Q. I am a stay-at-home mother of four who has tried to raise my family under the same strong Christian values that I grew up with. Therefore I was shocked when my oldest daughter, "Emily," suddenly announced she had "given up believing in God" and decided to "come out" as an atheist. She said she was "happy" in her decision and that it just "felt right." She no longer wishes to attend church, speak to the pastor or even participate in family prayers.
I love my daughter dearly, but I am troubled by this turn of events. She has never seriously misbehaved or otherwise given me cause to worry before this. Emily insists she is old enough to make up her own mind, but I simply do not think a girl of 16 has the maturity to make such a life-changing decision. Our pastor cautions me that putting too much pressure on her now might cause her to become even more entrenched in her thinking.
How can I help my daughter see that she is making a serious mistake with her life if she chooses to reject her God and her faith? Can I just chalk this up to teenage rebellion, something she's bound to outgrow, or do you suppose this is a precursor to some deeper psychological problem?
A. Please tell me it's not either-or.
And please also tell me what you would have Emily do -- pretend she believes? Pseudo-pray?
This is the fundamental problem with religion as a family value instead of a personal one: Faith isn't in the teachings or rituals of the group. It's in the individual's belief -- with one after another after another combining to create a religion.
Parents can and should teach their beliefs and values, but when a would-be disciple stops believing, it's not a "decision" or "choice" to "reject" church or family or tradition or virtue or whatever else has hitched a cultural ride with faith. The only choice is between living their truth by admitting nonbelief, or faking it so as not to upset the folks/scare the horses/torpedo electability to national office.
So I'll ask again, what would you have nonbelievers do? Lie? Even people who want and try to believe just ... can't. Or don't. I'm living proof. (No nagging psychological problems to pin it on, either.)
This isn't to say every case of disbelief is permanent, or even real. Your daughter may well be in a questioning phase, trying on personas, declaring age-appropriate independence from you, and she might take years to find answers that satisfy her enough to stick.
One of those answers might be that you raised her to think deeply and live honestly, and this is just where those laudable values unexpectedly brought her.
Another might be that she didn't necessarily want to take such a big leap, but you've presented all your kids with such a narrow definition of goodness that their only choices are to conform fully or leave the fold entirely -- and she'd come back in if you gave her a little more room to find goodness in her own way.
Another answer may be for her to discover her faith has been there all along, the long view your pastor seems to be taking. Certainly indicating you're not afraid of Emily's doubts will make a better case for your "Christian values" than will treating her as if she's delinquent or mentally ill. Consider how you view adherents of other faiths, after all -- particularly those who observe as their families taught them to. Imagine if the accidents of birth and geography really were the last word on who's right about God.
If she does rekindle her faith, then her faith will arguably be stronger for her challenging it.
If instead she doesn't return, then you're stuck with the central question I'm pressing here: For those harboring naturally occurring doubts, how to honor the values of a religious upbringing, without perpetrating fraud?
I mean answer in a realistic way, not a wishfully thought, "I just want her to embrace God because it's the right thing to do" way.
Skepticism is no less personal than faith. Accordingly, I speak only for myself, but I didn't throw out what my childhood, including my church, taught me; I still apply what I believe in. I just apply it to a secular life.
To see other possibilities, please bring your values -- all of them -- to this riddle, plus your love for your daughter, as well as further insight from your pastor and others who can bring different perspectives.
Also, take away any obstacles to seeing your daughter's goodness fully -- including your disappointment that she isn't turning out just as you've envisioned. Kids never do; at least, not when your vision is any more specific than "genuine, brave and kind."
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