When I am down in Tampa, around most of my family, my entire career as a philosophy professor gets left almost entirely up in New York. My online career as an outspoken atheist gets kept to the internet. I have little to say about philosophy and keep my mouth shut about religion for the most part. This is not because I hide my atheism from my family and nor is it because my fundamentalist preacher brother hides his faith from anyone either.
It is just that the few times my brother and I have talked about these things have not gone very well. To understand why, it’s helpful to go back to my childhood.
My family was nominally and disaffectedly Catholic when I was little. My dad was a veritable teenage Martin Luther at his Catholic school. He was placed in a program with other bright students who they saw as promising potential seminarians. As part of this he ate with the priests and saw what they were eating on Fridays during Lent. He was outraged that while for all his life his family, which was dutifully big and poor, had to eat cheap garbage food going out of their way to avoid eating meat on Fridays, the priests at his school were eating lobster and other fine expensive fish. He protested by bringing in cheap soggy hot dogs bought off a street vendor. The prohibition against eating meat on Fridays was supposed to be about sacrifice, not lobster. So he would eat garbage meat as a sacrifice to show up the priests who wanted to “sacrifice” in a more luxurious manner.
My dad’s cynicism was also deepened, I’m sure, by the way the parish associated with that school treated his father. My grandfather was selected in the first round of the draft for World War II. His company saw the most action of all those in the pacific and he was part of every bit of combat except the last round because a flamethrower exploded on his back. A religious man, he came home to help build and serve as a poorly paid superintendent of the local parish of the Roman Catholic Church. He was a year away from earning a pension when the parish fired him to avoid having to pay out in full.
My mom‘s disaffection with the Church came when she was supposed to be the godmother of my cousin but the Church refused to let her because she divorced her alcoholic first husband.
A few years later, when I was 5, my parents unwittingly sent my then 13 year old brother off to a proselytizing evangelical church camp where he was converted. A stuttering, dyslexic, contrarian sort of kid with few friends there found a community and a zealous mission in life. Orienting his life around his faith he graduated high school and college, dismissing the advice of school counselors not even to try, and became a passionate preacher. My mother converted within the year and became a devout evangelical. My father gave several college tries to believe (literally even taking some Bible college classes) but never could. The strain over divergent beliefs became one of many factors in their eventual divorce when I was 14.
That same year, my religious brother graduated Bible college and on the next day married the woman of his dreams. I was finishing 8th grade at the time and desperately wanted to follow in his footsteps and not to have to wait what seemed like an interminable 8 years to do so. I was deeply influenced to believe that this was the path to the truly good life. My other brother, who was even older, was struggling with alcoholism, had fathered a daughter out of wedlock, and within a couple years would go to jail for beating up his daughter’s mother. An impressionable youth, since I was 10 or 11, I had seen two paths in life—the Christian one which led to people finding strength to beat all odds and have a pure and loving marriage, and another which led to chaos and anger and violence and broken homes.
So, forgive a kid for being confused, but I wanted to do everything similar to the way my religious brother had. And I spent my middle school, high school, and college years deeply absorbed in the evangelical Christian life. This was relatively rare for a Long Island kid and it was pretty lonely outside of my friends at church. Most of the kids at school were just nominally Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. I had enough friends who tolerated my aggressive proselytization of them and made a share of hostile enemies. I started preaching early—giving a sermon in my church at 15 and by 17 figured out that I wanted to be a theology professor so I could engage ideas more deeply than I could as a preacher giving the basics of the faith in sermons. But while at the deeply politically and religiously conservative Grove City College I majored in philosophy and after an arduous struggle with it, left the faith.
When this happened, my fundamentalist brother was one of the last people I told. I only indirectly addressed it with him for the first time, well over a year after I left Christianity, in an e-mail I sent to him and a number of other close advisers from my life in which I sought advice about struggles I was having adjusting to graduate school.
A few weeks later we talked for the first time about my apostasy, now that the subject had been broached in the e-mail. He had known of it longer but he and I had not known how to raise it with each other. So, we sat down in the kitchen during a break between wake sessions for our recently deceased grandmother, and I started laying out the complicated reasoning process that led to my conclusions. I got about ten minutes in and he started interrupting me with boilerplate evangelistic replies, as though I had never heard them before.
And I was stunned and hurt. I realized at that moment that this person who I had idolized from the time I was 13 and whose footsteps I had always wanted to follow in so many ways until my deconversion was completely unwilling to listen to a thing I had to say or learn a single thing from me. Within a few minutes our voices were raised, his youngest child was crying, I was blamed, and I pretty much resolved just to keep my mouth shut about my views on religion around him.
And this has mostly remained the plan. The two other times, years later, that we organically stumbled into the topics of our fundamental disagreement, it ended in shouting. It is just too hard to bring these debates into this relationship.
And so I have always assiduously avoided raising anything controversial with my nieces and nephews. I love them to pieces. They know where I stand. They know where to find me if ever they are curious when they are old enough to question for themselves.
I bring all this up because in reply to my series on how to reach out to religious believers (in ways that don’t end as badly as my debates with my brother), Jalyth asked a question that resonated with me and which I think Richard Wade has a superb answer for:
I’m reading this a few days later after it was mentioned somewhere else. The only people I care to try to convert is my family. I don’t believe it can happen, I actually think they mostly dug their feet in deeper since I left the religion they practice. I wouldn’t even care about my siblings, but one has 3 kids that I don’t want to see grow up the same way I did.
Do you have any insights into how to approach nieces or nephews? Especially if you never see them? It’s probably logistically impossible, but I retain the fantasy that I can have some influence. I hope one of them is gay, cause it’s a way out.
Richard’s relevant advice:
I have very seldom heard apostates describe having had important figures in their young lives who directly and deliberately pulled them out of their religiosity, but they often remember people who subtly influenced them by example. These people encouraged the youngsters to think freely, boldly and skeptically simply by modeling it. Usually there are more than one of these influences in the young persons’ lives, so no one represents their “only chance.”
Kids might have parents who stress blind faith, tradition and unquestioning obedience, but the lucky ones may also have a free-thinking relative, perhaps an aunt or uncle who loves them just for who they are, rather than for how well they can mimic dogma. The kids respond well to that kind of love, and look forward to their times together. “My aunt/uncle likes me just for me, and I don’t feel stupid or bad around her/him. She/He’s fun and interesting.”
So be his fun uncle or aunt. Love him profusely, and have as much fun with him as you can in the limited time you have before you leave. Praise him when he shows curiosity or clear thinking, but most importantly, without being contrived or obvious, just be your own curious and clear-thinking self in front of him. Not about religion per se, but all sorts of things.
Give him a two lens folding pocket jeweler’s loupe, one with plenty of magnification, and set him loose in the back yard. The saw tooth edge of a blade of grass looking like the teeth of a T-Rex can be far more astonishing, and in the long run more compelling than any fantasies of scripture. When he’s older and you’re far away, send him a modest Dobsonian telescope. They’re very easy to use. Tell him that even though you’re on the other side of the world, you’ll meet him on the Sea of Tranquility when you and he observe the moon on the same night.
When you move out of the country, establish a regular habit of phoning, writing, e-mailing, face-booking, instant messaging or video chatting with him. Make it very regular, something he’ll look forward to. Tell him about your adventures in the faraway land, and listen, listen, listen to all his stories as he grows from little boy, to youth, to teen, to young man. As long as you don’t alarm his mother or grandmother about doing any “indoctrinating” of your own, the relationship of trust, love and respect that you will have built will permit the two of you to gradually speak more frankly and candidly about many matters, including religion.
But in the end, he must make his own choices. He may choose to follow the way his early indoctrination started, or he may find a new path. It might resemble yours, or it might be utterly different from both yours and his parents’. If he ever does come to doubt his beliefs, it will probably be a troubling time for him, and you can offer him solace and encouragement, while still respecting his need to make his own decisions. At the very least, he will have had an excellent example of a free-thinking person who is good and who loves him.
The point is that you will have always remained true to loving him for himself, not for his agreeing with your opinions. That faithfulness to him will be a treasure that will bring both of you wonderful benefits, regardless of what he does with his beliefs.
Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.
Before I Deconverted:Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: