Ask Richard: Atheist Daughter Misreads her Father’s Concern

Yesterday was Fathers Day, and I hope that all fathers, daughters, and sons were able to express their love and appreciation for each other. The feelings that fathers have for their children can be very complex and difficult for them to understand and to express clearly.

This letter illustrates this, and shows how important and worthwhile it is for us to work together with our fathers to keep fear, anger, and confusion from blocking the love that should and can flow freely between us.

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

Dear Richard,

Recently, I “came out” to my father as a non-believer. Although I see myself more as an apatheist, since I just don’t care about religion in the first place, I also consider myself an atheist, as I also don’t believe in any religion to be true either. When I did tell my father, I told him I was an “atheist,” since it seemed like the simplest explanation. As a non-denominational, non-churchgoing Christian, I thought my father would take it well, and we’d maybe talk about our differences.

However, when I finally did tell him about my lack of love for anything religious, he started a rant that basically said, “I don’t want you calling yourself that, ‘atheist’ has a bad connotation to it, and I don’t want my daughter to be shunned by people for not believing.” I mean, that’s way better than some stories I’ve heard about parents disowning their children, but it still hurt. When he said that there was a “bad connotation” to the label atheist, he also said that he didn’t want people to assume that I was an uneducated person, who joined hands with people causing trouble for Christians. When he mentioned that, I just wanted to shout back, “Atheists aren’t uneducated, and hey, I don’t label all Christians by the Westboro Baptist Church, now do I?” However, I kept my mouth closed, and let him rant. I do wish I had had the courage to speak up more, though.

The conversation continued down this path, especially when I told him that I hadn’t said the Pledge of Allegiance since the 3rd grade, since I didn’t believe that “under God” should be in it, nor had I stood for it in any of the years afterwards. He just looked at me in disbelief, wondering to himself, “Where did I go wrong with teaching you?” I don’t think he went wrong anywhere, I just realized that I had to walk my own road. For example, 15 years ago, (when I was 7), I used to go to church with my father. It wasn’t until I was kicked out of Sunday School for telling the teacher there that she was wrong, that I realized how idiotic religion was to me. I understand it when I have friends who believe. They understand it when I tell them that I don’t. We are all able to keep our religions separate from our friendship. But it kills me that my own father thinks that I’ll be seen differently by people in the adult world, simply because I don’t believe in any religious mumbo-jumbo. We haven’t talked about it since this last talk, and our relationship slightly soured, as we don’t interact as much anymore, unless my whole immediate family is gathered. I kind of want to bring it up with him, to let him know that atheism isn’t bad, but I’m not sure exactly how to do so without upsetting him further. Think I could have any words of wisdom?

If something like this has been asked before, please let me know! I recently found this blog, and this is actually the first time I’ve ever written my story anywhere, and I’d love to read the advice given to other people with similar stories. I haven’t had much time to go through all the posts, sorry.

Cheers,
Julie

Dear Julie,

What your father said is correct.

He’s correct to say there’s a bad connotation to the word “atheist.” “Connotation” does not mean “definition.” Connotation is assumptions added on to a word by some people, often who are ignorant about the subject. He’s correct to say that there are people who will shun you for not believing. He’s correct to say that some people assume atheists to be uneducated, to be “fools” as they are fond of repeating, and some people think that atheists want only to “cause trouble for Christians.” He’s correct to say that some people will see you differently just because you don’t believe religious mumbo-jumbo.

BUT everything you quoted him saying was about somebody else, not him. I did not find anything in your letter indicating that he agrees with or approves of those attitudes toward atheists. He probably disagrees with you intellectually about issues like deities, religion, and faith, but he is on your side on a much more primal level: He wants what all good fathers want, for you to be safe, healthy, and happy. Sometimes fathers get fierce about that, and their children can misinterpret their fathers’ feelings and motives. What I see in the things you quoted is a father’s fear that bigoted people will mistreat his daughter.

In the United States, his fear is well-founded. You said that you and your friends are able to be understanding of each others’ differences in beliefs, and that you and they are able to keep those separate from your friendship. That’s great, but when you move beyond that circle of friends, it is likely you will encounter everything your father described, and worse. You got a small taste of it at age 7 when you were kicked out of Sunday school. In some parts of America, revealing that you’re an atheist can get you socially ostracized, turned down for employment, passed up for promotion, fired for bogus reasons, openly despised, slandered, threatened, and harassed. In even the most progressive, liberal parts of this country you can experience that kind of abuse, just not quite as frequently as in other parts.

The things that you wanted to say are good responses, but they should be addressed to those ignorant and bigoted people your father is describing. You seem to be conflating him with them. He is not them. Don’t punish the messenger who is only telling you of the hazards outside.

Take it from the father of a young woman of 27 years: In the person of my daughter, my heart will be running around outside of my body for the rest of my life. I know that she is vulnerable to mistreatment or harm just like anybody else, and I know that there is little I can do to protect her. That can sometimes make me a bit reactionary when she tells me that she intends to do something that has risks involved. My fierceness bubbles up. But I also know that most worthwhile endeavors carry risks. It can take all of my effort to keep my anxiety from coming out sounding like anger, so I take deep, slow breaths, and I only gently remind her to be careful.

If talking to your father is too tense at first, think out what you want to say to him, not to those bigots he’s warning you about, and write it all down in a letter. I suggest that you thank him for his concern for you, and rather than dismiss all of his worries, acknowledge that you realize that some of his worry is justified. Then begin to assure him that you are prepared for the possible difficulties and challenges you might encounter, but that you must, as you say, “walk your own road,” and you accept those difficulties as part of your journey.

Thank him also for some specific skills, values, and attitudes that he has taught you that will help you to meet and surmount those challenges. Giving him partial credit for why you will be okay will help to alleviate his anxiety. It can mean a lot to a father to know that parts of him will be coming along with his daughter to help protect her and help her overcome adversity.

Briefly list and refute the common myths about atheists, including those that he mentioned, keeping in mind that he was merely describing others’ views. He might harbor some of those misconceptions himself, but there’s no need for you to take that as personally hurtful. Remember that he has grown up surrounded by all this misinformation, and it’s very difficult to not be influenced by at least some of it. Keep your tone informative rather than accusatory or defensive.

Make the effort to reach out to him and improve your relationship. It’s worth it. Don’t hesitate because of the slight risk you’ll upset him further. If that happens, consider it part of the process, and keep going. Don’t let upsets in either you or him deter or distract you from your goal. You can restore love and respectful treatment without having to change your position on your disbelief. The longer there is an emotional and relational distance between you, the more it will become a habit. Don’t get used to it. Fix it. You can. You’re both smart, and you both care about each other. You both have more than enough to make it better.

Please feel free to write again to tell us how things have developed.

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.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Bob Becker

    Julie:
    Your Dad’s worried about you and what you may have to deal with when people learn you’re an atheist. It’s called being a good parent. If you ever have children, you’ll understand what he’s worried about and why. At least I hope you will. Speaks well of him. Give him a hug, kid. He’s on your side. Really he is.

    • Christy Stahnke

      Bob’s right Julie, as a parent I know exactly where he and your father are coming from. Your dad is on your side and he’s worried about you. He can’t just brush it off and say oh well, she can take care of herself. Parenting doesn’t work like that. Give him some time to absorb it. Honestly, my parents don’t like me calling myself an atheist either for the exact same reason. But, I think it’s important so I do it….the same as you do.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I agree that the dad seems to be trying to protect her but what if she were telling him that she was a lesbian, and he told her that he doesn’t want her calling herself that because it has bad connotations, and he doesn’t want her being shunned for being gay? Big difference? I’m not quite sure.

    • Julie

      Actually, I haven’t been able to tell him that I’m bisexual, out of fear of what he’d say. He’s actually made it quite clear that he doesn’t like same-sex couples.

      I’m still at his whim, as I am crashing at my parent’s place while I’m taking graduate classes, so I’m trying not to piss him off enough to kick me out of the house, as he once threatened when we had the conversation about the Pledge of Allegiance. Hopefully, once I move out, I’ll have a bit more courage to say something. I can tell that he’s concerned about my image, but I feel as the way he is trying to “protect” me isn’t…. the way I’d like to be “protected.”

      But really, I’m more worried about my 7 year old sister now. I think she’s too young to make a decision about religion, and yet, I hear her talking about God all the time, and I just want to ask her if she really understands what she’s talking about, or if she’s just parroting…

      • onamission5

        ((((Julie))))

      • allein

        You might want to take a look through the Ask Richard archive; I vaguely recall a letter similar to your concerns about younger siblings. (Unfortunately I don’t have time to search for it right now.)

      • Tina Schmidt

        May I make just a slight suggestion? This is what we do in our household. I would suggest telling him that you will recite the Pledge of Allegiance, however, just leave the “under god” part out of it. You are reciting the Pledge how it was before 1956. And that may mollify him for a bit. We haven’t said that part of the pledge, various members of my household, in years, probably, decisions each of us made on our own. It doesn’t change the meaning of the Pledge, that phrase was actually added to make us look different than the “godless Commies”. It still instills you are loyal to your country, you just don’t believe that his country was founded on religion, and it wasn’t.

        • allein

          How often does anyone say the pledge after they finish high school, anyway?

          • McFidget

            Speaking as a Brit, I must admit I have always been baffled by the pledge of allegiance. Why should a citizen in a free, democratic country swear allegiance? I could understand it being required for military service but not for an ordinary citizen.

            • sailor

              You must be young. I remember when, after every movie in the UK we were supposed to stand to attention as a creaky old record of “God save the Queen” was played.

              • C.L. Honeycutt

                That’s an anthem, though.

            • C.L. Honeycutt

              Seriously. Requiring a pledge of schoolchildren is something only common in totalitarian nations.

            • sane37

              social programming

        • C Peterson

          There are valid reasons for refusing to say the Pledge beyond the words “under God”.

          Furthermore, I see saying the Pledge without those words as a sort of unethical cheat. The Pledge is the Pledge. We can’t unilaterally change the words. If we do, what we’re saying isn’t the Pledge anymore, but we are giving the impression to all that we are taking it (except maybe for one or two sharp-eared people standing very close). If we don’t agree with the wording of the Pledge, the proper thing is to not take it, not just to skip a couple of words.

        • sara

          I stand politely during the pledge, but don’t say it. I have been doing this since I was 10, when it first occurred to me there were reasons I was uncomfortable about saying it.

          • allein

            I did this starting at least in high school. I wasn’t even making a political statement with it; it just seemed pointless. Why did we have to do that every single day? Does it expire after 24 hours?

  • onamission5

    My read on this is pretty different from yours, Richard. I hear a father who can’t believe his daughter actually thinks for herself, and blames himself for teaching her wrong, where the result of not agreeing with him and forming her own opinions = bad. Your advice that she should work even harder for his approval fails to take into consideration the social pressures that women are put under to be the caretaker in our relationships. Why is it on her, exactly, to accommodate a fully grown adult’s biases and assumptions when those biases and assumptions cause her grief?

    • m n

      Yeah, this doesn’t sit right with me… probably in a large part because the whole “You can’t call yourself that” thing was only the first of my parents’ objections to my coming out to them, but still. Just because it’s framed in terms of “Well OTHER people will think this” doesn’t mean that the father doesn’t agree with all those OTHER people. Sometimes people just don’t want to come right out and say what they think.

      Also, the whole “Where did I go wrong?!?!?” bit feels, to me, like worrying, not over how his daughter will be perceived, but how he will be perceived in light of his daughter’s atheism. Again, could just be me, because I know that that’s a concern my parents had (and still have, tbh), but still. This feels like apologetics for an unaccepting dad.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      onamission5 and m n,
      I have to go by what is actually written in the letter. Julie has said her father made statements about the disapproval of others, and she is responding as if he is the one who is directly disapproving of her. As I said in my response, he might share some of those attitudes, but she needs to clarify that, and clear away the anxiety, ambiguity and confusion first so that they can talk rationally and respectfully.

      I have not advised her to “work even harder for his approval.” I would never do that. I have advised her to work with him to clarify who is disapproving of whom, how much if any of that disapproval is actually his, what misconceptions and fears might be at the root of such disapproval, and what feelings, such as anxiety in both of them are interfering with clear and straight-forward communication.

      It’s a small assumption to assume that a person means just what he says. It is a much bigger and more risky assumption to assume that he means something very different from what he says. Julie has done that, and in their own way, onamission5 and m n are doing that. Any of those larger assumptions might be partially or wholly correct, but they need to be confirmed or refuted by open, frank-yet-respectful dialogue between Julie and her father. That is the outcome I hope for.

      • Julie

        I really appreciate the advice, Richard. I do want to be able to sit down and talk with my father at some point. If it was the case that he was simply talking about others’ perception of me, then I’m sure our chat will be amicable, and I could assure him that I can take care of my self, even if he would like to try and protect me from the uglies of the world.

        I know I didn’t write this in the letter, but a part of me remembers being on the verge of tears, as well as his disapproving look, that just make me fear this looming conversation about my lack of belief. Perhaps if I mentioned that, this article may have gone differently. Maybe not.

        But I do know that I will try to reach out to him soon.

        • Randay

          Julie, don’t get your hopes up. “we don’t interact as much anymore, unless my whole immediate family is gathered. I kind of want to bring it up with him”. I had a similar experience with my father and it wasn’t even that I was out about my atheism. He was conservative and thought that I was ruined by my socialist ideas.

          Even at a close family gathering, he angerly criticized me and my life style(no, I’m not gay). I had to leave and an uncle came out with me to talk to me and reassure me. That was the last time I saw my father for over 10 years. I am skeptical about the success of reaching out to your father. I was much better without mine.

          I too think that Richard is wrong here: “Don’t get used to it. Fix it. You can.” Sometimes you can’t fix it. This was just my experience, so I can’t generalize it to others’. But don’t feel guilty if you find you can’t fix it. It is not your fault. It may be best to leave it behind you and get on with your own life, which it sounds like you are capable of.

          • Dan Ortiz

            Kick’em when they’re down why don’t you…

      • SirReal

        My mother used the “what will others think” line whenever I did something she didn’t approve of and as I aged, I figured out this meant “I don’t like what you’re doing, it’s offensive to me.” She tried to appeal to my tendency to be over emotional and to peer pressure to make me behave as she wanted me to and to believe as she wanted me to.

        Even at age 20, I didn’t care what other people felt about what I believed, though mother continues to use this when we talk about anything objectionable.

        Only Julie knows if her father is truly concerned about how others will condemn her or if he is using emotional blackmail. The response to these is quite different.

    • rovinrockhound

      I completely agree. I think Richard is far off-base here. This does not sound like a father that
      is simply worried about what other people will say that could hurt his
      daughter – it sounds like he’s using the collective they as a reflection
      of his own beliefs to avoid having to frontally confront her. Read Julie’s reply to Art_Vandelay below – this is not a rebellious 13-year-old who doesn’t realize the implications of her words. She’s an adult and there’s some serious conflict in that relationship.

      Funny, once again, how we all reflect our own background into the letters. Richard expects the father to be simply concerned about his daughter’s wellbeing because that is what he would do. Some of us are reading the letter in a completely different tone because we’ve been in her shoes.

    • sara

      It kind of sounded to me like the father is a closet atheist himself, and has strong opinions about making waves. He places too high a value on fitting in.

  • Mick

    Many famous Christians have carefully considered this situation and all of them have assured parents that it’s nothing to worry about. In fact (they say) the parents’ time in heaven will be made even more enjoyable as they watch their children burn in hell. Julie can tell her father that he is in for a real treat.
    —–

    “Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell … I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.” (Jonathan Edwards)

    “The Blessed will see their friends and relations among the damned as often as they like but without the least of compassion.” (Johann Gerhard)

    “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.” (Thomas Aquinas)

    “A mother will look from paradise upon her own condemned son without being moved, as though she had never known him.” (St. Anthony Mary Claret)

    More recently J.I. Packer wrote, “Love and pity for hell’s occupants will not enter our hearts.” (Christianity Today Magazine, April 22, 2002)

    • McFidget

      So in heaven everyone is a sadistic sociopath? Interesting.

      • The Other Weirdo

        I am not sure they’re any better in life, if this is the sort of thing they believe in and support.

      • Artor

        Much like God happens to hate everyone they hate, in Heaven it’s not possible for anyone to NOT hate everyone they hate.
        Sorry, that syntax seems scrambled. I hope my point is clear though.

      • Keyra

        Absolutely not

        • McFidget

          That was merely my response to those quotes. I don’t think all that many Christians believe that, but they must not have thought too hard about it. Only a sociopath could be content in heaven while those they were close to in life suffer for eternity in hell.

          • cr0sh

            I interpret those quotes (as well as other descriptions of “heaven”) a bit differently:

            That while being in heaven – you don’t have “free will” anymore; you are mere puppet to a master who makes you dance, sing, or whatever to his “glory”. To that end, you don’t even have the choice to like or dislike it. It is what it is – for eternity.

            Tell me that isn’t just another definition of hell.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Nice that this father is aware of how atheists are often treated. So many Christians are simply blind to this, or don’t care to see it. Too bad his response is telling his daughter to hide. Why doesn’t he take on the prejudiced people for her sake?

  • TCC

    I have very mixed feelings about this. I do think that Julie’s father is trying to insulate her from being shunned when he says, “Don’t call yourself an atheist,” but he also insinuates that he’s done something wrong by virtue of her becoming an atheist. I’ve heard this line from both of my parents (who were big proponents of the “Train up a child” approach with my brother and I), and while I think I understand the desire to want your children to turn out a certain way, I also think this statement belies some deeper misgivings about Julie’s atheism, and in that sense, I think she was justified in being frustrated with him as well. What I would add to Richard’s good advice is to insist on being called an atheist if that’s the label you want, noting that other peoples’ perceptions aren’t necessarily sufficient to justify denying yourself a fitting label. Point out that the negative perceptions will only change if positive people come out and accept the dreaded label, underscoring (provided that it is true, of course) that it is in part by his guidance that you have the character to show the good, moral side of atheists. He might be more willing to respect that stance.

  • MadDissector

    I am in a very similar situation. My father also has used the “uneducated” argument very often after, three years ago, I told him for the first time – not that I was an atheist (I grow up in a country with lots of Catholic influence, and the word still has those connotations) – but that “I don’t believe”. In his case, he always points to the “other people will think YOUR FAMILY didn’t give you a proper education”, so it’s more him taking it personally than thinking about how people are going to accept my lack of belief. It could be funny, but I find it only sad: my father studied theology, was a priest for almost 15 years before he decided to marry, and I, the eldest daughter, studied biology. Even more, I have a PhD in evolutionary biology, and I have discovered to my horror that he could be described as an active defender of the intelligent design. Every time I visit, I try to keep talk on my work quiet, otherwise I have to tolerate mockery in the lines of “evolution is just a theory” or “oh, you really BELIEVE that we are monkeys”, or that I am being “dogmatic, pretentious and stubborn”, etc. Basically, he is trying to test my boundaries, as he is completely convinced that I am only through a “rebellious phase” (I am 32) and that at some point I will regain my senses and consider myself Catholic again. And every time that I show him that I am not going to change my mind, he holds his grudge, ignoring me or keeping his silence when I am around. And, well, I may be stubborn, but I got that from him, so he can push me as much as he wants: I will hold my ground and won’t pretend either (I think it would be insulting towards him). It still hurts a bit, but it helps that I live in another country because of work reasons, because otherwise I would find it really exhausting. I love him, and I know he loves me, so I try to think about this as one of the usual ways family members annoy each other.

    • Randay

      So much like my father, except mine was protestant and I never told him outright that I was an atheist. See my comment above.

      • MadDissector

        Hi, Randay, I am sorry to read about how your relationship with your father stands. I just want to make a point, that more than open disapproval, which I think is your case, my father either patronizes me or uses mockery, which buffers the disapproval bit considerably. I won’t say it’s equally annoying, but it can be very disturbing. Once I had to finished a conversation in tears, because I couldn’t hold the sniggering after each of my sentences any more. And, well, that was the point I decided to retaliate, but never in issues about religion. He has also an anti-feminist, pro-life and “marriage as a word should only be applied in heterosexual couples” stance (although I must say that the anti-feminism thing is because he has no clear idea of what feminism entails), which gives me plenty of space for humour. He doesn’t like it, we fight every now and then, but I feel relieved that in between, when he forgets that he should be grumpy, he’s still capable to show me that he loves me.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Julie, whether or not your father personally agrees or not with the negative connotations of what the term atheism means, you do have to make one decision. Are you going to defend and try to clarify what atheism means (thus challenging the negative connotations) or are you going to let him and others keep associating negative connotations to the term atheism and tell them that your are not an atheist but something else (like perhaps an agnostic). If you go around calling yourself an atheist to the people you know, you may help remove some of the negative connotations for those people but you also may experience some shunning as well. If you simply proceed to call yourself an agnostic, you will not experience as much shunning but you won’t be helping out in reducing the negative connotations for the word atheist. The choice is yours. Both are valid approaches.

    To clarify, atheism **should** mean just a lack of belief in God or gods. Some, though, define an atheist as any (or all) of the following:

    1. Someone who denies God (or God’s existence)
    2. Someone who hates God or all believers (or the church)
    3. Someone who foolishly thinks they have all the answers
    4. Someone who only thinks about themselves or wants to do anything they want
    5. An evil, unmoral person. No moral framework

    There may be others as well…

    If any on that list don’t apply to you, you could start by explaining to your father that they don’t apply to you and if they are part of his definition of atheism, then he can be assured that (at least) that part of his definition is wrong or doesn’t apply to you.

  • Steve Willy

    So the author of this letter locked into her anti- religious position at age 7 and dogmatically stuck to it into adulthood? Wow, you guys have really opened my eyes. You make some powerful points, except … let’s put the Hitchens-Dawkins Kool-Aid down for a while and look at reality: Kalaam Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Reason, Fine Tuning of Universal Constants, irreducible biological complexity, the argument from morality…. Your entire world view lies shattered at your feet. If you truly honor the gods of reason and critical thinking half as much as you claim, you would plant your face firmly into your hand, step away from the device, find a quiet place, and rethink your life. Indeed, why are you even bothering to comment at all? No atheistic position can be taken seriously until two threshold questions can coherently be answered. 1. Why is the atheist even engaging in the debate. On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth; there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are material. Therefore, everyone who ever lived and ever will live could be wrong about a thing. By what standard would that ever be ascertained on atheism? Also if atheism is true, there is no objective meaning to existence and no objective standard by which the ‘rational’ world view of atheism is more desirable, morally or otherwise, to the ‘irrational’ beliefs of religion. Ridding the world of the scourge of religion, so that humanity can ‘progress’ or outgrow it, is not a legitimate response to this because on atheism, there is no reason to expect humanity to progress or grow. We are a historical accident that should fully expect to be destroyed by the next asteriod, pandemic, or fascist atheist with a nuke. In short, if atheism is correct, there is no benefit, either on an individual or societal level, to knowing this or to spreading such ‘knowledge.’ 2. Related to this, why is the atheist debater even alive to participate. If there is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, only an incredibly window of blind pitiless indifference, then the agony of struggling to exist, seeing loved ones die, and then dying yourself can never be outweighed by any benefit to existing. As rude as it way sound (and I AM NOT advocating suicide) the atheist should have a coherent explanation for why they chose to continue existing. Failure to adequately address these threshold questions should result in summary rejection of the neckbeard’s position.

    In the end, we all know you can’t answer these questions because yours is a petty, trivial, localized, earth bound philosophy, unworthy of the universe.

    Finally, is there a basement dwelling troll left in the multiverse who doesn’t drag themselves out of the primordial ooze and logged onto this site in order to announce our collective atheism towards Thor, that gardens can be beautiful without fairies (a powerful rebuttal to fairy apologetics, by the way, but it leaves a lot unanswered about the Gardener), and that we cling to Bronze Age skymen due to our fear of the dark? Let me translate that to neckbeard: you are unoriginal, you are wrong, and you are an ass.


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