My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And "What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews")

When I am down in Tampa, around most of my family, my entire career as a philosophy professor gets left almost entirely up in New York. My online career as an outspoken atheist gets kept to the internet. I have little to say about philosophy and keep my mouth shut about religion for the most part. This is not because I hide my atheism from my family and nor is it because my fundamentalist preacher brother hides his faith from anyone either.

It is just that the few times my brother and I have talked about these things have not gone very well. To understand why, it’s helpful to go back to my childhood.

My family was nominally and disaffectedly Catholic when I was little. My dad was a veritable teenage Martin Luther at his Catholic school. He was in placed in a program with other bright students who they saw as promising potential seminarians. As part of this he ate with the priests and saw what they were eating on Fridays during Lent. He was outraged that while for all his life his family, which was dutifully big and poor, had to eat cheap garbage food going out of their way to avoid eating meat on Fridays, the priests at his school were eating lobster and other fine expensive fish. He protested by bringing in cheap soggy hot dogs bought off a street vendor. The prohibition against eating meat on Fridays was supposed to be about sacrifice, not lobster. So he would eat garbage meat as a sacrifice to show up the priests who wanted to “sacrifice” in a more luxurious manner.

My dad’s cynicism was also deepened, I’m sure, by the way the parish associated with that school treated his father. My grandfather was selected in the first round of the draft for World War II. His company saw the most action of all those in the pacific and he was part of every bit of combat except the last round because a flamethrower exploded on his back. A religious man, he came home to help build and serve as a poorly paid superintendent of the local parish of the Roman Catholic Church. He was a year away from earning a pension when the parish fired him to avoid having to pay out in full.

My mom’s disaffection with the Church came when she was supposed to be the godmother of my cousin but the Church refused to let her because she divorced her alcoholic first husband.

A few years later, when I was 5, my parents unwittingly sent my then 13 year old brother off to a proselytizing evangelical church camp where he was converted. A stuttering, dyslexic, contrarian sort of kid with few friends there found a community and a zealous mission in life. Orienting his life around his faith he graduated high school and college, dismissing the advice of school counselors not even to try, and became a passionate preacher. My mother converted within the year and became a devout evangelical. My father gave several college tries to believe (literally even taking some Bible college classes) but never could. The strain over divergent beliefs became one of many factors in their eventual divorce when I was 14.

That same year, my religious brother graduated Bible college and on the next day married the woman of his dreams. I was finishing 8th grade at the time and desperately wanted to follow in his footsteps and not to have to wait what seemed like an interminable 8 years to do so. I was deeply influenced to believe that this was the path to the truly good life. My other brother, who was even older, was struggling with alcoholism, had fathered a daughter out of wedlock, and within a couple years would go to jail for beating up his daughter’s mother. An impressionable youth, since even younger I had seen two paths in life—the Christian one which led to people finding strength to beat all odds and have a pure and loving marriage, and another which led to chaos and anger and violence and broken homes.

So, forgive a kid for being confused, but I wanted to do everything similar to the way my religious brother had. And I spent my middle school, high school, and college years deeply absorbed in the evangelical Christian life. This was relatively rare for a Long Island kid and it was pretty lonely outside of my friends at church. Most of the kids at school were just nominally Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. I had enough friends who tolerated my aggressive proselytization of them and made a share of hostile enemies. I started preaching early—giving a sermon in my church at 15 and by 17 figured out that I wanted to be a theology professor so I could engage ideas more deeply than I could as a preacher giving the basics of the faith in sermons. But while at the deeply politically and religiously conservative Grove City College I majored in philosophy and after an arduous struggle with it, left the faith.

When this happened, my fundamentalist brother was one of the last people I told. I only indirectly addressed it with him for the first time, well over a year after I left Christianity, in an e-mail I sent to him and a number of other close advisers from my life in which I sought advice about struggles I was having adjusting to graduate school.

A few weeks later we talked for the first time about my apostasy, now that the subject had been broached in the e-mail. He had known of it longer but he and I had not known how to raise it with each other. So, we sat down in the kitchen during a break between wakes for our recently deceased grandmother, and I started laying out the complicated reasoning process that led to my conclusions. I got about ten minutes in and he started interrupting me with boilerplate evangelistic replies, as though I had never heard them before.

And I was stunned and hurt. I realized at that moment that this person who I had idolized from the time I was 13 and whose footsteps I had always wanted to follow in so many ways until my deconversion was completely unwilling to listen to a thing I had to say or learn a single thing from me. Within a few minutes our voices were raised, his youngest child was crying, I was blamed, and I pretty much resolved just to keep my mouth shut about my views on religion around him.

And this has mostly remained the plan. The two other times, years later, that we organically stumbled into the topics of our fundamental disagreement, it ended in shouting. It is just too hard to bring these debates into this relationship.

And so I have always assiduously avoided raising anything controversial with my nieces and nephews. I love them to pieces. They know where I stand. They know where to find me if ever they are curious when they are old enough to question for themselves.

I bring all this up because in reply to my series on how to reach out to religious believers (in ways that don’t end as badly as my debates with my brother), Jalyth asked a question that resonated with me and which I think Richard Wade has a superb answer for:

I’m reading this a few days later after it was mentioned somewhere else. The only people I care to try to convert is my family. I don’t believe it can happen, I actually think they mostly dug their feet in deeper since I left the religion they practice. I wouldn’t even care about my siblings, but one has 3 kids that I don’t want to see grow up the same way I did.

Do you have any insights into how to approach nieces or nephews? Especially if you never see them? It’s probably logistically impossible, but I retain the fantasy that I can have some influence. I hope one of them is gay, cause it’s a way out.

Richard’s relevant advice:

I have very seldom heard apostates describe having had important figures in their young lives who directly and deliberately pulled them out of their religiosity, but they often remember people who subtly influenced them by example. These people encouraged the youngsters to think freely, boldly and skeptically simply by modeling it. Usually there are more than one of these influences in the young persons’ lives, so no one represents their “only chance.”

Kids might have parents who stress blind faith, tradition and unquestioning obedience, but the lucky ones may also have a free-thinking relative, perhaps an aunt or uncle who loves them just for who they are, rather than for how well they can mimic dogma. The kids respond well to that kind of love, and look forward to their times together. “My aunt/uncle likes me just for me, and I don’t feel stupid or bad around her/him. She/He’s fun and interesting.”

So be his fun uncle or aunt. Love him profusely, and have as much fun with him as you can in the limited time you have before you leave. Praise him when he shows curiosity or clear thinking, but most importantly, without being contrived or obvious, just be your own curious and clear-thinking self in front of him. Not about religion per se, but all sorts of things.

Give him a two lens folding pocket jeweler’s loupe, one with plenty of magnification, and set him loose in the back yard. The saw tooth edge of a blade of grass looking like the teeth of a T-Rex can be far more astonishing, and in the long run more compelling than any fantasies of scripture. When he’s older and you’re far away, send him a modest Dobsonian telescope. They’re very easy to use. Tell him that even though you’re on the other side of the world, you’ll meet him on the Sea of Tranquility when you and he observe the moon on the same night.

When you move out of the country, establish a regular habit of phoning, writing, e-mailing, face-booking, instant messaging or video chatting with him. Make it very regular, something he’ll look forward to. Tell him about your adventures in the faraway land, and listen, listen, listen to all his stories as he grows from little boy, to youth, to teen, to young man. As long as you don’t alarm his mother or grandmother about doing any “indoctrinating” of your own, the relationship of trust, love and respect that you will have built will permit the two of you to gradually speak more frankly and candidly about many matters, including religion.

But in the end, he must make his own choices. He may choose to follow the way his early indoctrination started, or he may find a new path. It might resemble yours, or it might be utterly different from both yours and his parents’. If he ever does come to doubt his beliefs, it will probably be a troubling time for him, and you can offer him solace and encouragement, while still respecting his need to make his own decisions. At the very least, he will have had an excellent example of a free-thinking person who is good and who loves him.

The point is that you will have always remained true to loving him for himself, not for his agreeing with your opinions. That faithfulness to him will be a treasure that will bring both of you wonderful benefits, regardless of what he does with his beliefs.

Your Thoughts?

Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    First things first: I’m very sorry that your relationship with your brother is so rocky over religion/atheism. I personally would have loved to have a family member who could engage me on these questions (both growing up and now), because it would make Thanksgiving much more interesting. But I guess different people will approach things differently. I’m glad you still have a kind of relationship with him, at any rate.

    On the “talking to nieces/nephews” point: I’ve always believed that positive beliefs are better than negative beliefs. If a belief system defines itself in terms of what it’s against rather than what it’s for, it won’t survive long. So I think the advice you quote will likely have good practical consequences. Even if your niece/nephew doesn’t become an atheist, he’s more likely to become a Christian like me than the dogmatic kind – by which I mean someone willing to acknowledge and rejects the foibles done in the name of religion, even if he still believes in God or uses religious language. And when he has religion-inspired angst he’ll know someone to turn to. So even if the kid doesn’t go the full atheist route, I think this method will be very useful. (It’s also rather familiar to the route various teachers took with Richard Dawkins, actually!)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I agree that the positive route and the moderating influence route are really the best approaches by far. I don’t understand what you’re saying about Dawkins’s upbringing though. Can you elaborate?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

      I didn’t mean much in specific, when I made the Dawkins reference. I have a vague memory of a section in _The God Delusion_ where he describes his childhood relationship to organized religion. He noted several teachers, I believe both a life sciences teacher and a cleric (or was it one person serving both functions?) who would take his class on nature walks and point out various features of the natural world hoping to inculcate a sense of wonder in nature and by extension in God. Dawkins wrote that while the nature bit held, it made God seem superfluous – why did he need the supernatural for “specialness” when the natural world was so full of wonders?

      When I was reading Richard’s advice, that half-remembered tidbit from Dawkins just jumped to mind, because it seemed like he was exhibit A of someone who had grown up around people working within the religious framework (his family and school were very much nominally Christian, but Church of Englanders nonetheless) who was brought into atheism partly by embracing the natural world.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Good post. But to change the topic to the prosaic…

    Do you realize that the links in your right hand margin are broken? For example, the one on “True Religion” is this:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/10/16/my-fundamentalist-preacher-brother-his-kids-and-me-and-what-to-do-about-ones-religiously-raised-nieces-and-nephews/2010/08/17/true-religion/

    Which doesn’t work. It needs to be this:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/08/17/true-religion/

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks for the heads up, another commenter alerted me earlier. Something’s gone really haywire with with wordpress. All the FtB blogs (including mine) have been experiencing really really really frustrating glitches and this is one of them that has hit my site. I am going to forward your comment to those who can investigate what’s wrong.

      Thanks so much.

  • otrame

    I have a nephew who is raising his children (3 so far and I am sure there will be more–his wife is the daughter of a Baptist minister and has a “quiverfull” gleam in her eye) to be good Christians. They try to keep the kids away from the rest of the family without actually saying so in so many words because most of the rest of the family is either generic, vague Christian or atheist. Another nephew has a girlfriend who was nearly brought to tears by the acceptance of her atheism by the rest of my family. We were the only ones she’s ever told. She loves her family and doesn’t want to either hurt them or be hurt by them on this subject.

    It’s not easy. Two of my grandchildren are Christian, though now that they live with their atheist Dad and I, they are no longer pressured to be more religious. They are also not pressured to be less religious. My grandson (he’s 11) said the other day “Grandma, you know a lot of Bible verses.” I told him that I liked the Bible, that it was a fascinating document. He said, “But you don’t believe in God.” I said, “No, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the good things in the Bible.”

    What I did not say was that I know so much of the Bible in order to use it against the more vicious types of Christians. I also did not say that reading the Bible, starting at Gen 1:1 and going through the whole thing is what started me on the path to atheism. He and I agree to disagree about the existence of God.

    Recently he came home from spending the weekend with a close friend of the family (an absolutely wonderful woman whom I adore) with talk about “Halloween comes from the Devil.” We discussed it. I told him some Christians believed that, but that most Christians did not. I asked him, “When you dress up and go out to get candy, are you worshiping the Devil?” He said no. He also seemed really relieved. I told him that friends don’t always agree about these things and that he shouldn’t worry about it. But he does worry about it because he knows his friend will not be allowed to go trick or treating. He told me he was going to bring him some of his candy. I told him he had to ask first, because his mom might not like it. He looked really sad.

    I am providing him with the example of an atheist who constantly gives him moral guidance and who loves him deeply and unconditionally. I will always love him, even if he remains a Christian. But I think that over time he will figure it out for himself. I did. His Dad did.

    You can provide a place where your nieces and nephews can come for that unconditional love, whether they are Christian or not. It’s the one thing you can do for them. The rest will be up to them.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks for sharing your wise approach, Otrame, you sound like a terrific grandmother. (My nieces and nephews are also lucky enough to have one of those, I might add…)

    • otrame

      I think it is important to remember the fear your brother lives with. His kids might stray. They might end up in hell. He probably doesn’t let himself think about that too much, unless he is a complete sociopath. But that fear is always there. If his kids do “stray,” he has a couple of options. He might reject them, or he might decide to trust God to save them. I know that sounds weird, but I know people who think like that.

      I had a close friend who became more and more fundamentalist over several years. We could talk about it and often did. One day, I said, “How does it make you feel to know that if you are right about the nature of reality, I am going to spend eternity in hell.”

      She said, “You are not going to hell.” I said, oh, yes I was. She said, “God will find a way to save you.” She really meant it. It was a classic example of my belief that you get out of religion exactly what you bring to it. She is a decent, kind person, so her religion is decent and kind, no matter what the dogma says (she never denied the dogma, she just had faith that God wouldn’t let a basically good person go to hell).

      Mean, evil people have mean, evil religions. And the best part is that they might have exactly the same dogma she has.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well said again. What truly amazes me is talking to people who when pressed on what God will do with those people who never heard of Jesus on earth, simply say that they will have a chance to accept Christ after death. What was the whole point of Jesus coming to earth and being the “only way to the Father” and commanding his followers to rush out and spread the word so they could save everyone if God’s still going to save people who totally missed the earthly Christian boat anyway? I mean, REALLY! Either you must be a Christian and then God really should have given everyone a fair shot (and, you know, a SHRED of compelling rational reason) to become Christians or you needn’t be a Christian at all, in which case, please let it go, people!

    • Brian M

      I think we have to be careful here, though. Are most people so easily reducible to “mean evil people” versus “kind” people? Given that most people are a conflicting mess of opinions and feelings, good and bad, I am not so sure it is easy to dismiss the role of pernicious theologies and ideologies in encouraging evil behavior.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jalyth Jalyth

    Thanks for sharing your story. My details are different, but I had an older (I mean have) brother that I looked up to, and was very good friends with, but we rarely speak these days. I look for ways to restart our relationship, ask around and such, but it’s a bit one sided so I keep searching for some magic pill (website?) that will do the trick. :)


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