Ask Richard: Hard to Talk to an Overbearing Christian Dad

Hi Richard,
I was baptized Catholic, my parents converted to Born-Again Christian when I was in 6th grade, and for quite a while after that I tried very hard to believe what they taught me and be a good little Christian girl. I’m now 26, and for the last few years, though I absolutely do not believe anything born-again, it’s been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of situation with my parents.

Until this past September. I outed myself when my father asked about my boyfriend’s beliefs because “there may be grandchildren” and he’s “concerned for their eternal destiny.” During this 2 hour hellish discussion everything came out including that for years I tried to believe and sincerely wanted to believe but I felt like I was praying to the ceiling and it just didn’t make sense to me logically. He quoted just about every main idea from “One Heartbeat Away” by Mark Cahill in which the author attempts to prove the bible is true. My mother was very upset but said “We’ve trained you up in the way that you should go, and I believe you will come back to it one day.” My dad wasn’t so understanding. He kept going and going and quoting and quoting. He finally just gave me the book and made me promise to read it. (Which was basically 3 Chapters of illogical “proofs” the Bible is absolute truth and 7 Chapters that assume you believe it and tell you how to live your life as a newly saved Christian) I told him if I feel like he’s going to bring the subject up every time I come over, I’ll stop coming over. He agreed to drop it.

Since then, he hasn’t directly brought the subject up. However, he’ll bring up Christian subjects to me as if I still do believe what he does. He’ll discuss the situation in Israel and how that may play into the prophesies from Revelation or other prophesies from the old testament. I’m not sure if he wants my non-Christian view of it, or he wants me to go along and agree with it, or is using it as an excuse to bring up the “great debate” again. I’m not sure what to say to him when he brings this stuff up. Mostly I smile and nod or say, “Interesting.” What happens when I do have kids and he wants to preach to them and “save” them and bring them to church? He’s a very hard-headed, stern, “I’m-right-you’re-wrong-you’re-going-to-hell” kind of Christian. It’s incredibly stressful to anticipate these conversations or be a part of them.

How do I handle him?

Signed,
Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

Handle him in the only way he understands. Forcefully.

Tell him that he made an agreement and that you expect him to keep it, or you’re going to keep your part of that agreement. Remember this part of your conversation?

I told him if I feel like he’s going to bring the subject up every time I come over, I’ll stop coming over. He agreed to drop it.

He’s been breaking his agreement in sneaky ways, and you’re letting him get away with it. Call him on it, and be prepared to follow through with your part of the agreement by temporarily stopping the visits.

Your dad is a strong, forceful, even domineering kind of guy. People like that are not always bad. They can be very useful in the right situations, such as a sergeant commanding his men in a firefight.

But they generally only relate well to other strong, forceful, domineering people. They don’t respond well to polite, reasoned argument or gentle persuasion. They don’t really know how to do that. They don’t persuade, they dominate and overwhelm by interrupting, being loud, being critical, or by repeating what they think is their strongest point over and over, even though it may not have anything to do with what the other person is asserting. If dominators do try to use argument, they often rely heavily on sources that they think are authorities, such as scripture or the books of others. They tend to not use much original thought of their own. This is not necessarily because they are not bright enough. It’s because books have an aura of authority, and the authors are usually conveniently unavailable for direct challenge.

So when you tried to have a reasoned conversation with him, he just kept quoting and quoting from his authority source, trying to maintain control of the debate through barrage. You were sincere and candid, and for your pains you were bullied.

But when you gave him an either/or demand, essentially “drop the topic or see me no more,” that was something he could understand. You were speaking his language. You apparently have something he wants, your company, and he doesn’t want that withdrawn. So he agreed to stop.

But force-oriented people usually keep testing the enforcement of the agreements they make. They won’t keep agreements on principle alone, but more on the strength of force behind it. So if you let him get away with little incursions and little violations, he’ll keep going and escalating. I don’t think he really gives a damn (if you’ll excuse the expression) about your non-Christian viewpoint about an issue. Shining him on with a smile, a nod and “Interesting” is just asking for more, and is the source of your calling yourself “Frustrated.” You need to give your agreement a booster shot:

”Dad, you agreed that you would not bring up all this religious stuff when I come over, or I would just not come over. I keep my agreements. Please drop it now, or I’m out of here, as I promised. I’d really like to enjoy my time with you. Let’s talk about…” (have two or three subjects previously selected.)

Just in case, be ready for him to call your bluff. That’s the thing about either/or demands with dominators. Never, ever bluff. If you don’t follow through, you can kiss any semblance of respect or even civil treatment goodbye. If he forces your hand, tell him you’ll be staying away for (x amount of time) to give him time to think about it, and then you’ll call him and you’ll ask him if he’s willing to keep his agreement. Your either/or demand never said anything about not trying again, and your making the gesture toward reconciliation is not a concession. Just restate your demands and stick to them.

If and when the time comes for grandchildren and his “concern for their eternal destiny,” remember that grandparents really want to see the little ones. Use your same bargaining power, which will be considerably stronger:

“Dad, keep the religious stuff to yourself when I bring the kids over, or I just won’t bring them over. They’re my kids, not yours. Your kid is grown up and is making her own decisions.”

You might consider adding, “If you really believe that God is almighty, then your grandchildren’s ‘eternal destiny’ is in his hands, not yours. So don’t go pretending that he needs you to do the work for him. Be their grandad, not their savior.”

Frustrated, I said in my previous post that we should not sacrifice love over these trifles of belief or disbelief in The Great Invisible. But love cannot abide without respect. I suspect that your dad respects you when you are strong and firm with him, and you stand your ground. You don’t have to make that show of strength by playing his game, and ending up in another futile and obnoxious squabble. There’s no winning such a quarrel, there’s just you losing time, patience, and a chance to have a pleasant and loving time with your dad, chatting about some topic the two of you share in common. Being firm with him every time is much easier than repeatedly giving in until you have to seriously fight to retake your territory. So make your boundaries clear and solid, and offer alternative things to enjoy together.

Richard

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About Richard Wade

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

  • Curran

    I’d have to agree with the advice here. From my experience, being too polite by holding back my opinions or shying away on all sorts of things has led people to think they can take advantage of the situation. I say let him know you won’t take any more of his shit. He won’t like it, but I think he’ll develop more respect in the process (perhaps secretly). I’ve seen too many born-agains with this forceful attitude. I’d say it’s ok for a businessman but not for someone trying to evangelize.

  • http://pmhewitt.wordpress.com paula

    Tell your dad he will never get a chance to indoctrinate the grandkids because he’ll never see them. If your dad is anything like my mum this should do the trick. And if it doesn’t I bet your mum’ll make sure he tones it down because she wont want to miss out.

    In my experience (Catholic mother) we had quite a few nasty showdowns (when I told her we were not baptising the children she cried and said they would go to hell – just what you want to hear in hospital 12 hours after giving birth!) but now (10 years later) she is ok. She even laughed when i made a joke about me being an atheist recently. If she is praying for me, she keeps it to herself, and I dont shove atheism down her throat either – we have agreed to disagree.

    I hope it works out with your parents – try to sort it out with them before you have kids – it will be much easier. good luck

  • Frustrated

    Thanks for the advice. It’s funny, I didn’t say my dad was a Police Liutenant but he pretty much got it right on the head. It’s very hard for anyone to stand up against him, let alone a passive, well-behaved, don’t-rock-the-boat-in-this-family kind of girl. But I’ve gotten gutsier over the years and this advice has helped me gain perspective and confidence to stand up to him. Thanks!

  • Killer Bee

    No one ever lost respect for being too tenacious in holding their ground. Love, maybe, but not respect.

    Love is overrated anyway. I’m not being sarcastic.

  • Staceyjw

    Frustrated,
    This is excellent advise! It’s not that he purposely tries to ignore your agreement, it’s just his nature to push the limits of everything, almost like a little kid does. (I know, I use to be very domineering) Remember, give an inch, he’ll take a mile….

    I also noticed this quote in your email:

    “We’ve trained you up in the way that you should go….” (Your Mom)

    She must read a lot of Mike and Debi Pearl’s “advise”, as that quote is their motto/slogan. (http://www.nogreaterjoy.org/who-is-ngj/meet-the-pearls/) For those that aren’t aware: The Pearls promote a strict version of biblical patriarchy (among other dark age ideas), which encourages this type of domination by the father, until the daughter is “put under” her husbands authority (barf) at marriage. Even meek men can turn into dominant ones with this kind of encouragement, imagine what happens to men that start off that way…..

    If they both believe in this stuff, it explains a lot about your dad’s continuing behavior. Even if they don’t believe this way, I bet they both feel like failures, not realizing its their beliefs that failed.

    Also, you have every right to keep your (future) kids away from this nonsense. When/if you have kids, be vigilant with your boundaries. But more important, teach the kids about ancient myths, and other things that lead to critical thinking. (Parenting Beyond Belief is a good resource)

    Good luck! At least your Dad still talks to you, many fundie parents cut off their “heathen” kids.

    Side note:
    (The Pearl’s have been accused of promoting child abuse multiple times, they were even banned from doing a speaking tour in Britian because of this. They made the news again recently when a girl who’s parents followed the Pearl’s “child training” books, was beat to death with plumbers line- their favorite discipline tool. This is not the first death associated with their teachings. Mike Pearl never acts sorry either, he thinks he is the righteous one!)

  • Paul Zimmerle

    The beauty of your posts, Richard, is that they follow a theme. In answering one, you answer many, and you weave them together into a rich tapestry of advice and meaning that serves to illustrate the length and breadth of personal issues we atheists face. GOD SPEED (said with all irony intended.)

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you Paul, that is very encouraging.

  • Frustrated’s Brother

    I’m Frustrated’s brother, and she pretty much hit the nail on the head. I’m in the military, so I’m not home often enough to get as much flak as she does, but when I am home, it’s a never ending barrage of scripture and preaching from our father. I used to just nod and say “interesting” just like her, but pretty soon I’m going to be coming home and I’m going to have to deal with it as well. I may not consider myself an atheist, in fact I don’t know what I believe, but this is advice anybody can use for any subject, and I thank you for sharing it with me and my sister.

  • ursulamajor

    “If you really believe that God is almighty, then your grandchildren’s ‘eternal destiny’ is in his hands, not yours. So don’t go pretending that he needs you to do the work for him. Be their grandad, not their savior.”

    Great quote! It can be applied in many ways. I wish I had thought of this argument when my M-in-law was alive and she was digging her nails into my son.

  • Steve

    Wow frustrated, I’m sure your Dad isn’t being sneaky. If he truly has strong faith, God is probably just part of his normal daily conversation. You can’t expect him to censor every other word because you are in the room. Lighten up and everyone will get along better. He loves you very much or he wouldn’t be so strong/serious about it. Brother; should take note also. Until you have a child, you don’t know the love that is felt, or the hurt that is felt.

  • Claudia

    To Frustrated and her brother, don’t discount that part of what’s going on isn’t just religion but a reluctance to let go of the “adult-child” heirarchy. By making the topics HE chooses and the points of view HE approves the ones allowed under pain of argument, he imposes himself as IN CHARGE wheras you are still in the roles of “child-as-reflection-of-myself”. Reading about young people coming out (both as atheist and as gay, remarkably similar sometimes) there’s a pattern of parents having a hard time transitioning from a child that presumably owes you obedience and deference to an adult who is your equal.

    So when you assert a position that is fundamentally contrary to his you are breaking his illusion that you are still merely outgrowths of himself.

    As for the solution, I agree with Richard 100%. He’s not being stupid, he knows he’s being underhanded with the roundabout ways of getting to religion. Call him on it. He won’t respect you more for shutting up. Unfortunately I’m afraid, it may be worse for frustrated than her brother, because if he’s a fundamentalist Christian he probably will respect confidence and self-assertion in a son while disapproving of it in a daughter. Still, his momentary backing off after her threat is encouraging. It means he fears the posibility of losing her, which in turn means that his religion has not totally screwed up his priorities.

  • Frustrated

    To Steve: I don’t expect anyone to “censor” themselves around me because I don’t share their beliefs. I consider myself very open-minded and considerate of others’ beliefs. I would appreciate a little consideration in not bringing up subjects that have historically caused strife, argument, and stress between us and to respect my wishes to avoid the subject because I’d prefer to preserve the relationship rather than argue the subjects into the ground. When he brings up these topics, he’s asking for a response from me, which I am not comfortable giving because he doesn’t approve of my opinions on the subjects. It’s not censoring, it’s common courtesy. Topics like religion and politics are topics people generally try to stay away from in public or social situations in an effort to avoid confrontation or offending others. When I go to my parents house I’d like to enjoy their company, not fear their efforts of trying to re-convert me.

  • Joffan

    As a postscript to Richard’s excellent advice, I would just add that if you do reach a point where you have to stop visiting for a period, make sure your mother knows why in advance. Otherwise you can be sure that she will have the situation misrepresented to her by your father – probably not intentionally, but with the selective memory and communication that applies to all of us (especially relating to uncomfortable situations).

  • Frustrated’s Brother

    By far our mother is the more understanding one. I feel like I can actually talk to her about things. Maybe we should just talk to her about this and see if she can get our father to lighten up a little bit?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    As a supplement to “fighting strength with strength”, it may also be possible to partially disarm “strength”. Even though you didn’t state your particular religious beliefs (or lack there-of), you did say that you don’t believe the “born again” theology so I assume that you don’t believe the bible (particularly the gospel of John) is the infallible literal word of God. If this is the case, you could communicate in no uncertain terms that while you think Jesus had some good teachings, you believe that the bible is merely a conglomeration of stories written by people from long ago and cannot be used as a basis of logical proof towards any particular theological stance. This would at least render moot all the scripture quoting by your father. Hopefully he could learn to agree to disagree about the authenticity of scripture. Sometimes “born agains” fall in the trap of assuming that everybody believes the scriptures, and it is just a matter of getting people to “connect the dots” towards their particular theological stance.

  • Steve

    At 26, you (and I’m assuming your brother) are young. I am old. I now see the profit in letting my folks talk. At 26 it’s hard to look outside yourself. I wish I had my my Mom back to talk ABOUT ANYTHING. Like I said before, you don’t know yet, the love that is felt for a child or the hurt that is felt when that child thinks your whole belief system is false, and tells you so. Cut him a break, you will be glad you did someday.

  • Frustrated’s Brother

    It’s very difficult to listen to my father talk about being a good christian all the time. Usually, when I can sense he’s bringing up the subject, I sway the conversation to something we both have in common, or something he might find interesting. It works about 80% of the time, the other 20% he just sways it back to the Bible.

  • me

    As a catholic, not a born again. It sounds as familiar as a talk a born again friend and i shared a few year ago. It actually made me crazy to a certain extent wondering if i had made God upset with me and if i really was walking the path of righteousness. Up til that summer I had no doubt that i walked with him. I didn’t attend church regularly all the time I dated boys, and stayed out late. Believing that god makes everyone different, in other countries when a couple moves in with another it signifies their engagement/marital status. So God being God is lenient with people and accepts the choices we as people make everyday. But after talking with her extensively and to her much dismay, I wanted to know and wanted to know him and what he wanted of me. So my friend gave me a bible invited me to bible studies. I went and didn’t really find myself learning anything that I thought was really good. So I stopped going. Then accepted the ministry from the Jehovah’s that knocked on my door. It was nice I meet with them 3xs. I learned from them. I still read their book and refer it to the bible and study from there. Its cool. I know that my feet are on the ground and that God is with me. Everyday and he was a few summer ago. but i am sorry your Dad is like that. That’s no fun. But i do encourage you to hear what he is trying to say beyond the awful loudness of him. BECAUSE Im glad I did.


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