Letters to My Daughters #3: “Fighting Fear and Shame”

Letters to My Daughters #3: “Fighting Fear and Shame” July 30, 2013

searching-for-an-answerI can imagine that one of the first things you girls may feel upon learning I am no longer a Christian will be some mixture of worry, fear, and anxiety for my soul.  I imagine it could disturb some of you a great deal because over the years you have heard people say some pretty dramatic and condemning things about people who do not believe in God.  Most of all, you may fear that one day I will be severely punished for my lack of faith.  Beyond simply enduring a miserable life, the church tradition in which you are growing up teaches that non-believers will suffer for eternity in Hell.  I remember being terrified by the notion when I was little, so I imagine some of you may be feeling the same thing.  There are so many things I would like to say about this idea (particularly about the use of fear and intimidation for evangelistic purposes) but I will reserve that discussion for another time.  For my purposes in writing you girls, there is one primary thing I want you to consider:

My search for truth has always been a sincere one, as anyone who knows me well can tell you.  I have always felt that if God is real and if he created everything including me and you, then we should not be afraid to follow the evidence wherever it leads us.  If this world was made by God then an honest and diligent investigation into the world around us will not lead us in the wrong direction.  The conclusions I have drawn from my own investigation have taken me outside the Christian faith, but I will not presume to tell you where your own search will lead you.  All I ask of you is that you take into consideration that my personal journey has been undertaken with an honest and sincere passion for truth and understanding.  If there is a God, and if he is the merciful and loving God about whom you have been taught, then he would understand and recognize the sincerity of my search.  If he exists and if he is who our friends and family say he is, then he knows my heart and will judge me accordingly.  I spent quite a few years praying honestly about my own doubts and intellectual concerns.  If I were to wake up tomorrow in a face-to-face conversation with this God, my skepticism would be a well-worn topic between the two of us, and I doubt there would be any explanations or excuses needed.

I suppose it is also possible that what you feel is embarrassment or shame that your father has left the faith.  This would have less to do with displeasing God and more to do with displeasing people.  My first thought is that you should never be ashamed for someone who follows where the evidence leads him or her.  If I were being publicly shamed for believing the gospel by a group of people who thought it was silly, you would likely feel pride for my boldness in the face of opposition.  I hope that you can find a way to credit me at least a little for doing the opposite.  I have been called many ugly things by people who judge me for not believing the same way they do, but such social pressure does not change my mind.  I already feel pride for you girls whenever you speak your mind in the face of disagreement because it means you share my desire to follow the truth wherever it leads.  I hope you can do the same for me, even if you do not agree with my conclusions.

One other reason you might feel shame may be because you have been told that the only reason anyone leaves the faith is because of a moral failure.  Many like to say that people like me don’t quit believing because of intellectual reasons but rather because we want to live the way we want to live.  My first reaction to that is, “I get to live the way I wanna live?  When does that start?!”  ;-)  My main feeling about this is that they say this a little too easily, and most likely they’ve never truly been in my position themselves.  After twenty years of passionate Christian living and ministry, my willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for my faith shouldn’t be in question, but that doesn’t stop them from accusing me of weakness anyway.  In the end, I’ve decided there’s no point in arguing with them on this.  When it comes to matters of faith, people are going to think what they’re going to think.  Again I say if there is a God, he alone will judge me and none of these people will get that privilege.

Perhaps you will feel the need to evangelize me a bit whenever the opportunity arises. When that happens, I promise I won’t be upset about it.  I figure it’s only natural that you would want me to believe the same as you, both because that’s just the way humans work and because you want me to have the best life possible.  You should probably know that most things people say to try and change my mind have already been said to me many times, and I have considered each of them with honest sincerity.  My journey into non-belief was the product of many years of searching and thinking, so you can bet that I’ve considered many things which may not even have occurred to you girls just yet.  But again, I always want you to feel free to share with me whatever you like, talk with me about whatever you like, and ask me anything you want.  I won’t be offended by you girls.  To me, you’re closer than any other friends I’ll ever have.  You get to talk about whatever you want.

I will do my best to never try to talk you girls out of your faith.  As I said before, I do not need you to think the same way that I think.  All I care about is that you do think.  I like to see you girls working through what you believe about things and I love to see how you want to know and understand the world around you.  I can identify with that so well.  I also have no desire to disrupt your world or the relationships you have with so many awesome adults and friends from church, from camp, from school, or wherever.  They are a great support network and those relationships will bring great joy as you grow up.  I hope all of those continue.  You will get nothing but support from me in your involvement in those relationships.

Finally, one more thing I want to mention while I’m on this:  You will almost certainly want to see me come back to the Christian faith and I will be the first to tell you that I will always be open to changing my mind about everything that I think.  I never assume that I’ve got it all figured out, and I remain open to learning whatever I’ve missed up until this point.  I’ve been wrong about many things before, so I figure this is no different.  As I said, it’s natural that you would like to see me regain the faith that I once had.  However…I would like for you (and anyone else close to me) to consider the possibility that I may never regain that faith.  It is possible that I will remain an unbeliever for the remainder of my years.  In that event, I hope that you will continue to love and accept me even if I don’t share your faith.  I do not believe that a difference of religious belief has to get in the way of a family being  a family, and it would be far worse than anything else I can imagine to lose my relationship with you girls.  So even if I never become a Christian again, will you still accept me?  I promise either way that I will always accept you girls.  How could I not?  :-)

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  • I am unaware of your particular situation in terms of how often you see your girls, if you live near or far from them, or if you have liberal visitation with them, but I feel that these letters you’ve written are so heartfelt. You do such a wonderful job of explaining your reasons for your leaving your religious faith and explaining your great love and respect for their beliefs. I truly hope your daughters can feel the love, respect and hope you have for them, and will not allow religious dogma to separate them from such a wonderful father. Peace and love to you.

  • A hearty “ditto” to you! My six year old and I have had a slightly less involved conversation like this on several occasions. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her experience being a child of faith with parents who aren’t, when she’s an adult.

  • This letter is beautiful. It eloquently touches on so many important complex problems that will come about when someone dearly important learns about another’s unbelief. I have been rather open about my thoughts with those around me, except I have not found a way that I could be open with my mother. I may borrow the structure of this letter in helping me do that as my own experiences have given me a different approach when discussing beliefs. It hurts me greatly when I am not able to be fully honest with others, especially when it is someone I cherish. Thank you for sharing!

  • This was wonderful, and really touched my heart. Your daughters are so very lucky to have you in their lives.

  • Lee

    In the same boat as Drue and countless others I suspect in that I can’t seem to work out whether to be honest with my parents. I’ve scratched the surface by requesting they not share their religious beliefs with my kids when they’re together which did not go well, but that’s it. I find it numbingly frustrating to be so torn about sharing my journey for the truth with them, and yet I know it will bring them unbearable pain. To “come out” or shelter them, this is the question. I know nothing I say will ever change their beliefs and yet I feel compelled (as does Neil with his daughters) to share my beliefs with them. Alas, I can not bring myself (yet) to bear the truth to them; not for fear of ostracization, but simply out of compassion for their well-being at such a late stage in life. Thoughts? Experience?

  • BeakOfTheFinch

    I’m really inspired by you. Keep up the great work. I hope it all works out win your girls.

  • MJ

    Wonderful Letter. Need I keep saying this? You are truly a gifted writer!

    Let me see if I can comment on some specific things:

    You say:

    “If there is a God, and if he is the merciful and loving God about whom you have been taught, then he would understand and recognize the sincerity of my search. If he exists and if he is who our friends and family say he is, then he knows my heart and will judge me accordingly.”

    This is a true statement. Consider 1 Cor 4-5:

    “I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will MANIFEST THE MOTIVES OF OUR HEART, and then everyone will receive praise from God.”

    Concerning this, also consider the hinge statement of Sermon on the Mount:

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

    We often emphasize the first part, but the second part is just as pertinent. It sheds light on the fact that, despite some symbolic Biblical parables which may suggest otherwise, God’s judgment is the same thing as his mercy. God is a single outpouring act of ultra-generous love. And although all Redemption comes through Christ, faith in him can be either explicit or implicit. Faith in the truth is faith in Christ.

    With that said, I am truly enthralled by the sincerity of your writing. You set a great example for many believers and non-believers alike.