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.
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.
A Freethinker Now
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.
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