Cary Tennis is dumber than usual today
And that's really saying something, because his "advice" has created a cottage industry for people who dissect his vapid responses. But today, he's outdone himself, in my opinion.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm taking this personally because I can relate to the letter writer in a way that most people probably can't:
I am a 20-year-old who is attending college full time. I am also an atheist. The problem is, no one knows and I feel like I cannot tell anyone.
For one thing, I attend a Christian-affiliated school that in order to attend I was required to sign a statement of faith. I knew I didn't believe in a god (or specifically, their God) when I signed it, but I did anyway just so there wouldn't be any hassle with the college -- I'm a transfer student and I just want to finish my degree as soon as possible. If I began actually being honest, however, I have a feeling the school would dismiss me.
The other thing preventing me from "coming out" is the number of relationships that seem like they would crumble as a result. My parents and I have never had the best relationship. We've just recently started becoming close, and I don't want to lose that. They are deeply religious, however, and my admitting to be an atheist might tear that fragile bond apart. This past summer I tried having some conversations with them about my changing religious beliefs, and I've never before seen them so angry. While I do not need their approval (there is no way I would claim a belief out of guilt), I also do not need to be alienated from my parents. Then there is all of my friends, who are mostly Christians. They all think I believe likewise, and I haven't really done anything to prevent the thought. I'm afraid that telling the truth about who I am might place a huge distance between me and the ones I love.
I'm really tired of lying and I just want people to know me for who I am. But would announcing my atheism do more damage than good? Should I just remain as I am until I graduate and am out on my own? Or should I be bold and be honest and hope it all works out for the best?
As long-time readers know, I was raised a Jehovah's Witness, and the Witneses practice shunning--they call it disfellowshipping--anyone who leaves the church or who commits sins for which they deem one to be insufficiently repentant. That's me.
When I was a freshman in college, I started to discover that the Witness's teachings and the real world were, well, at odds, and after some soul-searching, left the church. One divorce, two years and three apartments later, the elders of the local congregation tracked me down because someone had seen me smoking a cigarette and confronted me (the Christmas tree in the living room and the girlfriend asleep in my bed were lagniappe), and three weeks later, I was officially cast out. That meant that my family was supposed to cut me off, and my parents did. In the twelve years since then, they've hardly spoken to me.
So I know what this kid is facing. There is no closer community that one can belong to than one of absolute believers, and when you leave that behind, there's a gaping hole to fill. That's terrifying for someone who is established and sure of him or herself as a capable adult, but for a young adult, it's even worse. The fact that he's even considering the consequences of such an action points to, I think, a maturity beyond his years.
So what does Tennis do? He questions the sincerity of the atheist's position, for starters, but then--and this is the unforgivable part to me--raises the dishonest specter of the, as Amanda puts it, straw-atheist.
Since you lied to get into this college, we must also ask about your ethical beliefs. If one were to argue that man or woman is strictly a biochemical process, utterly alone in the universe, utterly free, responsible to no God and no civil authority, then you might argue that lying to the university is perfectly OK. But if you believe that atheists ought to abide by the ethical system of the society they live in, that's a different story. Are you bound by contracts? Do you believe in the authority of civil law? Or might you reject civil law, too, on the grounds that it is rooted in feudalism and Judeo-Christian morality?
One would only argue that first point if one is a sociopath. No atheist I've known, no matter how strident, no matter how Richard Dawkins-ish, has ever made that argument. You know who makes it? People who imagine that, if there actually isn't a god, that humans would magically transform into a bunch of ravening beasts. I mean, when Aaron MacGruder does it, it's funny.
Not so much when people actually mean it. The idea is insulting, frankly, both to atheists and believers (more so to believers, because it turns you folks into a bunch of pathetic, weak-willed creatures living in fear of an invisible daddy figure who says, to quote Kevin Smith, "do it or I'll fucking spank you"). Even I, as strident an atheist as I am, don't think that of believers. I have more respect for you.
Tennis gets one thing exactly right--he says "This is all way over my head." Indeed it is, Cary. Indeed it is. But he also notes, at the end of his column, that "many readers of this column will find your dilemma worthy of serious comment."
So here's my serious comment for the writer. You sound like you have too much going on right now to add this very divisive problem to your plate. Be like the jellyfish on this--let the currents take you where they will. Finish your degree, and move on from the Christian college to whatever pursuits catch your interest. Avoid religious discussion whenever possible--just remove it from your life as much as you can, and wait until you're at a more stable point in your life before making religion an issue with your parents. In short, be very Zen about it, because you'll need that calm place to go to when it does finally become an issue. It won't reduce the pain you feel if your parents don't accept your choice to not believe, but it will help you remain calm during it.