Advice for the Teenage Atheist, with David Seidman

May 04, 2015

There are dozens of bestselling books on spirituality for teens (and many more not on the bestseller list), and many books on atheism as well. But, surprisingly, books about atheism and agnosticism specifically for young people are rare indeed. David Seidman was perplexed by this lack of material for teenagers questioning faith, and that led him to write What If I’m an Atheist? A Teen’s Guide to Exploring a Life Without Religion.

In his conversation with Point of Inquiry’s Lindsay Beyerstein, Seidman discusses several techniques for young nonbelievers as to how best to come out to religious parents, and has advice on such things as dating and fitting into peer groups — all of which are all the more difficult when identifying with a minority belief. Teenagers are rebuilding their identities as adults and losing faith can be isolating and traumatic, making the need for this book long overdue.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, May 4th, 2015. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is David Seidman, author of the new book What If I’m an Atheist, published by Simon and Schuster. David, welcome to the program. 

Thank you so much. Great to be here. 

So you’ve written books on all kinds of topics, on everything from Christmas lights to the culture and nature of Brazil. What was the impetus for you to write a book about atheists and for teenagers? 

Well, I had certainly amount of sympathy for the subject, but I have to admit that part of it was simply looking for work. When you’re a freelancer, you’re always looking for your next assignment. What are your next job of any kind? For sure. And I went and looked at what other bestsellers in nonfiction for teenagers I knew I wanted to write nonfiction for teenagers. And I thought all of these books about religion and spirituality on the bestseller lists. I didn’t know anything for the atheist. And there wasn’t anything. And I don’t mean there wasn’t anything on the best seller list. I mean, there weren’t any nonfiction books for atheist, an agnostic teenagers at all. And I thought, this is wrong. The more I look into it, the more I felt, my goodness, I should say I could write this because I grew up Jewish. And I know what it’s like to have your beliefs be in very much the minority. And it just seemed to fit. And also ever it was researching I was finding out that even though prayer is supposed to be out of school, some schools still do it. Atheists and agnostics are among the least popular religious groups. There are people who say that they would rather vote for a Muslim than for an atheist for president, which in this country at this time, certainly then when it was closer to 9/11, was just shocking to me. This all started around 2006, and it just struck me. It struck such a chord in me that I just kept with it. And now I can tell you how related I am with the book out. 

That’s really great. What was that process like about, you know, sort of approaching a major publishing house and saying, hey, I want to write a sympathetic book about Athie ism for teens? Was that something that was an easy sell or was it something you had to be, you know, more persuasive about? 

It depends on your viewpoint. We had a couple publishers who were interested and even offered contracts and then drop out before we hooked up with young words and Simon Pulse. So we were able to get attention. But get people to commit was not so easy. But fortunately, we ended up with a really good publishing house. 

I got no complaints. Absolutely hit the jackpot. I mean, if it’s a huge thing from the movement that an atheist book for teens is coming out on such a large label. Yes, exactly. When the other publishers turned you down, did they say sort of explicitly pejorative things about atheists? 

Honestly, I don’t really want to get into that for me. If I felt OK, they make their decisions, which may be perfectly fine for them. I don’t want to get into describing the viewpoints of other people who are not here to speak for themselves. It’s just for me, it’s like, well, you know, maybe we’ll do we’ll work together again on some other project. I’ve worked with a lot of publishers. We’ll see what happens. And they were all very nice and very professional about it. It’s just, you know, it just didn’t work out. 

You said that you were raised Jewish. Do you currently identify as atheist? No. 

I’m still Jewish. Private. I have to call myself something of a Jewish agnostic. One of the things I have in the book is, is it possible to be a Christian atheist? It’s possible to be a Jewish atheist. And yes, there are a lot of Jewish atheists out there. I am more agnostic. 

As I say, almost 25 percent of American Jews say that they identify as not believing in God. Yeah. 

So apparently there are a lot of us out there, but I’m more agnostic than atheists when it comes to whether or not there is a God. 

Did you go through a conversion process or a downshifting of religion yourself? 

Yeah, I did. It was very subtle and very slow. It took years. There’s these things can take. And fortunately, I did not go through the kind of agonies that some of the teenagers I write about in the book did for me because my parents were very supportive and because I went through my conversion after my teens and in my 20s, it was very gradual. It was very sort of starting with, OK, well, maybe all of the things that I sold in Hebrew school aren’t true. OK. Some of them are true. Well, maybe not. Maybe. Maybe not. Even some. OK, if you’re true and it’s just kind of rolled along like that, as I looked at the world around me and I tried to determine and this is something that does happen with a lot of people, especially teenagers, that what kind of God allows this kind of suffering? And for me. Well, one of the things in Jewish literacy is there is a lot of praise and thanks to God, which, if you believe in God, is perfectly appropriate. He created the universe. I mean, there’s no end to the thanks and praise you give him for that. But my viewpoint was key to really treating it as if he’s terribly insecure and constantly. To be praised for, he’ll be something terrible. And I thought the creator of the universe can’t be that insecure, Carrie. And so it was things like that induced bounce in me. I feel like really, if there is a God, I just don’t think he’s that insecure. I think he’s got it together. 

Yeah. We hear from a lot of voices of teens themselves who are currently going through this stuff. How do you go about researching the book? 

Well, there are a number of ways through the Web site, friendly atheist, the proprietor of that matter. I wrote to him I know was a very popular site. I liked it a lot myself. And I said, can you read the word that I’m looking for people to interview? And he did. And dozens of people wrote to me and most of them were college age or younger, which was exactly what I wanted. And another way that I found people was simply going online, because so many people have blogs, so many people respond to online forums. And these teenagers and young adults were just pouring out their hearts. And it was sadness or anger or any number of other things. It was just they were wonderfully articulate, wonderfully honest, I felt. And it was just great to get these first person accounts very often while kids were going through these things. I mean, I caught one young man. He was 14 and he said I just became an agnostic today. I just made the decision today as fresh as the dawn. That’s amazing from standpoint of a journalist per share, witnessing something as it happens and getting somebody to report on his life as he’s going through this enormous change. I am very fortunate that young people favorite Grace. 

What were some of the big reasons you talk about in the book about in terms of things that are propelling kids towards atheists and agnostics today? 

Yeah, there’s actually a whole chapter about the whole conversion experience. And there are certain things that do show up over and over. Sometimes it’s that when they’re honestly, genuinely seeking answers and they go to their parents or their minister or whoever, and they will get the unsatisfying answer saying you shouldn’t question these things or it’s God’s will. And they felt very hurt by this, as anybody would. You’re not being snarky. They’re being genuinely sincere. They have serious questions and they feel kind of slapped away. And so that’s another thing. That’s one thing that leads them in that direction. A lot of the time, it’s something of a very serious intellectual process where they have these questions. So they go to reading all sorts of religion or philosophy. It’s like, OK, the religion I grew up with doesn’t have the answers. Maybe somebody else does. And they read up on science and they try all of these things. And again, very much seeking you know, there are a number of Mr. sections about young people that when you become an atheist, you’re just rebelling. And I feel very little of that, except when rebellion was very justified by people feeling oppressed. A lot of the time also people are led to this by their religion, tells them that they should feel guilty or feel ashamed of it for something was perfectly natural, like sexual feelings. And there is a feeling a little like this, it’s too painful. And again, there’s that illogic that comes in. If God is supposed to be loving and merciful and caring, why am I being put through all of these terrible feelings? Yeah, that is not the kind of thing that will lead somebody toward religion. People come at it from all sorts of different ways, but those are some of the most common ones. 

Another really interesting part of the book is sort of practical hints and tips, actually, about how to come out to your parents. What did the teens tell you about stuff that had been helpful to them in terms of just leveling with with their parents about what they now believe? 

Well, one of the things is that some people have done and it’s not easy to do it as carefully as possible in advance. I mean, there’s one young man who said, you know, when I started to have doubts, I went to my parents and fortunately, they listened. They didn’t much care for it, but they listened as I expressed more and more on my doubts than a hardened into convictions. They didn’t like it. I had already kind of laid the groundwork with them so we could do that. And there are certain smaller things. For example, a lot of parents really react very badly just to the word atheist. It’s a triggering word for a lot of people. So the idea is, well, I don’t believe in God or I have my doubts. That’s a lot easier for a parent to take it. And it makes it a lot less likely that a parent will say, all right, that’s it, punishment time or whatever. I checked not just with kids, but with people who deal with angry parents all the time. There are wonderful articles written by teachers and school principals who are constantly dealing with furious parents. And one of the tips that they said over and over and over was, let them talk. Just let them run. Let them rant and lie. They need to if they’re angry or cry or whatever thing, you let them get all the emotion out, because only then they see that you are willing to listen. Only then will they listen to you. But if you try to interrupt them, if you tell them that they’re just completely wrong, they are never happy on your side. And it’s not easy when your parents are ranting at you. Crying or what have you. It’s not easy just to sit there and take it. But it’s a very good way, maybe the best way. And again, because it’s not easy. One of the things I recommend is, OK, your parents stopped when they finally got it all out of their system. Take a break. After we use the bathroom, we’ll get a glass of water or something so that you can calm down after they’ve thrown all of this emotion your way. So, yeah, there are a lot of small tips and and more general things that you can do. I mean, I even include breathing exercises, which I use because I studied up on the for the book. All right. I’m nervous. I don’t agree on whatever. OK. I know how to do free Gretchen. You know, that kind of thing. 

I like the tips from the sales manager about it sort of stage managing your showdown with your parents, like to choosing a semi public place for the car so that, you know, if you’ve got their full attention. 

Exactly. And also going places where they’re comfortable. I think he mentioned, you know, you’re going fishing with your dad or something. Get your parents in a public place where they have to keep their emotions in check because they don’t want to make a scene. Yes, it is very much a matter of this type to the sales manager, this Tavis’s anus in England. He is a father. He is the father of three daughters. And so he has seen this from both side being an atheist himself, but also having raised teenagers in all kinds of practical hints and tips or just. 

Right. I was kind of amused about some of the tips because a lot of them are kind of the mirror image of what parents would do. I mean, when my mom wanted to have a difficult conversation with me when I was a teenager, she would always take me for a long drive in the car. 

Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. It take a long drive. A long walk. 

Absolutely. So again, everything varies from person to person. One of the things they do say is, look, not every one of these tips is going to work for everybody, but look at them, see which ones work for you, modify them as you need them. But these are things that seem to and in fact, have worked for a lot of people as adults. 

We sort of take it for granted that we don’t have to do the religious stuff in our lives. And it’s really about kind of emotional resilience and resolve to just not do things. But for teens, it’s different. They actually do have to deal with forced observance and the fact that these people have a lot of power over them. What kind of recommendations do you have in terms of dealing with that outright coercion that people have in their homes? 

Well, it depends. Some teenagers have negotiated with their parents. It’s like, okay, you say I have to go to church. All right. Do I have to go every Sunday? There are things like that or they will get an advocate’s another relative in the family. But one of the things that was recommended by a therapist whose specialty is teenagers, young adults, she said find out if there is anybody else that your parents will listen to and trust and get that person on your side first. Let’s say that you’re on really good terms with an aunt or uncle. You can go to the aunt or uncle, say, look, mom is your sister. She listens to you. Can you talk her down? She’s really upset. So that’s one way. And sometimes, look, there are things you simply cannot avoid, but a teenager, if going to church or synagogue or what have you is mandatory. And the best thing to do. I see it as. Look, when I was in high school, I hated Jim. Phisit, not my favorite thing. But you go you do your best and you try to stay out of trouble and you just endure it as best you can because the alternative is just making yourself and everybody else miserable, especially yourself. Just go along with it for as long as you have to. And not one minute more. 

How important do you think it is for teens ultimately get to a place where they can be completely honest with their parents about what they believe? One of the writers that’s who influenced my thinking on coming out as atheists is Greta Christina. And she’s really adamant that it’s really important to get to that absolute clarity way if you don’t feel you have doubts or if you don’t feel that you’re spiritual. She’s really adamant that it’s very important to eventually come to that extreme clarity with the people that you love about what you do and don’t believe. What do you think? 

It varies depending on who you are and what their relationship is. There is a young woman, my quote in the book. She says, Look, I love my mother. I respect her. She’s not an idiot. But I just don’t buy her faith. And I haven’t told her this because it would hurt her. On the other hand, I being a hypocrite, not telling her that I am an atheist. That’s in itself a way of disrespecting her. And she was really torn up about this. She said, all right, I’m going to tell her, but not right yet. But it’s very hard if you really love your parents and you don’t want to hurt them, but hiding things or feeling like a liar is really getting to you. But you have to help them. There are other relationships between teens and parents where you think, well, they don’t have to know. These are my thoughts. These are my feelings. I do not have to share them with my parents. I’m a teenager. A lot of things I probably don’t and don’t share. All right. So it really depends on who you are and what your relationship is. My feeling is that if you can tell your parents and you feel that they will not overreact, I think you should, because honesty in any relationship is a good thing. But, boy, the teenagers, one of the things I say is that only you can decide, you know, your parents really, really well. You’ve seen how they reacted when you say brought home bad grades, but unsuitable boyfriend or girlfriend or something. Judge carefully and do your best. And I wish I had throughout this book. I wish that I had exact prescriptions and I use them whenever I could find something I could absolutely depend on, I put it in. But other people’s relationships. That’s a very, very unsteady tightrope. And I hesitate to tell people this is it. This is the only way anybody should ever do anything. An allergy. What a coincidence. It’s my way now. 

It’s on some sort of religious. 

This is his. Yeah, well, that’s one of the things, too, that because the atheist viewpoint is one thing, I don’t want to necessarily buy other people’s doctrines until I looked at it myself. I respect that an enormous amount. And so I say from various points in the book. Here’s the advice I got. Just for yourself. If it is part of it is none of it, because only, you know your life and the people around you. I don’t. I just found what other people have said of work. Other people have been through. And I report that to you. 

What are some strategies that you found in terms of being an out atheist teen in the dating pool? 

It’s tough because you’re in a minority, in an intimate, close relationship. You want to agree with somebody on the things that are most important to you, to most young atheist to talk about that said, no, it’s easier when you’re in a relationship with somebody who thinks the same way you do. It’s possible to have a relationship with somebody who doesn’t, but it makes everything harder, especially if religion is really important to the other person. Dating is tough because you are in a minority and you’re in the minority that still, in some cases a little bit closeted. Dating is never easy. I was barely dated at all in high school because it was just. I think in some cases. Me neither. So then I went to high school where, you know, most of the kids were Jewish. So that wasn’t an issue. Do you add being in a religious minority on top of that? It’s very, very tough. On the other hand, that’s one of the reasons why I believe at least teenagers and college students form atheist clubs at their schools so they can meet other atheists, including maybe so more of the appropriate gender. And very, very cute. 

Definitely. You talk a lot about the legal rights or lack thereof. Yeah. Atheist teens may face at school. What were some of the big things that stood out in terms of the legal landscape these days? 

The legal landscape is very clear. There is not allowed in public schools, period. You cannot have prayer in the school. You cannot have it at school ceremonies like graduation or sporting events, things like that. The law is clear. The performance of people is not because they will continue. Some of them in some areas to put prayer in and will object very strongly if to try to speak up against it. There was this kid, Damon Fowler, Bastrop, Louisiana, Bastrop High School. And he knew that there was always prayer at the high school graduation. He was coming up to high school graduation. And so he didn’t want a prayer. He went to the school board, I believe, and stopped then. Oh, my God. People and students and teachers criticized him publicly when the teacher if he were on a radio station and said this kid’s never contributed anything to school. It was just really awful. And during the graduation ceremony, when it was not only a law, but it had already been affirmed. No prayer. The valedictorian or one of the other student speakers is not going to pray or anyway. And so it’s it’s really tough. And fortunately, there are organizations that will help. The ACLU has stepped in when they’ve been invited and a number of these high school cases and defended these teenagers. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has helped. And that’s one of the main things about the book. You don’t have to do it alone. You can get help. And one of the things that some teenagers have said is that they were surprised. Other students who would come up to them very quietly and say, look, I’m not going to say this publicly. As you know, everybody here is religious, but really certain to have doubts about my own religion. So the numbers are atheists and agnostics still very much in the minority. But you don’t have to be completely alone if you want to stand up for your rights. And they are your legal rights. There are a whole string of laws and Supreme Court decisions backing you up. You have a law on your side and you can have organizations on your side as well. 

And the book contains an appendix that actually tells people how to get in touch with all kinds of organizations. 

Absolutely. I wanted to let teenagers know that. I mean, there is even or has been I’m not certain it’s still have a network of atheists and agnostics who will open their home to runaway atheists who felt that their parents were going to be violent or something. There are therapists who specialize in young atheists and agnostics going through any number of problems, even just normal teenage problems that don’t have anything to do with it. He ism a agnosticism. But if you want a therapist who will see things from your viewpoint, you know it can hurt atheist positive. So, yes, exactly. I wrote a blog post, an essay recently where I said that the book has basically two messages and I don’t make it explicit in the book. It was very much on my mind writing them. And they are there is nothing wrong with you and you are not alone. And that’s absolutely true. Now, again, let me put it this way. There’s nothing wrong with you. If you’re an atheist or a good doctor, you may be a jerk in all sorts of other ways. But when it comes to what you believe or disbelieve, nothing is wrong with you and you are not alone. 

It’s a very strong message if you’re an atheist adult in the life of a teenager and you think that maybe your niece or your nephew or your neighbor’s kid is struggling with nonbelief. Are there any pieces of advice that you might have for approaching them and letting them know that you’d be there to support them? 

It is very, very touchy for an adult to approach somebody else’s child. You can cause all kinds of nasty vibrations within the family. It’s very, very touchy, frankly, for anybody who is an adult to approach a minor on something that is so sensitive. But it comes down to what is your relationship with this person already? I’ll give you an example. My cousins, I’m very close with we had a big family dinner every Friday night when I was growing up. So my cousins all the time and they range from five to 10 years older than me. And if I were having a problem with my parents that I felt I could not talk to my parents house. It wouldn’t have been a big deal for me to go to my cousins to say, look, you’re adults. You know, I’m only 16. Say you’re 21. What do I do if you’ve got somebody like that in your life? That can be enormously helpful. Not everybody has that, unfortunately. 

And maybe that person could serve as that interlocutor you’re talking about earlier. And the person that your parents respect is exactly right. 

So let’s say you are that cousin and you say, oh, my God, my younger cousin is really suffering. Well, if you’ve got that kind of close relationship, you can help them say, hey, if you want to go rough like OnStar. But that doesn’t happen every day. Right. Most adults don’t have a close relationship with most kids. So it’s a very, very touchy thing. It very much depends on your relationship. And also, I would caution any adult, do not, if at all possible, come between a teenager and his parents unless they are being physically violent or otherwise abusive because the parents might get upset and they might take it out on the kid. Mm hmm. It’s a very, very touchy thing. I really hesitate to give anybody advice as to how to help somebody else’s kids. It’s very hard. 

I mean, would you take it as far as not even if you’re just an atheist person, not even wanting to bring up or discuss theism with with kids that, you know, kids will hear about? 

Yeah. It depends on your relationship with the kids and with the parents. A lot of parents are very sensitive, especially if they’re they’re quite religious about. Oh, my God. So to speak. Somebody is this person is going to try to steal my kids away from me spiritually. I don’t want them to try to recruit my kids. I won’t have it. I mean, if a kid comes to you, say, hey, I know you’re an atheist. What’s key about that? Well, again, depending on your relationship with the kid and the parents. That’s a pure personal judgment. But, yeah, it is a very, very difficult thing when you see a kid and you think I could really help but can’t. He really seems to need help and I want to help. And it’s hard to hold back, but sometimes that may be the best course. And I’m sorry to get all mealy mouthed on this, but again, we’re talking about other people’s families. We’re talking about interfering in the life of a minor. And for me, unless I had a very close relationship with that kid or I had a very good reason to believe that he or she was being actively abused, I would play it very carefully, though. 

I mean, in some ways I talk about my fears with strangers. I’ll talk about my fears. And, you know, random people on the Internet just seem sort of strange to be pulling punches around kids just because they’re kids. I mean, Apison isn’t plutonium. 

Well, unfortunately, a lot of parents feel that way. And it’s one thing, honestly. Their own kid do go through a spiritual sitting period which has helped some parents see it is like, OK, it’s a phase or well look, and I was that age. I had doubts about God, too. What do you think could take that? But somebody’s trying to encourage their kids to do this. Some fear for not going to take very kindly to that. I happen to be, by nature, very respectful of other people’s relationship with their kids and the kids’ relationship with the parents. I do not like feeling that I know better than them because I don’t know if their relationship. If the kid were to come to me and say, look, you went about this stuff, you know. You wrote a whole book on it and sincerely wanted advice. Well, sure. But trying to proselytize the kid if he’s not interested. But a lot of atheists don’t like being proselytize by people of religion. And so he don’t wanna be on the other side of that. 

Certainly true. But not all discussion of nonbelief is proselytization. 

Oh, no. Again, this is a discussion. That’s one thing. And if a young man or woman initiates it. Well, fine, sure. But as long as that person is under 18, I would be very, very hesitant. Again, we’re talking about something very abstract. I have known some kids and I close with them and with their family. And I wouldn’t have too much of a problem talking about just about anything. There are other people where I know the parents might object and it might get kids in trouble where I’m just going to keep my distance, keep my eyes open. I’m not going to abandon this young man or woman be as friendly as can be, but I’m not going to get too deeply into something that could be a real point of contention between that young person and his parents, because the parent teacher relationship is tough enough without me coming in and, you know, throwing sandpaper into it. My feeling is that my personal beliefs are my business. A teenager’s personal beliefs, like his or her business, he or she want to talk about initiating a problem, but growing up and initiating the discussion myself. I would not be real comfortable with that. But your mileage may vary. Everybody else, you know, different people, different relationships. And I said I wrote this book for teenagers and everything I put into it. I researched very, very carefully the idea of advising at all what to do when I haven’t done that kind of research. I’m gonna have to beg off on for it. 

We have time for one more question I have to know. How did a nice Jewish agnostic like yourself come to write a book about Christmas lights? 

Oh, because they hired me. There was this publishing house story publishing that had announced they were going to start a line of children’s books. And I thought, well, I write children’s books, all contact and contact. And they said, well, by the time that story became about into the news, into the trade journals, they’d already lined up their writers for the first season of books. But they said, well, you know, we like your stuff, read your samples. You got this book we want to do on Christmas lights once you write a proposal. But it. And they said, yeah, OK, go write this band. I wrote a book about Christmas Lights. I wrote a book about daily life in Iran. And I’ve written a book about ideas. And I enjoy that. I like educating myself in every direction possible. It’s just great fun to go into areas where you don’t know much to become an expert or as much of an expert as you can. I mean, I didn’t drive until I was 30 or until I was 29. I didn’t have a car till I was 30. And when I was about 34, 35, I wrote a book about now star. Wow. So, yeah, it is enormous. Was it a book for kids? Yeah, it was. It was a book for kids. And I went out to the races and had a final time and finding new things to study up on and learn about and begin to show that there is so much fire have widened my mind in ways I never thought I could. 

Well, that’s all the time we have today. Thanks so much for coming on the program. 

I’ll see you a great fun. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.