I am a 20 year old student living with my father. He’s a Christian, with very firm beliefs. Recently, he’s been pushing me to join a church. He believes that joining a church would be extremely beneficial to me. However, he doesn’t know I’m agnostic, except for my sister, no one in my family knows. I’ve given him various excuses as to why I don’t want to join a church, but he won’t let it go. Anytime I have a problem, he uses it as an opportunity to push me to attend church. I’m not sure how he, or any of my other family members would take my lack of faith. I’d been planning on waiting until I was no longer dependent on them to “come out”, but his pressuring me to become a faithful churchgoer is becoming hard to deal with. Is there any way to tell him I’m not interested in going to any church, without explicitly saying I doubt God exists?
I think it it is wise of you to wait until you feel the situation is right for you to come out to your father about your agnosticism. You have no obligation to tell anyone ever, and certainly not to disclose it when it will complicate things and create far more disharmony and stress for all concerned. Over and over in these family scenes, I’ve seen that the right timing turns out to be much more important than the right words.
So you want to get your father to stop nagging you to go to a church, but you don’t want to tell him yet that you doubt God exists, and I’m going to assume that you’d rather avoid telling him a flat-out lie, such as, “Oh I’m going to First Church of (blank). It’s several miles away, but so far I like it.”
Flat-out lying is a popular option, but I generally avoid advising people to do it. Lying is demeaning, degrading, demoralizing, and in your case could have serious drawbacks, like having to disappear every Sunday morning and to bring back church pamphlets or whatever if your dad continues to pry or be curious.
I’m going to suggest an alternative that I’m not going to pretend is that far away from lying, but you might not feel as guilty doing it. There may be quite a lot of truth in it for you, but you will, at least passively, be allowing him to continue to assume that you’re a believer. But what other people assume about your beliefs is not your concern. As I said, I don’t think any non-believer owes that disclosure to anyone, given the awful things that so often happen. I see nothing wrong with keeping that private until when it is in your own personal interest to divulge it, if ever.
Tell him nature is your church. Say something like,
“Dad, churches and all the social stuff that go with them just aren’t for me. When I’m in a small, crowded building I don’t feel close to God. But when I’m outdoors in nature, I feel close to all of creation, and I feel I’m a part of a much bigger thing. It’s glorious and inspiring and rejuvenating, and I always come back feeling my spirit is restored. I’m sure that you don’t think that God can only be found inside a church, right? Churches and congregations are great for those who benefit from them, but they are things of man, and I’m sure that you agree that no things of man can pretend to contain God. Dad, I love you and I know you want the best for me. I assure you that I’m taking good care of my body, my mind and my spirit, and going outdoors into nature is doing all of that.”
“Look Dad, I’m an adult now, and you need to accept that. I have to make my own decisions and find my own way. You’ve done a wonderful job guiding me and helping me, and I’m very grateful. And now you have to let me walk my path for myself, being the good, responsible adult that you raised me to be. Please don’t keep insisting on having this exactly the way you want. That would be prideful, and I’m sure you don’t want to be doing that. If you believe that God is in charge, and that God provides everything we need to find and be with him, then you know that no place and no person in the world is out of his reach. This is the way that is right for me at this time in my life, and this is the way I’m going to do it.”
And then Mary, I suggest that you actually go frequently outdoors into nature, if you don’t already. It really is good for your body, mind and emotions, if you substitute that for “spirit.” There’s a long tradition of thinkers both religious and secular seeking clarity and renewal in nature. Whether you can go up to the hills, out to the woods, down to the river, or just over to the park, students are seldom the worse for regular doses of sunshine, fresh air and exercise.
When you have some problem and your father uses it as an opportunity to push you to attend church, reframe that parental controlling into a positive suggestion, and thank him for it. Say, “That’s a great idea, Dad. You’re right. Thanks!” Then immediately grab your always-handy knapsack which always contains granola bars, bottled water, and a small Bible covering up a copy of “The Demon Haunted World” and head out the door, singing “The Happy Wanderer”. This tactic will have the instant benefit of getting you away from his nagging, and you have cleverly framed it as his suggestion. It may also have the more subtle behavior modification effect of gradually getting him to stop harping on it, since every time he does, you’re suddenly gone.
In our society, early adulthood can be a difficult time because young adults usually have their fully developed mental independence, but often not their financial or physical independence. Parents teach their children how to grow up to be adults, but often those grown up children then have to teach their parents how to stop being parents, and shift to adult-to-adult relating. It can sometimes take as much love and patience for a young adult to guide a middle aged parent as it does for a young parent to guide a small child.
…Val-deri, Val-dera, Val-deri, Val-dera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…
You may send your questions for Richard to . Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.