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January 5, 2012 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Conversations with my Father-in-law have lead him to lose his faith in God. My mother-in-law is not coping well with this and blames me. What do I do?

My father-in-law and I have been having conversations about God, faith, science, evolution etc for about three years now. Basically it started out as him trying to "save my soul" but have had the opposite effect. He now no longer believes and, as a 60 year old man who always considered himself a strong Christian, this has really shaken him to the core. It was never my intention to convince him he was wrong, but we had an agreement that whenever we have these kind of philosophical talks that we would both be honest in our feelings and beliefs, so when he asked me a question, I answered it honestly.

You can no doubt imagine the avenues these conversations went down: the inerrancy of the Bible, evolution vs creationism, the role of Christianity in society, etc. Basically we would have talks about these different subjects and he would ask my opinions and I would give my opinions and point him to reading materials that I based my opinions on. He would comeback with findings that he would get from Young Earth Creationist sites and I would counter and so on.

After a while he became bothered by things that he thought were ironclad, undisputable facts and really began to question himself and his God and recently he decided that what he previously believed could not be true. He has been severely depressed and began feeling that he has wasted good chunks of his life with religion. The thing is, he was a great Christian who let his actions speak louder than words. He is a good man and I admire and love him dearly. In the last week or so he has been coming around to the fact that his Christian upbringing and morals have served him well and has said that coming to this realization will make his last years more enjoyable and more fulfilling.

My mother-in-law is a different story. She completely blames me for his recent depression and for his changing outlook. Again, she is a great Christian woman and we have never had any real issues. She never minded the long talks my father-in-law had because she thought they would lead myself and my wife "back into the fold." She no longer allows my wife and I over to the house and does not want her husband talking to me anymore. My wife and I have talked and have kind of taken the position that we will just not attempt much contact and wait for them to contact us, but that of course it is hard because we both love and care for them and enjoy being with them. It made for a very awkward Christmas! I guess my question is what is my responsibility here? Is there anything I could or should try to do to help diffuse the situation other than let time work its magic?

I will be happy to answer any questions.
posted by holdkris99 to Human Relations (26 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
now that relations have gone sour it's your wife's responsibility to mend things.

the mother-in-law may or may not be accurate in diagnosing the cause of her husbands depression, regardless she blames you. however, your father-in-law is a free person.

your wife should tell your MiL that you will not bring up the subject, but if she wants to control her husbands beliefs, and what your opinions are if he engages you in discussion about certain topics, she is demanding too much. no one get's to anoint themselves thought policy by throwing a fit.
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:16 PM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: If I were you, I would write them a letter to say basically what you said in your second paragraph. Make sure your wife is on board, because these are her parents and you don't want to cause further strife, but assuming she gives her blessing, tell him what you told us. Tell him that you're sorry that your talks have caused this rift in your relationship. Tell him that you consider him to be a wonderful person and that you love and admire him. Tell both of them how much you appreciate the morals and values that have made him the man he is today and that allowed both of them to raise their daughter to become the wonderful person you fell in love with. Tell them that you hope to be able to mend this relationship with them, and that you love them both very much. After that, I think the ball is in their court, but you will have done everything you could.

Whatever happens, know that this is not your fault. You did exactly what we all hope that people who disagree about important matters will do: you discussed your differences respectfully, were honest with one another, and let your conversations about your disagreements enhance your relationship with someone you love instead of tearing it apart. Even if the end result isn't what you (or perhaps more pointedly, your mother-in-law) might have expected or wished for, you behaved in a way that I think we all wish more of humanity would behave, and you should be lauded for it. I hope everything works out for you and your family.
posted by decathecting at 9:16 PM on January 5, 2012 [37 favorites]

It made for a very awkward Christmas! I guess my question is what is my responsibility here? Is there anything I could or should try to do to help diffuse the situation other than let time work its magic?

I don't think so, man. This is a situation where your in-laws are going to have to come to some accommodation between them that lets her be okay with you. That might or might not happen. I don't think she'll ever trust you to tell her that you weren't deliberately leading him astray, trying to wreck his faith --- you're just not going to be a good messenger for that. He might be, but it's between them. The secular equivalent of this would be if you were the third party in the break-up of a marriage --- the first wife is not going to welcome any message along the lines of "I wasn't trying to make him fall in love with me, it just happened" no matter how you couch it or how true it may be.

I think the most you can do is perhaps reach out and say, with examples, some of the stuff you've mentioned here --- that you've always respected and admired your FIL and her and you're sad that there's this estrangement between you but that you respect her decision. Maybe in a letter or something. But even that's a little sketch if you think her anger is still fresh on this. This is serious stuff for a believer -- if she herself remains devout she may think her husband's now damned. If I thought that you'd been partly responsible for condemning my loved one to eternal torment, I'd be pretty pissed at you too. It sucks, but I think your most reliable course is simply respect and time.
posted by Diablevert at 9:18 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You did not proselytize so I don't think you're particularly in the wrong. Faith sometimes changes. He could have arrived at the same change by browsing some websites parroting your position.

You're in an awkward social spot though. I'd apologize and perhaps try to make peace by noting your admiration of all the good in their religious life. The qualities they cultivated as christians weren't contingent on faith, nor was the quality of their community.

Alternatively, let time pass. She may just not want you in their life now.
posted by ead at 9:23 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't have to believe in young earth creationism or biblical inerrancy to be a Christian. Perhaps your dad would benefit from talking to some mainstream or liberal Christians? He would get along great with my wife's Episcopal priest, who is a recovered fundamentalist himself.
posted by LarryC at 9:25 PM on January 5, 2012 [13 favorites]

Is there anything I could or should try to do to help diffuse the situation other than let time work its magic?

In anything involving aging parents, I would strongly urge against letting time work its magic. Figure out a way to reach out to her (the suggestion of letting your wife take the lead is a good one), and if that doesn't work, try something else. The point is not to force a reconciliation, but to make it clear to your MIL that you both love her and want to be in her life; she can choose to be angry, and it's good that you acknowledge that to her, but she should also know that you are waiting for her to let you rejoin her life.
posted by eddydamascene at 9:44 PM on January 5, 2012

Others are doing a great job of commenting on the social dynamics going on, and making recommendations on how to handle the situation with your mother-in-law. I just wanted to comment once more specifically on your father-in-law, and the conversations you've been having. I certainly don't think you're to blame for this in any way. Conversational rough-and-tumble about the things that matter is one of the keenest joys in life. And speaking honestly about your thoughts and beliefs is never something that you should apologize for. So you shouldn't feel guilty that in the process of this, your father-in-law thought about what you said and lost his faith.

However I would say that if he's only been talking to you, he may want to engage with a broader variety of ideas before settling down on one worldview, especially one that he apparently finds depressing and meaningless. It sounds as if you two are replaying debates that were hashed out a century ago (introduction of German higher criticism, fundamentalist/modernist controversy). My old professor David Hempton's book Evangelical Disenchantment looks a various evangelicals who lost their faith to similar issues, and most of them are late 19th century. The whole to-do about the inerrancy of the Bible, Darwinianism, etc. has a sort of Victorian ring to it, to me anyway, as far as theological issues go. Nothing wrong with you two having these debates of course - there are still many interesting questions surrounding these issues. And if he's happy with where's he's landed, obviously that's great. However if he's depressed to be losing his religion, and wants to give Christianity a fair shake, he might consider looking at some theology that engages with postmodernity (such as, say, Radical Orthodoxy; I'm not a theologian, but I'm sure there are various other movements that others can volunteer).
posted by UniversityNomad at 9:53 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The suggestions for a more liberal strain of Christianity are great. We have discussed this kind of thing at length, especially in the last couple of weeks. Does anyone have any suggested reading about that?

A couple of months ago, before "The Change," we both read The Rise and Fall of the Bible by Timothy Beal which is about the Bible as a cultural artifact in America and how various groups, including publishers, fundamentalist, politicians, etc. have co-opted the Bible and use it in a way that keeps people from appreciating the Scripture in and of itself. Neal is a liberal Christian whose wife is an Episcopalian minister (if I remember correctly) and, back then, my FiL question Neal's credentials as a Christian. At this point, he is kind of at an all or nothing stage. But if anyone has any suggested readings for "reformed Fundamentilists" they would be greatly appreciated. Also, Neal's book is great for believers and non-believers alike. I highly recommend it.

In fact, I have a copy I would be willing to pass on to someone interested, just MeFi Mail me.
posted by holdkris99 at 10:03 PM on January 5, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry, Neal's wife is a Presbyterian minister, not Episcopalian.
posted by holdkris99 at 10:10 PM on January 5, 2012

Best answer: I hope he will find it reassuring to discover this crisis of faith is a familiar one to many people who seek to live a religious life, a spiritual life or even a good life which is just and useful and celebrates the joy of life itself.

Many people think, for most of their early years, that religion is the creation of god when actually, man created religion to try to codify, I believe, the behavior and attitudes that lead to a good society and to the numinous experience for individuals which is described as a blessing, an experience of the presence of the divine. Perhaps originally there was a moment of transcendent joy for someone, a time of such sense of blessing that remained in the memory as holy and thereafter every effort was made to do all the things and advise all the moves that would recreate that time. Perhaps the rituals worked sometimes. I tell myself that this was the beginning of religion. Thereafter, an endless history and conflicts layered over and sealed away the precious moment of joy while armies of patriarchs whipped the world into a shape of their own choosing so that joy of their own conceiving could return to all the people. The harder they tried and the more rules they made, the farther away that genuine moment receded.

My solution to this ludicrous cacophony of religious oppression was to drop all the religion and to believe that, within my own consciousness--or without, I cannot know and do not care--there is the numinous and I have the choice to live in what I find to be the good life and there I discover in contemplation the expression of joy in my life. I don't put names or rules on my way of living--certainly not the rules of all those dead men who, after all, were trying to tell me that joy is there for us. I prefer to simply live in it.

I took one text to begin and for many years, it was my only scripture and I set as my work was to learn and understand it: It was "God is Love." I have never felt since that I needed a longer version.

I do not know if this helps anyone but know that I am quite sincere. I am seventy-eight and I have been working on this most of my llfe. I was brought up in an evangelical Christian church, I studied Judaism, then Catholicism to which I converted. Disillusioned, I went back to college and majored in philosophy and minored in Greek. Reading the New Testament in Greek, studying philosophy, I gradually became convinced that religion was entirely a cultural artifact and quite a separate matter from the genuine search for the moral and ethical life and the approach to the numinous.

Perhaps he did not intend his quote in quite this way, but Wittgenstein said, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. It is in that spirit my journey parts from religion and from conventional conversation about God and I enter the life of responsibility for my own experience. There are many saints and poets who have written from similar positions despite the language they might have used and I read them. It is a journey with the focus on the step I am presently taking, not a rulebook written by others.

You are not a destroyer of this man's faith. Perhaps you have been a catalyst for him to move into a richer experience of what it means to be a human being with a maturing, expanding consciousness. In the language of religion, perhaps he is being called to a richer life of the spirit. As someone once said, discovering one's God is too small is not a disaster but an opportunity to grow.
posted by Anitanola at 12:32 AM on January 6, 2012 [45 favorites]

Remind her the Bible teacher forgiveness.

"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Matthew 6:14-15

"I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. Review the past for me, let us argue the matter together; state the case for your innocence." Isaiah 43:25-26

"The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him" Daniel 9:9

And quote her Joshua 24:15.

"But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

In other words, it's OK if he has decided he no longer believes, but she can continue to go on believing in whatever she wants to believe and that's OK too.

Since his faith sounds more shaken than broken, you could also reassure her with parallels to Job. His faith is shaken, but he may yet come back to the fold again, stronger than ever.

If all else fails, remind her God is pretty strong on the importance of families by busting out some of these choice quotes.

“Now if anyone does not provide for his own relatives, and especially for his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

“These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
posted by Effigy2000 at 1:08 AM on January 6, 2012

Like Effigy says, blame is decidedly unChristian. Ask her to forgive you as you did not intend harm. Ask her why she thinks God allowed this to occur. But counter her blame with your love--in other words, show her what a Christian is supposed to do in difficult situations.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 AM on January 6, 2012

As hard as this might be to accept, you have to view your actions from a religious perspective.

You were the wayward "fallen" angel, devil-in-disguise that has tricked believers for thousands of years. Your words were nothing more than "seduction." You did not convince your father-in-law through debate or logic. This is why your MIL has blocked you from the home - hers was a religious response.

If you wish to redeem the relationship, you have to understand the inadvertent role you played, and 'fix' this in religious tones, and with religious cover.
posted by Kruger5 at 6:35 AM on January 6, 2012

It sounds like he has decided that everything he believes in is false, and feels somehow empty or like he wasted his life believing in foolish things.

The way around this is to remind him that while some of it might be bunkum, most of it is good. Lots of "strong Christians" don't believe in the literalness of the bible, that the world was created in literally 144 hours, that God planted the dinosaur bones to tempt people, or even that God is an actual entity. The real "good" of the bible and of Christianity is how it encourages people to live good lives and be involved in their communities and raise their children to be nice to others. One doesn't have to believe in God to do all those things.
posted by gjc at 6:48 AM on January 6, 2012

I'm looking at this from a different angle, as a Christian.

If you were able to "talk him out of " faith, he wasn't really a regenerate Christian to begin with. Christianity really is about relationship with Jesus and if he had one I doubt you would have been able to make him give that up.

I am sorry you are being blamed for this.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:54 AM on January 6, 2012

Congrats on helping another human to move beyond the irrational to the rational. (Of course, from your MiL's perspective, you are the Great Satan.) Please do not enourage your FiL to explore Christianity-lite. Now that he has come to his senses, the existential struggle to find meaning is the next step, and it sounds like he is working on it.
posted by hworth at 7:14 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Should your father-in-law get in the mood for a little lighter reading than the straight theology criticism, A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically was a highly interesting (and funny) memoir about the "New York Jewish agnostic" author's year of following the Bible as literally as possible. He starts it largely as a "Ha ha, the Bible is so crazy!"-type joke, but over the course of the year in practice and in discussion with theologians examines why the Bible still resonates with so many people. IIRC by the end of the book he's still agnostic, but "a reverent agnostic."
posted by nicebookrack at 7:44 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it is kind of awesome that you convinced someone whose "ironclad beliefs" are completely counterfactual to question those beliefs. But I realize that is not helpful.

This may not be your place, but I would think that talking with a clergyperson might help your FIL with his crisis of faith. If you know someone that your FIL trusts who would be willing to help him explore this without telling him he's wrong or insisting that his previous beliefs were correct, maybe you could broach that with your MIL and ask if she and your FIL would be willing to meet with this person (and you could be there or not, whatever made them feel comfortable)? That might be too much intervention, but I think at least talking with your MIL would be a good idea, telling her you respect her and her husband, admire them for being good Christians, didn't intend to change their beliefs and hope you can be back in their lives without discussing religion (if that's what they want).
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:44 AM on January 6, 2012

You did not proselytize so I don't think you're particularly in the wrong.

Even if you were proselytizing, you still wouldn't be in the wrong. At all.

You're giving yourself too much credit. The man's an individual, with individual thoughts. You didn't change his way of thinking; he did.

It's not your responsibility.
posted by coolguymichael at 9:40 AM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: I'm an ex-evangelical (inerrantist too, though I was never a YEC), now an atheist. So I don't think you did a bad thing. Your FiL is an adult and you had an honest discussion with him. In such a discussion, there's the possibility that either party will change their mind. I wouldn't feel guilty on that score. But it's natural for you to want to look after him as he goes though a difficult change, too: this needn't be out of guilt that you did something bad, though.

A few things that occur to me, mostly about your FiL:

If you've been a serious evangelical, the more liberal forms of Christianity can look like weak sauce. Evangelicalism makes bold and clear and false claims. Contrast that with liberal faith where half the time, I couldn't tell what liberal Christians actually meant even if they were using the same words as me. So don't be surprised if your FiL isn't perked up by a more liberal faith (though he may be, as we're not all the same). Still, it's not the sort of thing I'd encourage if you're actually an atheist yourself, I'd just be straight with him.

In the last week or so he has been coming around to the fact that his Christian upbringing and morals have served him well and has said that coming to this realization will make his last years more enjoyable and more fulfilling.

Yep: Reversed Stupidity is Not Intelligence. There's no reason to think that the good stuff that Christianity also teaches is falsified because there's no God. I think if I wanted to help the FiL, I'd point out that he hasn't lost those things, he just doesn't need to keep them locked up in a box called "God": I love this passage from Greg Egan for that insight.

Still, it is disorientating and scary. There are support forums on the Net and support groups IRL for people who are recovering from fundamentalism, though some people on these can be quite bitter as they're still too angry to recognise that their time as a Christian could have had any value. I like this advice to recent de-converts.

To the MiL, you might be an agent of the Devil. Evangelicals are big on spiritual warfare even if they're not all excitable enough to do exorcisms and whatnot.

Of course, they're also big on truth, and perhaps that's a way to frame this: your FiL got where he is by pursuing truth, in an honest discussion. If your MiL was only happy with that discussion when she thought it was a one-sided attempt to convert you, there's something unfair about that, as it's not shared truth-seeking but salesmanship. It is disrespectful. The Bible says "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." (It also has a bit to say on the value of forgiveness and of families, but your MiL may not appreciate an atheist calling her out like that).
posted by pw201 at 9:47 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Giving him reading material about other forms of Christianity is the absolute worst idea. That would be, not only proselytizing, but incredibly condescending to him as a thinking individual who was able to rationally work through an entire lifetime of fundamentalist belief. I don't get the impression that you are a liberal Christian yourself, which would make it also very disingenuous.

You acted genuinely and thoughtfully before, and he did the same. His own thoughts are not your responsibility or his wife's. This is something he and his wife have to work out.

Also, pitching a fit and banishing her family from the house in order to control her husband is not "being a good Christian." On the flip side, though, be aware that she's doing this because her own fragile worldview is threatened.
posted by cmoj at 9:53 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

pw201, I really like that Greg Egan bit. Thanks for pointing it out.

holdkris99, you're going to be persona non grata for a long time with your MiL, I think. Trying to pour oil on the waters with selected Bible verses wil really only serve to hurt you. Your wife will have to be your advocate; I hope she isn't too mad at you for riling things up. :7) Can she speak to her mom for you with any kind of religious authority, or will she have to settle for arguing from compassion and a concern for family dynamics?

I am remembering the story about your dad and Green Bay, and it still makes me grin.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2012

I guess my question is what is my responsibility here? Is there anything I could or should try to do to help diffuse the situation other than let time work its magic?

Bollocks to feeling guilty about it. I don't see how chats with his son in law would make a guy lose his faith unless his faith was already pretty damned shaky, maybe just nominal, more a church membership (with all of the social trappings) than faith in some god. You don't reason people out of religious beliefs like that.

But if the guy is depressed and you love him, you ought to help steer him to feeling better. Maybe he needs talk or maybe he needs a good prescription. And try to introduce him to some Everything is Cool church such as the Unitarians.
posted by pracowity at 11:36 AM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses and please keep them coming. Let me address a couple of points that have been brought up.

First of all, my wife is also an athiest. She is supportive of the me and her father and does not take sides or cast blame, but at the same time feels bad for her mother so is doing what she can to support her.

Secondly, a couple of commenters have questioned my father-in-laws Christianity and said that well if he changed his mind, he was never al Christian. That's just nonsense. I used to be a Christian but as I started to investigate the claims involved I foud them untenable with a logicalscintific-rational worldview. I remember the exact moment it all struck me. I was driving down the highway with my new born son, I was 20 years old. I had been questioning my faith for a couple of years and was hanging on by the thread of hope for an eternal afterlife. I started thinking about my son and realized that at some point I would die and never see him again. That's when I knew that I no longer believed. It sucked and took me a while to get over. Anyway, sorry for the tangent, my point is because someone is one thing now doesn't mean they weren't another thing before.
posted by holdkris99 at 12:02 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, is it incredibly wrong to suppose that because someone has lost their faith, their faith wasn't that strong to begin with....

Tell that to my formerly "believing" self, who would have taken a bullet for my Christianity, any day of the week. Was my faith strong enough, if I would have DIED for it?

But as the saying goes, I would rather be hurt by the truth, than comforted by a lie, and that is that.

holdkris99, when I lost my faith, it was pretty traumatic for me, too, and I felt somewhat like your FIL...that I had wasted a lot of my life, and brain power, and been a huge hypocrite, etc, etc. It was hard on me for about three years.

What helped was having a spouse who would go through it with me, let me rant and rave, indulge me when I was feeling the loss and cried some. It was difficult, but so, so satisfying.

I would say that you should try to have a conversation with your MIL, if you have any good times to call on reserve, and let her see that you aren't Satan's minion. If she just isn't having it, there is nothing you can do. Perhaps your FIL will get sick of the controlling part, and grow a backbone and tell her she's being unreasonable. I don't know. But I don't think you should feel guilty or that you did something wrong. It sounds as if he wanted the truth, and instead of alienating him with it, you had a thoughtful discourse and he came to his own conclusions. Your MIL pitching a fit is going to backfire on her, and you can just be the nice baby-eating atheist who picks up where you left off, just as nice and respectful as ever. Kill her with kindness.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 3:00 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

You helped him to think. What he thought, what he decided, was his choice, not yours. He, I assume, takes responsibility for his own life and the beliefs that uphold it. Now you can still be supportive if appropriate, but it's really up to him to use the gift you gave him.
posted by nickji at 11:37 AM on January 9, 2012

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