If you browse relationships advice forums like Reddit’s, you’ll find many threads started by people asking how they can get out from under the thumb of fundamentalist families. Here’s a recent one:
This hurt more than anything else. “I love you, but”. If there has been an overwhelming feeling I have received from all of my family members in the last year, it has been conditional love.
I am so afraid that I will have to limit or cut off contact with my family, and I don’t want to. I want them to just be okay with who I am and stop trying to change me. However, I realize that my own well-being has to come first here. If they only knew, my life is actually pretty great! It’s improved since I stopped going to church! I don’t feel the shame, the guilt, and the burdens of legalism and sexism and bigotry. I would say the biggest stress in my life, is them!! I can’t count the number of times I have broken down crying, shouting, screaming, over the things they have said to me… I feel like I’m not okay, like I’m not fully loved by my own parents, and that’s a really hard thing to accept. I don’t need church to be okay. All I need is my own life!!
“I love you, but” so neatly sums up the nature of relationships in fundamentalist families. Their love and affection isn’t unconditional. It depends on the object of that love believing and acting the way they want, and they’re all too willing to withhold it to punish people for independent thinking.
What’s worse, as this story shows, fundamentalist relatives are rarely content to let people live their own lives quietly, even adult children who are out of the house and making their own way in the world. They have to snoop and pry, demanding intrusive details about others’ personal lives to make sure everyone they know is “on the right path”, and reacting with judgment and condemnation when they don’t get the answers they want.
Here’s an even worse one from a young man who ended up homeless when his hyper-religious parents disowned him:
I had sort of kept up with my parents at this point, I told them I was doing fine, not getting into trouble, and they were on the verge of allowing me back into their life. Then one day I get a call, and they said they looked at my facebook and it was horrible and filled with debauchery and all this stuff. They told me it was obvious that I had not gotten over my bad habits, that I was still clearly a sinner in their eyes, and that they just cannot accept me as their son. They even called me a homosexual (???) at one point because in a picture I was hanging out with a guy who had red hair and skinny jeans.
Here’s another example – although the columnists Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed give awful advice, telling the letter writer she should recognize the good that faith has done in her family’s lives, even though she lays out how it’s driving a wedge between them:
My problem can be summed up in one sentence: I don’t know how to tell my parents that I am no longer a Christian.
The stakes just seem too high. My lack of belief means eternal damnation and more salient, eternal separation from my parents. It means they have failed God in bringing their family to Christ. It means that I can’t be part of their community and life, which is entirely about God.
In a twisted way, this controlling behavior comes from compassion. Most theists who act this way believe in a wrathful, vindictive god who’s waiting to torture humans. Therefore, they see it as their paramount duty to indoctrinate their children with the right beliefs, so as to rescue them from this fate. But all too often, this fails, bringing them face-to-face with the problem I wrote about in this essay:
How can anyone enjoy Heaven, knowing that while you have eternal bliss there are people experiencing eternal suffering? Unless you belong to an insular religious community or a cult, it’s almost certain that you know someone – a friend, a relative, a loved one, an idol who inspires you – whose religion of choice is different than yours, or who has no religion at all. How will you be able to enjoy Heaven in the certain knowledge that that person is, at the same moment, suffering the torments of the damned? What if it’s a spouse, a parent, a best friend, a child?
This behavior is their solution to that problem. Because it would cause them pain and suffering to imagine a loved one being tortured in the afterlife, they choose to withdraw their love from anyone who won’t conform so the thought won’t trouble them. It’s as though, if they can’t control you, they want to erase you from their lives.
As much as I condemn this loveless, judgmental behavior, it’s a result of the terrible dilemma their beliefs place them in. What else would you do, if you sincerely believed your child was heading for an afterlife of torment and you had no way to stop them? Wouldn’t you try anything, however draconian, if there was the slightest chance it would save them from eternal pain? The fundamentalist belief in a cruel god makes people cruel themselves.
I’m thankful that, as an atheist, this is one dilemma I’ll never have to face. Because I don’t believe in a wrathful god or an afterlife of pain, I don’t feel a responsibility to turn my son into an ideological carbon copy of me. And that’s a relief, because the attempt to force beliefs on another person often fails, but always causes great pain and suffering.
I intend to teach my son values to live by, but I also expect that he’ll develop his own, independent judgment. If I only taught him to echo my opinions, his worldview would be brittle, unable to deal with the challenges he’ll surely face I never dreamed of. I want him to think for himself, even to disagree with me on occasion. I wouldn’t regard that as a failure of parenting, but as my greatest success.