Ask Richard: Atheist Mother: My Daughter is Going to Church

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

Dear Richard,
I have read with great interest your advice to atheist teens coming out to their theist families, and I wonder if you have any advice to someone in the opposite situation. I am an atheist parent trying to deal with my college sophomore daughter going to church regularly. I find myself feeling great sympathy for the theist parent in some of your other letters and asking myself essentially the same questions: Where did I go wrong? How could she believe such nonsense? How can I help her see the light? How do I accept her when I reject her views on religion?

My husband and I are not active, “out”, atheist, we are really better described as “nones”. We don’t go to church, never sent our kids to church, and never really talked about religion at home except to get angry when we felt some religious group was trying to force their views on us. My husband is fine with her going to church. He thinks she needs to make up her own mind about what she believes and that the church she’s been going to is one of the better churches, but I don’t agree. It is a young, hip, liberal church, but I still think it’s spreading lies and planting the seeds of hate. We went to a service with her recently and I listened to some podcasts of other services and I’m very troubled by what I heard. I simply can’t accept the idea of “giving yourself to over to Jesus” or that God actually answers prayers (does he really heal the sick that are prayed for and ignore those that are not?), or the idea that homosexuals cannot experience true love with each other. I’m OK with my daughter forming her own beliefs, but I will draw the line if her beliefs become hateful or supernatural. Am I supposed to just accept it if she starts believing in the tooth fairy too? So far she has not shown signs that she is truly believing this sort of thing, but I’m troubled that she’s hearing it week after week and I find it hypocritical to be going to a church where you don’t believe what the pastor is saying.

I’ve tried to gently bring up my concerns with them and felt like they both just blew off my concerns and didn’t really take me seriously. I’m worried that if I push too hard it will damage our relationships and I’m still not sure if I’m just worrying over nothing. Am I being a hypocrite for wanting my daughter to form her own opinions, then being upset that she forms the “wrong” opinion? Should I just get over it and be thankful that she’s not binge drinking, failing her classes and sleeping around? If that’s the case, then I could still use some suggestions on how to let it go and accept my daughter’s beliefs and my husband’s difference of opinions.

Thanks,
Kimberly

Dear Kimberly,

You didn’t go wrong anywhere. You brought up your daughter to think for herself, and she’s doing that.

Some atheist parents might raise their children in an authoritarian way to adopt their disbelief in gods and the supernatural, although I don’t personally know of any. I know of many atheist parents who follow the higher principle of guiding their children to develop as free thinkers, and then letting them find their own answers. Along with that comes not just the possibility, but the likelihood that some of the decisions they make in life will not be what the parents would prefer. That’s the challenge that is built into freedom.

Rest in the knowledge that you have given her mind freedom even at the cost of not necessarily getting all your preferences. It’s all the more deep and valuable a gift for that.

Atheist parents have one advantage over religious parents who are in the opposite situation: The religious parents have to deal with their fear that their non-believing child will suffer in hell forever. For the atheist parents, the worst scenario is that their religious kid will be an ass for the rest of this life. Sad perhaps, but not terrifying.

And consider if that worst scenario is actually that likely. Consider what you know about your daughter’s personality, which is already about 99.9 percent what it’s going to remain. If from her genes and her upbringing she got compassion, honesty, fairness, acceptance of differences, and respectfulness, then religious or not, she’ll be a daughter to be proud of, someone with whom you can keep and enjoy a reciprocal flow of love.

Don’t sacrifice precious love for so trivial a thing as a difference of opinion about spooks in the sky and magic books.

You asked how do you accept her when you reject her views on religion. Her religious views are just that, views. They’re possessions, not essence. She is not her clothes, or her politics, or her taste in music. She is what receives the love you give. Don’t magnify the trivia and disregard the treasure. In the same way, you are not your views either, so if she rejects your views, she is not rejecting you. You are what receives the love she gives. You can be receptive to her love even though your views can’t be receptive to her views.

You gently brought up your concerns to her, and that’s good, but perhaps it was loaded with too much anxiety and disappointment. She “blew them off” which might mean that she wants some open space to examine the issues you mentioned without you crowding her. From time to time, not too frequently, ask her about her in-process opinion on just one of those issues at a time, such as GLBT issues, from curiosity rather than from a fearful place. Try to keep it about learning about her rather than trying to change her.

Since your husband is more comfortable and accepting of her current explorations, perhaps he can be a bridge or an ambassador for the two of you, rather than be on her side against you. Tell him your concerns, and ask him if he can help you find a more comfortable place from which you can watch your daughter do her exploring.

You asked if you’re worried about nothing. So far, the worries you have about the negative things she might absorb from the church are imagined possibilities rather than actual observations. Only time will tell which, if any of those negative things appear in her spoken opinions and her behavior. Give her a respectful amount of time to use that rare free-thinking mind you gave her. Then later you can discuss any actual statements or behaviors about which you might disagree.

You asked if you’re being a hypocrite for wanting your daughter to form her own opinions, then being upset that she forms the “wrong” opinion. No, not a hypocrite, just endearingly human. Your worry is rooted in your love, but at this stage of her young adulthood, just love the real person she is right now, rather than try to protect her and everyone else from the possible person she might or might not become.

Remember that the way she lives her life is about her, not about you. The way you live your life is about you, not about her. Begin to get used to the new stage of your relationship with her, as fellow adults rather than as parent and child. It can be a challenging adjustment, but to resist the change will only cause unnecessary strife and tension. To embrace it is to begin enjoying the longest stage of your relationship with her.

Richard

Related Post: Ask Richard: Atheists’ Freethinking Children Are Considering Religion

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About Richard Wade

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


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