Were you allowed to question things growing up?

I really struggled as a teenager. I knew from a young age that I wasn’t a Christian, even though everyone around me was. I was naturally skeptical and it was just too far-fetched for me. My family didn’t attend church like other families in our small rural community, but I think they still felt the pressure to conform. 

I knew I was different, and that was incredibly difficult. I did a lot of “soul searching” as a teenager trying to find something – anything – that made sense. You can be skeptical and still have big questions about the world around you. I went through a Wicca phase as a teenager, and when I tried to discuss it with my parents, my stepmom flat-out laughed in my face. It really bothered me. Here I was with all this inner turmoil over spirituality and my parents wouldn’t even take my struggles seriously. I felt as though I wasn’t allowed to question anything, and that was extremely frustrating. I was a smart kid with lots of curiosity but I felt like everyone was just trying to shut me down. It was hard not to view my family as small-minded after that, but I think more than anything they were just concerned about their image.

You can’t blame them. It’s hard living in a small town, and to be honest, I was an angry teenager and thought everyone in that town was small-minded. But deep down, I think a lot of people questioned things back home but they wouldn’t dare admit to it out of fear of ridicule. Conformity was the name of the game and I wanted out. I didn’t fit in, but thankfully as I got older, I didn’t care.

Fast forward twenty-five years and now I’m an atheist…and a mom. My daughter is seven and full of curiosity. We really encourage her to explore. She asks questions (lots and lots of questions) and my husband and I give her straightforward answers trying not to push her one way or the other. We stress common sense and she will eventually come to her own conclusions, and we will be there to support her every step of the way. I don’t ever want my daughter to feel the frustration I felt growing up. “Soul searching” is allowed and completely normal…even encouraged. There are so many things from my childhood that I want my daughter to experience differently. Growing up, I just wanted someone to hear me. I never want my daughter to feel like she doesn’t have a voice. 

I think all parents want their kids to have a healthier childhood than they had, and we all learn from our parents’ missteps. 

I am curious…were you allowed to question things growing up? We are all familiar with religious indoctrination, but if you grew up in a secular home, were you pushed in that direction? Did your parents have discussions and answer your questions? Were you allowed to make your own conclusions? If you were raised in a religious home, how did you finally break free? If you are a parent, are there things you are doing differently than your own parents did?


  1. Ada Christine says

    I was raised in a home with a single, uninvolved parent. I was mostly resistant to going to church and eventually managed to stop going. I didn’t have any family-based indoctrination. We live in a country with famously low levels of religious adherence and our daughter doesn’t really seem to care one way or another about religion. She doesn’t even really ask about it. It’s not a factor in her life. She has more interesting things she’s worried about like art and comic books anyway.

  2. Katydid says

    When you talk about growing up in the midwest, it really highlights what a constricted, conformist life it must be.

    As a military brat, I lived in 6 different countries, 2 American territories, and 3 U.S. states by the time I was 18. In a military environment, the kids are constantly being mixed with other military kids and the local kids, and exposed to the local culture via school and outside activities.

    In such an environment, it’s expected that kids will ask questions and absorb different ways of thinking and doing things. That’s the way my spouse and I raised our kids even though they were started school and were raised in the same state their entire lives.

    As for religion, my family was nominally Lutheran but I don’t recall ever living anywhere with a Lutheran church nearby–not that my parents were church-going, anyway. My mom used Catholic religious classes as free babysitting and occasionally we went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the local and/or on-base Catholic church because even in the 1970s – 1980s, the Baptist church was just too fundy.


    My parents were both raised in a Christian sect, met at a small religious college, and part of the attraction was that they were both smart and fed up with the religion. During my childhood my dad said a prayer before dinner (always the same quick mumble) because my mom wanted it, and mom read us bible stories, so I arrived at high school knowing the Bible better than all but the guy who was planning on being a minister. But I didn’t feel pressured in any direction over religion, and our moral education was not based on threats of hellfire. It can be done.

  4. John Morales says

    ” I knew from a young age that I wasn’t a Christian, even though everyone around me was.”

    I do not doubt your perception or your recollection, but I doubt you’re that special.

    Like gay people were back in the day, so were many atheists closeted, even to their friends.

    (loose lips sink ships and all that)

  5. VolcanoMan says

    [sorry about the length of this post – truly, I just had a lot to say on this topic]

    Growing up, I was really lucky. My parents aren’t perfect, but I think they both understood that kids, and especially teenagers needs to try on identities to see what fits. So, for example, when I went through my Ayn Rand phase in high school, they accepted it, but also gently pushed back, taking what I was saying at face value and asking pointed questions designed to get ME to ask questions and see the flaws in the arguments I had appropriated (which could have taken me a long time to work out on my own). This was good, because it taught me how to argue in good faith, but it was bad too, because at the time, I never realized that a) not everyone argues in good faith, and b) that not everyone will give me the benefit of the doubt that I myself am doing so. Peoples’ experience colours their perception of a person they don’t know. I like to be right…which means I have changed my mind on countless issues in my life. I have fairly immutable values (see note at the bottom of this post for specifics), but little loyalty to ideas and opinions, except insofar as they allow me to better live my values. So I change my mind A LOT (or at least I have, historically…I like to think I have gotten closer to the Platonic best version of ideas and opinions that reflect my values with time, so I probably change my mind a bit less nowadays), and see no shame in admitting I was wrong about something.

    Regarding religion specifically, neither of my parents has ever seriously followed a particular faith, at least not in my lifetime. I know my father doesn’t believe in a god, and he has always been fairly uninterested in anything religious. His parents were nominal Christians in his childhood, but even then, they were what I’d call EXTREMELY lapsed. So I think he views religions as maybe having some utility (possibly offering some people something that they need), but he hasn’t personally felt the need to explore any faith enough to have a more educated opinion of its true value (or lack thereof)…it is alien to his human experience. My mother grew up in a more religious household. Her mother was Ukrainian Catholic, and both her parents sometimes attended a local United Church on Sunday. She also went to a Catholic private school for her high school years (but not because it was Catholic – it was a good school, within her parents’ budget). I don’t know how much actual religious instruction she got there (by actual nuns, apparently), but whatever it was, it didn’t stick. She is what I’d call agnostic on the question of gods…they may or may not exist, she doesn’t know, and she clearly doesn’t believe the answer to the question is important enough to spend any of her time or energy determining…because she never displayed any religious curiosity in my entire life.

    However, my own school (I attended the same one, from grades 1 to 12) was also nominally religious (Anglican), so I did sometimes come home with specific questions about something I’d heard there. In the ’80s and ’90s (when I attended), while we didn’t receive any active religious instruction, we got a lot of passive Protestantism. Every morning there was a mandatory assembly of grades 1 to 7, wherein a hymn was sung, a prayer was said (they alternated between two standard prayers – we memorized both “The Lord’s Prayer” and what I have since learned is “The Prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola” – you know, “teach us good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest, etc.”), and a short Bible reading was read by a student (before announcements were made, and we were dismissed to start our classes) – we all had to be that student approximately once every two or three years (my first real public speaking experience). Having never had any religious education up to this point, I had to learn the social procedures for participating in these rituals, and found it fascinating at how some kids really took them seriously, while for others, they were basically a joke. Religion just seemed…foreign, something that some people participated in, and maybe that was for them, but I never felt really connected to that particular phenomenon. I guess you could say I became a “believer” (in a vaguely Christian god) by default (because adults I trusted seemed to believe thusly), but never by practise. It was just…there. We didn’t go to church, and didn’t really talk about religion much at home. And while the religious nature of my school seriously decreased in secondary school, I never really thought much about it. I was too busy with other things.

    This attitude of “meh” continued until university. There, I went through a fairly hardcore Christian phase. I was a loner as a kid, and while I am still fairly comfortable being so, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy having a community, and the Christians with whom I interacted were good for my social development (I think). It all started fairly innocuously, but a summer working with disabled kids at various local summer camps (some of which were explicitly faith-based) exposed me to more extreme versions of the religion, and I went to an evangelical church for a short period thereafter. I know my parents were privately like…”wtf? seriously? This is happening?!” But they let me explore, and I did. I did ditch those crazy non-denoms within a few months for what I’d call a progressive Pentecostal church. There was no speaking in tongues or any of that nonsense…services were fairly normal (no altar calls even), except they had a rock band backing their morning hymns on Sunday (that was the only similarity with the non-denom nutcase church I abandoned). One of the professors at my university was even a pastor there, and he was a rational, scientifically-minded (he taught chemistry), evolution-believing type of guy, who still had strong religious faith…so I thought I could model my own religious practise after him. I joined said rock band (me with my epic seven-string metal guitar and effects pedals) and remained a member for almost 2 years. But I wanted the truth, so I explored deeper and deeper, looking into the religion and its history, their reasons for belief, and counter-arguments to those reasons. And I think they all could see I was falling away, but they didn’t try to stop me. I stuck around mainly to keep playing the music weekly, but eventually even stopped doing that. But at no point in my faith journey was I ever really, explicitly discouraged from asking questions (although the non-denominational evangelical church probably would have tried to shut down my questioning if I’d stuck around…they were true believers, thinking that the Rapture was around the corner, etc….and even at that point in my life, I could tell that their brand of religion wouldn’t work for me). Like I said…I was lucky.

    To conclude this essay (ugh, I just can’t help myself sometimes), I have gone through cycles of conformity, questioning, education, and changing my mind on any number of issues. The questioning is easy. Developing the critical mind to assess the value of an information source from which I could seek education (whether the source supported my current beliefs or contradicted them) was harder, but I think I’m pretty good at it now. And I think this is because I have had enough experience with seriously questionable sources, found myself susceptible to their persuasions for a period of time, and eventually learned from my mistakes in doing so. To me, that is the more important factor in building up an authentic self. Anyone can seek to change themself through questioning what they “know,” and exploring what others claim. But finding ways to sort the wheat from the chaff and not being sidetracked by natural cognitive biases…that’s the real challenge. You have to go down the wrong path dozens of times before you start to learn how to identify those paths and stop wasting your time with them.

    Note regarding values: I value learning (both from indirect sources like books and the internet, and from directly experiencing things) above almost anything else. But I also have learned (heh) that there are vested interests that determine what is worth learning, and what is not, and so I now approach things that are supposed to further knowledge (or promote learning in other ways) more carefully, knowing that how knowledge is acquired and WHO it benefits are extremely important facets of the learning equation. For example, I recently watched a YouTube video about the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) which is still planned to be built on Mauna Kea’s summit in Hawai’i, and went in with the belief that whatever knowledge that telescope creates probably outweighs the harms of the continuing colonial project it represents. And I changed my mind. Because I also value equality and fairness, and the people who should determine whether this project goes ahead in Hawai’i were not given the opportunity to approve or veto it, or otherwise set limits on how it is built, used, and eventually removed from the landscape when it finally stops being useful. You know…Hawai’ians. The people whose ancestors navigated the Pacific by the stars in their small outrigger canoes, finding dozens of islands, and setting up societies that lasted the better part of a millennium. The people who never really had a choice in their land being appropriated for military and touristic use by the US government should get a choice now. So how I balance my sometimes competing values changes with time (and with hearing the right arguments from the right person), even if the base values do not.

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    My parents were religious but stopped going to church when I was 14 because we had moved to an isolated wilderness town without a church of our denomination. The following year, because of the lack of a local high school, I was sent off to live with my Mom’s cousin who had kids my age. They were much more religious than my family, even having bible study every morning at breakfast. I was already skeptical about Christianity and began asking a lot of tough questions. I drove one youth pastor to frustration and he finally gave up saying there are just some things we aren’t meant to know. To which I responded with one more question: “Then why did God give us curiosity?”

    A year later my family moved to a larger town and I returned home. My Mom later told me that her cousin told her that they were grateful for my time there and my questions because it made their kids become more thoughtful about their faith and not just be default Christians, simply accepting what they were told.

  7. ST says

    Religion for me growing up was something other people did, we didn’t actively practise anything ritualistically except for birthdays, gathering of spring flowers, and doing the child associated things for the western seasonal holidays in a non-religious way (e.g. painting eggs at easter, presents for winter holidays, fireworks for new year etc). I had access to a childrens bible but also to things like the Moongate collection* and I think I viewed all these stories in a similar vein. Other than that I grew up around people of several different religions and ways of life and they were never discussed in a judgy way as if one were better than another. I think the combination of books and real life exposure probably did more to make me who I am than any answers to any questions I asked but I might be wrong.

    My main issues regarding belief were my mothers belief in homeopathy. The fact I am still alive is clear proof it doesn’t work because I used to get fed spoonfuls of homeopathic belladonna to ‘fix me’ or whatever.

    * https://www.goodreads.com/series/370237-moongate-collection

  8. kenbakermn says

    I was allowed to question things but I learned at a pretty young age most adults’ answer were unreliable. I mean, when they condescended to answer an annoying little kid at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *