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.


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