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