Ask Richard: Atheist’s Mother Tries to Guilt Trip Him

Dear Richard,

I came out as an atheist to my ultra-Catholic parents about a year ago. Surprisingly, my Dad has been very understanding. I had to move back in with my parents because I am in my last quarter of undergrad. My mother, despite her knowledge of my atheism was under the impression that I would be attending church on Sunday. Needless to say, we’ve had many fights about it. She’s pulled out many neo-con hot words like how I’m undermining “the Family Unit” and that I “Hate Family.” She constantly victimizes herself claiming that I’m allowed to be an atheist, but that my refusal to go to church is a “slap in the face” to her and how she thinks that I’m claiming that she’s wrong (which I do think, but, there is always the chance I’m wrong, no matter how much evidence is on my side). To be frank, this is why I don’t debate Christians like many atheists do, in my experience it is always a losing battle. With those who are committed, I’ve found, there will be NO changing their mind. How do I avoid this incredibly harmful and annoying conflict? I have committed myself to my family in nearly every way, always being there and helping as best I can. Yet, I’ve been told that my request to have this one area of my life left to my discretion is “wrong,” a “slap in the face,” and “selfish.” What do you do when you feel your parents are less emotionally mature than you are? I only have a few weeks left before I leave town for good, but my girlfriend and I (both atheists) will be getting married soon and I am weary of a renewed conflict. Basically, how do I create a safe space for myself, my worldview, and my spouse in the face of mounting intolerance?

Thanks for any help.

Sincerely,
Face-slapper

Dear Face-slapper,

I’d rather call you Facing it Bravely.

The best thing for you to do is exactly what you’re about to do. Move out and build your own family. Physical distance and financial independence will help a great deal in creating that safe space for you and your spouse to be true to your own views and values.

Definitely don’t give in and go to church if you don’t wish to. You’re on the eve of establishing your independent life, and you should start drawing clear boundaries now. Otherwise, your mother will continue to try to intrude and to boss you and your spouse around about a hundred things, not just church. The family you will create will be a sovereign country. Others are welcome to visit only on condition of their acceptable and respectful behavior. You can probably continue to have contact and interaction with your parents, but only within the limits of common courtesy, which you will need to enforce consistently.

Your mother is attempting to control you and to win a power struggle with what is probably her favorite technique, the guilt trip. I suspect that she has done this for many years with all sorts of issues, from eating your vegetables, to now your religious views, and if it hasn’t happened yet, perhaps even your choice of spouse.

By portraying your personal viewpoint as if it’s a hateful assault on her or others, as if it’s hurting the family or even the institution of family, she is attempting to put you on the defensive, having to prove that you’re not the villain she is saying you are.

Think of it as a bear trap with crap for bait. Don’t step in it!

Arguing with her will only feed her doing it more. Any angry reaction, or a detailed argument back means you’re defending yourself, and by defending yourself you are, in her mind, confirming your guilt. As you have very correctly said, once you engage in such an argument, you’re in a losing battle. By reacting to it, you’re just asking for more.

Instead, develop a couple of single-sentence dismissals that you repeat in a calm voice whenever necessary. Something like, “That’s an obvious guilt trip, Mom, and I’m not buying a ticket.” or “That’s a silly thing to say, so I’m not going to argue with you.” It’s not an argument, it’s a dismissal. It is essential that you deliver it word-for-word, exactly the same each time without any anger or contempt or tension in your voice, just a quiet tone of calm disinterest. Then walk away.

This will take patience and practice on your part. She knows all your buttons and she may try to push any of them. For instance, you said “I have committed myself to my family in nearly every way, always being there and helping as best I can.” You rightly gain some self esteem from knowing that you have been a good and helpful part of the family. Any insinuation that you are derelict or disloyal will hurt your feelings, and will tempt you to react. Don’t! Just use your calm, cool, emotionless dismissal sentence and then walk away.

Your mother is using emotional blackmail probably because she’s gotten her way with this method often, even if in the past it was more subtle. Yes, you are right; at least in this set of behaviors, your mother is being less emotionally mature than you. You as an adult must not stoop to arguing with a spoiled child. You should simply dismiss her when she acts like one.

Having been brought up by a guilt tripper, you probably know how to do it yourself, and you might be tempted to reciprocate. Don’t, don’t, don’t!

If she changes her tactics and tries a more grown up approach, consider responding in kind only if she is being respectful. But be careful to remain calm, and the moment she reverts to the guilt-tripping or the button-pushing, use your unperturbed dismissal sentence and then walk away.

Your goal is not to change her opinion, only to change these specific behaviors of hers. It is basic behavioral modification: The organism eventually ceases the behavior if there is no more satisfying reinforcement. Reacting to her with anger or argument is the reinforcement. That’s why it is very important to be consistent and not slip into that. Giving intermittent reinforcement really slows down the process of extinguishing the behavior.

Now we should take a moment to try to empathize with your mom. I’m not talking about the church attendance, but about an underlying issue that may be giving at least some of the passion to her attempts to manipulate and control you.

Even when we are in a conflict with someone, if we can empathize with them, understanding the emotions and needs that drive their behavior, we can be more patient with them, and we can respond with more effective ways of resolving the conflict.

You are graduating. You’re leaving. You’re growing up and starting your own life with your own spouse, your own home, and your own means of support. Your mother can no longer play the role of parent. She senses that she is losing her control of you, so she’s increasing her efforts. But from now on, you will only respond to her as an adult to an adult, rather than as a child to a parent. That is very often an extremely difficult thing for parents to do, to stop behaving as parents and to transition to relating to their children as adults. The parental instinct to protect, provide, teach, guide and control their offspring is extremely strong, and even the most enlightened parents can have some difficulty adjusting when their kids grow up.

So it’s important to remember that just as you are not a villain, neither is your mom.

She is caught up in a cherished role that is being taken away from her, she is caught up in beliefs and prejudices that cause her anguish, and she is caught up in old habits of manipulation that worked in the past but are no longer workable.

This is where the teaching and guiding starts to flow in the opposite direction. By consistently responding to your mom and dad as an adult to adults, and by not responding to them when they try to relate to you as parents to a child, you will be subtly but powerfully helping them into their new relationship and role. This is often a very slow and bumpy process, so expect gradual results.

Facing it Bravely, loving your parents does not necessarily include liking them. Sometimes there are just too many differences for a friendship with someone whom you love for very primal reasons. The essential ingredient of such a familial love is not agreement but understanding. Treat them respectfully and expect respectful treatment back, but you must live true to your own principles. Perhaps there will eventually be a more amiable bond between you.

I wish you and your spouse all the best as you embark on your voyage, and I wish your parents contentment and serenity as they settle into their new roles of adults relating to their adult son.

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.

  • Thegoodman

    Rather than a pretentious or “know-it-all” response, simply say “I love you mom.” and gently kiss her forehead and walk away.

    In my opinion; Mothers, grandmothers, and particularly unreasonable family members fall into a small category that should be lied to in regard to your faith, or lack there of. Say that it doesn’t fit into your life right now but might someday down the road. Leave the hope door open for the unreasonable people whom you love but don’t want to be in conflict with.

    When/if my grandmother goes to her grave soon, she will do so thinking I am a Christian. This will make her happy and when you are 84 and decrepit, there isn’t much to be happy about. She can have that and I gladly/knowingly allow her to have it. The fact that it is a lie is insignificant and changes nothing.

    Give your poor mother a break, she only wants what is best for you. Open the door for her and let her think you might let got into your heart one day. Many people tell me my views will change when I have kids (they won’t but whatever), say that to her. Let her know you may feel differently when you have kids of your own.

    The other option is that your mom is just a raging bitch. In which case you should just ignore her and speak to her sparingly until you move out and equally sparingly afterward.

  • keddaw

    Ask her if she’d do this if you’d become a Jew, Muslim etc. or even another branch of Christianity. I feel that this will show you if she’s being anti-atheist, which you could possibly reason away, or if she’s being obsessively pro-her-faith which you can’t.

  • gmcfly

    Just reading this makes me actually want to slap that mother in the face. Wake up, woman! It’s not all about you!

    But I applaud you for being the good son/daughter.

  • http://imaginggeek.blogspot.com Imaging Geek

    I have to disagree with thegoodman. Part of being a family is respecting each other – even when you don’t agree on things. To lie, or ignore, a relative acting like “bravely’s” mom will only act to weaken whatever relationship they have.

    I was a little more direct with my family than Richard recommends – when faced with almost exactly the same comments, I took it head on. Like Richard, I kept saying the same thing, but my statement was something along the lines of “I have made my choice, and belittling me won’t change that. I’m trying to be part of this family, but your attacks will do nothing but drive me away. If you want me to be a part of this family, you’re going to have to accept me as I am”.

    Yes, a little more wordy, but it does push the point that I am whom I am, that I wanted to remain close to my family, and that their actions were driving me away.

    It worked; I remain as close to my family now as I was in me “pre-atheist” days.

  • http://woodpigeon01.wordpress.com Colm

    I agree with Richard, but I would add that his mother’s behaviour is born out of sheer frustration and anger that her son has chosen a very different path in life. It’s essentially an emotional response and it’s likely to be something that she will adjust to over time, particularly if nastiness can be kept at bay. The key thing is not to say something or do something that causes permanent bitterness. With the upcoming marriage, and who knows, maybe kids down the line, parents, even the most angry ones, tend to adapt quite quickly. It just takes time. Maybe less time than you think.

  • Peregrine

    This is too familiar to me.

    Somewhere around highschool or university, I’d managed to get the point across that I wasn’t going to church. Partly because I stayed in bed, and my family idled the engine waiting for me until they couldn’t wait any longer, and then left. Eventually they got the point, and stopped waiting.

    For a while, I was working weekends, and since I often worked late, there was another tangible reason they could attribute it to.

    But they still expected me to go at Easter and Christmas. I don’t remember what year it was; probably 2nd or 3rd year of university, but that year I refused to get out of bed for Easter mass. They waited. They idled the truck waiting for me until they couldn’t wait any longer, and then left. Finally, I got up, left the house for a bit, went down to the beach and meditated for about half an hour, came home, and waited for them to return.

    My mother was angry, and accused me of ‘not wanting to be part of this family’. As if my choice of religion is a prerequisite of being part of the family, and somehow more important than DNA, or the 20-some-odd-years we’d spent together. I didn’t say anything. I just fumed a little, and went on with the day.

    But that was the last time they tried to pressure or guilt me into anything.

    You’ve just got to stand your ground. Let them know -gently- that you’re an adult, it’s your life, and you’ll make your own decisions. They’ll come around eventually, even if they don’t agree, they’ll come to some kind of understanding.

  • http://www.dogmafreeamerica.com Jamye Johnston

    I found the most useful thing I could say to my mother is this:

    Me: Mum, you believe that God made us all to suit his divine plan, correct?

    Her: Of course!

    Me: Then you have to come to terms with the idea that, for whatever divine reason, your God chose to make me an Atheist.

    Ever since that brief conversation which left her speechless, the topic has not come up. I do not attend church with them, and they are comforted by the (probably erroneous) idea that God has plans for me in the Atheist community, and that they might not understand it, but they must accept it, by their own beliefs.

    Remind them of the tolerance that their religion preaches, and remind them that you love them, and that the bible says they should love you too, no matter your faults.

    It has worked well for me for years.

    JJ.

  • Siamang

    I’m starting to notice, having lived on this earth over 40 years, that people start to get a bit “tweaked” in their personalities about this age.

    I always kind of thought older people were just whatever their personality was. But now that I’m seeing people progress through their lives, I’m seeing a “tweaking” process going on. Like some people start becoming a more highly-strung version of their younger selves.

    Granted, some folks age nicely, and become more balanced and relaxed in their lives. But some other people get stranger and stranger…. kind of more manic. I’ve especially noticed this in women, and often in religious women.

    Anyone else seeing this? There doesn’t seem to be a name for it.

  • TeddyKGB

    It pains me to read Richard’s columns, as the “advice” continues to be exceedingly poor.

    As an atheist, you should know that life is too damn short to having these types of arguments; you’re not going to repair a broken relationship in an afterlife. Once again, it’s exceedingly hypocritical to expect someone to respect your beliefs when you disrespect theirs. Combating stubbornness with stubbornness is the surest way to end the relationship with your one and only mother forever.

    I don’t know what exactly is so painful about attending church for an hour a week, especially if you believe it to be nonsense. I doubt you are being asked to participate in an overt manner, anyway. What you are doing, however, is spending an hour with your family that you otherwise might not be. If you end up marrying your girlfriend in a non-religious ceremony, it is your mother’s loss if she refuses to participate.

    If your mom is being cruel and abusive, find a way to get out of there ASAP; if one hour of church a week is all she’s asking of you, acquiesce. Once you’re on your own and paying your own bills, then you’ll be free to do (or not do) whatever the hell you please. Reacting to differing beliefs defiantly is exactly how we’ve been taught by religious people for centuries; it’s time to break the cycle.

  • Jeff Dale

    unreasonable family members fall into a small category that should be lied to in regard to your faith, or lack there of

    Although it may be laudable to consider lying about one’s views, or lying about the likelihood of them changing later, to spare family members’ feelings, I think it’d be a mistake. (I’m somewhat ambivalent on this point in the case of a very old relative, however.)

    Imagine if you’ve led an unreasonable relative to believe that you’ll change your views when you have kids. When you do have kids, all the pressure will come back stronger than ever, but this time it won’t just be aimed at you. Some people, who have already shown they’re not going to be reasonable on the issue of religious “faith,” will try anything to influence your kids, who they’ll regard as much more important (and much more promising) than you in their “faith” campaign. I’ve heard of people secretly indoctrinating other people’s kids, telling kids that their own parents are destined for hell, etc., and that on top of the pressure they put on you. You don’t want this kind of nightmare. Much better to give them a few years to reconcile themselves to the fact that they won’t be allowed to proselytize their grandkids.

    And really, it’s not fair to string them along if they’re going to have to find out eventually anyway. If you’re not going to raise your kids religious, it’s more than dishonest to pretend that you might choose to do so later in order to get out of conflict now. It’s not just a white lie to spare someone’s feelings (as might arguably be the case with an elderly relative who won’t be around to be disillusioned), it’s a weaselly lie that makes it look like you can’t stick up for yourself or lack the courage of your convictions. It’s like if you want to break up with a significant other, and he/she begs you to reconsider, and you do, even though you know you’re not going to change your mind. Always take the high road, in part because we nonreligious have to avoid giving the religious any excuse to think poorly of us (an unfair double standard, but it is what it is), and partly because the high road is ultimately where we’ll be happiest.

    Besides the above considerations, there’s the simple relief of being “out,” and not having to live a lie. By modeling a virtuous life of nonbelief, and speaking of it without equivocation or apology, you will be setting a good example for everyone you know (including, eventually, your kids, who will learn a lot from that, apart from the message of atheism itself). You might even be surprised at some of your previously unreasonable relatives eventually coming around to atheism. In your parents’ case, you’ll be treating them with the respect due to them as adults (even if they haven’t always exhibited the best adult behavior), with minds of their own that can handle the truth. It’s up to them to live up to that standard, but you can’t control that.

    It won’t be easy, but you have to be strong, for yourself, for your new family, and for your old family. Good luck.

  • Jeff Dale

    Reacting to differing beliefs defiantly is exactly how we’ve been taught by religious people for centuries; it’s time to break the cycle.

    I think Richard’s advice is suggesting a middle ground between defiance and acquiescence: simply defusing the arguments. I think it’s a good approach, so I would consider this to be good advice. You’ll burn for eternity if you disagree. (Haha, just kidding.)

    I don’t know what exactly is so painful about attending church for an hour a week

    I wouldn’t quibble with an atheist who took this approach. If it doesn’t bother you, it’s a reasonable approach. But it does bother some atheists, and even if they’re not prickly, stubborn, and defiant about it, I can understand their position. I took my 7-yo to a Catholic service (she was curious), and I just couldn’t get past feeling uncomfortable the whole time. I felt like I had to be careful not to let my atheism shine thru, lest I disturb the people around me. After all, I went out of my way to come into their house. (As a side note, I wasn’t worried about my 7-yo getting into it. She’s a natural skeptic and saw right thru the absurd sermon.)

  • Jeff Dale

    Me: Then you have to come to terms with the idea that, for whatever divine reason, your God chose to make me an Atheist.

    Funny one! Hey mom, here’s a little cognitive dissonance for you. “Faith” doesn’t offer answers for such absurdities.

  • TeddyKGB

    Then you have to come to terms with the idea that, for whatever divine reason, your God chose to make me an Atheist.

    If you have to go that route, you can also remind them that they are atheists in regards to Jupiter, Zeus, Allah, etc. — and that you’re just going one god further.

  • prospera

    TeddyKGB,

    It pains me to read Richard’s columns

    Then why do you?

    As an atheist, you should know that life is too damn short

    Exactly!

    Once again, it’s exceedingly hypocritical to expect someone to respect your beliefs when you disrespect theirs.

    It’s also exceedingly hypocritical to go through the motions and pretend when it is absolutely not who you are.

    I don’t know what exactly is so painful about attending church for an hour a week

    “Life is too damn short” to waste an hour a week doing something you hate just to please others.

    What you are doing, however, is spending an hour with your family that you otherwise might not be.

    There are countless wonderful and non-religious activities you could do with your family where everyone involved can find a common ground. (i.e. take your mother shopping, help her bake, go to the movies or a bookstore, go for a long walk, etc.)

    I don’t think you should look at it just as a comply-or-refuse matter. You can find creative solutions to keep the family together outside of church.

  • Jeff Dale

    it’s exceedingly hypocritical to expect someone to respect your beliefs when you disrespect theirs

    Just a side note here, not to pick on Teddy, who sounds intelligent and sincere.

    I find it helpful to distinguish between respecting the person and respecting the beliefs. I don’t actually expect anyone to respect my atheist views, though I hope they’ll respect me as a person and treat me kindly, and do their best to understand even if they don’t agree. Likewise, I don’t see any reason to respect anyone’s religious beliefs, though I don’t voice this disrespect gratuitously, and when I do voice it I try to stick to facts and reasoning, while treating the theist with compassion and respect, and as much understanding as I can bring to bear.

    To me, this approach is worthwhile for its own sake (being my best humanist self) and for its merit of keeping debates as civil and productive and on-subject as they can be.

  • Thegoodman

    @Jeff Dale
    Thanks for the commentary. I think we just come from very different backgrounds and I feel like a lot of the points you make would create needless arguments and tension.

    In many situations, an unreasonable relative will have either 1. ended their religious conversion campaign (from my experience these typically last less than 1 year) 2. given up on you. Either of these situations avoid conflict altogether. For an unreasonable relative that increases pressure when I have kids, I will simply tell them the truth at that time. Mostly because it would be me standing up for the well being of my children, not just myself. If they secretly told my children I was going to hell, they would never see my children in the flesh again and if it were a male, would be physically assaulted by my person. True, I do not want this kind of nightmare and I can’t even imagine a situation like this because I am not involved with crazy people, so it is unlikely to ever happen.

    Not fair to string them along? In my opinion, it is not fair to pressure someone about their beliefs. The “unreasonable” part implied that said family member is not fair to begin with and is being rude/disrespectful. I am not talking about a perfectly reasonable adult here, I am talking about a completely unreasonable person who refuses to discuss such things. The path of least resistance will ease a lot of tension with all of your family members, even if they know it is not 100% true.

    Since I do not believe in god, saying I do is a white lie to me. It is insignificant and has little to no effect on me. If this small lie makes my own mother happy, so be it. There are few people in this world with whom you should compromise your own beliefs in order to make them happy; your mother is on that shortlist with your children and grandmother. Everyone else can take me as I am; for the shortlist, I’ll bend over backward.

    I get no relief from being “out”. I am not defined by my atheism. I have an open family that accepts people from all walks of life and they do not judge others. I do not live a lie, I am just disinterested in discussing religion with my family. If they force their hand, I’ll either tell them how I feel, or in special cases (Grandma/Mom) dance around the topic a bit.

    Making your mother upset for your own self gratification isn’t setting a good example, it is being rude. I am not so insecure that I need to upset people around me by announcing how I am different/better than they are. I am happy with myself and with my beliefs and I wish to leave my family members in the same situation.

    Cheers

  • anon.

    Granted, some folks age nicely, and become more balanced and relaxed in their lives. But some other people get stranger and stranger…. kind of more manic. I’ve especially noticed this in women, and often in religious women.

    Anyone else seeing this? There doesn’t seem to be a name for it.

    Yep. I call it mental-pause, aka menopause.

  • Jeff Dale

    Making your mother upset for your own self gratification isn’t setting a good example, it is being rude. I am not so insecure that I need to upset people around me by announcing how I am different/better than they are.

    Thanks Thegoodman. I understand where you’re coming from. Some people might indeed derive some type of satisfaction from claiming superiority in this way, but I’m not such a person, and that isn’t what I meant, so I might need to explain a little better.

    Basically, you can boil it down this way. If you’re in a family where [1] there’s pressure to conform in religion, and where you can reasonably expect to get abuse if you don’t conform, and [2] if pretending to conform would be uncomfortable for you, and raising religious kids is unacceptable to you, then you’re in a no-win situation not of your own making. You have a choice of either upsetting the relatives or upsetting yourself. It might be worthwhile to brave the storm from disclosure to the family, with some hope of coming out the other side better off for the experience, and you’d be justified in doing so. (I’m fortunate that my family is not like that.)

    “Rude” would be if you attacked the relatives’ religion or criticized them personally. None of the above has anything to do with that.

    I feel like a lot of the points you make would create needless arguments and tension.

    If they secretly told my children I was going to hell, they would never see my children in the flesh again and if it were a male, would be physically assaulted by my person.

    These two points seem to work at cross-purposes, though I suspect you didn’t mean them that way. My points were meant to suggest facing the tension up front and working thru it, rather than deferring it until the kids arrive and having to fend off the relatives while they learn they’re not allowed to proselytize. If I’m going to have to face the tension and arguments sooner or later, I’d rather face them now, rather pretend for a while, then later have kids and discover that a relative is hell-raising behind my back. Granted, relatives could always try hell-raising anyway, regardless of how far in advance we argue about it, but I suspect that by working thru it in advance I’m reducing the chance that I’ll need to deny any of my relatives access to my kids later.

    I get no relief from being “out”. I am not defined by my atheism

    I am not defined by my atheism either, but its importance to me is greatly magnified by my concern about the effects of religion on humanity. In other words, in principle, nonbelief to me could be just like non-stamp-collecting. But since the world is full of so many believers, and since some of the major harms and potential dangers to humanity are at best made harder to address by religion (if not outright promoted by it), and since nonbelievers are made to feel like second-class citizens in so many places to a greater or lesser degree, I feel “called,” if you will, to address the issue head-on, for humanitarian reasons, not for strictly personal reasons.

    Thus, I like being “out” not as an in-your-face statement, but as a way of showing the normalcy of nonbelief, both to theists (who I hope will learn to be more understanding and accepting, where that is needed) and to atheists (who I hope will feel more comfortable with themselves and the people they know). In other words, my reasons for and approach to being “out” are the same as for many in the LGBT community. (The ones who model a normal life as LGBT, not the ones who go on parade in flamboyant costumes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

  • Jen

    I am going to go ahead and disagree with Teddy for two reasons.

    1. You, Facing, are an adult, and as such, you need to make adult choices and stick with them. Giving in for an hour a week may make Mom feel better, but where will it end? Then it will be the wedding, the kids, every Christmas trip home, etc, etc, right up until she makes sure you are buried next to a church after you drop dead from the smothering. Draw the line in the sand now, and enjoy the rest of the time you have with her.

    2. Church is not now, nor has it ever been, about spending time together, unless the only time you are ever free is Sunday mornings. There are plenty of ways to spend time with someone- or show love and appreciation by greeting her after church with a recently baked coffee cake, or cleaned out gutters, or a polished bathroom.

    Yep. I call it mental-pause, aka menopause.

    Yep. Bitches is KRAZY. Look at them, with their stupid bodies, full of hormones. Sometimes they cry! Sometimes they get pregnant when they don’t want to! Then they go through menopause and are complete idiots. Good thing the MENZ are in charge, as they are perpetually 25 and don’t have natural life cycles.

  • littlejohn

    Wear one of those beanie thingies, grow a beard and tell Mom you’ve become a Jew. After she freaks out for a couple of weeks, tell her you’ve given up Judaism (you didn’t really like the Christian babies’ blood) and now you’re ready to compromise. She’ll be happy to have you as an atheist.

  • absent sway

    Thanks, Jen. Maybe if menopause wasn’t mocked so much, more women experiencing difficulties with it would get help.

  • Richard Wade

    Of all the various problems about which people write to me, the most common by far is about parents who are not accepting their adult child’s atheism. There are no blanket or cookie cutter solutions to this problem. I have to give my advice on a case-by-case basis, and I can only go by the insights and impressions I get from the details of each letter.

    There are many complex factors in these family conflicts, and the strength of any one factor can make the optimal response completely different from any other case. Just a few of these include the ages of the people involved, the financial dependency issues, the living arrangements, the recent or imminent life events happening, the level of tension about the subject, and the balance of reasonableness or unreasonableness in the individuals’ stances. So for one family I might make a suggestion similar to what you have read here, or I might make even the exact opposite suggestion for a different family.

    So when you read a letter and my response, it may or may not fit whatever has been your experience, but it is a mistake to say, “Oh you should never do such-and-such,” or “Oh you should always do such-and-such.”

    In such family problems as these, every solution, every response has its advantages and disadvantages, its possibilities and its risks. Without exception, there is a trade-off, there is almost always at least a little pain that must be felt. Often the choice between solutions comes down to some pain felt now or much more pain felt later.

    For instance, in this family, the mother is trying to characterize Face’s desire to not attend church as something that hurts her and the family. That is patently absurd. She is focused on getting her way and maintaining control over her son who is naturally asserting his independence in many areas of his life. His not going to church does not in any way stop her or anyone else in the family from going. So the “hurt” she feels is entirely contrived in her own mind.

    The tactic of acquiescing to her demands and going might “keep the peace” with the mother, but as I said, there is always a trade-off. If it was about a 99 year-old grandma who wants Face to go to Christmas Mass, then it might be worth it to just do it. In this case, my impression is that the mother would continue to demand one thing after another, issue after issue, following Face into his marriage until something finally became too much for him to bear, and the crisis would explode much more destructively. I have worked with hundreds of families with these control issues, and in general, the adult child asserting his boundaries sooner is better and easier than doing it later.

    The argument was put forth that going along with a parent’s desire for church attendance would be okay until the adult child wanted to marry, and then the parent would have to accept a non-religious wedding ceremony. The problem with that would immediately be that the parent would say, “You have gone to church for me all these years, why can’t you get married in a church too?”

    If you give in, and give in, and give in, you are adding weight to the argument for giving in one more time. There will be no end to the demands until you make an end.

    Someone shared that they would be willing to acquiesce to their parent’s wish for church attendance until children were born, and then they would put their foot down and say “no.” Again, this might be just putting off some pain now for much more pain later. The parent has gotten into the habit of having her way about church with one generation, and she will be much more emboldened to make demands about the little ones.

    When you postpone drawing a line in the sand, usually that line is far harder to enforce.

    So it all depends on so many variables, and there are never any perfect or painless solutions. Sometimes argument works, sometimes it just feeds the fire. Sometimes dismissal works, sometimes it simply fails. Sometimes complying is acceptable, and sometimes it is not acceptable. Sometimes the pain now is worth avoiding, and sometimes it is much less than what you’ll get later.

    Family life is never simple, neat, clean, convenient or painless. No one, myself included, can have all the right answers to all the questions. That’s why these are suggestions. Take what seems right and leave the rest, according to your own experience and your own hunches. I wish everyone who is faced with these challenges good luck, because sometimes, even with the most well-considered strategy, the outcome boils down to luck alone.

  • TeddyKGB

    Thanks, prospera, for being the take-my-comments-out-of-context troll for this thread. I’m sorry I’m not militantly atheist enough for you. You keep trying to convert those believers.

  • muggle

    Richard, I thought your advice was excellent and, yes, I picked up on that it was suited to the particular situation presented to you before your comment. I think you’re quite right that if the mother is allowed to interfere, she’ll continue to do so.

    Wear one of those beanie thingies, grow a beard and tell Mom you’ve become a Jew. After she freaks out for a couple of weeks, tell her you’ve given up Judaism (you didn’t really like the Christian babies’ blood) and now you’re ready to compromise. She’ll be happy to have you as an atheist.

    LOL, that did not exactly work for me (strike the beard and yarmulke). My fundy nut of a mother would have preferred that to nonbelief even though she usually references Jews by calling them heathens. However, by the time, I had gone out of Judaism to Agnosticism en route to Atheism, I’d already disowned her.

    My parents were so abusive and my family so dysfunctional that I never had to deal with these issues. The only thought I can leave those of you who have such a loving family that you do is this thought: You’re lucky. Very, very lucky.

    For what it’s worth, treasure that you mean enough to each other for this to be an issue. I’m envious.

  • prospera

    Teddy,

    My intention was not to take your words out of context. I just wanted to point out the seemingly contradicting ideas within your comment, starting with your opening statement. I didn’t mean for it to sound like an attack. If it idid, I apologize.

    I don’t consider myself an atheist and certainly not a militant atheist, nor am I trying to convert anyone.

    I am, however, a mother, and I would never want my kids to do anything that is contrary to what they believe just to appease me. I don’t know… it would seem dishonest somehow.

  • Julia

    I really liked Richard’s advice to try and empathize with the mom. I found that helped me immensely when dealing with my religious in-laws.

    I wanted to highlight one point that was touched on by a few people, but I think is important enough to repeat. For many people the unknown is scary. Face is embarking on a way of life that is likely unknown and therefore scary to his/her mom. It sounds like s/he comes from an otherwise happy family, one where they help each other and support each other. So, it just makes sense that she would be concerned that her child wants to try something new, unknown and to her unproven! She probably wants her children to stick with the Catholic plan that has worked so well for her!

    I recommend sitting both the parents down (because the dad is being somewhat supportive and will help temper the situation) and mixing a little flattery in with the honesty. Something like:
    “mom, you’ve raised me to be an intelligent, independent, honest, loving ADULT and that will never change. Those core values won’t change whether I’m inside or outside of church. And I’m afraid you taught me to stand on my feet too well so I cannot change what I believe to be true just to make you or anyone else happy. I don’t want to fight with you, but I don’t want to lie to you either, I respect you too much to do that. So let’s just agree to disagree on this, okay?”

    Good luck!

  • http://blog.cordialdeconstruction.com Karl Withakay

    Isn’t it interesting how many Christian people’s problems with atheism is not a genuine, Christian concern with the the welfare of the atheists soul in the afterlife?

    The mother is more concerned with the perceived disruption to the family and her son’s failure to follow her beliefs & traditions and respect her wishes more than she appears to care about the welfare of the soul she supposedly believes he has.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    Re: Menopause

    Sexism on Atheist/Humanist boards= NOT OKAY.

  • anon.

    Let me first apologize to Richard for this tangent.

    @BlueRidgeLady and others who seem offended,

    Re: Menopause

    Sexism on Atheist/Humanist boards= NOT OKAY.

    How interesting it is that everyone is so quick to conclude the comment was made by a man.

    Just for the record, I am a perimenopausal woman on the verge of entering menopause. Being overly emotional at times with erratic mood swings, along with hot flashes, headaches, sleeplessness, and what can be described as a slight personality change, are all symptoms that I, myself, experience. I know many other women with similar symptoms who are around my age.

    With the comment, I was acknowledging this common and very normal stage in a woman’s lifecycle. I was trying to laugh at myself, because that’s how I generally deal with challenges that I cannot do anything about.

    Since when can we not talk about biological facts and honest observations on this site? Should rules about political correctness override open discussion and, yes, a little bit of laughing at ourselves? Don’t we have religion for that?

    By the way, would it be politically incorrect to point out that automatically assuming the remark came from a man is also sexist?

  • Thegoodman

    Yep. Bitches is KRAZY. Look at them, with their stupid bodies, full of hormones. Sometimes they cry! Sometimes they get pregnant when they don’t want to! Then they go through menopause and are complete idiots. Good thing the MENZ are in charge, as they are perpetually 25 and don’t have natural life cycles.

    Take it easy Sarah McLachlan. Women are not crazy but, most mothers are. They devote their lives to their children and when their kids leave the house, they are often without purpose in life. This tends to make them act a bit irrational.

    My mother is crazy and I love her. She is a great mom, but she is insane. My mother-in-law is equally crazy.

    Men cannot be blamed for the erratic and often illogical behavior of menopausal women.

  • Jeff Dale

    They devote their lives to their children and when their kids leave the house, they are often without purpose in life. This tends to make them act a bit irrational.

    Oh my. Just when I thought this thread had run its course. Not sure whether tongue is lodged in cheek for this one. I can say from my own experience, for what it’s worth, that women (of all ages) are not, on average, crazier than men. Which is not saying much. Maybe someone will explain to me why I feel compelled to swivel my head for every attractive woman in my field of vision, and why my wife can remember who gave me each of my shirts while I can’t even remember which shirt I have on if I’m not looking at it. Peace y’all.


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