What to Say and Do When Teens Don’t Believe in God

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When teens say:

“I’m an atheist”

“I don’t believe in God.”

“I’m agnostic.”

Adults think:

“I’ve failed. Its my job to make my (this) kid believe in God. ”

“I may not be in heaven with my son.”

“I thought we raised her right! She was so devout not that long ago and now all of a sudden he doesn’t believe in God. Where did we go wrong?”


What Roy thinks:

“Yaye!!! Here’s an opportunity to really get this teen to think about what he or she believes, why they believe it and what it all means!”

When teens tell me they’re atheist, agnostic or don’t believe,  I smile, and say “Awesome. Tell me more about that.”

Then I listen. And I listen. And I listen some more.

Then, I ask questions. I ask questions of genuine curiosity and really listen to their answers.

What ensues is a series of discussions wherein I do three things cycling them through many times:

  1. Validate
  2. Ask Questions Seeking to Understand
  3. Communicate to the teen what I’m hearing

I don’t rush this process because if I do, the teen will resist and become further entrenched in their “identity.”

Only once I am convinced I have connected to the teen, the teen feels that I “get her”, will I ask more suggestive questions, critical thinking questions and reframing questions (aimed at getting the teen to consider another point of view, or to see the remote plausibility of an alternative point of view). I’ll ask these slowly being careful not to over expose the teen. No one wants to feel stupid. Teens are no exception.

What to Do When Teens say “I don’t believe in God”roypetitfils

Too often when adults dialogue with resistant teens about matters of faith, they are guided by their need to be right, rather than to be effective. If you and the teen both need to be right, then you’ll have no influence on that teen other than to reinforce their mindset that Christian adults are egotistical, narrow minded, antiquated, control freaks who really don’t care about them.

Here are 10 tips to guide you in talking with your teen about their views on God:


  1. Don’t panic and take your time. Influencing doubting, cynical, non-believing teens is a process not an event.
  2. Validate them. It may not be OK with you for them to “not believe in God” but it needs to be OK for them. Remember, God still believes in them and wants them to believe more than you.
  3. Don’t ask leading questions—teens are smart and they know when you’re trying to lead them or trap them and they’ll resent you for it. Then they’ll resist you and those who follow you.
  4. Come from a place of genuine curiosity. When you’re genuinely curious about how a teen has come to believe what he believes, thinks what he thinks they’ll respond favorably.
  5. Allow them to save face. This is critical. So often teens remain entrenched in temporary identities because they don’t want to hear “I told you so” or other more sophisticated adult versions of that, such as a parent saying to another adult “Well, he stopped believing in God but he’s now found his way.” While that sounds innocent, it sounds condescending and patronizing. What if doubting and not believing were his way?
  6. Give up being right. Here’s my gift to you: “You’re right.” Now that is settled. When we come from a place of “But I’m right!” we’ll try too hard convince teens that we are right about something like the existence of God, one of two things is going on: 1) We really don’t believe what we claim as strongly as we claim to believe it or 2) Our ego needs to be right, it needs to win.
  7. Don’t make it about you. Allow your teen to have his own journey with God, even though it may not look like yours and even if it looks so much like yours it scares the hell out of you!
  8. Make Church attendance a part of being in your family. Just because they don’t believe doesn’t mean they get a pass from Community Worship. But you can easily help lower their resistance by saying “I know you don’t believe in God, but this is a family practice. As long as you live in our house, you’ll be a part of family practices.”
  9. Don’t make them go “talk to the priest” unless its something they are really interested in doing or have a relationship with the priest. I’m all about getting teens and clergy together for meaningful dialogue, but too often when parents do this it comes across as “We’ll see about your atheism. Father’s gonna set you straight.” And instead of being set straight, you (and now with Father or the minister’s help) have further entrenched them in their unbelief. If you know the minister or other adult well enough to know they can utilize the approach I’m suggesting, then by all means go for it!
  10. Listen. Listen. When teens resist, its usually because we haven’t listened long and/or well enough. Teens will hear you when they feel heard by you.

4 responses on "What to Say and Do When Teens Don't Believe in God"

  1. Profile photo of Thomas

    I’m with you except on ‘make them go to church’. The kid probably worked up a lot of courage to tell their religious parents that they have shed the dogma that they were raised with, and it most of the responses would be surprisingly refreshing, but wouldn’t it show greater acceptance not not require them to attend religious services? They are probably going through a lot.

  2. Profile photo of Thomas

    They are going to be dealing with that what they were raised to believe by adults that they loved and trusted are misconceptions. This can be a pretty big deal, and it’ll be hard for them not to feel that they were intentionally lied to, and to feel resentful. They are also going to be spending a lot of time rewiring their world view. Making them attend services is only going to increase their resentment towards you.
    It’s better just to let them stay home and in all other regards treat them just the same as you ever have. Let them alone and let them reconstruct their reality free of religious influence. Don’t preach or proselytize and don’t do little passive-aggressive things like give them religious gifts for holidays and their birthday. Ideally all involved will go on living a peaceful life and the teen will be able to, as closely as possible, grow into the mindset of someone who had never been raised religiously and doesn’t quite understand the paradigms.

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