We have a very close family friend that is like a second mother to our children. She is a devout Lutheran (Missouri Synod) and so are her children. They likely suspect I’m atheist, but we don’t ever talk about it. The only thing they know is that I don’t allow our children to attend their church, Sunday school or vacation bible school.
Recently we were asked for money, by one of her children, to support a summer college trip with a Christian organization and we did so. There are obvious reasons for us to support the trip – their mother is like family to us, as a Christian (light) my wife sees no problem with this, and I see donating as preventing more problems than not donating might cause. And, I understood the trip to be part community service, part cultural awareness too.
However, the emails we have received have only dealt with one subject, the ability to do proselytizing. Each email is nothing more than a report on the successes and failures of the Christian mission. They are nothing more than the exploits of young missionaries. Not even a review of the local Schnitzel…
Now upon reflection I could have asked more questions of the purpose of the trip and so on – but it would not have likely changed the outcome. Yet, I find myself annoyed – even angry – that I supported this trip. The emails may not be inclusive of all the exploits and enjoyments – but as my only source of information they are deeply disturbing to me as an atheist.
Richard, I will be asked to support this child and likely others in the family as they all enter college this year and next. I do not want to support an endeavor that is solely intended to convert other kids to Christianity. Yet, I have the conflicts mentioned above to consider. And in the end, I might likely donate to simply avoid more problems than I would cause by not donating, or heaven forbid, actually challenging the emails (which I cannot do).
Can you provide some guidance on how to deal with this problem when it comes up again next summer.
Thanks and really enjoy the column…
You’re paying tribute. Nowadays, that phrase means to praise someone, but originally it meant to pay someone to not hurt you, to pay for peace. Conquered kingdoms paid tribute to Rome so that the legions would not come back. The U.S. and European nations paid tribute to the Barbary Pirates to not plunder their merchant ships. Store owners pay tribute to gangsters to not destroy their businesses.
In every case, the tribute steadily becomes more expensive, but victims will continue to pay because, as in your words, they see “donating as preventing more problems than not donating might cause.” The only way it ever ends is when the cost vs. benefit finally shifts far enough, and they stand up to the extortionists.
It sounds like the main reason that you give money to this family is out of a sense of duty to a close friend and to just “keep the peace,” and my impression is that this is for peace with your wife as much as with your family friend. It doesn’t sound like there is much, if any, joy in your giving.
It is completely legitimate that you would want your donations to go toward things you want to support, and of course, you resent paying for things that go against your values. But you feel uncomfortable about asserting yourself. You are clearly a kind and generous person, and as shown by your response to the emails, you really don’t like to confront people. There is an imbalance. Too much taking care of others, not enough taking care of yourself.
The peace you’re buying does not give you peace inside, so it won’t last. The cost vs. benefit is shifting, and there is much more of a cost than just your money. Your resentment is building up, and it’s like a poison. When your resentment finally boils over, the actions you may take could be damaging to all your relationships. In this situation, you’re alone in your atheism, and therefore alone in your conflict about funding these heavily religious activities. It would be very helpful if you had an ally.
You said that as a “light” Christian, your wife sees no problem with subsidizing the other family’s primarily religious undertakings. I can’t tell from your letter if “seeing no problem” means she only mildly supports this and would be sympathetic to your conflict, or if she strongly supports this and would see a big problem if you stopped your support. You have been able to put your foot down about not allowing your children to attend their church, Sunday school or vacation bible school, so you have at least some clout here.
When people are asked for favors that they’d rather not do, they can respond in various ways:
In very rare cases it is appropriate to be passive, or in other very rare cases, aggressive. It is never a good idea to be passive-aggressive. That is extremely infuriating.
Most often the best response is to be assertive. This is your assertive bill of rights:
You have the right to act in your own best interest.
You have the right to expect respect.
You have the right to make a request.
You have the right to turn down a request.
You have the right to take time to think about a request.
You have the right to change your mind. (This has to be balanced conscientiously with the duty to keep an agreement.)
But all this is about trimming the branches of the problem; let’s look at what may be the root:
Bob, you are keeping your non-belief only a thinly veiled secret from this woman and her kids, and they may already know. I wonder if you don’t feel fully confident that you even have the right to be the atheist you are. The values that conflict with donating to these religious things come from your atheism, but if you keep that hidden, or if everyone keeps pretending that it’s hidden, then you’ll have no reason to state why you have a conflict with all this. Coming up with false excuses for why you can’t pay for this or that probably won’t work. You’ll have to keep paying the increasingly expensive tribute to “keep the peace,” with all its poisonous resentment.
Look into your heart, look at your behavior and see your goodness, your worthiness, your great value to so many people in so many ways, not just your money. You need not apologize or be ashamed about your lack of belief. That is the way you are, and that’s an integral part of the good person that you are.
The key to freeing yourself from this is to assert your other rights: You have the right to not believe what you don’t believe, and to value what you value, and to be what you are. You have the right to give nothing, and you have the right to give with conditions.
Legitimate charities have conditions. They require that their largesse must be used for the purposes that they intended. You’re an atheist. You will support this, but you won’t support that. You’ll help the kids on condition of this, but not that. Somehow, everyone in the scene, including you, seems to think that you owe them all this support. No, you don’t. Hopefully, they will be grateful for what you give if you so choose, and hopefully they will come to respect you for your integrity. But their respect for you is not what is important here.
Your respect for yourself is what is important here.