The Ethical Dilemma: Can an Atheist Survive at a Religious School?

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Parochial Atheist: Can an atheist survive at a religious school?

 —Class of 2015

Dear Class,

From your very brief question, I’m surmising you are an atheist with concerns about surviving at a religious school and that you are graduating this year. But I’m not sure if you are currently in a religious school (high school?) or are facing the possibility of going to a religious college next year, and whether you are already experiencing issues as an atheist where you are or just anticipating them.

But the short answer to your short question is yes, an atheist can survive anywhere, including at a religious school. There are many religious schools that include students (and teachers and staff) of other religions, who may be excused from instruction and participation in the designated faith—and hopefully that would extend to atheists as well. Unfortunately, there are also schools that are completely intolerant of those who don’t accept and profess the prevailing faith. In those cases, atheists would have to stay in the closet and go through the motions, while keeping their dissidence to themselves. I suspect every such school has some closet atheists.

A question in response to your question is whether you must attend a religious school. Do you have any good alternatives? Do you have parental or financial or situational pressure pushing you into a faith school (and perhaps pressure to believe, or pretend to believe, as well)? Can you express your atheism at the parochial school without dire consequences? Can you transfer to a secular school? These are all things I can’t address without additional information about your situation. But I can encourage you to embrace your atheism to the extent that you are able do so without repercussions you aren’t prepared to deal with. Tolerate whatever you have to for now and hang in there with the assurance that in a short time (even though it may feel like an eternity), you will graduate from enduring a religious program and suppressing your atheism. Not only can you survive, you can also thrive.

Does Friendship Include Church? Should I go to a friend’s church even though I am an atheist? I like hanging out with my friend, but I don’t want to go to her church. I feel uncomfortable enough being around the church itself.

—Class of 2015

Dear Class,

At first I thought it was a coincidence that two letters had the same sign-off, but I see they are actually from the same person. As with the one above, your question raises a few additional questions: Is Class of 2015 high school or college? Is your friend a romantic partner, possibly with commitment and family in the future, or just a good buddy? Has your friend actually asked you to accompany her to church or put any pressure on you to do so?

Friends—even married ones—don’t have to do everything with each other, including religion. In a serious relationship, however, if one party feels strongly that she wants a special someone beside her in the pew, declining may cause the relationship to decline. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Regardless of whether you’re graduating from high school or higher education this year (congratulations!), you shouldn’t compromise your values to preserve a relationship that is just friends hanging out together or that hasn’t progressed to commitment (which I suspect you are too young to be considering). If you don’t want to go to church, simply explain that it’s not your thing, and focus on things you both enjoy doing together. And if that’s a deal-breaker, so be it.

If your friend only wants a date or companion for a particular church occasion—perhaps a family wedding or baptism—it’s nice to oblige, if you can do it with a good attitude. You would demonstrate that you’re a supportive friend—not a candidate for conversion—and you might even enjoy it.

So if your friend says she would like you to accompany her to church, find out why she wants you there and let her know where you stand (not kneel) on church-going. Then see if it makes more sense for you to accompany her as a good sport, or to come up with alternative, mutually agreeable ways to spend time together.