Dear Captain Awkward:
I’ve been a closet atheist for almost five years, and it’s getting kind of stuffy in here.
Here’s some background: I’m a Dawoodi Bohra Muslim, which is sort of like the Muslim equivalent of the Catholic Church, only smaller. We have organized clergy, a pope-like figure, etc, etc. My parents are devout. Most of immediate relatives are devout, with the exception of my dad’s family, whom I am no longer close to thanks to a lot of drama. My closest friend is devout.
There are a long list of reasons why I’m afraid to tell the truth to anyone:
1) I’m a freshman in college and dependent financially on my parents. If I tell them, they could do anything from disowning me to forcing me to live at home to sending me to India to attend some sort of religious camp.
2) I might lose people I love — my friends, my family.
3) My relationship with my parents would be ruined. My mom and I have always had a rocky relationship. She’s been pushing me for the past two summers to attend a Muslim-aimed speed dating camp, and urges me to try and get engaged before I turn twenty-two. She’s obsessed with me getting my face waxed, something I hate (I honestly am unbothered by my mustache.) She thinks I dress poorly — things are too tight or too loose, my breasts (which are prominent) are too showy and I need to think about not shaming myself. She’s pretty sure I have some kind of hormone problem (my mom is a physician) but has never made any effort to get me treatment. And her response to anything I do that reveals my rather liberal social views: “Are you a lesbian?” She’d freak if I tried to date, but she’s forever trying to get me to confirm I like boys.
On the other hand…
1) I have a history of depression which manifests in ways that affect my performance academically and socially and included suicidal ideations. My parents are aware of this, but they ruined my first attempts at therapy and they’ve never been able to support me. My mom talks to me about it once every few months, which ends in a crying declaration of support, but the rest of the time it only comes up when she’s warning me not to take any antidepressants. (Sidenote: reading your blog inspired me to start seeing a therapist while at school again. Thank you.) My father honestly believes that once I achieve some sort of spiritual realization all my problems will vanish. My therapist thinks that my depression currently might be linked to the stress of lying.
2) I stop actually practicing my religion a long time ago. Now I’m only faking it. Is it morally wrong to keep pretending?
3) The longer I keep this up, the more pressures are going to appear: my parents are already planning our pilgrimage to Iraq this summer and pushing me to go to speed dating camp this summer. I want to have my own life, and it’ll be hard to have the life I want if I have to pretend to be a good Muslim.
What do I do?
I am so sorry you are going through this. And very glad you have a therapist at school to help you. You cannot live truthfully with the people who should love and support you the most: No wonder you are depressed!
I do not think it is morally wrong for you to go through the motions of your religion while you are dependent on your parents. Many, many young people (including 18-year-old me who was confirmed in the Catholic Church while silently thinking to myself “soon you will not have to pretend you believe this” on the actual altar during the actual ceremony) have to pay lip service to their parents’ religion on their way out of the house and into independent living.
However we all feel about religion, can we agree that it is almost always a total accident of birth? You were born where you were born to these particular parents, so your religion is X, but if you had been born in a different place to different parents your religion would have been Y. People who are willing to coerce you – emotionally, economically – around matters of the eternal soul (or, er, whatever) are asking to be lied to because they don’t offer you any safe alternatives. So a lot of what I have to say about your situation is 1) keep your head down until you are done with college 2) make a plan for how you will support yourself financially after college and if your parents withdraw their support, 3) find friends and safe spaces where you can be authentically yourself. And when you are supposed to be praying, try…praying. “Help me to be strong and brave and to find a way to be truly who I am” is a good think to ask for from life – it doesn’t have to be directed at a God you don’t believe in to give you comfort and courage.
I also think your relationship with your mom would be rocky even if religion weren’t involved. Since she is a doctor, she must know that you should be seen by a doctor who is not her to diagnose any hormonal problems (and possibly prescribe antidepressants), and it is controlling and medically ill-advised to think she can solve your possible medical issues by what…waving her hands and ignoring them?
Put into place a worst-case scenario plan. Worst case scenario: One day you can’t take it anymore and blurt out “I’m an atheist, Mom and Dad” and they decide they are going to ship you somewhere to marry you off or pull you out of school or something else dramatic – whatever your worst fear is. Work with your therapist and your school and your friends (not the really devout one) to put into place things like financial aid, a place to stay, and a short-term plan that keeps you safe and where you want to be. Having the plan in place might help keep you sane while you go through the motions.
Where I think you should fight (FIGHT!) is on the question of getting married. Don’t let them marry you to anyone. ESPECIALLY don’t let them marry you to anyone “back home.” Consider all suitors (if you must go through the motions for now), but find a reason to reject all of them.
I have two other pieces of advice for you that may seem counter-intuitive but may help you out:
1) If you can, reach out to your father’s family. And/or your extended family. Somewhere in there you might have the aunt-who-rebelled or the awesome cousins who can be allies for you if you need them. Look for mentors outside of your family as well.
2) Consider speed-dating camp! Several reasons:
- Think of it as a spy mission! You can write about it later. “The atheist’s survival guide to religious speed-dating camp!”
- Statistically, somewhere at that camp are other young people who feel as you do. I think you might find allies there, both men and women, who do NOT want to be engaged by the time they are 22, who are being forced their by their parents just as you are.
- It does not take place at your house, which means you get some time out of your house this summer, yes?
- It looks like you are trying to make your parents happy, which you can use later. “I tried speed dating camp like you said, but I didn’t meet anyone. I don’t want to get married right now, can we agree to back off this question until I’ve graduated school?”
3) Look out for your safety. Be very careful about covering your tracks on any shared computer (use “Private Browsing” and “Clear History” liberally, etc.) Delete your text messages and voice mails regularly. Where is your passport and birth certificate? Make sure that you have access to and control of your documents. Squirrel away as much money as you can in accounts your parents do not have access to.
I’m sorry, I don’t think there is a magic awesome way that this will all work out for the best. I think having the life you want will come at the expense of your parents’ approval and support, and with some hardships that you would not have had otherwise, both financial and emotional.
I can tell you, however, that it is possible to live without your parents’ approval. You leave home, you get a job, you support yourself, and you find other people to be your “chosen family.” And it is possible perhaps to make some kind of peace down the road, once some time has gone by and you’ve had a chance to totally reset the relationship. Sometimes things have to break all the way in order to heal clean.
Where are my “Grew Up in Conservative Religious Households” readers at? Today’s Letter Writer could sure use your stories, lessons, and courage until I get the funding I need to build that Home for Wayward Girls I’ve been meaning to open.