we know exactly what you’re going through. What we don’t know but you may—or may not—is how your family and classmates would react if you stood up for your atheist views. Many young people still living with their parents have been pleasantly surprised by being met with support, or at least indifference or resignation, when they come out as atheists. But others have been stung by rejection expressed in punitive ways, and that’s something you need to avoid, at least until you’re independent.

It sounds as though your family and the people around you are committed to Catholic values, and would not take your divergence well. Once you publicly declare your atheism, it can be impossible to contain or control the effects. Your closest friend could be cool with it, but might mention it to just one person who blabs it far and wide, and uses it to hurt you. I wouldn’t want you to do anything that jeopardizes your education, safety, or comfort. You may feel uncomfortable now, but it could become much worse if key people in your life reacted harshly.

Are there any relatives or friends (your own age or adults) you could attempt to talk to? Do you know anyone who is, or seems as if they may be, non-believers or at least friendly toward someone who is? If so, try to bring up the problems you are having with your Catholic upbringing, and see where the discussion leads. Having just one trusted confidant could make you feel much better, even if it doesn’t change your situation.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole world of non-believers out here, which you’ve already made contact with by contacting There could be secular groups right in your area—you just need to do a little exploring on the Internet to find out, starting with searching for local groups on the AHA website. But even if you can’t find a group to join in your area, or if you feel that would not go over well at home or school, you can certainly find people through the AHA and other secular organizations that you can communicate with privately on-line. You might also want to contact the Secular Student Alliance, which I believe is expanding from the college to high school level. If you have access to a computer without someone looking over your shoulder, you have access to a universe of non-believer websites, blogs, articles, books and newsfeeds. Explore! You could begin with Greta Christina’s book, Coming Out Atheist, which includes specific advice for young people in your situation.

You can also involve yourself in secular activities and organizations that are not necessarily related to atheism per se, just not associated with any religions. Depending on your interests, you could join (or start) a book club, a group that builds robots or makes videos or hikes or bikes or runs or dances or sings or plays tennis or chess or looks at stars or does community service—whatever you enjoy, just not under the auspices of a church. That may enable you to meet people from other religions—and no religions—who are together doing great things that have nothing to do with any religion.

I know at 15 years old this sounds like forever, but in just a few years you will be done with high school. Work hard now so you can go to a college away from home and religious conformity. Once you’re out of the house and the Catholic school, you’ll be in a much better position to encounter and associate with non-believers like yourself. And that will make it easier to express your atheist identity to your family and community if you still want to. But maybe that won’t seem as important once you’re able to just live it.