Ask Richard: Young Atheist’s Minister Father Threatens to Withhold College Tuition

I get so many letters just like this, more than I can keep up with, where precious love is jeopardized because despite great effort, one family member is simply not capable of believing any more, and other family members are stuck in their fear, or anger, or pride, or ignorance, or prejudice, or a combination of those. For those people whose letters I have not answered directly, I hope you can find in the ones I have answered some lesson or idea that you can tweak to apply to your own situation.

The single most important thing I consistently advise is to keep alive the possibility of love. Without betraying your principles or your own needs, without becoming a victim or a puppet, somehow keep the relationship open to future interaction, negotiation and reconciliation, even if it’s tense or distant for the time being. Don’t just write if off. People can soften their hard and fast positions over time, especially if love is always offered as an ongoing invitation. The other details of the outcome that you want may or may not happen, but as long as you keep your heart open to those who are upset with you, then there is hope for the rest.

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I’ve tried so hard to keep my parents in the dark about my atheism. It isn’t that people don’t know, as I make it public to my friends, but my father is a minister and my mom is a fundamentalist.

I’m finishing my senior year of high school, and was planning on going to college. However, my dad went out of his way to find out I was an atheist. He gave me the “disappointed speech” and told me he failed me a couple months back, but now he’s suggesting that he won’t help me pay for college next year. Without their help I won’t be able to go, at least any time soon.

I’m just so lost. I never gave him trouble about going to church every week or anything of the sort, yet he just can’t let it go. I love him too much to argue about it, but this money situation made it even worse.

What can I do to keep my parents from completely abandoning me?

Your friend,

Dear Gregory,

Despite how you may feel, you’re not lost, and you’re not alone. Many people reading this know exactly the place where you are standing. They have endured, survived, and eventually triumphed.

You have a challenge in front of you, and I think you are up to it. You might have to make your way through college more slowly than you wanted, but you can still do it. Hopefully, you won’t have to, but to have a chance to either make the best of this or to avoid this entirely, you must keep a calm and level head.

You can’t keep your parents from completely abandoning you, if that is what they choose, but you can choose to not completely abandon them. You can keep your side of the door unlocked. You can keep yourself from descending into despondency, bitterness or vindictiveness. Rather than being the obedient son, you can be the man with integrity. Regardless of what your parents do, you can stick to ethical principles of honesty, fairness, compassion, respect, and honoring the freedom of others.

When they learn their child is an atheist, many fundamentalist parents experience upset, disappointment, fear, guilt, anger, and anxiety about their social reputation. Your father being a minister most likely increases the intensity of all that. He’s more likely to take it personally, as if you are rejecting him rather than rejecting his beliefs. The “I have failed you” routine is a guilt trip that he may not fully consciously realize. As I’ve said in another post, it’s code for “You have failed me.” Both statements are nonsense. Brush them aside.

You say that you love your father too much to argue about the money situation, but I think it is time for you to begin a grown-up dialogue with him.

I suggest that you take some or all of the ideas below, and put them into your own words. Talk to them calmly, or if there is likely to be too much upset and rancor, write them a letter. They can’t interrupt a letter. Add, change, or delete whatever it takes to make this completely true for you:

Dad and Mom, I hope that we can talk like adults to each other, being respectful even when we disagree. I began losing my belief quite some time ago, and I tried to keep it from you because I love you, and I knew you would be upset. It has been very hard for me to keep this secret from you, but what has happened since shows why I didn’t feel safe to share it.

It is not your failing that has caused me to stop believing. The only thing that I wish you were doing better is your reaction now. I stopped believing because that is the way my mind works. I’m not rejecting you, I’m thinking the way I have to think. I’ve tried, but I can’t force myself to believe. It’s either there or it isn’t there.

No one else can force or bribe me into heartfelt belief either, and I will not fake my faith to please you, or for the sake of appearances, or for my personal gain. That would not be doing honor to you, to the other people at church, or to myself. You raised me to be upstanding and honest, and I’m trying hard to do exactly that. I have to be true to myself, or I’ll be false to everyone.

Now you’re talking about not helping me pay for college. That will not bring me back to sincere faith if that is what you’re hoping, because genuine belief can’t be coerced. There is no connection between these two things.

So I’m left to wonder if you simply want to punish me out of spite, because you’re angry and hurt. If that is so, I can only be sad, because I will not do the same back to you. It hurts to think that you may even completely abandon me, but I will not abandon you. Although we can’t share the same beliefs, I want us to share love. I will keep my heart open for you.

I’m very grateful for your help as I grew up. If you help me with college I will be very grateful for that as well. If I have to do it on my own, one way or another I will still get my education, and I’ll become someone of whom you can feel proud, if you are still willing to feel that about me.

Either way, I still love you.

Gregory, this is just something to help you clarify your thoughts, and to put into the way you speak. Take from it whatever is true for you, and leave unsaid whatever is not. Since the big secret is out, you no longer have to hide, or lie, or pretend. Just be completely yourself, because you seem excellent to me. You sound like a very thoughtful, caring and forgiving young man. If your parents cannot immediately match those traits, just keep patiently demonstrating them. We teach others how to treat us. Hopefully they will learn some good things from you just as you have learned some good things from them.


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.

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