Ask Richard: Teen Troubled by Mother’s Anxiety About His Atheism

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

I recently came out to my parents (I am 17). My father handled it well enough and we had a good discussion on the matter. My mother, on the other hand, not so much. When we talked she told me about what she was like at around my age. She told me, through tears, that she was a terrible person back then, who was selfish and rebelled in any way possible, and that she heard God call her by name and she had a huge conversion experience and her life turned around. She really is a great woman and I love her with all my heart, but she blames herself for being such a terrible person and she credits God for who she is now. She is honestly the least selfish and most moral person I know, but she seems to be completely dependent on God, almost like a drug. She told me that if she didn’t believe in God she would feel that the life she led was pointless and that she thinks she might go back to who she was before. Now, I don’t want to convert her or any of my siblings (I have seven of them), but it’s impossible to have a discussion with her because of how emotional she gets, and it’s impossible for me to express my beliefs for fear of her breaking down. Our “discussion” ended with both of us in tears, her because she can’t conceive of life and happiness without god, and me because I hate to see her so heartbroken. It almost seems like a drug or a psychological problem, but I can’t say that aloud because for all her profession of faith, it actually seems like she could lose it very easily. She told me herself that her faith is based on emotion and not reason. I think it would do permanent damage to her if she lost her belief (which again I don’t want to do, but it makes her very sad just to see me not believing in god). How should I deal with this? Will it get better?

I should mention that her love for me is just as strong as it was before, and she truly believes god will find me and bring me back. I ended up telling her that if there was a god, I’m sure he would.

Dennis

Dear Dennis,

We all have our soft spots, topics we’d rather not discuss, and we all find effective defenses to protect those soft spots.

Your mother has developed her self-image over her lifetime, and within the usual boundaries of her daily life, it seems to work quite well for her. She attributes her better personality and better life to her belief in her god. Her identity and her belief are enmeshed. But for some reason, there’s a vulnerability and insecurity there. It’s her soft spot. Discussing your lack of belief prods her there, and so she feels anxiety and sadness. She also projects her own history onto you; she is afraid that without belief in a god, you will become a terrible and unhappy person like she says she was.

The defense she uses to protect her soft spot is to express that anxiety and sadness by crying. For many people, crying and being upset can be a very effective deterrent to keep loved ones away from a sensitive subject, or to pressure them to agree to things. Family and friends quickly learn to avoid approaching whatever is the touchy topic. In its effect, highly visible vulnerability can be like armor.

Whether or not her religious devotion is like a drug dependency or a psychological condition does not seem to be an important issue in this circumstance. Defining it as a “problem” would depend on the actual consequences, the negative impact it has on her life. According to your insistence, she is a well-functioning, all-around good person. There’s nothing described in your letter that is problematic other than you and she can’t discuss religion with ease the way you and your father can.

There are probably topics that are difficult for you and your father to talk about, but are easier with your mother. He has different soft spots, and you also have yours. In families and friendships, we frequently make tacit agreements to leave each other’s soft spots alone. To expect complete openness in all things with any of your loved ones is not realistic. With a spouse, it’s important to be as unrestricted as the two of you can be, but even with a spouse, there will always be places where you must at least tread lightly.

You don’t have to fix your mother, and you probably can’t actually break her either. She told you herself that her faith is based on emotion and not reason. That kind of self-honest insight suggests to me that she is stronger than she appears. She may be like a peach; she’s easily bruised on the outside, but has a strong inner core. I’m quite sure she has endured other challenges to her enmeshed faith-identity besides this.

Yes, it will get better.

In your letter’s last paragraph, the two of you have come up with a very good solution to her anxiety. Your mutual love is explicitly reaffirmed, she rests in her faith that her god will eventually find you, and with your hypothetical “if” statement, you have helped to put her at ease without conceding your position or making any false promises.

Continue to enjoy your discussions with your father as they may come up, and enjoy sharing other things with your mother. Just by your conduct, without discussing it at all, let her see that you are not like her when she was your age. Let her watch you continue to grow into a fine, ethical, moral, caring, and responsible young man who is good without belief in any gods. She will see a son she is proud of, and she will probably continue to quietly reconcile herself to her belief that it’s all in her god’s hands anyway.

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.

  • http://twitter.com/SharedVisionCW Shared Vision

    Encourage critical thinking.  Regardless of one’s faith or lack of faith, tackling any issue is best done by evaluating one’s position.  I believe the discussion Dennis had with his Mother is the first of what should be many.

  • Spencer

    Once again, solid advice, Richard.

  • Anonymous

    I would have a conversation with your mother about why she believes the things she does.  My mother is a science teacher, so I thought it was pretty odd when she kept talking to me about her parents in heaven.  She was also very upset about their passing for years.  I started to believe that her beliefs that they were still “out there” was making it impossible for her to reconcile to their deaths.  I eventually confronted her in the course of a conversation on the topic and said “Why do you believe that they are in heaven?” and “If someone made a claim like that in your class, how would you evaluate it?”  I really think the only way to reconcile people to your atheism is to make them realize the oddity of their own beliefs.  You might seem like a Vulcan to them at first, but it’s oddly effective.

  • Trace

    I think your mom will be fine. Give her time. She may be afraid for you right now but eventually she’ll move on. You are lucky to have such loving parents.

  • Wasd

    If your mother cant see young atheists as anything other than her younger unhappy self it might help if you can find your mother an example of the kind of atheist adult you aspire to be. Simply pointing out you admire Steve Jobs (Or Linus Torvalds… Brad Pitt?) might be all she needs to see you can be happy without god.  Getting her to meet a responsible boring happy guy from the local atheist/skeptics whatever group might work even better.

    If she attends church then my understanding is she will be bombarded with the “faith is the only road to salvation and bliss” message by the people she trusts and believes. Churches might drag out endless examples of people who had a terrible time until they found god. One counter example might be all she needs.

    Provided you aspire to be someone your mother would like that is ;-)

    I am just posting because I really really need an update on the European Ex muslim girl whose situation got so much worse in between her last messages. An update saying there has not been an update because people are working on things or thing are in flux, or that she is okay and there will be an update in a couple of months would all be fine too I guess. I just don’t never want to hear from her again without knowing if she is okay even though she could be living around the corner from me and I could have done more to help.

  • Guest

    I’m reading this a bit late to leave a comment, but my mother reacts in a similar manner to challenges to her faith, and I would like to make what I feel is an important point: 

    his young man’ is NOT responsible if his mother does “Go back to her old ways.”

    Whether she consciously intended it as such or not, this is an emotionally manipulative attempt to frighten the young atheist back to his faith. In the same way as someone who says “I’ll kill myself if you leave me,” the mother is attempting to frame what is entirely her own choice of behavior as logical consequence of his atheism. 

    Although it is understandable that the mother may be acutely depressed because she feels like her efforts to raise her child in what she felt was the right way were wasted, her son becoming an atheist does *not* have any affect on her personal beliefs. Putting aside that she  may be secretly questioning what she believes and projecting how uncomfortable that may make her for a minute, the mere fact that her son is an atheist doesn’t erase her ability to have faith, and it certainly won’t cause her to somehow become “rebellious” and display a different pattern of  thoughts and behavior–unless she actually chooses to act in her “pre-Christian” manner. 

    Bottom line, the son shouldn’t let any behavior from his mother that is an attempt to guilt him back to Christianity question or hide his own beliefs. 


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