Atheist Group or Religious Group—Which is More Harmful?

June 2, 2009

A mother writes to     Dear Margo   that her college daughter who was raised with Christian beliefs has joined an atheist club.   Her father has refused to let her in the house and threatened to call the FBI.  Her mother has tried to cure her by praying over her at night while she is asleep, enlisted friends in a phone prayer tree, and spoken to a priest about the possibility of an exorcism.  

My first thought was that if she were my daughter, I would rather she join an atheist club than to get involved with the religious groups that prey on college students.   When I was doing my practicum for my graduate degee in counseling, I had a young man as a client who had been involved with an extremist religious group since high school (He grew up in a college town so was introduced to it before he went to college.).   As a college senior being a very intelligent young man who had taken science and philosophy classes, he had begun to question the teachings of this group and decided to leave it.

The first night I saw him, he was suicidal.   He had lost all his friends and his value system.  He did not know how to make decisions in even simple moral situations. I saw him once a week over the course of a semester.  We worked on making decisions based on evaluating the situation and looking at the benefits and consequences.   When the semester was over, I asked him if he wanted another graduate student to take over his sessions and he said that he thought he was OK without further help.   I was happy to see his name on the graduation list at the same time as mine.

During that time, I discovered a letter in the Butler Collegian (November 8, 1989) which was signed by the campus ministers representing Baptist Student Union, Campus Crusade for Christ, University Park Christian Church,  Luthern Campus Ministry, Butler Newman Center, Fairview Presbyterian church, and Trinity Episcopal Church.  In this letter they warned students to be wary of any person or group which does the following:

offers you simple answers and quick solutions

maintains that only they have the truth

tries to prevent you from asking questions

suggests that you must choose between God and family, or God and school

is vague or evasive about its beliefs or organization

uses guilt to motivate you

tells you what God wants you to do

tells you that if you leave the group it means you are rejecting God

invites you to explore your spiritual life in a way that violates human freedom and dignity

At the time, I was also teaching a class at a high school for students being trained to tutor and listen to other students.  I passed a copy out to this class for discussion purposes.  One of the students said, "That sounds like the Catholic church."   You can believe that as a public school teacher I did not touch that comment!!!! 

How would the parents of the young lady in the letter to   Dear Margo have reacted had their daughter told them she was involved with a Christian group?    Is it as my father once said, "People will believe anything if you call it religion?"  So is it OK if it is called religion but not OK if the group is atheist?  It seems that the atheist group will be the opposite of the warning signs listed above. They cetainly won’t offer simple answers and quick solutions.  They will probably elicit more questions than they have answers to offer. These parents should be happy that their daughter is a questioner instead of a blind follower.