Letters to My Daughters #1: “We’re Not Bad People”

Letters to My Daughters #1: “We’re Not Bad People” July 5, 2013

littlewomenNothing in this world matters more to me than you, my precious girls.  Anyone who knows me well knows that I’d do anything for you girls.  You are a delight to me, and I am happiest when I am with you.  I’m so proud of the beautiful young women you are becoming, and I look forward to seeing what direction each of your lives takes as you grow up.  I also hope you will always feel comfortable and open towards me and know that you can tell me anything, ask me anything, and I’ll listen and do my best to tell you what you need to know.

I always try to be as open with you girls as I can be, but there is one thing which I have kept to myself for a few years now for a number of reasons which I won’t get into right now.  At some point or another you were bound to find out anyway that I haven’t been a Christian for some time.  In fact, at this point, I can call myself an atheist (although for reasons I will eventually explain, I identify more with the word “humanist”).  You already know that I haven’t attended church with you for a couple of years, but I haven’t been a sincere participant in the Christian faith for more like four years.  I attended church the previous two years in Georgia and back here in Mississippi in order to stay on good terms with the people I loved.  But the time came when I could no longer do that in a productive way.  In time, my presence there became more of a problem for myself and for others, so I quit going.

I haven’t discussed this with you girls because the last couple of years have been difficult enough without having to dive into a conversation as potentially upsetting as this one.  Your mother and I both felt that the last thing you needed at a time like this was to have to wrestle with the realization that your dad no longer shares the same faith that he taught you to have from your youngest years.  So I have kept that to myself.  But in time it has occurred to me that you will be hearing things that I feel need balancing.  In particular, you will be hearing things from people around you about people like me that are simply not correct.  It worries me that you may be taught by some to think a certain way about me from this point forward, and that it will lead you to misunderstand me.  I can’t think of a more painful outcome than for me to lose my relationship with you girls simply because someone gave you an incorrect impression of what I am like.  So I would like to take some time to set the record straight.

The first thing you must know is that I am not a bad person simply because I don’t believe in the Christian message anymore.  I spent more years in church than all of you combined, so I know what people say about atheists, and I know now just how incorrect some of what they say really is.  It will take me some time to explain all the ways people like me are misrepresented, and in time I will answer as many of your questions as I can imagine.  But for now I want to just explain that when a person decides he no longer believes in God, it doesn’t mean he stops being a good person.  People say some awful things about atheists and, to be honest, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  They often assume the worst, and they begin with distrust towards people like me but that’s not really fair.

When you hear someone say something ugly about people like me, something which makes us sound disturbed or wicked simply because we’re not Christians, I hope that you will stop and consider what you know about me.  What am I like?  You know me as well as anyone else in the world.  What do you see?  Do I strike you as a bad person?  Do you hear me say mean things about people?  Do you see me mistreat people?  Do you ever see me withhold anything from you that you need?  I hope you can say “no” to each of those things because they do not describe me at all.  I love you girls with the same love that everyone else has for their own children, and I trust that when you watch me you will see as much grace and patience and goodwill toward others as you see in anyone else.  My being a humanist/atheist doesn’t make me less of a good person and I hope you will choose not to listen to people who tell you otherwise.

Obviously this is a very personal thing for me.  It is of utmost importance to me that you girls love me for who I am, and I don’t want anyone else skewing your image of me because of their own prejudices.  But more than that, as your father I owe it to you to prepare you for the world you are heading into.  As such, I do not want to send you out into the world with an incorrect understanding of a large (and growing) group of people out there who are like me.  You have spent the last few years in a culture that is unique.  The Deep South is unlike any other place in the world.  Here you can spend a lot of your time around people who look and think very much the same as you.  But there is a larger world out there, with tons of variety, and when you get out there you will find that they don’t always think the same way that folks in the Deep South think about things.  I feel I owe it to you to warn you not to judge them too quickly for being different.  We’ve all still got plenty to learn from one another.  Perhaps this situation will prove to be excellent practice for getting ready to face the rest of the world!

So that’s it for now.  I have plenty more to say, but I’ll save it for other letters :-)


Your Dad.

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  • Is this really the first your girls’ are going to hear of your atheism? I know from experience what a difficult place this is to be. I tried to keep it from my children, but in the end, they knew something was very very different. My 3 oldest have deconverted as well, and while my 15 and 13 year old daughters were extremely upset at first,they have come around and see that I am the same person I have always been. While they still profess to believe in god, they are much more progressive Christians than I ever was. The younger children still believe in god and heaven, mostly because of my mother. I let her share with them the positive aspects of Christianity, but she has been warned to never talk about the awful parts, like hell and demons and she is never to tell them that people different are bad, like atheists or gay people. I feel for you, I know how hard this situation is, I wish I would have never brought my children up in the faith, but I did, and I am trying to make the transition as easy as possible on everyone. I am not going to lie, I will be disappointed if any of them grow up to be the kind of fundamentalist Christian I was, but it is their life and their decision to make.

  • I have not been able to discuss it with them, and so far I’m almost certain no one else has discussed it around them, either.

  • Good work, dear Sir. Your change from someone who was a leader in his church to your growing role as a leading voice in free thought and humanism could be confusing for his kids, as I suspect they had a certain amount of family pride seeing you on the podium and seeing others going to you for advice in the faith.

    One reaction I can imagine, because I had such a reaction to some things my parents told me, is that your kids may wonder, “Were you lying before about God?”

  • Good luck with this. I am sure it will be tough, and I am sure from what I understand about your nature that thye will realize that it is not a horrible sin to not believe. You seem like a well adjusted person and I am sure your daughters will see that too.

  • Daniel Slaughter

    My daughter is 1 month old and I cringe at the idea of my mom teaching her religion. I know that it is unavoidable however, even if I forbid it. I’ll do my best to teach her about the value of science, and encourage independent thought. I never had to think for myself as a kid as she will. She will be getting conflicting information from her mom, and I…not to mention my family and, just about every one else in her early life.

  • MJ

    Wow! Crying right now! This is amazing! Best of luck to you and your family!


  • We stopped attending church a few months ago and were giving the kids sundry excuses. One evening recently my 13 year old cornered me and asked me the “real” reason we weren’t going to church. At first she was pretty horrified, but as the evening progressed, it turned out to be a nice conversation. I like that you are writing all this out.

  • You obviously care very deeply for your daughters. What a great responsibility we have to teach our children what is right and true.

  • Adam

    Neil, I am curious how your wife handled your turn away from the church? Is she still active in the church? and if so how has that affected your relationship with her. My wife and I get into numerous fights a month over religion and how it will be apart of our lives in the future and when we have children. I am trying to come to some type of conclusion with her on how to move forward. I am an atheist and have always been one, while she was born catholic and converted to being a christian in her teenage years. She is very open to peoples beliefs and isn’t by any means a fundamentalist, but if you ask her about her opinion on if the bible should be taken literally she defiantly is conflicted. Its difficult for me to have rational conversations with her anymore, because she was indoctrinated so early.

  • My story didn’t go as well as some do. We came from a strain of Christianity that isn’t really capable of accommodating a “mixed” marriage of this kind. I’ll be happy to chat with you about it via email if you like. I’ll drop you a note soon.

  • Adam

    Hi Neil, I am very sorry to hear that about you and your wife. I look forward to hearing from you. Please use my email on this post. I think I may have entered it wrong in my last post.


  • Steve

    Wonderful letter! I’m a PostMormon living in Utah, and other than changing a few words here and there, I could’ve written this letter myself. You captured so many of the thoughts I want to share with my children. My wife remains a faithful Mormon, and although she’s been willing (sometimes grudgingly) to accommodate my faith transition, I feel a need to be guarded in what I say around her and the children in order to not upset the delicate balance we’ve both worked hard to achieve. I may need to borrow this someday. One of the hardest aspects of this ordeal is the need to protect my children from some of the more damaging aspects of the Mormon church that have caused me so much suffering, and sometimes I feel that my kids are going to be hurt and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. I figure all I can do is build enough trust in my children that they can feel comfortable talking about things they’re struggling with. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in such a poignant and kind way.

  • Ryann

    What a beautiful, raw, touching letter to give to your girls. I was raised in a devout Christian home. When I told my mother I didn’t believe it devistated her. My lack of faith continues to affect our relationship so I know how hard it is telling those close to you. You can “see” how much you truly love your daughters in these letters and I know that even of that have a rough time at first they will see you for who you really are- their father. Thanks for sharing!