Ask Richard: Tension and Manipulation Over Prayers at the Dinner Table

Don wrote a very long and candid letter which I have edited here for space reasons. I have kept the details that I believe are pertinent to the challenge he describes:

Hi Richard!
I’ve been following your new posts on The Friendly Atheist site for a couple weeks now. You have a great gift of communicating sensitive issues so elegantly for many diverse audiences. Thanks for everything you’ve given the community! Your advice and tone is exactly what is needed in our society. Keep up the great work!

My wife and I both grew up in Christian homes/communities. We both went to church every Sunday and were very active in our churches. We’re both from North Carolina, right smack in the Bible Belt.

In my teens I started experiencing religious doubt and became more skeptical of the existence of God. In college I continued to become more skeptical. Soon after I met my wife, she began down her path of skepticism. We now both consider ourselves atheists. We’ve found friends (new and old) with similar beliefs and methods of parenting. We’ve developed our own support group to commiserate with and explore new ideas.

We now have a daughter, she’s almost 2 1/2 years old. Soon after she was born, my parents approached me asking if we were planning to have her baptized.

At that point I faced the decision to hide my current views on religion and do what I knew my parents would want or to take advantage of the opportunity and tell them how my views had changed. I did the latter and I still am glad I made that decision. It wasn’t easy and there has been some tension for sure but I feel good about being true to myself and my family. It’s no secret that my family is discouraged and disheartened by our change of religious views.

On several occasions they have made remarks and at one point even gave us a letter stating that they thought she should be raised in a church.

Now for the issue at hand. When my family gathers for dinner, regardless of location, they pray. This is perfectly fine with us and even encouraged in our own house. We respect other’s views and want our home to feel welcoming to all beliefs. We obviously do not pray ourselves but we remain quiet and respectful while they pray.

For quite some time now my family has been making a huge deal about the act of prayer at the dinner table and even going so far to slapping our daughter’s hands together into a praying position. At first we were somewhat alarmed by the situation and even remained passive towards them not knowing how to handle it. Recently we have started instructing our daughter in front of the family to remain quiet and respectful during the blessing, telling her that she wasn’t required to put her hands together or bow her head.

This has resulted in some rather unsettling looks from family members, especially my dad. It’s been very uncomfortable to experience, because I’ve always been so close with my family, and it makes the moments immediately following the prayer even more awkward. We’d prefer they lead by example, not by force. My wife and I have tried to take the high road and make it known to my family that we believe that our daughter has the right to exercise her choice just as they do, even at a young age.

The message doesn’t seem to be getting across to them and we’re not sure how else to handle it than firmly and in a potentially hurtful manner. While the specific scenario seems petty I fear that it’s a springboard for a perpetuation of similar events throughout our daughter’s life (and future children as well). I’m hopeful that resolving this issue now will preempt similar challenges down the road. I’m very interested in your thoughts on how I should approach this sensitive issue with my family.

In our house, at the dinner table, we take a moment to note something we are thankful for that day. I consider it more of a moment of reflection and gratitude for what we have. I also think it’s a good example for our daughter to having something to correlate with similar rituals, such as prayer. When friends and family are over we open the table to anyone to do what they prefer before a meal.

We’ve asked for respect from my family in a number of ways. We’ve tried to remain diplomatic and patient as they come around to our rather newly announced set of views. It’s been over two years now since the day I opened up to them and most days I don’t feel like we’re ever going to gain they respect that I feel we deserve. I’ve always been close with my family and never imagined a divide such as the one I’ve outlined in this letter.

Any thoughts or tips would be very much appreciated! Thanks again for your time and dedication to a very important topic. It’s been extremely worthwhile for me personally.

Don

Dear Don,

Your daughter is a rope in a tug-of-war. After giving your parents more than two years to get adjusted to your views and to show basic consideration for your ways in your own home, the time for patient diplomacy is coming to an end. This has devolved into a power struggle that focuses on your daughter, but it is really a struggle over you.

Step by step, as a teen, as a college student, as a young married man and as a new father you have gone through the process of differentiation from your parents that all children must do to become truly independent adults. The parents cling, and the children squirm. We all, all do this dance of holding and breaking away, and in the end the parents must finally let go. It is the way humans develop. You finding your own path included your atheism. Not all differentiated paths do, but yours did.

Sometimes the last stages of these struggles for self-definition are hard, and sometimes they are… harder. In your case it seems that there will have to be a summit of some sort, to finally and definitively establish your relationship with them as adult-to-adult instead of parent-to-child.

I think you are correct in your assessment that this is just the beginning of their attempts to mold your daughter to their ways and beliefs. Losing control of you, they will attempt to compensate vicariously through her. They will persist for years unless you put a firm and unequivocal end to it now. The longer it continues, the harder it will be to stop.

I’m not surprised that the prayer rituals at your and their dinner tables have escalated for some time now. It is presently your parents’ only opportunity to impose, through your daughter, their religious will on you. I don’t know if the actual incident was as aggressive as it sounds, but slapping or forcing her hands together into a praying position at your dinner table is way out of line. It is an example and a poignant symbol of the kind of authoritarian control over children that you and your wife overcame, and which you want your daughter to never have to experience.

I can understand your counter-measures at subsequent meals of overtly instructing your daughter in front of them that she need not hold her hands together or bow her head, and simply remain respectfully quiet. But I don’t suggest that you keep using that kind of demonstrative method. All that was really to speak to them more than to her. The main thing your daughter is noticing is the tension in the room. You don’t want to inadvertently use her as a pawn against them any more than let them use her as a pawn against you.

There is going to have to be a reckoning between you and your wife as a united front, and your parents, without your daughter present.

Before your speak to your parents, draw upon your group of supportive friends who have similar views and parenting methods to brainstorm specific things you want to say. Write them down in the form of clear and concise demands, and even rehearse it, having someone play your parent’s roles.

There are three main areas that you must firmly assert with them: the end of their parenthood of you, the establishment of your adulthood with them, and the affirmation of your parenthood of your daughter.

They will always be your parents, but they can no longer parent you.
Their relationship with you must include the same respect for your boundaries that they would have with any adult. They may make suggestions, but they do not order you. If you decline their suggestion, they don’t perseverate. You are in charge of your home, and they are your welcome guests as long as they respect your boundaries. It is reciprocal when you visit their home.

You and your wife are the girl’s parents. They are the grandparents. You outrank them. They interact with your daughter only in ways that you approve. You have the right to spell out what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for anyone who is with your child. They must not try to use her against you, or try to covertly insinuate anything into her behind your back.

Your secular moments of mindful appreciation at your meals sound lovely. In your home, you can be as accommodating as you wish to be, allowing others to do their ritual, but no one, no one at your dinner table or anyone else’s, should be forced, coerced or obliged to participate. Quietly sitting it out must be anyone’s option.

Don, both you and your wife sound so gracious and amiable that I think the two of you can find a way to firmly present your clear and concise demands without being hurtful. If your parents throw a fit or become petulant, then confront them on who is being childish and who is being adult. Do not accept parenting from them and do not accept childish behavior either. Coolly demand, expect and deliver adult-to-adult behavior.

There will be tension, of course, and it will linger. So what? It’s already tense, but you’re being disrespectfully treated. Tension with acceptable behavior is an improvement. Mixing in, as I always recommend, a lot of that closeness and caring that you have for them will help to relax things over time, reassuring them that you love them, showing that you’re a good father, a good husband and a good son. And yet, without taking any of that away, you are also first and foremost, your own man.

I wish all the best for your entire family. Your parents have a gracious, loving and conscientious son. Your daughter is a lucky kid, and when she, as she must, makes her final differentiation from you, I’m confident that she’ll have learned by example how to do it in a gracious, loving and conscientious way.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Good advice, Richard. But alas, drawing boundaries will do no good unless the parents in question are willing to back it up with consequences if those boundaries are crossed. I think they need to think carefully about what those consequences might be.

    The most obvious one, of course, is, “If you don’t stop disrespecting our rights as parents to bring up our child as we see fit, and you don’t stop quite literally forcing your religion on our child, you won’t get to see our child.” That’s an extreme step — but it could also be done in a more moderate way, such as, “We’re going to seriously reduce the amount of time our child spends with you.”

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Whenever we visit my in-laws, we also kind-of go through this. My in-laws are not evangelical, but they are VERY traditionally minded and insist on everybody saying a standard “stock” blessing before dinner. Since we only visit them a few times a year, I simply choose to go along for family harmony.

    In my own family, we don’t say blessings. The kids know this is just something we do at grandmother’s (on my wife’s side) house. If I thought this was just the tip of the ice-berg for other pressures like baptisms or church-schooling, I may have decided to be more confrontational. In my case, it was really just about the meal-time tradition and I don’t have a problem with the kids being exposed to a tradition while at my in-laws that we don’t choose to follow at our house.

    My wife grew up saying blessings at dinner and had no problem dropping it when she married me. I’d be quite surprised if my kids decided later in life to adopt this particular tradition when they didn’t do it at home.

    In my case, I figure that my in-laws are not going to change so why make a big deal over it. My In-laws only care about the meal-time tradition and don’t seem to care that much about the other aspects of religion.

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    I would love to see the letter and response for this issue as written by the parents to the religious version of Richard. In fact, it would be cool to see many of these letters presented to “Dear Christian” or whatever. It would give some insight into what people like these parents are thinking when they do the things they do.

  • http://anti-mattr.blogspot.com/ mathyoo

    Greta Christina is absolutely right-there have to be consequences in place if the grandparents overstep their boundaries. I also agree that eliminating grandparent visits is a bit extreme, at least as a first consequence. I would suggest an immediate, temporary consequence for those boundary violations, such as telling the grandparents that if they overstep those boundaries while you’re at their house, you’ll leave immediately. Be prepared to back those consequences up and follow through, or they’re just empty threats. Those types of consequences can be difficult to follow through on, but really, it would only take one or perhaps two times at most for them to take you seriously and curtail their behavior.

    It seems counterintuitive to most people, but establishing those clear boundaries backed up with consequences for overstepping them often causes people to respect you more and might even get them to start respecting your beliefs.

  • http://www.americanthinker.com Jon

    Hemant – If you ever want to take GDad’s suggestion and offer a side by side evaluation of these letters from a theist perspective, I volunteer to argue the issue from a non-atheist viewpoint.

  • Siamang

    Yeah, but then we’d need one from a non-troll, to balance that out.

  • Siamang

    Great advice, Richard.

    I agree, the conversations need to happen when the child is not present.

  • Tizzle

    It’s very liberal and open-minded of the writer to open up meal/prayer time at his house for anyone to do what they will, but maybe he doesn’t have to. Ideas off top of my head:

    -Insist upon his own ritual, since he has one that sh/wouldn’t put off a Christian.
    -Hold hands, so the grandparents can’t make the kid fold them.
    -Sit the child where they can’t reach her.

    When you can’t change them, I often find physically changing the situation is the only cure.

    *Good luck. Man is this easier without kids. My parents respect me, who knows what they might do otherwise.*

  • The Other Tom

    I agree with Greta that it’s important to consider and determine what the consequences should be if the grandparents make plain that they do not intend to behave, or if they misbehave in this manner in the future. The grandparents may force the issue to the point that consequences have to be brought up, and it’s vital that the parents of the child be in agreement about consequences in advance so that if it’s necessary to spell it out to the grandparents, they can do so as a united team.

    However, I don’t think it’s important to bring up those consequences unless it’s made necessary by the grandparents. There’s a big difference between saying “This behavior is offensive and unacceptable and you will stop it now,” versus “This behavior is offensive and unacceptable and you will stop it now or I won’t let you see your grandchildren any more.” The former is a demand for respect… the latter is a threat. Phrasing things as threats tends to make people feel backed into a corner and lash out. Yes, I agree that the parents of the child should bring up the consequences if the grandparents don’t express understanding of the offense they have caused and agree to behave more appropriately in the future. I just don’t think it’s necessary to bring up consequences if they say the right things when confronted. (Unless they have said the right things when confronted in the past, and then ignored their promises.)

    Also, there are steps the child’s parents can take as “consequences” that are more than nothing but less than “you can’t see the grandchild any more.” For example, the parents could make sure that they sit on either side of the child at dinner, so others would not have the opportunity to force her hands into a prayer position. They could also tell the grandparents that if this behavior continues the child will not be permitted to be with them without the supervision of the parents – no overnights, no going out to lunch with grandma, etc – until the grandparents show some respect of the parents’ beliefs and earn back some trust. They can tell the grandparents that if they do such a thing again, the parents of the child will reprimand them for their behavior then and there in front of the child (unlike previous occasions in which they said nothing), and point out that this would lead to the child losing respect for the grandparents, and ask that the grandparents not force them into that position. The “consequences” don’t have to be an all or nothing proposition until and unless the grandparents force it to become one.

    The parents could also, reluctantly, decide that prayer at their dinner table will no longer be welcomed, and inform the grandparents of this. The grandparents should be welcome to pray before meals, but perhaps not at the child’s parents’ dinner table; they can pray elsewhere before coming to the table, and without the grandchild present.

  • Ron in Houston

    Hopefully they can peacefully resolve the situation and won’t end up as Jesus said where “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

    I’m all for setting boundaries but I think that you need to keep things in perspective. In the long run, parents will have a much greater impact than collateral relatives. Plus in the long run in may be a valuable lesson to a child on how people will try to indoctrinate them.

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com Veritas

    Richard – best column yet. I thought it was quite instructional and very good to read, and made lots of sense. Keep up the great work.

  • http://www.americanthinker.com Jon

    @Siamang

    Yeah, but then we’d need one from a non-troll, to balance that out

    Why do you define troll as simply anyone who disagrees with your perspective?

  • http://drunkenachura.wordpress.com/ Rooker

    These believers are holding their son hostage with his own manners. They expect him to remain polite in the face of their own obnoxious behavior.

    Eventually he’ll need to just put his foot down. You’re in my house – respect that or stay home.

  • http://www.thoughtsfortheopenminded.blogspot.com stardust

    “Tizzle said: It’s very liberal and open-minded of the writer to open up meal/prayer time at his house for anyone to do what they will, but maybe he doesn’t have to.”

    I was going to say this but Tizzle beat me to it. While we respect other people’s prayer times in their own home and if they invite us to a restaurant to dinner, they must respect the way I do things in my home. It can’t be all one-sided. What I have found with particularly the evangelical members of our family is that they want it all their way and demand respect for their practices but do not return respect for the way we do things. It’s always take and no give with them. So, in our house we do things our way, and if they don’t like it, too bad. I notice that some of them still bow their heads and murmur to themselves which is fine if they don’t try to involve me or my family in what they are doing. At their house, we will sit quiet and respectfully.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I volunteer to argue the issue from a non-atheist viewpoint

    Jon,

    It would be interesting to see a “rebuttal” from someone being an advocate for the “other side”. That might help some people decide on the best course of action. Although, if you choose to argue the issue in the comments, I would encourage you to rise to Richard’s level of compassion and understanding. I don’t know if you would be the best person for this since you have engaged in quite a bit of name-calling and rhetorical non sequiturs yourself. I would think that “Keith (the pastor)” or Mike Clawson would be a better choice.

  • CatBallou

    I do hope that Don’s parents will come to genuinely respect his position, rather than just acquiescing because of some vague, unspoken threat.
    If they don’t actually understand and respect Don on this issue, they’ll continue to impose their religious behaviors (not the same as beliefs) on their grandchildren during overnight visits, vacations, and other special times that grandparents like to have alone with their grandchildren.
    Perhaps Don can reassure his parents that he won’t talk to his children disrespectfully about them and their beliefs, so they won’t feel defensive?

  • http://aurorawalkingvacation.blogspot.com Paul

    Jon, as a Christian, why don’t you write the letter Don’s parents might send to a “Dear Christian Guidance Counsellor” service. I’m sure we’d all be interested to hear what you, as Don’s father, might say. Remember, you’re not writing a letter to Don. You are writing to a Christian “Dear Abby” in order to ask for advice on what to do about Don (your son) and his daughter (your grandaughter). We don’t want to hear what you think that advice would be, we just want to hear your plea. I’d be fascinated to read it.

  • Shannon

    Wow. You should have a daily column. Like Ann Landers, but “Dear Richard”. Great advice. Again!

    I would be very interested in the follow up from these parents.

  • http://www.americanthinker.com Jon

    @Jeff

    Jon,

    It would be interesting to see a “rebuttal” from someone being an advocate for the “other side”. That might help some people decide on the best course of action. Although, if you choose to argue the issue in the comments, I would encourage you to rise to Richard’s level of compassion and understanding. I don’t know if you would be the best person for this since you have engaged in quite a bit of name-calling and rhetorical non sequiturs yourself. I would think that “Keith (the pastor)” or Mike Clawson would be a better choice.

    I’m just volunteering. If Hemant wants to accept, I’d do it. If he doesn’t, so be it. I can’t tell you that I would be the “best person”, but in response to your comment I would say that Richard engages in a fair amount of name-calling and other derogatory devices in many comments sections, but he manages to elevate his writing for this type of column. I would do the same. I don’t know about Mike Clawson, but I can tell you from previous posts and comments that I have read from “Keith (the pastor)” that he does not have an adequate understanding of these issues to be able to argue from the other side of the table.

    I’m pretty sure that Richard would not enjoy writing parallel to me, so I think its unlikely that he or Hemant would invite me to do so. Nonetheless, I think it would be wise for Hemant, given his claim to being a “friendly” atheist and valuing discussion, to request that someone respond to these letters from a theistic perspective, even if it is a lame perspective from Keith (the pastor).

  • Sven

    Ha, I´d love to see Jon’s motivations. Be it for entertainment purposes or even an psychological insight in the mind of a theist.
    It´d be a step up from his normal trolling!
    We might even get more than the usual “Oh yeah, well you atheists bla bla bla..”
    And let’s be honest, allthough he IS a troll, we’d all miss him if he’d leave us, because he’s still OUR troll.

    @Jon
    Nah, just messing with ya, give us your motivations, for real, and back em up this time!

  • JulietEcho

    There are hundreds of advice columns where these questions could be answered from a Christian perspective, and Christians are free to comment on them and give their own advice.

    The whole point of asking Richard is that he’s *not* going to give us Christian advice, and that’s why the column exists. I don’t think it would be wise of Hemant at all to give yet another platform to Christian advice columnists when there are so many already and the comments section is free for those who feel they must chime in.

    Also: good advice, and I agree with those who’ve advised Don to have consequences planned. I agree that announcing them up front would seem like a threat, but make sure you know how you plan to react if they don’t respond respectfully to your requests.

  • Siamang

    Why do you define troll as simply anyone who disagrees with your perspective?

    Because you seek to provoke, not discuss.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    There is only one person here who is vulnerable and it isn’t the grandparents or the parents. As adults they can choose to respect differing beliefs or not. A child has no such freedom. I think that Don should be primarily concerned with the welfare of his daughter. I also think that the grandparents should also be concerned about her too.

    The different rules and the differing opinions will be incomprehensible to a 2 1/2 year old but she will have enough empathy to detect dissent and anger in the caregivers around her.

    I see two options. Remove her from the situation where there is tension by having her join the dinner table late, perhaps with her mother. This is a temporary solution at best. The alternative is to remove the tension. I feel that the best way to do this is to explain that the difference in opinion and mixed messages are going to upset your daughter if they haven’t already. This needs to stop.

    I would hope that concern for your daughter would make them stop trying to force the issue. Failure to do so will eventually cause you to stop inviting them to the dinner table at all. That isn’t what anybody wants.

    Phrasing it like this may well mitigate the confrontation and negative emotion surrounding the situation. A child is not a weapon to use in an argument but a person in their own right. They need to be respected and protected as you would an honoured guest who does not know the rules of your society. Everything you say and do is a lesson to her. If you wish to teach her respect for those who hold different opinions then you need to show respect for her grandparents views. If you want to teach her to cherish her own views then you have to defend your own. If you want to teach her honesty then you must be honest and if you want her to be brave then you must be brave.

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    Hi Don,

    fellow North Carolina exChristian, here, with some children who are ropes in a religious tug-of-war with Evangelical parents, myself.

    If you’re in the Triad area, I’d love to meet you (and your support group, too!) as I don’t really know anyone (in person) in the same boat as me.

    Good luck!

  • Sandra

    The Other Tom said:

    They could also tell the grandparents that if this behavior continues the child will not be permitted to be with them without the supervision of the parents – no overnights, no going out to lunch with grandma, etc – until the grandparents show some respect of the parents’ beliefs and earn back some trust.

    Unfortunately, this could result in the grandparents minding their behavior in the parents company, then being even more forceful with their grandchild when she is most vulnerable… without parental supervision.

    I really like hoverFrog’s suggestion of adding to the discussion that the main priority here is the well being of that sweet little girl (Don’s daughter).

  • medussa

    Well said, Siamang, well said….

  • medussa

    Jon, you have squarely earned the title troll. Adults disagree, trolls behave like spoiled children.

  • Demetrius Of Pharos

    @Jon –

    You may not have noticed, but Richard’s advice entries are specifically from _atheists_ seeking advice from another _atheist_ about issues the writer faces due to his/her _atheism_. They do not want the point of view of a believer or they would have sought it (and perhaps have on another site, you know, one not dedicated to the atheist perspective.)

    …Richard engages in a fair amount of name-calling and other derogatory devices in many comments sections…

    Where? Aside from calling shenanigans on you for posting, then running away when someone challenges you on your nonsense. For example, you brought up the idea of an atheist/theist debate and started with comments about two different types of relativity, which was quickly show to be a null argument by myself and others, yet despite a rather interesting discussion you didn’t bother to respond once.

    ..but he manages to elevate his writing for this type of column.

    I love how dismissive that is. Richard “manages” to do it – as if somehow, by magic, Richard channels someone else when posting advice.

    I would do the same.

    I doubt you are capable of the level of eloquence and clarity Richard shows in the Ask Richard articles – you certainly have not shown that capability here.

  • The Other Tom

    Sandra, yes, I understand and agree with you and considered that when I said what I said. However, that’s partly why I said the grandparents would need to “earn back some trust” – if it got to the point that the parents needed to enforce some consequences, it would be indicative that the parents no longer trust the grandparents, and the grandparents would have to earn that back by behaving appropriately over some period of time and making appropriate promises. And frankly, it’s up to the parents to decide if it’s possible that they can be adequately reassured that the grandparents’ behavior will be appropriate, or if things have progressed to the point where some amount of restrictions will have to be essentially permanent.

    I would also expect at that point that it would also be stated plainly that the parents WILL find out if the grandparents try to push religion on the child when the parents aren’t around, in violation of promises not to, and that it WILL result in the grandparents being cut off from family involvement if they were to do so, because such a betrayal of trust would be too severe to tolerate.

    I assumed that Don would be able to infer these ideas as a logical progression from my other remarks, which is why I didn’t spell them out.

    I think it’s important that the parents should explain these things in a calm manner to their daughter before considering sending her off with her grandparents. They should be able to explain to her what prayer is, why they don’t believe in it, the fact that her grandparents do, and that for everyone’s comfort the grandparents have promised not to make or ask her to do it. (I’m assuming such a promise will have been extracted if the parents are considering sending the child off with the grandparents alone.) So, the child would have to be old enough to understand these things. I think this is important both so that the child won’t have to worry in anticipation of grandparents acting crazy at mealtimes by forcing her hands together, and so that if the grandparents do break the rules, she’ll know to mention it to her parents. I also think it’s important that this be explained to the child in a warm and friendly manner so it comes off more as “we want you to understand, and this is for your benefit”, rather than “we want you to tattle if your grandparents misbehave”.

    I would also expect that the parents will take into account their opinion of their child to determine how able she is to stand up for herself, how impressionable she is, etc, and how this relates to what they should permit from the grandparents. It sounds like she’s pretty young now, so the parents need to be more protective of her. When she’s older and can stand up for her own beliefs, has a cell phone and can call the parents if the grandparents are behaving inappropriately in ways she can’t deal with, etc, the parents might decide to relax any restrictions they may have had to impose, on the grounds that their daughter can take care of herself in regard to religion. For example, my father didn’t want me being raised to be religious, and his parents did want me to be raised to be religious, but he knew by the time he started sending me for overnights at their house that I wasn’t going to be easily swayed to believe anything contrary to evidence.

    I loved my grandparents very much. I’m glad of all the time we had together, and I treasure the memories. I’ll always be a bit saddened that their religious differences with me (over my being gay) made our relationship difficult in the last few years of their life. Don, I sincerely hope you’ll be able to set some acceptable boundaries with your parents, and remove this point of contention.

  • ATL-Apostate

    Jon,
    I think your responses to this and other posts in the comment section have more than disqualified you from serving in any official capacity on this website.

    You are a troll. Trolls live under bridges and terrorize billygoats (and apparently, make idiotic statements on this blog). Trolls don’t get invited to write advice columns on blogs designed for rational, free thinkers. Either play it straight with us, or go back to your bridge.

    FYI, there are a couple of very rational, free-thinking theists who stop by this blog from time to time. Mike Clawson comes to mind. He would be a far superior choice to you. Unless, of course, you just wanted to do it for the lulz… that might be entertaining. I seldom grow tired of pointing and laughing at grumpy theists.

  • ZombieGirl

    I find atheists much harder to deal with given the level of hypocrisy, pretentiousness, and arrogance that is almost inherent in their belief system.

    Jon, that is why you are a troll. Do you really care about helping other people deal with their problems about something you dislike (atheism), particularly the people you describe as pretentious and arrogant? This question is not meant to provoke, but it is a serious question.

  • Siamang

    Jon wrote:

    Nonetheless, I think it would be wise for Hemant, given his claim to being a “friendly” atheist and valuing discussion, to request that someone respond to these letters from a theistic perspective, even if it is a lame perspective from Keith (the pastor).

    Notice how he even trolls a fellow Christian, Keith (the Pastor).

    Hemant has Christian contributors to his blog. In the past, both Hemant and I blogged for a Christian ministry, “Off The Map”.

    I’m sure that ministry has a “lame perspective” in Jon’s eyes. But I found the conversation very rewarding.

  • anonymouse

    Reading this Ask Richard made me angry. I cannot BELIEVE that the grandparents overstepped the boundary of physically putting the little girl’s hands in the praying position. I would lose my sh*t if that happened in my house, if it happened the way I imagine it did (slapping hands together) and would only be slightly nicer if it happened in a “less forceful” way.

    I haven’t come out to my family yet, and was raised somewhat conservative Christian. I have only not come out to them because of the pain it could potentially cause someone I love very much. I am afraid it will hit the proverbial fan if my partner and I ever have kids and the questions will come up (why don’t you take him/her to church, why isn’t she baptized, why don’t you guys pray with us, etc).
    Because of this reason, I can really empathize with not wanting to rock the boat.

    The grandparents are totally in the wrong, especially with the hand thing. That is NOT their child, and NOT okay they are doing that. Richard’s advice is diplomatic as usual. I hope the writer is able to stand up now instead of later when it will be much worse, but I can totally feel why he is reluctant to do so. I don’t think it’s cowardly, especially when I put myself in that situation and don’t want to cause someone anguish. You have to understand that TO THEM, you really are going to suffer in eternity, and damning a child as well. However, they are clearly using her to get at him and that is not fair to their own child or to their grandchild.

  • Pingback: Tug Of War With A Child’s Mind « Camels With Hammers

  • http://www.lyvvielimelight.blogspot.com Lyvvie

    Thank you Richard for an excellent letter from Don (Thank you too, Don!) and for your wonderful answers. I hope Don can find a middle ground with his parents, for the sake of his daughter (and future kids). This was my favourite post yet.

  • http://clergyguy.blogspot.com Clergy Guy

    Richard, I wholly endorse your answer to this young couple. I am a high mileage preacher, and I hope I’m not encroaching in your blog, but I want to say that I’ve had plenty of new grandparents come to me concerned about how their grandchildren are being raised.

    Even, often especially, in areas of religious conviction, I advise them strongly to back off–it’s not their business. And it’s wrong to usurp the parents’ authority especially in front of the kid.

    I spend most of my counseling efforts trying to iron out the massive difficulties of alcoholism and drug abuse, along with the violence and emotional damage done within a family. So when I see a young family being this conscientious to raise their child, I tell the grandparents to be grateful and back the heck off.

    It was also good advice to the young parents not to allow their child to be the rope in this tug of war.

    Finally, I appreciate the respect this young couple is trying to pay to all concerned, in spite of their differences.

    On my blog I remain anonymous, but these are things I would say publically from the pulpit.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    We had to tell my in-laws that we don’t pray at our house and they are not welcome to lead a prayer at meals in our house and we don’t have public prayers when we go to restaurants. When we go to visit them, at their house and at restaurants, we sit quietly when they pray because that is their custom. We respect their customs and we expect them to respect ours when they visit us.

  • http://3harpiesltd.org/ocb Judith Bandsma

    One of the problems, especially where Don lives, is that if the parents think like ‘Jonthetroll’ he and his wife could find themselves in court fighting for custody of their child.

    Unfortunately, not going to church, taking the child to church, etc, IS grounds in a lot of places for removing a child from the custody of non-theistic parents.

    I certainly hope Don’s parents wouldn’t be that vindictive…but I also wouldn’t count on it. If they’re willing to force the child into a prayer stance in the child’s own home, I wouldn’t be willing to trust what they might try next.

  • ChameleonDave

    These grandparents are bigots. Putting hands together is not even a requirement for praying. Closing the eyes or looking at the table is generally considered sufficient for saying Grace. The grandparents are demanding that the others make a very special effort to pretend to pray. They should count themselves lucky that the others stay silent, don’t start eating, and no doubt keep their eyes down too. You could, after all, simply laugh at them for their superstition.

    A significant line was crossed when the daughters was instructed to make a praying gesture, and another line was crossed by the use of physical contact to do so. It should have resulted in strong words spoken right then and there. If you didn’t have the stomach for it, then do it as soon as the kids aren’t there.

    You, the parents, are right. So, grow a pair, and stand up for yourself and your children.

  • Linda

    Let me first clarify that I just want to show a perspective that may not have been considered. The following doesn’t necessarily illustrate my current viewpoint, although I have wholeheartedly believed some or all of it at one point or another during the last ten years:

    The whole concept of Christianity is based on the belief that only through the grace of Jesus Christ can people be saved from eternal separation from God. If they consider themselves saved, then they would want everyone that they love to be saved as well. Otherwise, there’s no hope of being together for eternity or being reunited in heaven.

    From this perspective, if a Christian sees a loved one (in this case the grand-daughter) going in what they believe to be the direction of eternal death, they become desperate to save them.

    Imagine this: It’s 1912, and your loved ones decide to go on a cruise on the Titanic, and you somehow know ahead of time that it will sink. You would do everything in your power to keep them from boarding the ship, right? But they don’t believe you. Would you not try to at least hold onto the grand-child?

    If they really believe what they believe is really real… that’s how they would see it.

    They are doing it out of love, however unreasonable or ridiculous it may sound to you. Perhaps if you tried to approach the issue from a place of understanding, you will see more willingness to compromise. I’m afraid making demands and giving ultimatums may only result in hurt feelings and resentments.

    You might want to explain to the grandparents that they are not the ones in control. Regardless of their beliefs, it is not up to them to decide who gets saved and who doesn’t. If they really believe that God is in control, they should not have a problem yielding to him. They need to understand that their only job is to love and accept their children/grandchildren just the way they are, even if their beliefs and lifestyles do not match up with theirs. Because that’s the basis of the grace message, reminding them will not hurt.

    I suggest that you try reassuring them of your love and gently requesting them to loosen their grip to allow some breathing room.

  • False Prophet

    The whole concept of Christianity is based on the belief that only through the grace of Jesus Christ can people be saved from eternal separation from God.

    @Linda,

    No, that’s the whole concept of Christianity for “born-agains”. It is not the perspective of all Christians. My Catholic relatives would disagree with you. :)

  • http://deleted Siamang

    Linda,

    I take what you’re saying… it’s a tack of going out of your way to see it from the grandparents’ point of view (as you see it from your perspective.)

    If nothing else, it’s a point of view that others haven’t brought up. Also that giving the problem over to God is a novel idea.

    Myself, while I can see that approaching the grandparents from that tack IS the best way to get to the other side of a difficult conversation with the grandparents feeling the best… I’m not sure I could do it, if this were me.

    Because I think it would feel disingenous to me. I’d be using a theology I don’t hold to, against my parents. I’d kind of be arguing another side of their theology against them… something I don’t hold to be true in the first place.

    It would be a style of presuppositional hypothetical reasoning that would leave my parents confused about my beliefs, and possibly thinking they could talk me back into faith since I already support some of the presuppositions.

    Also, it just would feel icky… adopting some of their beliefs for the sake of an argument against them. It feels disrespectful of their beliefs. It seems like I’d be saying “I know the ramifications of your beliefs better than you do.”

  • medussa

    Clergy Guy, I’m not familiar with your world. Could you explain what a high mileage preacher is?

    @Linda: my impression of the entire original letter to Richard is that the parents of the little girl are very much aware of the fact that the grandparents’ behavior is based on concern for the welfare of the granddaughter.
    In other words, your point has already been taken into account by the parents, they have already been very considerate and patient, and have shown a lot of sympathy for the religious feelings of the grandparents.
    There is a point where enough is enough, and the grandparents have begun crossing lines that common respect and courtesy would have left in place.
    Your comparison to the titanic is an good one, because it presupposes some kind of prophetic knowledge, which the grandparents believe they have about the fate of the girl’s soul. However, the comparison is also a bad one, because prophetic knowledge doesn’t exist, just like heaven and hell.
    The grandparents here obviously believe their “knowledge” trumps common courtesy and respect for the parent’s beliefs, but that’s one of the problems of believers, isn’t it? They think their concern for other people’s beliefs justifies killing, rudeness, criminal acts, and all kinds of hypocrisy and arrogance.

  • Linda

    No, that’s the whole concept of Christianity for “born-agains”. It is not the perspective of all Christians. My Catholic relatives would disagree with you.

    False Prophet,
    Thanks for that correction. I keep forgetting not all Christians believe the same way, just as I forget not all atheists are nice. ;)

    I’d kind of be arguing another side of their theology against them… something I don’t hold to be true in the first place.

    Siamang,
    Why not use their theology to reason with them? If that’s what they believe to be the only truth, it may be the only thing they will listen to. If the goal is to communicate, and if the grandparents are not willing to meet them where they are, then perhaps they should try at the grandparents’ level. If the goal is to alienate, then… make an awesome argument to prove that they are wrong and slam the door. Easy.

  • Linda

    In other words, your point has already been taken into account by the parents, they have already been very considerate and patient, and have shown a lot of sympathy for the religious feelings of the grandparents.

    I think there is a clear difference between being considerate and patient and actually trying to look through a different lens and understand the other view.

    Again, the point here is not to keep score or prove right and wrong, is it?

  • medussa

    No, Linda, you’re right, the point is not to keep score, the point is to prevent the grandparents using their granddaughter as a religious pawn.
    But remember, per the original letter, the parents were both raised within religious communities, so it’s unlikely they don’t understand the grandparents’ position. Again, the letter shows a lot of patience, compassion, and understanding towards the grandparents, and there is no reason to assume that they are not able to show and use their past experience of being raised in the church in trying to get their boundaries across.

    At some point you have to acknowledge that the burden of communication is not on the parents only. The grandparents must show willingness to communicate, and to negotiate, and to respect boundaries. The child is 2 1/2 years old, and so far, the issue hasn’t come to a head, but now the grandparents have shown a willingness to step over a line, and they need to show their ability to respect boundaries. It’s not like they didn’t know the parents were atheists, so they’ve had plenty of time to sit down and voice their concerns, as adults, without slapping the hands of the little girl, in a family setting no less.

  • Kate

    This response from Clergy guy:

    Richard, I wholly endorse your answer to this young couple. I am a high mileage preacher, and I hope I’m not encroaching in your blog, but I want to say that I’ve had plenty of new grandparents come to me concerned about how their grandchildren are being raised.
    Even, often especially, in areas of religious conviction, I advise them strongly to back off–it’s not their business. And it’s wrong to usurp the parents’ authority especially in front of the kid.

    is exactly what I expected.

    Meaning, I think someone like Mike Clawson, Keith the pastor, or now apparently Clergy Guy would give mostly the SAME response as Richard to 99% of these questions. A lot of these questions are, at their heart, about truly non-religious issues. Setting boundaries with parents/in-laws, marriages, etc. So no offense guys (and I’m not sure you’ll be offended, since none of you offered) but I think it’d be largely the same response as Richard.

    Also, way to go Richard for another great answer. :)

  • Linda

    Medussa,

    Belief is a funny thing.

    I’m not siding with the grandparents, nor am I saying I know exactly what their true motivations are. There are some valid points made here, and I respect them.

    I just wanted to suggest another point of view just in case it hadn’t been considered, that’s all.

    And you cannot assume people know exactly what each other believes or how each other thinks, regardless of how close they are. Maybe your family communicates well and can almost read each other’s minds, but sometimes I find myself living with strangers or I discover things about my loved ones that are delightfully shocking.

  • Claudia

    Jon, though I suspect I may come to regret it, I’m really curious to know what your rebuttal would be to this advice. Presumably you think that the grandparents should be allowed to indoctrinate into religion the child against the wishes of the parents? How would you justify this? Or am I wrong and you merely have a different view of the role of parents and grandparents regardless of views (meaning you would apply the same standard if the parents were Christian and the grandparents atheist)?

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    @Linda @10:26,

    Thanks for the statement of that point of view. That’s the kind of information I thought would be fascinating to see. Thinking in terms of what a god wants me to do is about as foreign to me as considering what wisdom the tarot cards might have for me or living my life according to the dictates of my horoscope in the daily paper.

    However, JulietEcho brings up a good point that I could easily go to hundreds of outlets that would have essentially the columns I’m looking for. I’d bet a shiny nickel that somebody has written a letter very similar to the one the grandparents would write directed to a Christian advice columnist within the past two weeks. There’s really no need to post such things here.

    Slightly OT – I followed one of the recent media links from the top of Hemant’s page over to ChristianPost and read the write-up on their site. Holy Guacamole! Biased much? I couldn’t make it to the end of the article without taking a break.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    It is interesting that the so-called “lame” Christians seem to respect and defer judgments to the God they believe in while the “true” Christians are all hung up on appearances (of praying) and outward demonstrations of appeasement to a God they must think is easily manipulated. If there is a God in the business of dolling out rewards and punishments, I would gather to think She would be more impressed with the time and effort that an atheist spends thinking about the nature of the universe rather than a “true” Christian performing all the outward demonstrations of devotion. I’m impressed by the comments by the “lame” Christians here. I’m not so impressed with our troll.

  • http://www.americanthinker.com Jon

    Claudia – I would be glad to share with you my perspective. Unfortunately, I wrote several comments last night that were ‘moderated’. So, Hemant apparently doesn’t want any opposition view shared.

  • Aj

    I’m pretty sure the parents comprehend why the grandparents are doing what they’re doing. That doesn’t excuse them of what they’re doing. They have no justification for their beliefs, and they do not have the right to coerce children to act according to their delusions. I think what they have done according to the letter isn’t too troubling, saying prayers and the hand gesture is meaningless to atheists, and toddlers will also find it meaningless.

    An atheist telling Christians what to believe is not going to go down well. Christians telling other Christians what to believe doesn’t go down well. If these Christians believe that they’ve been told by God to spread their message, and they believe in hell for non-believers, and they’re not doubting themselves, there’s not much you can do.

    As atheists the parents have the power, they also have reason. If they think reason will work that’s great, but it sounds like it doesn’t have a chance. A discussion needs to be had about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Parents have to take responsibility.

  • Siamang

    Linda wrote:

    Why not use their theology to reason with them? If that’s what they believe to be the only truth, it may be the only thing they will listen to.

    Well, the problem is, I wouldn’t know their theology better than they would.

    All they could do is say “in a dream, God came to me and told me I needed to do this”, and I cannot argue against that theology.

    Arguing theology is playing ball by their rules. And theology changes the rules when it loses. To argue AGAINST that theology is to have a religious argument where you start disrespecting their beliefs, which is a non-starter in a family discussion toward understanding.

    I maintain that this should be an argument about who will be the parent for the child, and leave the theological arguments to people who subscribe to the theology.

    Again, the point here is not to keep score or prove right and wrong, is it?

    I think the goal is to set acceptable boundaries for behavior. I agree, it’s not to “keep score.” But rather to remove the game-playing altogether.

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  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    @Siamang:
    “But rather to remove the game-playing altogether.”

    Amen to that.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Claudia – I would be glad to share with you my perspective. Unfortunately, I wrote several comments last night that were ‘moderated’. So, Hemant apparently doesn’t want any opposition view shared.

    Comments are moderated if they include too many links. Or, of course, you could just be lying. Judging from your past behavior here, I’ll go with the latter.

  • ChameleonDave

    Unfortunately, I wrote several comments last night that were ‘moderated’. So, Hemant apparently doesn’t want any opposition view shared

    It must have been pretty damn immoderate then, because Hemant lets you spout nonsense on here 24/7.

  • medussa

    Poor, poor victimized Jon.
    Once again not responding to actual discussion points, once again blaming atheists in general and Hemant in particular for his inability to make his case…

    Pity poor Jon.

  • Sandra

    @ The Other Tom

    Sorry, I misunderstood the context of your statement.
    When I saw your initial comment, I read it as a dialogue to have during the discussion where Don (and his wife) would be setting the boundaries for acceptable behavior, thus my response. I completely agree with imposing limits when someone has blatantly overstepped a boundary.

  • The Other Tom

    @Sandra: That’s fine, we’re having a civilized discussion and I’m in no way offended. I did in fact agree with you, and merely wished to clarify that I had thought of those things. I’m sure we both hope for the best for Don and his child.