Ask Richard: Atheist Considers Trying to Deconvert His Parents

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Richard,

Many thanks for your column at Hemant’s blog. I’ve learned so much about communication and family dynamics from reading your insightful advice. Your column is really a jewel of the atheist blogosphere.

I thought I would ask you about trying to “convert” one’s parents. My parents are quite liberal Christians, and even though my father was a practicing minister for many years, my upbringing seemed quite secular, and thankfully absent of any typical “preacher’s kid” psychological baggage. My parents have always encouraged critical thinking, and their approach is nicely characterized by Galileo’s famous quote, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use…” Still, God was always assumed, and it took me until my mid 20s to realize that His existence was a premise that could be questioned like any other. The rest (of my theism) was history.

My parents know about my atheism, but it is not a source of tension, nor has it negatively affected our relationship. After reading many of your columns, I see how lucky I am that my parents’ acceptance of me is not conditioned on God-belief. And even though my acceptance of them is likewise unconditional, I wonder whether they might benefit from questioning their own beliefs. Seeing how relatively easy it was for me to reason my way from my family’s liberal theism to atheism, I don’t think it would be much of a stretch for my parents either. This leaves me torn between conflicting thoughts: Is it my place to gently “proselytize” for atheism and possibly jeopardize their involvement in church, which is really their only social circle? Why should I care whether they believe in God? I don’t, but all the same, I feel like I have encountered a new outlook that has been very personally fulfilling. I want to share it with them because it might benefit them too, and because they are likely to be reasonably receptive. I’m hoping that you will be able to help me sort through my conflicting thoughts about whether I should gently proselytize them away from theism.

Cheers and thanks again,
Philip

Dear Philip,

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.
–Paul McCartney

Perhaps the deepest act of love one can do for another is to not interfere with who that person is.

Yes, you are very lucky. Your relationship with your parents is the envy of countless atheists. Cherish what you have and don’t blow it.

Your family is a good example of how a freethinking family is not necessarily an atheist family. It’s characterized by freedom to think whatever one thinks. Whether that results in rejecting or accepting religious belief is not the point. The point is that freedom of choice is honored. The parents may have their beliefs, and they have given their children an introduction to those beliefs, but they have also encouraged their children to think, question and investigate enough to be able to come to their own conclusions. When those conclusions turn out to differ from the parents’ beliefs, they have not penalized their children or taken away the love.

Many believers are so insecure that they cannot abide someone in their midst who does not believe. Such people can be very self-centered; it’s all about them. They build up converts around them only to prop up their own sagging faith, as well as to puff up their egos with trophies of their piety and proselytizing prowess. If the unbelieving person is their child, they think about their failure as parents, and they dread the condemnation of their reputations by society. Again, it’s all about them.

In stark contrast, your parents are very selfless. I congratulate and praise them for their courage and maturity, and for their deep respect for you. They seem to have clear boundaries around what is them and what is you, and they have not intruded into your territory. In that deepest act of love, they have not interfered with who you are.

So perhaps you should follow their example and respond with an equally loving non-interference. They are also, as you point out, dependent on their church for most or all of their social life. At this point in their lives, to lose that could be a high cost.

It is obvious that you want to share your liberated way of thinking with them out of love for them, and your generous spirit is admirable. But good intentions do not by themselves make an act wise or desirable. Consider this quotation from your letter:

I feel like I have encountered a new outlook that has been very personally fulfilling. I want to share it with them because it might benefit them too, and because they are likely to be reasonably receptive.

This could have been said verbatim by a young Christian who wants to convert his non-believing parents. If you are uncomfortable with that idea, then perhaps doing its opposite counterpart should make you hesitate as well. It would be very easy to unconsciously slip across the line from wanting to influence them for their sake, to wanting to influence them for your own sake, just as those self-centered, ego-puffing believers do.

Your parents sound like they are very intelligent and worldly. They have certainly heard of atheism, and they know about yours, so they probably have already been exposed to the basic ideas you might be sharing if you were to try your gentle proselytizing. Yet those ideas have not brought them to the same conclusions as you have reached.

This could be because we are not just the product of our parents’ genes and training. We are also creatures of the part of history in which we live. Each generation grows up in an utterly different world from that of their predecessors. Your parents reflect the times of their formative years, which were very different from yours. To a great extent, you used your unfettered reason and intellect in the particular way you did because of your position on the river of time.

Philip, if you want to talk to your parents about these issues, I think that is just fine, but let your motive be to increase mutual understanding and mutual enrichment, rather than to try to change them. Who knows? They might change, but that should not be the point.

Start out by thanking them for giving you the freedom to have your own mind, and for being so accepting of the person you have become. This could be a segue into a respectful and loving conversation that validates the persons each of you have become, with no alterations necessary.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. 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.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Vivian

    Good answer, Richard. I find myself in the same predicament. My parents are liberal religious, so to speak. Both understanding that my siblings and I no longer follow religion or care for it. We make comments here and there, but have just “let it be”. It doesn’t interfere with our lives, because it is a non-issue and our comments are no more than those of believers who utter “bless you” or any other references to a higher being. I would love if my parents (or anyone else) were interested in asking about my non-belief, but I know that it isn’t always easy to grasp being told that you have been essentially “brainwashed” by church. Good luck to “Phillip” and his parents. They are lucky to have one another.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I totally agree with Richard. While you shouldn’t shy away from talking about religion or atheism, you shouldn’t talk about it with your parents with the intent to persuade “or deconvert” them. Honor their respect for you with the same respect for them. IMO, people can only convert (or deconvert) themselves.

  • Ryan

    I particularly like where Richard points out that the wanting to share something that is personally fulfilling is a lot like Christians say. As a Christian, and involved in a campus ministry, I run into that every once in a while particularly from new Christians. I occasionally have to tell them to slow down a bit – like Jeff said about atheism, don’t hide it or be afraid of discussing what you believe, but you don’t need to throw it in people’s faces trying to convert them either. Maybe I’ll be able to use this example to try to explain that next time it comes up.

  • Trace

    Phillip, you are luckier than most indeed, for having such understanding/accepting parents.

    Wanting to share your new “outlook” with them (in the context of the paragraph highlighted by Richard) sounds a lot like proselitizing to me. I would advice against it even when you feel it might “benefit” them.

    My advice, talk to them about your feelings/outlook all you want, but don’t go as far as to demean their own outlook (as in trying to de/convert)

    Good luck to you.

  • Trace

    Oooops, I guess that should be Philip, not Phillip. My bad :)

  • prospera

    Another great advice, Richard. :)

    I just wanted to add my thoughts to the following:

    Many believers are so insecure that they cannot abide someone in their midst who does not believe.

    It may be a true statement for many Christians; but when it comes to family, I tend to think the greater motivation is to protect them. If the parents believe their children are walking the path toward a certain death, then they will naturally try to do all they can to rescue them. When I was a Christian, that was all that I could think about — how to “save” the rest of the family, and especially my children, from eternal death.

    It may have been all about me when I wanted to convert everyone else, but it was much more than that when it concerned my family.

    Now that my beliefs have changed completely, I try to engage them in discussions and debates whenever I can to dissuade them from falling into the religious trap—for the same reason of wanting to protect them.

    Coincidentally, I have been feeling some resistance and was puzzled as to why they would resent my (strong) encouragements to think freely for themselves. After reading this post, though, I wonder if I should back off a little.

    Thank you for making me think, Richard.

    And Philip, you are very fortunate to have such open-minded parents.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Beth

    Like the other commenters, I agree with Richard’s advice. Remain respectful to and thankful for your parents, but I see no need to “deconvert” them.

  • ursulamajor

    Not trying to change their minds is good advice, but I sense that our young atheist isn’t really positive about what his parents really believe. There probably wouldn’t be anything wrong with a statement like, “I know that you love your church, but I was wondering what your real beliefs are. Since I have shared how I feel, I’d really like to hear your views on god and religion.” And let them know it would be fine if they thought about it for a while before starting any discussion. Given time to think, their answer might be different than if caught off guard.

  • Susan Robinson
  • http://negativentropy.blogspot.com/ Jennifer Gray

    Perhaps the deepest act of love one can do for another is to not interfere with who that person is.

    Wow. Now that is a beautiful thought. :)

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV

    Pretty simple advice:

    Don’t bother. We’ve all tried and essentially all of us have failed.

  • Laura

    Where would you guys draw the line for siblings? My brother is 18 and just finishing up his first year of university, and that was about the time I seriously started questioning the religion I grew up in. I had a long history of questioning authority before that, though, while he is more of a straitlaced, rule-following type. I don’t want to tell him what to think, but I’m afraid that he isn’t willing to give himself permission to question the views he was brought up with. We aren’t as close as some siblings are, and I’m pretty sure that if I were to ask him whether he’s ever considered questioning God/Jesus/etc. he’d see it as hostile.

    So, I’m taking more of a backseat approach, hoping that I can somehow coax him into giving these questions some serious consideration. (Where he takes things from there, I have no stake in.) I’ve let him know my position and bought him some pop-sci books about trying to figure out what “consciousness” really is. That’s the path that led me to where I am today, and maybe he’ll find it too. If he chooses something different, I’ll still respect him just the same.

  • muggle

    Let it be. Just think of what a wonderful world this would be if all theists were like your parents — and beam with pride and love.

  • Javier

    Totally like that Richard.
    Me, myself, live a similar life. Both of my parents are religious liberals, christian father (ex-priest) and jewish mother, now in their sixties go to church (!) every sunday together though when I was a kid they wouldn’t. They both know I’m agnostic/atheist and that doesn’t interfere in our relationship. I don’t think of Agnosticism/Atheism as a path to Salvation, so I don’t feel any urge to deconvert my parents. The congregation is their social outlet, and I think that’s just fine. I’m happy for them, and I feel their happy with me and my family.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Laura, as for siblings, I would recommend about the same advice given for treating one parents. Don’t shy away from discussing religion, but don’t discuss it with the intent to “deconvert”.

  • Philp

    Thanks everyone for your comments, and of course megathanks to Richard for responding to my question.

    This could have been said verbatim by a young Christian who wants to convert his non-believing parents. If you are uncomfortable with that idea, then perhaps doing its opposite counterpart should make you hesitate as well.

    That thought occurred to me as well as I wrote it. I’m actually not too uncomfortable with this scenario. I’ve often heard a sentiment from atheists whose families believe in hell: “if they truly believe that I’m going to hell, why don’t they do anything or even seem to care?” While it’s true that this sentiment puts believers in a can’t-win situation, it is a valid concern.

    However, as I thought about it more, I realized the comparison is not quite exact. Unlike the Christian who wants to convert those around him, I know that my parents’ beliefs are doing no harm to them or others. And I think that is what I needed to realize.


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