God Squad: Dealing with an atheist teen son

God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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What can you say to a 16-year-old boy who's an atheist? My wife and I were both brought up as Catholics, and we raised our two sons that way. They had all the appropriate sacraments -- baptism, first Communion, confirmation, etc.

After the younger son, who's now declared himself an atheist, made his confirmation, we gave both boys some leeway in regard to attending Mass. While my wife was raised to think of herself as Catholic, in truth she does not practice and neither did her family. My family and upbringing were much more religious, but we also were allowed to go our own way after confirmation.

To be honest, my wife and I rarely attend Mass now or participate in any of the sacraments. I consider myself more "spiritual" than Catholic. I wouldn't mind if my 16-year-old had some belief in a higher power, but he has none and dismisses the idea as nonsense. He's very close to his biology teacher and believes strongly in Darwinism and evolution. He completely dismisses any concept of "intelligent design." My son is a bright child with a very logical mind and is a good debater. I'm at a loss as to how to debate the issue with him, but I wish, for his own sake, that he were open to the idea of a higher power.

-- C., a concerned father, via email

Living with atheists is a good thing for religious people, just as living with religious people is a good thing for atheists. Our beliefs are sharpened and refined in the heat of dialogue (just so long as nobody throws things). This is all good.

If you were not talking about God and the meaning of human existence with your son, you'd probably be talking about who just got kicked off the island on some reality show. You're deep in the theological weeds with your son, but they are beautiful and important weeds.

In addition to being grateful rather than exasperated by your son's lack of piety, you're learning a valuable lesson in patience and forbearance. It's important for your son to feel you respect his intellectual and spiritual journey, whether it corresponds to yours or not. Neither God nor life is through with your son or you. Hang in there.

Your predicament offers you an opportunity to reflect on why and how we change our beliefs. When I've changed my own beliefs, it hasn't been because someone has offered me a better argument, but rather because I've seen in them a better life.

My deepest transformations have occurred most often because of some experience or friendship, or the life lessons of a loving family member. So the best argument you could offer to your son about why he should believe in God would be the way you live.

If he can witness in your generosity and forgiveness, your kindness and compassion the results of a pious life lived in an impious world, he might want to have the same qualities in his life.

Even though arguments about God don't have much impact either way, there is one argument I employ often when talking to atheists, and it is also great for believers. I will ask the person, "What is the source of your hope? Is there something in the way you view your place in the world that gives you a reason to get up in the morning and try to make the world a better place?" If your world view does that for you, I couldn't care less if it uses the word God. If you have no hope that the sun will shine tomorrow, then you need something beyond yourself to need you, to inspire you and to save you from a world in which, as Camus wrote, "The meaning of life is just that it ends." Finally, I would encourage you to revisit your decision to allow your sons to stop going to Mass with the family after confirmation. Such family outings produce strong bonds that are valuable beyond the theological meaning of the service. I think that at your son's age, and given the level of parental support you've shown him, you have the right to expect church attendance for a few more years. Even if he doesn't find God in church, he will find you, and that's a very good thing.

Good luck in raising your son,

a task for which there are no user manuals. Thank God he has his health and his moral compass is properly aligned.

 

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