The author of dozens of books on a large variety of subjects, David Seidman’s latest endeavor focuses on helping teens navigate a life without religion. Here is my interview with him about his book, “What If I’m a(n) Atheist: A Teen’s Guide To Exploring A Life Without Religion”
What motivated you to write a book for teens about atheism?
A lot of things.
I was finishing the writing of another book and didn’t have another one lined up. I like writing nonfiction for teenagers and young adults — YAs in publishing-business jargon — so I checked out the bestseller lists for YA nonfiction to see if they would spark an idea. A lot of the books on the lists seemed to be about religion and spirituality, and I thought, “But what about the atheist kids?”
There was nothing for them. I don’t mean nothing on the bestseller lists; I mean virtually no books at all. And that struck me as, well, wrong.
So I started researching, and I found myself feeling a lot of empathy for teenage atheists and agnostics. As someone raised Jewish, I know what it’s like to be in the religious minority. As someone who’s undergone his own deconversion (I consider myself a Jewish agnostic), I felt for the kids when they described their experiences.
But the main motivation was: This book could help. A lot of kids seemed to feel lonely or alienated in their views about spirituality and religion. A book that would tell them that they’re not alone and that there’s nothing wrong with them — and guide them to safe, practical ways to handle challenges like how to reveal their atheism to their parents — well, it could do a lot of good. And I hope it does.
In the book, you make it clear that theists are also a target audience; what has the reaction been so far from theists who have read your book?
There hasn’t been much yet. I’ve seen a few reviews, and they don’t have much sympathy for the book (I didn’t expect them to), but no one’s been thundering that I’ll go to hell for corrupting the youth of America. It’s a little disappointing, actually; every author likes a bit of controversy.
How did you decide who to quote and who not to quote?
It was a two-step process. I organized the research by topic and then looked for quotes that presented the clearest, most interesting statements about each topic. I tended to ignore quotes that were vague, bland or confusing.
Was there a particular quote from someone that really resonated with you? I mean a quote that as soon as you read it or heard it you said, “I need that in my book.”
From Matt, age 17, on whether he should call himself an atheist or agnostic or some other name: “I don’t really wanna call myself anything or give myself a label. I just wanna live my life.”
From Mickey, a Mormon high-school student, on her atheist friend: “I have actually had a lot of people ask me if it’s weird to be such close friends with [an atheist], because our faiths are so different, and honestly I don’t think it is! In fact, I think it makes us closer.”
From Luis, a 17-year-old from Tennessee, on people who’d find it weird or objectionable that he likes Christmas: “Nobody has a right to tell me what I can and can’t do on December 25th. . . . I celebrate Christmas because I believe in the messages it brings. Peace on Earth, good will toward man, all of it.”
And Stephen Colbert’s joke, “Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?”
In preparing to write this book, you spoke with a lot of young people. Briefly, what was one of the most heart-breaking tales you heard and what was one of the most uplifting stories?
The saddest story may be that of Damon Fowler. (I didn’t interview him, but I read things that he and those who know him have written and said.) He objected to the use of the Lord’s Prayer at his high-school graduation; as a result, his teachers, his fellow students, and even his parents criticized and rejected him. Damon seems to have come out of it all right — he’s become a fighter for atheist rights — but what an awful way to treat a kid who had done nothing wrong and in fact had done everything right.
The most heartwarming story is probably that of Joaquin, another high-school student. He put up a display in his school’s cafeteria, inviting students to join him and other atheists in the school’s new club for unbelievers. Some kids called the club members immoral, some got loud (one shouted, “That’s bullshit! If there’s no God, how you breathin’?”), and others pushed him and his display table backwards. Surprisingly, though, most of the students were very nice. “Throughout the entire day, close Christian friends came by and gave us high fives, hugs, and bro fists,” Joaquin said. I’m a sentimental sucker for that sort of thing, when people who disagree can still be friends.
Were there any stories that you heard that you decided not to put in the book because they might have negative consequences for the teen?
I don’t think so. When I thought that something in the book could get a kid in trouble, I smudged his or her identity, giving him or her a different name and leaving out other identifying details.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
The two major messages for young unbelievers are: You are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. Beyond that, the book has lots of practical advice about how to live an an unbeliever in a world full of believers — and a few jokes, some celebrities, an unbeliever music playlist, and a bunch of other good stuff.
Thanks you again for taking to time to answer my questions.
David Seidman’s book, “What If I’m a(n) Atheist: A Teen’s Guide To Exploring A Life Without Religion” is available on Amazon.com and anywhere else books are sold. Learn more about the book at WhatIfImAnAtheist.com
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