Ask Richard: Atheist’s Parents Say They Can Be Damned to Hell Because of Him

Note: For the last several months, the Ask Richard columns have been posted on Tuesdays and Fridays. They will now be posted on Mondays and Thursdays.

Hello Richard,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I have been transitioning away from religion for some time now (it started in high school), and it has taken nearly 7 years for me to come to terms with my atheism. In fact I have only recently been able to call it by that name. This transition has been difficult for a number of reasons, but particularly from the familial guilt that I grew up with. The idea of living without sin was ingrained in my brother and I from a young age, and getting to and living in heaven for eternity was a goal that we discussed frequently.

After reading The God Delusion, I was struck by the chapter on children becoming indoctrinated in their parent’s religion, usually by means of fear. During my childhood, I was regularly told by my parents that they would be judged on how I lived my life. This was an awful prospect for me. Hell was a scary destination, but personally going to hell was outweighed by the thoughts of my parents being sent there through my actions or sinful behavior.

I don’t want to lie to them about my transitioning convictions, and I believe that they suspect that I have fallen away from Christianity since leaving their house (I got my B.S. in zoology and teach science), but I am still mortified about their reaction to my atheism. I know that it will come about somehow, but I would like it to be on my terms. How can I tell them that I have not become anything other than without a god? Or that this decision was my own and that the way they raised me is how I still live, apart from their faith? Thank you again for your help, I understand that there are many others in similar situations.

Sincerely,

A Freethinker Now

Dear Freethinker,

This is the ultimate guilt trip. Parents have been emotionally blackmailing their children for millennia by blaming their own physical, emotional or social suffering on their children’s behavior, but to use the threat of eternal torment is the most contemptible version of this ploy I’ve ever encountered.

At any level of severity, the “you’re doing this to me” game is a destructive manipulation that uses people’s best traits against them. It exploits our natural human instinct to protect our family even at our own risk. Most people can accept punishment for their own transgressions far more easily than to watch others take that punishment in their stead. In the movies, only when the villain points the gun at the hero’s child, spouse or parents, does the hero feel helplessly compelled to do the villain’s bidding.

In the despicable tactic you have described, the parents play the roles of both the hostage and the hostage taker, and they are threatened with terrible consequences unless the children submit to the hostage taker’s demands. This fills the children with fear, guilt, confusion, and later, resentment and anger. Although resentment and anger can be very unhealthy if the children get permanently stuck in it, it can be a necessary step toward a healthy liberation from the undeserved fear and guilt that has been used to manipulate them.

How much your parents actually believe in this idea of judgment against them is not clear. They may fully believe it, or they may know it’s just a powerful way of controlling children, or they may see it as something in between.

But that’s really beside the point. Your task is to fully free yourself. You must break the spell. Now as an adult, whatever power this scheme has over you is whatever power you give it. Even though you no longer believe that your parents will suffer in hell because of you, you’re still worried about their belief in that. So you are still feeding it power, and are still at the effect of the emotional blackmail. You cannot continue to try to protect your parents from their own beliefs. They have to take responsibility for that, and see to their own salvation. Their religion provides them with means to their redemption regardless of their child’s conduct, and they know it.

Freethinker, I suggest that you wait a while before you tell your parents about your non-belief, but not because they are not ready. Wait because I think that you are not ready. You had seven years of difficult struggling to free yourself from so many fearful and guilt-laden ideas, but you’re still new to accepting your atheism, only just recently being able to use that word. You describe yourself as still transitioning in your convictions, and so you may still have some insecurity about those convictions. You may not yet have clear and confident responses ready for your parents’ objections, challenges and manipulations, and they will very likely use them.

As I said earlier, one way out of fear and guilt is the stage of resentment and anger, but it is important to eventually heal from that as well. Only after your resentment and anger at how your love and loyalty were misused have subsided should you consider telling them about your unbelief. You will need the serenity that comes from having completed your own full liberation. During that conversation, you’ll need to be able to calmly say something like, “Mom and Dad, I’m living a life that reflects the good values that you taught me. I’m not ashamed or afraid, and you don’t need to be ashamed or afraid either. Your relationship with your god is up to you, not me.”

Finally, consider that you don’t actually have to ever tell them. There are some things that are nobody’s business but your own, and this is one of them. You don’t owe them this truth. It belongs to you, not them. Whether you tell them or not, focus on your own healing and your own recovery. You’ve done a remarkable job so far. Keep going until you’re completely free.

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.

  • http://jillswift.wordpress.com/ JillSwift

    Note to self: Omipotent beings need to resort to emotional blackmail.

    religious thinking is bizzare.

  • Siamang

    Jill says it all.

    Their god is so incredibly fucked up, which is one of the reasons I don’t believe in it…

    Maybe that’s true for “Freethinker” too.

    Ain’t that irony, the more manipulative the theology, the worse the fear, but also the more likely to escape from the religion?

    Nobody flees “mellow God.” People stay in “mellow God” church for generations!

  • mike

    The Abrahamic God “visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children”, so why not vice-versa? One thing I think many theists don’t realize is that even if we thought the God of the Bible existed, we would still not worship him, since he is described as a sociopathic amoral monster.

    As for keeping one’s atheism to one’s self, I think it is bound to become an issue when “A Freethinker Now” has children that remain conspicuously unbaptized, whether he/she wants it to be an issue or not.

  • Claudia

    Though I can theoretically see the circumstances where someone can spend a life not telling their parents about their religion, something tells me that this is unviable in this case unless AFN is willing to engage in active deception for the rest of his or her parents lives. They do not sound like the sort that leave religion tucked away save for holidays, and if they already suspect AFN’s failing faith, they’re all the more likely to bring it up.

    I guess it comes down to how sincerely you think your parents believe that you not believing in god will send them to hell. I have no idea what brand of Christianity they subscribe to, but so far as I’m aware that position is doctrinally incorrect. I would reccomend that, in addition to taking Richard’s advice about becoming more secure in your atheism before coming out, you educate yourself as to the theology of your parents brand of religion. Be prepared to quietly show them sources that say that you cannot go to hell because of the sins of another, that as long as they are “good with god” they’ll be going to heaven. That should disable the frankly disgusting and reprehensible moral blackmail of making their destiny incumbent on your beliefs, though they’ll likely have a whole stack of threats, pleads, whines and other lovely stratagems in store.

    But Richard is right that you need to be very secure, because you may well be in for a hell (ejem) of an onslaught, and you have to try to keep your cool when they lose it. Use a soothing tone, say loving things, and as hard as it is, try not to let on how outrageous you see their ploys to be or how outraged and hurt you are. Like an adult in front a toddler’s temper tantrum, they must see that screaming and crying will not change your mind.

  • Siamang

    I don’t know about this advice, Claudia:

    “I would reccomend that, in addition to taking Richard’s advice about becoming more secure in your atheism before coming out, you educate yourself as to the theology of your parents brand of religion. Be prepared to quietly show them sources that say that you cannot go to hell because of the sins of another, that as long as they are “good with god” they’ll be going to heaven.”

    I tend to think that arguing faith-based matters when you don’t hold the faith tends to be confusing to the listener. They tend to assume that you do believe the groundrules you’re preaching from.

    Also arguing theology is a bit like playing Calvinball. You can’t possibly win, because the rules change at all times in order to defeat the faithless.

  • Killer Bee

    I was regularly told by my parents that they would be judged on how I lived my life.

    Then I hope you were neck deep in XBOXs, TREK bicycles, and Air Jordans (or whatever kids were wearing). You probably had a brand new car at 16, too. After all, you wielded no small influence on your parents’ eternal destiny and your choice of actions could either damn them or set them up Trump-style for, well, ever. Even now, you may still get away with a downpayment for that first house, maybe a(nother) new car, or get them to pay for grad school.

    Because otherwise, that pressing weight of responsibility that they’ve deposited onto your shrugging shoulders is merely a giant, cast-iron cauldron filled with bubbling bovine fecal material.

  • DGKnipfer

    I suggest moving a long way away from your parents. Don’t call them, they’ll call you.

  • littlejohn

    I doubt that Freethinkers’ parents really believe this; they’re just using it to manipulate him.
    At any rate, if he outs himself, they, being human, will convince themselves they were mistaken. They won’t really go to hell because of him.
    Look, some people are just assholes. Most assholes have children. Sometimes the children are decent people.
    That’s what happened here.
    It’s also what happened to me (my parents were severely abusive about sexual matters, not religion, but there’s really no difference).
    It’s not Freethinker’s fault that his parents are assholes.
    I had to lose my close relationship with my parents for about a decade before they understood they weren’t going to win the power struggle. They mellowed in their old age. But they were still assholes and that wasn’t my fault. Shit happens.

  • Claudia

    I tend to think that arguing faith-based matters when you don’t hold the faith tends to be confusing to the listener. They tend to assume that you do believe the groundrules you’re preaching from.

    Granted, it can be confusing, but I still think it could be helpful to speak to the parents in a language they understand, that of religion. If they are actually saying to AFN that they will go to hell if he/she is an atheist and all AFN has is “I don’t believe that’s true”, then that’s not much of a conversation. “I don’t believe that’s true, and anyway the Bible/favourite apologetics book says that its not because X”

    Also arguing theology is a bit like playing Calvinball. You can’t possibly win, because the rules change at all times in order to defeat the faithless.

    Absolutely, but that assumes that it’s a competition that AFN has to “win”. That would be the case if he or she were trying to convince the parents that there is no basis for god belief. However I’m only suggesting it be used to counter a sincere belief that they will go to hell if their child does not believe. If it is not sincere but merely a despicable emotional ploy, then it will become clear because they’ll move the goalposts as you say. If in response to doctrinal assurances that they won’t go to hell for their child’s atheism they start changing rules and being dishonest, then it will be obvious that their fear is not real, because they are actively avoiding the possibility of having those fears calmed. In that case, AFN can give up on the argument, secure in the knowledge that his or her parents aren’t actually afraid, they’re being manipulative and dishonest.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    The only scripture I’m aware of for blaming parents for the children’s actions come from the Old Testament where God supposedly wanted whole clans put to death because some material objects were not given to the church after the sack (and slaughter) of the city fortress Jericho.

    From a religious point of view, though, damning for eternal torture is much worse than mere killing. I don’t know of anywhere in the bible that says God will eternally damn parents for the actions (or beliefs) of their children.

    I would suspect that your parents don’t really believe that. They just used it because it was effective emotional blackmail. If this was something they said when you were quite young, they might not even remember saying it now.

    If they actually do believe that they will be damned for your “incorrect” beliefs, and if you tell them that you are no longer a believer, they may get so much cognitive dissidence, that they will change their beliefs. If this is the case, any change in their beliefs may be a change for the better.

  • Siamang

    If in response to doctrinal assurances that they won’t go to hell for their child’s atheism they start changing rules and being dishonest, then it will be obvious that their fear is not real, because they are actively avoiding the possibility of having those fears calmed.

    I actually think that these two possibilities aren’t necessarily distinct.

    It’s been my experience that religious thinkers are quite skillful at convincing themselves that the goalposts never, ever moved at all. They’ve always believed X. Sincerely and truly.

    It’s not worth it to dive into that, IMO.

  • AxeGrrl

    Given certain aspects of Christianity ~ like the fact that they’re “commanded to evangelize” and the idea that the ‘sins’ of some of a population can bring on God’s wrath in the form of natural disasters (ie Pat Robertson and the homosexuals that ’caused’ Katrina), how can anyone NOT come to the conclusion that such ‘hooks’ have human fingerprints all over them?

    They’re such clever/strategic ‘hooks’ aimed to perpetuate/spread belief……

  • Claudia

    It’s been my experience that religious thinkers are quite skillful at convincing themselves that the goalposts never, ever moved at all. They’ve always believed X. Sincerely and truly.

    “We’ve always been at war with Eurasia” was my first thought.

    Anyway, you could be right about that. I still think though that it would be good information to have in your head, lest you be challenged on it. It always makes me feel better to know that I have a cache of knowledge on hand to aid me should I need it. Maybe he or she doesn’t have to bring it up actively, but it could be helpful information to have on hand if the parents force the matter.

  • http://www.thereligionvirus.com Craig James

    This whole “I’ll be damned for your sins” is one of the most disturbing aspects of Christianity. Coincidentally (and at the risk of sounding self-promoting) I actually wrote an entire section about this very topic in my book, about a Church of Christ family who I was close to for a while. Their children all four left the CofC as young adults, and officially the CofC says they’re going to hell. The parents still attend the CofC to this day, but they’ve rejected this particular aspect of Christian dogma.

    The letter writer might discover that his parents actually don’t believe this as strongly as they claim. Consider this: Most Catholics reject the idea that you have to be Catholic to go to Heaven, that babies who aren’t baptized will be stuck in purgatory, and so forth, yet this is official Catholic dogma. It doesn’t take much philosophical training to see these as morally bankrupt beliefs.

    Give your parents more credit. I’d be willing to bet that, while they’ll be disappointed in your changing beliefs, they won’t honestly believe in their hearts that they’re going to Hell. They’re probably smarter than that.

    Craig James
    author, The Religion Virus

  • NewEnglandBob

    If my parents had abused me in this particular way, I would no longer have anything to do with them and I certainly would not let them within a mile of my own children, where they would try to continue this disgusting abuse.

  • Kamaka

    FTN,

    This is something you might find yourself saying someday:

    “Emotional blackmail? Oh, please! That worked when I was a kid, but I’m an adult now.”

    If my parents had abused me in this particular way, I would no longer have anything to do with them and I certainly would not let them within a mile of my own children, where they would try to continue this disgusting abuse.

    I agree. Your parents are abusive, and abusive people are permantly stuck in that ugly state of mind. You will gain nothing by “cutting them slack”. If you choose to continue a relationship with them, never allow your parents unsupervised contact with your children.

    Prediction: they will pull this abusive crap with your kids while you’re in the room.

  • prospera

    During my childhood, I was regularly told by my parents that they would be judged on how I lived my life.

    I think what many people fail to realize is that even the most devout Christians change their views and beliefs throughout their Christian lives. What they preached to you when you were growing up may not necessarily be what they adhere to now.

    Have you sat down and had an adult conversation about their faith with them recently?

    I agree with Siamang that you should not “argue” with them about their beliefs, but you can certainly take an interest in what their current beliefs are. I think they would appreciate your inquiry, and you will get a better sense of how (or if) to communicate your non-belief to them.

    As much as you have changed, perhaps they have thought things through and made some changes in their views as well.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I was regularly told by my parents that they would be judged on how I lived my life.

    If a friend made judgments about me based on how my children act then I’d think that perhaps my parenting could be improved but I’d also think that they were a judgmental prick and could go take their opinion and shove it where the son doesn’t shine. I fail to see how that also doesn’t apply to supposed gods.

    Now as a child if someone had told me that my parents were being judged on how I acted I wouldn’t have cared. I was a selfish child (weren’t we all) and didn’t much care what other people thought. Now I’m older. ;)

    If what they assume is correct then at least the parents have the comfort of being with their child in hell. That is part of the concept of heaven that I find most disturbing anyway, that a person could be happy in heaven while others suffer in hell. It just seems so…wicked.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Just a thought. If parents can be judged for the beliefs of their children, then shouldn’t a Creator be judged for the beliefs of His creations? I guess the parents will be seeing Yahweh, Jesus, and that Holy ghost guy in hell too. ;)


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