The Humanist Dilemma: Can an Agnostic Teen Be Honest and Keep up the Good Work?

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How do I tell my religious parents I’m agnostic? I’m a thirteen-year-old eighth grader, and always thought I was religious until last year. I realized I was doubting it, and now it’s clear I don’t believe. The problem is, my parents are heavily religious. I’m afraid they’ll force it on me harder, and my grandparents will end up hating me.

I want to finally be myself, and it’d be great if I could express what I think and stop being forced to go to church activities. I’m baptized, and currently being confirmed. I wish my family could really understand how I’ve been living life. I love volunteering. Through my church I take care of kindergarteners over the summer and help paint houses for people who can’t. I want to keep doing these things, but I don’t want to be stared at or misunderstood if I reveal my truth.

—Good without God


Dear Good,

Congratulations on recognizing that you are a good person—and that your church does good things—regardless of whether or not you’re religious. That demonstrates that you are a mature and reasonable young person who can deal with the many colors of reality, not just black and white. Lots of people live their entire lives without understanding the nuances you are already perceptive enough to grasp.

And you also see that, although you know you’re doing nothing wrong and many things right, not everyone around you may look at it that way. So you are wise to proceed with caution. The first thing to do is actually something not to do: don’t put out anything you might later wish to take back. You still have to get through four years of high school and living at home with your family’s support before you’ll be prepared to strike out on your own for college or work, and it may be even longer before you’re financially independent. So you don’t want to say or do anything now that might cause your family to limit your choices and freedom before you’re able to call your own shots.

Since you fear your parents might double down on religion if you told them how you feel, it’s smart to tread carefully. You could try mentioning that you’ve heard another eight-grader has become agnostic, and see how they react. (But bear in mind that some parents don’t care the same way about what other kids do, so whether they’re mellow or harsh about a stranger may not predict how they’d react if it were you.) Although I find it mind-boggling to imagine any grandparent hating a child for not believing, it happens. So, again, take baby steps if you decide to reveal anything to your grandparents.

Continue to demonstrate to your family, and the world, what a good person you are with your volunteer work, both within and outside your church, and all other aspects of how you conduct yourself. Do whatever you can to scale back on how much time and energy you have to spend at church, perhaps by filling your schedule with additional secular commitments, such as more volunteering, sports, arts, academics, or any other interests you’d like to pursue.

As you’ve discovered, helping others is a rewarding experience, whether you do so under church auspices or through purely secular avenues. There’s no need to drop your church-related good works. Many people who aren’t religious volunteer through religious organizations as a means to help others. You don’t have to announce to fellow church members that you’re agnostic—just that you believe in helping others. Keep your eyes open for people around you—adults and your age—who seem to feel the same way, and cultivate those relationships.

The more you model exemplary behavior without spouting doctrine, the more everyone around you will see you for the fine person you are, with or without religion. Maybe you’ll come to feel it isn’t really that urgent to tell your truth, or at least not until you’re old enough and independent enough to withstand any negative consequences. Then, whenever you ultimately decide it’s time to reveal your agnosticism, you’ll be ready—even if some of those around you are not.