Dear Dr. Fincke,
I am at a complete loss when it comes to my future in-laws (ahhh…in-law problems). I have identified as an atheist, openly and proudly, since I knew there was a word for what I (didn’t) believe. It doesn’t often come up, but I’m not afraid to talk about it when it does. I don’t appreciate being evangelized, so I don’t try to actively change other people’s minds when it comes to religion. I’m happy to answer questions about atheism and encourage people to think things through for themselves.
I am also a lesbian. Out and proud. Two and a half years ago, I met my current partner. One of the first things I asked her was if she was religious. Her relationship with religion is complicated. Up until her parents discovered she was gay at 15 years old, I would describe her immediate family as moderate Christians. They didn’t really go to church, but they were believers. When they found out, they immediately pulled her out of public school and sent her to a conservative Christian school. They also forced her to cut ties with her friends and quit a promising career in sport. They had an extremely rocky relationship during her last two years of high school as they became more and more involved in the church (I believe they are Foursquare?). Her father was extremely emotionally abusive to her (she has kept a stack of letters he wrote to her during this time that I am too afraid to read). She moved out the day she graduated.
It has only been the last couple of years that she has started to repair her relationship with her family (after 10-ish years with little meaningful interaction). She would say she has a “surface relationship”, she loves them and likes to spend time with them, but I don’t think she trusts them. To me, they seem very conservative, but according to her, they have softened in the last few years. They were not welcoming to previous girlfriends, and her mother was often outright hostile. From almost day 1, they have welcomed me into their home, invited me to family events, and even refer to me as Auntie to their new granddaughter. They know I am an atheist and it has come up a couple of times (the first time was on Christmas day at their home – wheee!).
There is a lot of God in their home and their lives. Grace gets said before every meal. Any good thing is life is attributed to God/Jesus. They openly mock other religions/cultures. They are very involved in missionary work in other countries. I have varying levels of comfort with their displays of faith, but choose to keep my mouth shut since we are in their home. They are kind to me and to us as a couple.
However, I think they rationalize it by convincing themselves we are just roommates (they always introduce me as their daughter’s friend or a friend of the family). I am afraid that soon, the shit will hit the fan. We’re hoping to get married and start a family within the next several months. Their church is very clearly anti-gay, and by extension, anti-gay marriage (we live in Canada though, so it’s legal). I am afraid that when they are confronted with the reality of our relationship, they will no longer be so warm and loving. They openly associate with organizations that are anti-gay and anti-choice (also climate change-denying, purity ring giving, creationist, etc). I don’t trust them. I fully believe that they think if they are just nice to me and keep praying for me, that I will come around eventually (to Christianity? to being straight and leaving their daughter?).
I want to like them and to have a good relationship with them (and for my future children to have a relationship with them), but every time I hear about another organization they are supporting that would like to take away my human rights (as a lesbian or as a woman), or that they are telling everyone to go and see the next big Christian movie (not the one about the flood, the other one) because it’s so good, or that they are taking a course on worldviews (oh wow, I thought, it’s great that they’re getting some other perspectives in their life and being open to it, until I see the textbook…), it feels like a slap in the face. So far, I’ve just been compartmentalizing I think. Separating the mostly loving people that I usually see from the religion and the people they choose to associate with (and especially from the abuse they inflicted on my girlfriend). But I’m just really getting tired of it. It’s one step forward and ten steps back.
I guess the question is: can I trust them? Should I? Is it worth it? My partner is great about it, she doesn’t like hearing all the God stuff all the time, either, but because she is more on the ‘spiritual’/leaning towards agnostic side, she doesn’t get so offended (until I point out how offensive it was). How can I stop myself from automatically assuming that every time they’re nice to me, it’s because they have ulterior motives? And am I doing the same thing when I’m being “polite” and choosing not to rock the boat so I can come off as a good example of a “nice” atheist? Do I speak up when they say something utterly offensive or outrageously inaccurate?
I’ve been devouring your blog since I found it and very much value your opinion. Honestly, it’s helped just to get it all out – I don’t have a huge circle of friends to hash it out with and can only talk about it so much with my partner, as I don’t want to damage the fragile link she has been slowly rebuilding to her family. Any advice would be great – or a link to an article or book, etc.
I hope future generations appreciate what herculean emotional feats of strength are demanded of the all gay people in our time. Let me just start by saying, I’m very sorry both that you are in a situation like this and that it is so very common.
There are several issues to separate.
The first issue is the question of whether there is something insincere about their niceness to you and yours to them. Just on the level of Christian and atheist relations, it sounds mostly fine. To the extent that this is a truce on religious issues it is good in several ways. For one thing, putting religious differences aside is healthy for us to find each other’s common humanity. Being able to do this helps the cause of acceptance of atheists, often as much as any explicit argument does. Because, as the experience of the gay community has taught us, knowing someone from a stigmatized group is the best way to overcome prejudices about them. Being the “nice atheist” is not you being servile, it’s you making it harder for your future in-laws to demonize atheists. That you are unapologetically out to them as an atheist is bold enough, so don’t worry that you’re not doing enough in that relationship.
You mention that when you see their materials expressing their involvement in causes that you realize would hurt you that it’s like a slap in the face. While you feel like speaking up to them, there are relational reasons I will talk about in a moment to be slow and careful about that. I would recommend that your first response to that desire to speak up should be to become more active about your atheism and your politics in your spheres of life that are separate from your family/in-laws.
You find proselytizers distasteful so you’ve not tried to live that way. You feel betrayed when these people close to you don’t behave with the same level of respect for your beliefs that you’ve been trying to show theirs. I would encourage you to contemplate that religions don’t just passively wait for people to choose them out of the blue, based on independent thought process. They are aggressive. Religious people often aggressively inculcate their beliefs in their children and some religions, evangelical Christianity being the paradigmatic one, are aggressive proselytizers by nature. This is why I think it’s not enough for atheists to be passive and just leave others alone to think whatever they happen to think. I think it’s important that we get organized with each other and develop rival institutions. This doesn’t mean that we have to sink to their level in manipulative proselytization tactics. It does mean that we need to provide resources to help other atheists who are either vulnerable to potential proselytization instead have non-theistic resources to meet their needs and to help other atheists like you who feel besieged by religious bullies.
It’s okay to proactively support your view of the world if you think it is truer and practically better. It is definitely necessary too that there be a cultural counterweight to the rancidness of the religious right. It sounds from your letter like if you had other friends who cared passionately about opposing religious irrationality and bigotry you would be able to feel less silenced. For a lot of people initially joining atheist groups is like finding a support group where they’re finally allowed to vent their frustrations with religious privilege without having to self-censor and tip toe around religious feelings. They can be with other people who just get it. For a time at least, that’s a healthy thing.
And if you were being more proactive about your atheism and connecting with others who shared your views and finding believers who want to debate about religion with you, whether online or at an “ask an atheist” table you and a group might set up, etc., then you would be on more of an equal footing with your future in-laws. You would both be active members of the struggle for the intellectual and moral consciences of our culture. You wouldn’t feel as passive while you see them actively working against your interests.
But even if you became more involved in pro-atheism, pro-LGBT, pro-choice, pro-evolution, or other groups where you could be a more active participant, you should still then approach your personal relationships in thoughtful ways. For me, my philosophical energies go into my teaching and my blogging. I don’t bombard my family or my offline friends with philosophy or atheism unless they’re into that kind of thing. I keep my spheres separate. This is much easier for me to do because I have so many outlets for my philosophy and for my atheism. If you have those outlets, you may be able to be a little less frustrated and feel a little less disempowered when with your fiancée’s parents. You’ll be ready to play the role that is best for that relationship.
Approaching that relationship, I think you need to keep several things in mind. All your patience with them and deference, as unjust and rightly infuriating as it is, is not in vain. Not only as an atheist but probably even more so as a lesbian you are doing a potentially powerful thing by humanizing a whole class of people to your fiancée’s parents. The dignity which you display and draw out of them is not in vain. This seems to be the primary way that our culture has had a jaw droppingly fast (by historical standards) flip on the morality of homosexuality. We have gone from solid majorities thinking homosexuality is immoral to solid majorities thinking it is not immoral in just twenty years. While that progress is still too slow for millions of gay people who have to live through strained relationships and discrimination and abuse, and who have to each be their own kind of activist just by trying to live their lives like any other normal people, it is still impressively fast change when looked at on the longview. And this change seems to be driven by people being out.
So, please don’t feel like you’re being silent and steamrolled. You’re not. You’re bravely showing up and facing these people who you know are bigoted against you time and again. And you are keeping your composure and eliciting their dignity by being resolved in your own firmness about who you are. You’re being downright heroic, as I see it. You are putting yourself on the line for your fiancée, for yourself, and for her parents, even as their behind-your-back behaviors and bigotries would justify you never facing them again. I am in awe of the courage and moral strength that you and countless other boundary breaking gay people show. It is no small thing to humanize your oppressors. I have nothing but appreciation for those of you willing to patiently do this.
Now to the real practical problem. While I see the humanizing, tolerance-increasing value of people with ideological differences laying aside their differences in order to have positive friendships and family relationships with each other, and while I think it is crucial to having a civil society and a unified culture that we have these intimate relationships across disagreements, there are limit points.
At a certain point, “loving the sinner and hating the sin” is untenable. At a certain point, anti-gay bigots have to make real choices. If they really think that the love and sex that you and your fiancée share in is a sin, then they cannot wholeheartedly embrace your impending wedding or your eventual children the way that loving parents do.
If they show up at the wedding with beamingly happy faces and embrace your children, then there are no two ways about it–all their “homosexuality is a sin to be hated” stuff is empty words. You have won. And if they boycott the wedding or cast a pall on it with dampened enthusiasm, if they bring conflict into their relationship with your children, then all the stuff about “loving the sinners” is empty words.
You cannot say you love your child when you spurn their wedding solely on account of the gender of their spouse. You cannot say you love your child when you sow discord in your relationship with their children, particularly when you do so by begrudging the child’s other parent solely on account of their gender.
(I develop these points extensively in the posts Confronting Conservative Christians With The Consequences Of Their Homophobia and Why Loving the Sinner But Hating the Sin Is Not an Option When Dealing With Gay People.)
Essentially, you are anxious because your future in-laws’ big decision point is coming and you shrewdly see it coming. Your future in-laws have been living with cognitive dissonance. They have been able to live in the realm of civil truce and mostly done an admirable job (except for when they occasionally throw their religious privilege around by picking on other religions in front of you).
Now, if the experience of others who had homophobic parents is any guide, this could go either way. Some parents resolve the cognitive dissonance in favor of their kids and become pro-gay. Some go the other way, to one extent or another. I worry because your fiancée’s parents accelerated in their religiosity on account of her coming out as gay, which makes them sound more deeply homophobic than they even are religious (rather than begrudgingly anti-gay because of being religious). They’re also worrisomely active and intensifying culture warriors. And the father has been emotionally destructive in the past.
On the positive, from what you said it also is possible that ten years of virtual estrangement from their daughter may have softened them. They may, if pressured, wind up caving on the side of preserving their relationship with their daughter.
No one can really know here.
So what should you do?
First things first. Primarily this is between your fiancée and her parents. So, it seems inappropriate to further complicate her ability to get them to accept her for being gay by making atheism an explicit point of contention when the civil compromise on that issue can remain in place, even post-wedding. There’s a scenario where they accept your marriage but spend the next 30 years not arguing Christianity vs. atheism with you. That’s a win, I think. Their acceptance of their daughter’s gayness and her marriage is paramount. That’s the moral victory you really need to win. Act on your increasing atheist consciousness elsewhere. Don’t let it distract from this. Only well after they’ve flipped far enough on gay rights to be trustworthy should you really even contemplate trying to push the atheism issue, I think. And even then, do so in ways that don’t put your fiancée in the middle of you and them.
Secondly, I think you and you fiancée need to discuss potential contingencies. A watershed moment is coming. I think you need to work out with her what matters to her and what matters to you. Brainstorm every possible reaction her parents can have along the spectrum of acceptance to rejection and decide what she will do. This relationship is primarily between her and them. They’re her parents. The two of you need to be on the same page about what happens in any of a number of scenarios. And you need to know that your fiancée ultimately will choose you over her parents in the ways that are vital to your own sense of safety and trust in your relationship. Because once you’re married, now her in-laws are much more your problem too. In-law problems are a leading cause of divorce. And whereas right now you interact with her parents with a degree of autonomy and freedom to get up and leave her parents and never see them again at any moment if things go really south, you’re going to be much more webbed in with these people when you’re wedded to their daughter. I think it is vital you put your energies into making sure that your fiancée and you are completely on the same page. And that doesn’t mean convincing her of where her priorities should be but figuring out, when push comes to shove what will her heart do.
Ultimately, if your fiancée is more committed to you than to necessarily having a relationship with her parents and if it is more important to you that you marry your fiancée than that you necessarily have a wife whose parents will be part of your and your kids lives, then take this gamble clear-eyed that one possible scenario is you build your family estranged from your wife’s parents.
But whatever you do, see clearly the range of possible scenarios ahead, figure out what you can really live with and thrive with happily and prepare courses of action accordingly.
Finally, I would create something of a long runway up to the actual marriage that gives her parents time to digest this. Unavoidable hints this is coming probably should be dropped. You want to give them time to process this and mentally prepare. You may even opt to jointly write a letter in which you express your earnest desires for them to be a part of your future wedding and marriage. How you want to know they will have healthy relationships with your future children, not soured by any ambivalence towards your marriage, etc. Put in positive terms about how it is your hope for what they might share with you. Giving them that space to process may help prevent rash responses from them and give their brains the chance to cope with reality and make the major decisions they’re in for.
While you are already out, there are a couple of books on coming out as an atheist (that also have relevance to coming out as gay), that may be helpful. David McAfee’s Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer and Greta Christina’s new book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.
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