Coming Out of the Closet of Doubt
By Chen Chapman
Written in response a recent message (September 2002) on the UTCAA Discussion Board:
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Q: “I'm 17 and only recently discovered that I am Apathetic Agnostic. I was wondering about any other younger (like teens) members, and how (or if) they have told their parents that they are Apathetic Agnostic. Because I haven't because of fear…”
A: Hey, it isn't absolutely necessary, ever, to share with your parents...and it isn't always an easy choice one way or the other.
Speaking as a person who began "coming out" of the Closet of Doubt by around age 11, I can tell you that it has been a rough and uneasy road at times, particularly with family members who remain very devout and involved in their respective (Christian) faiths. And it didn't even begin to get more relaxed until I was 26. That's 15 years of hassle. If I knew then what I know now…
At 38, I have finally settled into a religious relationship with my relatives and parents that is mutually respectful: I attend services in church(es) where appropriate (funerals, weddings, etc..), I allow them to speak with my child (8) regarding their faith (as I do), and I do not ever tell them that they should question their own faith. They no longer insist, nag or even recommend that I change my spiritual position, having given up the quest to save my soul some years ago.
I even get occasional comments like "Even though you don't believe as we do, we admire the way you raise your child", etc.
Through my actions, I have been able to demonstrate to all my devout family that one can live a moral, stable and happy life without forcing a face, name and opinion onto whatever engine may drive the universe.
In order to achieve this harmoniousness, I had to come to some important realizations:
- My family really cares what happens to me;
- They need to understand that I know they care;
- My family members really BELIEVE what they tell me about the fate of my soul;
- My family needs to feel respected every bit as much as I do.
Once I was able to accept these truths, I was able to de-personalize the argument, both for myself and for them. I began by acknowledging the fact-list above and then THANKING THEM for their concern, even while standing my philosophical ground. In other words, I began refraining from judging them or parading the “rightness” of my position learning to initiate the “agreement to disagree” and learning to stop the argument cold with a humble “I’m sorry, but I respect you enough not lie about my beliefs to pacify you or your God”.
Ultimately, they have learned to return these gestures: The most I ever hear from them about the subject now is in reference to their own personal experiences, which is fine. Most of the time the subject does not come up at all.
Although it has been very difficult, over time these vital messages that I have been trying to send by example have been received:
- HAVE AN OPEN HEART AND AN OPEN MIND
- REMAIN HONEST WITH YOURSELF
- RESPECT AND BE RESPECTED
It's easy to argue with strangers about spiritual matters, because most of those are more concerned with being "right (as you may well be also)" - but family members who love you have a more altruistic viewpoint...they want "what's best for you". And in general, they are quite sincere - just as you are in your differing viewpoint. In the great big picture, your family wants assurance that you are and can be a nice person, have strong ethical and moral values, and will (eventually) be a useful member of society. Religious persons often believe this is impossible without a Supreme Being; it is up to you to demonstrate that this is not the case.
For an Agnostic (or any other) youth, it is important to avoid using your religious difference of opinion as a tool for rebellion. Not only does this approach often anger and/or frighten your family; it also causes your viewpoint to appear much less legitimate, colored as it is by your (family) political motive.
If you are unsure of the degree of rebellion present in your philosophy, it may be a better option to go get a tattoo, pierce the odd body part, and break curfew while you think a little harder about your beliefs before going public. Insincere, pushy and/or self-serving Agnostics are no less off-putting than their religious counterparts.
Whether over religious or secular matters, letting go those apron strings without bruising your butt a little can be downright impossible. In all likelihood, as significant a break from tradition as a change in religious values will result in some pretty painful bruises. They’ll heal; backlash is normal. Expect it.
However, you CAN respect them and yourself at the same time. What it requires of you is developing the ability to:
- State yourself with grace;
- Let go of your attachment to their reaction;
- Then tell them you love them and respect them despite your differences;
- Repeat as necessary;
If there is love in your family, it will sort itself out eventually. And the rough road to harmony can, in the long haul, be beneficial for both you and your parents.
In my family, the experience has been good for all of us, as we have all become more tolerant of differences among people. Even me - I'm more receptive to non-Agnostics than ever, so long as I am not being "witnessed to". One of my favorite friends, these days, is a wonderful Christian woman (25) who is very devout, but who never asks me to change my course or consider hers as an alternative. She's a warm, intelligent and talented person whom I might have dismissed on sight in my younger years. And very much like myself, she believes that her example is far more important than the language of persuasion. I happen to think she’d make a fine Agnostic; she probably thinks I’d make a good Christian. But we respect our differences enough to decline discussing them.
Only you can gauge what your parents/family can bear... just keep in mind that it only gets harder to live a happy life when you force your true feelings and beliefs down under your surface. Just make sure you’re not forcing them down anyone else’s throat.
Fear? Remember this: True courage of conviction is its own reward.
(*Thanks to KMH for posing the question I hope all is as well as can be expected!)