HomeschoolBill, a 17-year-old homeschooled in the south by conservative, Southern Baptist parents, recently sought out help on Reddit in understanding climate change, which his parents had "taught against." The Reddit community responded with exhaustive explanations of the science, reading recommendations and even personal advice for dealing with his parents. I tracked down Bill to see if the responses had persuaded him once and for all that climate change was real. He told me they had, and furthermore that his conversion on the issue started with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who he now supports for president.
Bill—whose real name is being withheld at his parents' request—said his parents taught him that climate change was a Democratic ploy, evolution is just a theory and other beliefs that fall under the curriculum of “tough and stereotypical Christian conservatives,” in his words.
He told me he started seeking out his own information on websites like Reddit after recognizing his parents' teachings for what they really are: heavily biased and determined by their religious beliefs and the external influences they choose to expose themselves to.
For instance, Bill said the notion of climate change "goes against their conservative ideals, which really means they believed what the conservative media fed them."
"They would tell me how it's just made up so the Democrats can win elections based on fear, and up until four months ago I believed them word for word," Bill said.
This is unsurprising considering the extremely limited access to outside sources of information that he had.
“I spent my entire childhood being very sheltered,” Bill told me from his house, which he described as being in a small town in the middle of nowhere. “I haven’t really seen any movies, I don’t watch television because we don’t have television out here.”
Ask for help in the library, and you shall receive
In order for Bill to study up on topics that fall outside of his parents' curriculum he has to wait for trips to the library, which he takes every few weeks.
“For me to get information on anything that deals with science that my parents think is wrong or not factual according to their beliefs, I have to go to the library,” he said.
He spent some seven hours one day in mid-October at the library reading and the watching videos that the environment subreddit users suggested would help him understand the science of climate change. He said the comments were amazingly helpful, and that everyone was so nice about it.
“They didn't bash my parents, which they had every right to, but gave insightful and helpful links,” he said. “It was really a lot of support for somebody who wanted to know what was really happening and the full truth.”
Bill doesn’t just want to understand climate change for himself—he also wants to have an open dialogue about it with his parents. Judging from our discussion, engaging in thoughtful conversation about even unwelcome topics is something Bill values as well as something his parents have come to respect.
Bill told me he recently brought up gay marriage with his parents. He has some homosexual relatives that he’s always felt he's been more accepting of than his parents have.
“So throughout the process of me aging and gaining more maturity, I saw this as a point to bring up to them,” he said. “Just because our beliefs are different doesn’t mean we should deny them something that’s, like, a civil right.”
He said his parents appreciated him bringing it up with them in an "intelligent conversation," and that even if it didn’t change their minds, they accepted his views. He hopes for something similar when discussing climate change with his folks. In anticipation of this undertaking he's printed out 20 pages of information from the library that he plans to use to “walk them through” the subject.
The most surprising aspect of Bill's conversion on climate change is not that he wants to confront his parents, but that what incited it was Bernie Sanders’s statement earlier this year that climate change was one of the country’s top priorities. So far in his presidential run, Sanders has made a habit of calling out climate change as a key issue.
Bill said after he saw everyone on Reddit talking about Sanders’s statement on climate change he thought, “OK, well, what’s that? Cause I always thought it was, you know, not true.”
His research piqued his interest even more. One day shortly thereafter he asked his mom about global warming, who responded that it was “completely not true," according to him.
His parents had always taught him that God controls the weather and other related things like the climate, which would include greenhouse gas emissions. In the past Bill had accepted their word as the final one.
This time he wasn’t persuaded, but at the same time he was very confused. Lacking even a rudimentary education in the greenhouse effect, he was unprepared to describe climate change in the most basic of terms. So he turned back to Reddit.
Bill said what he’s found to be the most convincing argument so far is that more than 90% of scientists agree that humans are causing climate change through a rise in atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels. The more frequently cited factoid is that 97% of climate scientists agree that "climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities," according to NASA.
With politics as side note, science and religion can coexist
A similar internal conversion has started to take place with evolution for Bill, which along with climate change he has been trying to “make a decision based on both sides of the argument instead of just one side” over the course of the last year.
He said he fully believes in animal evolution but hasn’t quite wrapped his head around human evolution, though he envisions the pieces fitting together soon. He said he thinks Christians of his generation are in general starting to become more accepting and understanding of other people’s views, even if they conflict with their own.
This has started to bubble up in their politics as well.
“There's a notion that you know, you're a Christian you should vote Republican,” said Bill. “And I think that doesn't really matter because there's nowhere in the Bible that says you have to vote for someone in particular.”
For instance, rather than feel ingratiated during a recent Republican debate, Bill felt alienated. He said he’s been feeling that the Democratic socialism espoused by Bernie Sanders is what we need to pursue as a country “to really help ourselves.”
"It'll be the first time I'm able to vote and I think I'm voting for Bernie Sanders," he said.
The Republican position in the broader political Zeitgeist and the GOP's seeming politicization of everything also grate at him.
“I just feel like it gets under my skin now seeing someone deny something that's been proven,” he said. “And then again to just go against human rights and marriage and abortion and stuff like that, I see them as kind of an unsympathetic party.”
Bill is breaking away from family tradition in another way by opting to attend college at a large public university. He said he landed on his college of choice after reading it had a really nice campus. Since getting accepted early, he is spending the rest of the year completing some AP courses to help accrue college credits, and hopefully qualify for some scholarships.
While his parents are not outraged at his decision to pursue higher education, they are also not really vocally supportive. Bill said that he just had to get “blunt” with them and say that if they weren’t going to be paying for school he was going to study what he wanted to, which right now is computer science.
Luckily he has some previous experience in this area, having taught himself how to program and work on computers during some of those long afternoons in the library.
By leaving home for school, Bill hopes to find his place in the rapidly evolving American cultural and political landscape. He is looking for a place based in coexistence rather than exclusion, and in open dialogue rather than fear mongering.
"I think science and religion can coexist well," he said. "It is just so rational and indelibly true what science has given and taught us that we just can't deny it anymore and I think it's all going to be all right."