Ask Richard: Surrounded by a Trio of Reproachful Believers

Dear Richard,

I am now an ‘almost’ recovered former evangelical Christian. I say ‘almost’ because I am not really 100% certain that my former beliefs aren’t true but I see no evidence for them. Anyway now my wife is not happy with me and my mother wrote me a scathing letter full of Bible scriptures of how I have ‘gone bad’ although I don’t think I am now all the sudden a bad person. I help injured people by raising funds for the under-insured, for example. I have been attending church just to keep my wife from going ballistic and I have no idea what to say to my mother if anything. I am not even sure how she knows except my ultra-religious sister must tell her about my pro evolution/science pages/links on my Facebook.

Personally I feel very lied to all my life and somewhat brainwashed. Imagine if you will; you were not only told that Santa would not bring you presents if you were bad but that he would lock you in a dark room for 7 days. How many parents would be outraged by that? Well the way I see it Christianity is far worse. Not only do you not get presents but you will burn for eternity – WTF?! Do I tell my family or just let it simmer?

Sincerely,
Simmering

Dear Simmering,

It sounds like the secret is basically out. Facebook, the bane of not-yet-out atheists, has struck again. You’re surrounded by your wife, mother and sister, who are all disapproving of you. You haven’t done anything that warrants such harsh condemnation; in fact it sounds like you’re a kind and admirable person. But you’re up against the fear-based nature so common among the followers of your former religion. Their own faith being flimsy, they consider all those who doubt to be serious threats, and so they try to pressure them with guilt into believing again.

I’ve never seen that actually work. At the most, it only gets the doubters to comply with outward appearances, just as you’re doing by attending church. The doubters have to be phonies merely to be treated decently, and their resentment begins to simmer, just as yours is. Sooner or later it can boil over. I don’t think that you should let this sit and fester. Resentment and disapproval will bounce back and forth and will only grow worse.

For the sake of your relationships, I think it’s time that you stand up for yourself. You should primarily address your wife, and possibly your mother and sister. They all seem to be working together, so it’s probably going to have to involve all of them.

It sounds like this is still new to you, so you may lack both self confidence about defending your position, and the skills and basic argumentative tools to do so. Those can come with practice, by “sparring” on blogs like this, and by watching how others can parry and block the accusations and recriminations that believers often thrust at us. You may feel uncomfortable and not fully prepared, but from the sound of things, I think you should take steps to make things better soon.

You can do this assertively rather than aggressively. If you feel angry that you have been lied to all your life, then don’t play along with the lies by trying to placate others with false gestures of compliance. It can be very tempting to go to the other extreme and just vent your anger in hurtful shouting matches, but that would probably not make you or the family healthier. Tap into your anger as you would an oil well, using the energy sparingly and wisely.

You can make clear and concise demands, and do it with dignity and sensitivity. Keeping your voice soft and your words polite, you can make it clear that you expect to be treated respectfully, and that you will treat others respectfully. People can disrespect each other’s opinions, yet still treat each other respectfully. You should insist on a rule of mutual respectful treatment in your family, regardless of your differing opinions.

Don’t bother defending your agnosticism or atheism, defend your character. Don’t challenge their belief about gods, challenge only their belief about your worthiness as a person. The former is probably futile, and the latter is what you need to do to make things better at home.

Your central argument is that you should be treated according to your conduct, not your private thoughts, and that you will treat others according to their conduct, not their private thoughts.

Often Christians hold that a person’s belief in God rather than his behavior is the essential measure of his morality. Most non-believers consider this to be ridiculous. Thinking lofty thoughts does not add one millimeter to our stature or our virtue. To us, it is our habitual conduct that defines our character. The effect that our persistent behaviors have on others and the world around us make us moral or immoral. Beliefs are thoughts. Thoughts weigh nothing. Without actions, thoughts do not exist in any real sense. Just thinking or believing something without taking action does not make us good or bad. We are only what we do.

Tell these three women that you want to have good, loving relationships with them. Then assert that you have the right to have your doubts about anything, and the right to have opinions that you hold strongly, just as they do. They don’t have to agree with you, but they should still treat you respectfully, just as you treat them. You do not have to attend church if you do not wish, just as they can attend if they do wish. They can prefer that you would attend, but they should still treat you respectfully. Church participation should be sincerely desired, not coerced. Make it clear that you have no intention of attacking their beliefs. Their thoughts are their business. How they treat you becomes your business when they are unfairly hurtful, condemning, or cold to you.

Assert to your wife that your conduct, your love, loyalty and helpful devotion to her has continually shown your virtue as a husband and as a person. That has not changed just because you are no longer convinced of something that she believes. “Going ballistic” against you is not justifiable.

Challenge your mother to list any recent actual behaviors that show that you have “gone bad,” rather than just a change in belief. If she has any real, legitimate complaints, acknowledge and own them, and make proper amends. If she doesn’t, then ask her to step down from her high throne of judgment, and let how you actually live be the measure of your morality.

Tell your sister that you have every right to your opinions about science and evolution, just as she does. You have come to need evidence in order to accept the truth of a claim, and she does not. If she has a problem with your opinion, then she should have the courtesy and courage to come directly to you with what she thinks is a convincing argument, rather than meddling in your relationships with your wife and mother behind your back.

Simmering, make your part of every conversation with them an example of the patient, measured, thoughtful treatment that you want from them. You must give first what you want back from others. Show kindness in the face of anger, remembering that the root of their anger is really fear. Show warmth in the face of coldness, remembering that when they pull away from you, they are lonely too. Quietly dismiss abusive remarks as would a patient parent, adjourning the conversation until cooler heads can prevail.

This may take a while; they are fear-based and guilt-based, and that is deeply set. Think back how not so long ago, you were in that place too. That will help you to be patient and empathetic. Eventually they will see that they can discard their anxious prejudice about your skepticism without abandoning their faith altogether. Perhaps they will console themselves by having enough faith to leave the matter of your doubts up to their god rather than thinking that they are the ones who are supposed to correct you.

The tragedy of families that are torn apart over religious disagreements is that it is so unnecessary. So many people sacrifice precious love, trust and kindness for their vanity of being right. I hope that all four of you can make agreements about having kind, caring, sensitive and grownup interactions, and see past these differences in belief to the fragile treasure that you all still possess.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

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

  • SeekerLancer

    So many of these letters deal with people not being accepted by friends and loved ones because they are no longer religious. Then religious people have the gall to say they suffer from persecution while non-believers just imagine it.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    One idea since you are still working out what exactly you believe is to declare that you are a Deist. That will to some extent placate your relations that you do believe in God but also honor your conviction that the bible stories (and all religious dogma) are probably pure human invention. You can tell them that your beliefs concerning religion align with the those of the founding fathers. There is evidence that each of the following were Deists:

    Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, Hugh Williamson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer,…

    Behavior-wise, there doesn’t need to be any practical difference between being a Deist and being an Atheist or Agnostic. Its all good. :)

  • http://www.rockeddy.com Tom Corey

    Richard, you have written a wonderful, sensitive reply to Simmering. I love this sentence: “So many people sacrifice precious love, trust and kindness for their vanity of being right.”
    I believe you were right on in your reply. It may be a rather lengthy process for Simmering, but I wish him success.

  • Brian

    You should think about the implicit promises you made when you got married and the role of religion in them.

    If being devoted to God together was part of the bargain, tell your wife that you apologize for going back on your part of it. You are changing the deal after she agreed to it! Remind her that in getting married there was probably also a recognition that people *do* change, so you don’t owe her being someone you used to be. Tell her you will maximally accommodate your differences but that at this point it’s impossible for you to *be* theist.

    You owe your mother and sister nothing.

    Richard’s advice is bad because it doesn’t accept them for who they are. To paraphrase: if they would take a rational approach to evaluating the worth of a person, they would value deeds almost exclusively instead of faith, so convince them to do so. The problem is that they don’t take a rational approach to the whole issue, and changing this aspect of it is only slightly less unlikely than their deconverting (i.e. not very).

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com David McNerney

    I’d forget about the mother and sister. Work on the wife.

    She should be the easiest to placate, because presumably she married him for more than his rock-solid faith (whereas the mother might just have been a breeder).

  • Stephen P

    … and my mother wrote me a scathing letter full of Bible scriptures of how I have ‘gone bad’ …

    Let me guess: your mother is also one of those people who go on about how humble Christians are.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Well to be fair their intentions are good (and we know what is paved with good intentions). They sincerely believe that Christianity is the only moral course and any deviation means doom for the person involved. Not only morally but spiritually too because of that hell thing. You know where they toast you just not with drinks and cheers.

    These beliefs are erroneous of course but you can’t change them. What you can do is explain how haranguing you about your doubts and shift in belief is the very worst thing that could be done to change your mind. They need to give you time to evaluate these changes and they need time to evaluate how your change of belief has altered your behaviour. Not for the worse would be my guess.

    I would also say that your development as a person isn’t ever going to end. They may call this spiritual development but it is really just another step in your own growth as a person. They shouldn’t be trying to limit that unless they see some genuine harm coming from your actions. As Richard says they need to judge you on your conduct.

  • LeAnne

    the wife this is that’s going ballistic on him..

    i’d leave whoever told me that i wasn’t a moral person just because of some bullshit like that. seriously. i know she’s your wife and all, but she’s obviously not accepting and loving you for WHO YOU ARE.

  • Claudia

    This is why Richard rocks. I read the letter and my only thought was “Man that sucks”, which is hardly constructive.

    I agree with everyone above about priorities; wife first, everyone else second. Since you don’t mention them, I’m going to assume (and hope) you don’t have children.

    I would suggest that when she objects (and she will) to you not going to church that you gently ask her whether she’d like her husband to be honest and open with her about his feelings and doubts, or whether she’d rather he be lying and pretending because of harrasment. Soften the blow a little saying that you won’t go to Church because you don’t want to lie to her, because she’s your wife and you love her and it would be wrong to pretend you believe something you don’t.

  • Rhonda

    Dear Richard,

    I have recently come out of the closet. I’ve been an Atheist for many years ( close to 20), but I’ve called myself an Agnostic until recently for fear of backlash from my Evangelical sister and friends who are overwhelmingly Believers. While I do not criticize them for their beliefs, understanding that everyone arrives at their beliefs from their life’s experiences and influences, I am often attacked with emotional blackmail for mine. My mother told me that I had to get married in a church because if I didn’t, it would kill my grandmother, whom I love dearly. I have yet to have a Believer witness to me without qualifying that if I choose to walk away from God, I will perish in a lake of fire for eternity. When my father passed away suddenly, my sister essentially told her young children that he did not go to heaven (even though he had accepted Holy Communion that very day) because, in her opinion, he did not KNOW God. That, of course, was emotional blackmail directly at her own kids. “See, that’s what happens.”

    Save that judgment for God!

    The same people remind me that Christians are the most persecuted people on the earth. Well, maybe it’s not because of WHAT they believe but because of the way they treat non-Believers. Maybe people are feeling a bit put upon that missionaries arrive uninvited and proceed to convert the perceived “heathens”. I see this paradox: On the one hand, some Christians will say that “God calls his people to Him; they cannot merely seek Him out”, while on the other hand, Christians are expected to witness to anyone and everyone and send missionaries around the world. Frankly, I find it insulting to think that God picks and choses who He calls upon. So, some people are not as worthy of Him as others?

    I’m so tired of the holier than thou attitude. I’m also tired of the assumption that children can only learn right from wrong by going to church and Sunday school, so I’m surely raising criminals, devoid of morals. I’m tired of people telling me that my precious children are going to hell when they die because I did not have them baptized as babies. Emotional blackmail. I’m tired of being asked why I celebrate Christmas if I don’t follow Christ. Guilt. I’m tired of being asked, “What are you going to tell your kids?” Deficient. I’m tired of Christians inflicting their beliefs and practices on me and other non-Christians by putting prayer over the loud speaker on US Naval ships, by putting the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, by fighting to have the Ten Commandments or prayer in public schools. I’m so TIRED, Richard!

    The only other instance in which a person of another faith has ever tried to inflict their religious beliefs and practices on me is when the Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons knock my door, but they are always perfectly polite when I turn them away. They’ve never threatened me with eternal damnation.

    Our great country was founded by people who fled Europe because they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs or perhaps, lack there of. I firmly believe in freedom OF religion, but I believe in freedom FROM religion just as firmly.

    I’ve made it very clear to Christians that their tactics aren’t convincing me to convert, in fact, they’re a turn off. They’re pushing me further and further away. Why won’t Christians leave me alone?

    Thanks for the free therapy!

    Sincerely,

    Tired

  • Richard Wade

    Dear Tired,

    I get tired too, but then I meet someone like you. Someone who is intelligent, articulate, caring, fair-minded, wanting freedom for all, and especially, honest.

    Then I feel better.

    I feel a little more energy to get through the day, and during that day to try to somehow strengthen the resolve of one more friend, or soften the enmity of one more opponent.

    Thank you for the free therapy back.

  • Simmering

    Hey its me simmering. you all are so awesome especially Richard. I will use this advice wisely. thanks everyone.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Regarding the letter writers remark that “I am now an ‘almost’ recovered former evangelical Christian. I say ‘almost’ because I am not really 100% certain that my former beliefs aren’t true but I see no evidence for them.” – I’d comment that one shouldn’t be 100% certain of anything. There’s always the possibility of being mistaken. One might also be mistaken that there aren’t any leprechauns or unicorns or fairies. Some uncertainty does not make one not a non-believer.

  • Paige

    May I suggest marriage counseling? It could help a great deal with working out the issues in a safe environment with a non-biased professional to aid in the discussion.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    i have a tale to inspire caution in Simmer. this happened to a friend of mine, and it hasn’t turned out well. which is to say, he’s been ostracized from the family to a large extent and is frequently treated rudely by family at the few gatherings to which he’s invited. he too started slowly moving towards atheism while retaining outward behaviors resembling a believers, but his cover was blown when he admitted that he didn’t believe i a key tenant of the faith in a conversation with his sister. because her husband and other members of the family are very strong believers, they treat my friend like he’s a “willful” “sinner.” it’s been very hard on him. just a warning of a possibility i’ve seen occur.

    we don’t like to say it often cause we’re polite, but a lot of believers are also really mean spirited (heh) people.

  • muggle

    Simmering, I wish you the best of luck in dealing with your family, especially your wife but the only thing I have to add to what’s already been said is this:

    Remember that anyone who’d use Max Headroom as a gravatar can’t be all bad. You’re all right. :)

  • http://www.sosnomore.com Kirby

    I’ve enjoyed reading these comments. I am a Seventh-day Adventist who turned to the charismatic movement when I was forty-five, and then after about eight years of that became basically deistic. 44 years ago, when I was asking my in-laws for permission to marry their daughter, they squeezed a promise out of me that I would always see to it that she stayed in the church. We didn’t. But thinking back on that makes me a little mad. What a dirty thing to squeeze out of an already intimidated man. People have the right to weigh life’s issues for themselves and change if they deem it necessary.

    I think Richard’s advice is good. They will never accept that you’ve changed your beliefs. To them, you’re taking a step which means you don’t care about being in heaven with them. I have had good luck, as he mentions, by defending my character. They all know I am kind (usually), generous and helpful and want only the best for all of them. They can’t argue with that. At least they don’t.

    I believe that major changes like you’ve experienced happen when you’re not satisfied with where you’re at. Until your family becomes dissatisfied, and they may never be, they will not see the wisdom in your changes. Good luck!


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