Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I always thought that I had it pretty easy as an atheist and that I’d never have to write one of these e-mails, but I guess I’ve made it to my first big atheist milestone. I’m a sophomore in college and I’ve been an atheist for about four years, and I was an agnostic for a few years before that. I was raised Catholic and went to church every weekend until I was 17. My parents and I hardly ever talked about religious beliefs though (as counterintuitive as that might sound). So while I’m very sure of my beliefs and worldview, I’ve never really been in a position to defend them, especially with an adult.
Now my boyfriend’s parents are very Christian, especially his mom. I’m not exaggerating when I say that all she thinks about is church (or something to related to it). She asks my boyfriend to go to church with their family every few weeks but he manages to find an excuse not to go (he is agnostic and his mother doesn’t know). Last night, she asked him to go to church with them next weekend, also indirectly asking if I wanted to go with him. He told her that we probably couldn’t, but on the ride home asked me if I would go with them one week because it would make his parents really happy and it would mean they wouldn’t ask again for a while. He didn’t seem to understand why I was so against that idea, so I guess I need an outside opinion.
On one hand, I know it would be a big favor for him and would make his life a lot easier. But I don’t feel right going to church with his parents under the impression that I’m okay with their religion, or even worse, a part of it. Is there any sort of compromise here? Am I making it worse that it really is, or should I stick to my beliefs on this one?
I figured it would be helpful to get the opinion of someone that’s used to navigating this tightrope.
Thank you for all your help,
Your boyfriend chooses to keep his agnosticism a secret from his parents. That is his prerogative, and if he is still dependent on them it certainly is understandable. But he is responsible for the consequences of that choice, both good and bad. The good is obviously that he doesn’t have to face whatever conflict and upset might arise between him and his parents. The bad is that he has to lie, to pretend, and to frequently come up with excuses to fend off his mother’s urging him to attend church with them.
It is not your responsibility to help him handle the undesirable consequences of his choice. You can if you wish, or if it’s no big deal for you, but if you don’t want to, if you don’t like it, if you don’t feel it’s right, then don’t do it. It might be a favor to him, but you are not obliged to do this.
If he wants to go to church to appease his parents for a while, fine, but I don’t really understand how your accompanying him would make that any easier for him or more effective or long-lasting in placating them. Encouraged by the two of you complying, I would expect them to ask more often, not less.
It seems to me that it might also result in unwanted invitations from them directly to you. Once you play a supporting role in his pretense, you will have to come up with your own excuses for not attending, and then you will have a pretense of your own with its consequences both good and bad, and those will be your responsibility.
If, as you say they might, they assume that you’re receptive to their beliefs or you even share them, they might try to enlist you to urge their son to attend more frequently. Then you will be unwillingly used for leverage. And when you get sick of all that lying and pretending, if you reveal your atheism to them, by implication you’ll be outing your boyfriend against his will. Then he’ll react to you for doing that, and they might blame you, the co-conspirator for corrupting their son, and on and on…
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”
Avoid starting a dynamic between you and your boyfriend in which gradually you are depended upon, and finally expected to help him keep up a charade that he has chosen to do for expediency. That would not reinforce him to become mature, self-confident, and forthright. Your strong reaction against his asking you to go with him might have been as much instinctively wanting to keep your relationship clean of that sort of thing as it was about not wanting to attend church for your own reasons and beliefs.
Unless his parents are very old and not long for this life, your boyfriend hiding his agnosticism while resisting playing the part of the church-going believer is not sustainable. Sooner or later they’ll figure it out, or confront their son directly, or he’ll finally have had enough of the farce and he’ll maturely and honestly tell them that he just doesn’t buy into their religion. You can give him moral support while he goes through whatever stages of this process he must, but I suggest that you politely and lovingly let him know that if he wants to attend church to pacify his parents, go ahead, but it’s not a good idea for you to get entangled in that.
Daphne, situations like these are never easy, and there are no guaranteed solutions. When we care about each other, as you and your boyfriend do for each other, and as he and his parents do for each other, we find ourselves in predicaments. We can ask our friends for advice or support, but we should avoid pulling them into a predicament too.