Oh, Jesus F-ing Christ.
September 26, 2005 8:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I have the conversation with my dad that my belief in God is not the same as his?

I was raised in a Southern Baptist home (fundies ahoy!). I have since decided that organized religion and God are not for me. I just don't believe it. My parents, dad especially, have become more and more involved in the church since I've left home and they are constantly dropping hints about going to church, etc. Last week, my dad sent me an email and this is it, in it's entirety "Leslie, Do you want to go to heaven when you die? Dad" (insert giant eyeroll here). I understand that it distresses my parents because they think I've "strayed from the flock" and I would like to keep a good relationship with them, but I don't know how to say "Hey, I think your beliefs are ludicrous. Leave me alone about it." Help me, Mefi agnostics/atheists!
posted by chiababe to Religion & Philosophy (36 answers total)
I don't think there's any good way, other than to just come out and tell him.

Zealots don't do subtle.
posted by bshort at 8:17 AM on September 26, 2005

This is tricky, because the best advice depends on a lot of different factors. How old are you? Are you dependent on your parents? Do you live with them? Do you live near them? Information like this would help us out.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:19 AM on September 26, 2005

I wouldn't get into the discussion of whether the beliefs are correct or not. No one ever wins that argument, no matter which side they are on. They are your parents and love you, and they believe that your failure of faith may have dire consequences for your soul. They will continue to worry and hope you will return to the church. You can not change that. What you can ask is that they respect your decision and to keep their discussion of the subject to a minimum. It would probably be good to let them know that you will continue leading an ethical life and that your mind remains open such that sometime in the future you may change it. However, that is a decision in which they can not participate. It is probably true that incessant pressure from them has the opposite of its intended effect. Let them know that.
posted by caddis at 8:20 AM on September 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

I agree that you are probably going to have to bite the bullet and be direct. I come from a very devout Catholic family who threw a bit of a fit when at 13 I decided it would be wrong for me to make a confirmation of something I wasn't sure about. I still get the occasional guilt trip, but since I'm 25 and have stuck to my guns, they've learned that they are wasting their breath trying to convert me back.

It is not an easy thing to do, but I wish you all the luck in having this conversation. It's best not to attack their beliefs directly so much as explain that it isn't for you and you have to make your own decisions with regards to your personal beliefs.
posted by catfood at 8:22 AM on September 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: No matter what, start with "Dad, I love you."

Then, rather than try to deal/attack about faith, ask him if there were things that he disagreed with his father. Then point out that did his father's arguing ever change his opinion.

Additionally, ask him if he would enjoy sharing your beliefs. Ask him if he'd be willing to change for you.

Then agree that this is a subject that if you like advice you'll ask, but realisticaly he's done a good job as a parent, but all the well meaning intentions he has...will only cause you to disagree stronger, just like him with his father.
posted by filmgeek at 8:23 AM on September 26, 2005

I'm in the exact same situation. The way I handle it, for the most part, is to be nice about it: I sat down with my parents, told them thanks for the input, but that I was not under the same belief system as they were. They took it well (especially when I brought up history with it, talking about how Baptism was started by a refugee of the Puritan religion who wanted everyone to believe their own ways), but I still attend church occassionally with them whenever I'm in town - just, for the most part, to make them feel that I'm not a complete "sinner" in their eyes.
posted by itchie at 8:23 AM on September 26, 2005

Good advice from Itchie and others. Don't confront, refuse to get in an argument/debate. Keep communication open, always tell him that you love and respect him and are grateful for the solid foundation of love and education that he provided you. Then refuse to talk further about it--"Dad, I don't want to argue. I love you, even though your beliefs are different from mine. Can't you love me the same way?"

IF he freaks and contact becomes difficult, keep lines of communication open with the rest of your family until the storm passes (which may take years).
posted by LarryC at 8:28 AM on September 26, 2005

(I'm an atheist.) I think it's important to remember that we're all human, with the same desires and fears. We all feel love; we all feel anger. Etc. When my Christian friends tell me they will pray for me, I try to listen to the meta-message, which is "I care about you."

And I pick my battles. If I had religious parents and I lived with them (or close to them), we would have to have a talk if they expected me to go to church with them constantly. On the other hand, going once in a while during a visit -- what's the harm? As social beings, we must sometimes partake in rituals that are meaningless to us, just to please other people.
posted by grumblebee at 8:31 AM on September 26, 2005

Be prepared for this conversation to last a lifetime. This will not just be a dinner's worth of discussion. I've been having this dialogue with my folks and my sisters for over a decade now. It gets easier, but it never goes away.

Start by telling them that you can't believe in something unless you think it is true. There will be plenty of time to explain why you think religion hurts mankind (if you feel that way), but the first conversation may be too passionate to express this sentiment without hurting your parents feelings. Be prepared to do a lot of listening to your parents thoughts on the matter. State your piece and then give them the floor to let them grieve out loud or think through it as a unit. Try to keep your mouth shut when you feel an oncoming urge to talk about "atrocitities committed in the name of God" or such meat. Keep the first conversations focused on you and your beliefs as they relate to the divinity of Christ or lack thereof.
posted by mds35 at 8:33 AM on September 26, 2005

Something else I've dealt with (and I hope I don't offend any religious people here) is the fact that some (not all!) people of faith feel a mild embarrassment about their beliefs. They feel that really "sophisticated" people aren't believes. So if someone they love or respect announces their disbelief, believers may take this as a criticism. Be aware of this.
posted by grumblebee at 8:33 AM on September 26, 2005

I agree that you should just tell him, making it clear that you love him even though you don't believe in the same things he does.

I see a risk, however, based on what you wrote about your father, that he will see this not necessarily as a betrayal but as a challenge, and more than that an important one. He loves you, and he honestly and fervently believes that, if you don't believe as he does and go to church, you will not go to heaven when you die. That troubles him, and is something his church tells him to try to rectify. I would therefore be not at all surprised if, rather than making him ease off, "coming out" as an agnostic/atheist will in fact galvanize his resolve to "save" you even more.

But, then, you know your father's personality, and I don't. I could be way off the mark here.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:35 AM on September 26, 2005

here is a post from earlier this year "should I tell my parents I'm agnostic"

With me, it's not so much my parents as the other people on both sides of the family, my very pro-Israel cousins on one side and my very-pro-Episcopal-church folks on the other side. I do pick my battles. If I'm trying to be polite -- which is usually since I don't see these people very often -- I'll do things that I assume are respectful to people of any cultures [go to church for weddings funerals, delete instead of argue with protletyzing emails &c] but I draw the line at doing things like going to other people's churches otherwise and holiday times are always sort of a difficult time since the line gets so blurry.

However, if it gets personal, so if someone asks "Why don't YOU do this thing/act like us/give some money to XYZ cause?" then I figure it's an open door to discuss my personal feelings which I feel that I can pretty much do without insulting other people. So, in your case, I'd focus more on the "this is how *I* feel" part of the message instead of "I think what you guys believe is a joke." message. I think the more your religious beliefs or lack of them seems like a personal choice rather than a blanket condemnation of their choices, the less they'll have to push back against. If you really are going to become an atheist activist, then all bets are off, but since you don't live with your parents any more, you both will have to get used to them not being able to tell you what to do. For them it means having to accept that you're not going to be going to church [you can make your own decision if you visit whether you want to go with them] and for you it means understanding that they may be becoming more religious and that may be an appropriate choice for them if they can leave you out of it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:41 AM on September 26, 2005

My husband has dealt with this same problem since he was a child. What seems to have worked for him is to never NEVER tell his mother that he thinks her beliefs are wrong, backward or silly, and he never argues with her when she has aksed him to go to church, he just says, "thanks, but no thanks". Ditto when they tell us, "We've been praying for you". I mentally translate that to "We are concerned about you and have been thinking about you". We let our son decide if he wants to go to Sunday school with them if they ask him. The biggest thing is that he spends lots of time with his family, and they know he is a kind, moral person. They respect his beliefs, I think because he has shown them that he can live his life in a Christian way without being Christian. Like others have said, let them know you love them, and don't let this get in the way of your family ties.
posted by slimslowslider at 8:46 AM on September 26, 2005

I might also emphasize, if you can, how much your family's beliefs have helped make you a better person, whatever that might mean (and assuming it's at least partly true!). Saying something to your father like, "I love that your faith has made you so devoted to your family, and I know that I wouldn't have such a strong personal moral foundation had you raised me another way" shows that you're not necessarily rejecting *everything* he taught you, or stomping on his *entire* belief system. Try to reassure him that he has taught you something, and raised you "right" in his eyes, and that you are truly grateful for that.
posted by occhiblu at 8:48 AM on September 26, 2005

You could tell him heaven is a bit small for him, since baptists make up only a very few percent of the people on the earth. You'd rather live with your friends and (future?) spouse in the afterlife, which, according to your dad, will be hell. Tell him you'll be happier there since the other 99% of the world will be going there too. If he's worried about torture, etc, remind him that Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, et al will be there with you to protect you since they're not baptist either.

If he suggests those people will be going to heaven (he should unless he wants to avoid an obvious faith pitfall -- that even the best people in the world go to hell according to the bible), you can now assure him that since heaven is open to anyone that is good regardless of (lack of) faith, you don't think you'll be going to hell because you live your life in a good and wholesome manner and God clearly thinks a lot more about that than your faith.

a) He won't bug you about your soul anymore.
b) Future conversion attempts will only be about the positive qualities of his religion and not about negativisms. These will be a lot easier for you to discuss with him than the present topic.

Just an idea.
posted by shepd at 8:53 AM on September 26, 2005

My condolences- my s.o. comes from a line of Southern Baptist preachers, and there's no good solution, IMO. What you should focus on is minimizing collateral damage.

I'm going to assume here that your dad is not interested in an open, ongoing dialogue with you about the nature of your respective faiths. If you can hit that target, mazel tov, and disregard the rest.

Your father's email, however, says to me that he's seizing on an inarguable point- that your goal should be getting into heaven- rather than making sure you're living a "godly" life. Getting into heaven is a Christian goal, with specific rules you must follow (chief among them being accepting Jesus as your savior) with no wiggle room.

At a practical level, discourage your father from engaging you in conversation about this. Change the subject when he does. Your only "owed" response should be that you're happy that he and your mother have found purpose in their lives.

If he persists, or if you've got the wherewithal to engage him, point out things to him that you do that give you purpose. Make your connection this way.

Avoid being pressured into going to church with them when you visit. It's just a setup for more needling.
posted by mkultra at 8:59 AM on September 26, 2005

I have a similar situation with my mother. After a lot of deliberation, I've decided to stretch the truth a bit.

My mother is one of the most devout and serious Christians I have ever met (even after a lifetime of growing up in the church). She very literally believes that anyone who does not accept Jesus as their personal savior will burn in Hell for all eternity. When I say "literally", I mean that when I hinted once that I might not believe in God anymore, she called off sick from work for three days so she could pray for my soul.

That may sound unreasonable, but if you truly believed that a loved one was going to burn in a pit of fire for all eternity, taking a few days off of work would be a small sacrifice.

Realizing how much pain I was causing her, I decided to, well, soften my agnosticism for her. I told her that while I don't go to church anymore, I still have a personal relationship with God, even if it is different from hers. This, she can accept.

So my advice for you is to try to figure out whether your parents' concern is more that you have socially strayed from the world they raised you to be a part of... or if they are terrified for the fate of your soul. If it's the former, by all means assert your identity and take a stand. If it's the latter, you may want to be more broad and ambiguous in the descriptions of your spiritual life.
posted by 4easypayments at 9:05 AM on September 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Well, what's your goal here? Do you want your parents to stop bugging you, or do you want them to accept your new beliefs? Discussions about religion can be intresting if people remain levelheaded about it. If you think you're dad is resonable, go ahead and get into a discussion with him, explain what you belive, etc.
posted by delmoi at 9:11 AM on September 26, 2005

Response by poster: Faint of Butt: I am 25, am not dependent in my parents in any way, and I live about 90 miles away; far enough to have breathing room, usually, but close enough to go down for a weekend whenever I want.

delmoi: I just want them to leave it alone. I don't ever expect them to accept what I believe because they are sure my soul is damned to the fiery pits of hell.

I spoke with my dad on the phone Saturday night and he mentioned in passing that he had sent an email to me that he hadn't gotten a response to. I just told him that I don't check that address very often because I didn't feel like getting into at the moment, but he is clearly pressing the issue, in his own silly passive-aggressive manner, and that's why I've decided it's time for "the talk."
posted by chiababe at 9:20 AM on September 26, 2005

Swap out Baptist for Mormon, and I'm right there with you. I've been going through this with my folks for the last 15 years and I don't expect it to ever go away. For the most part, I just kind of grin and bear it because I'm not going to change them. I just wish they'd realize that they aren't going to change me either.
posted by trbrts at 9:21 AM on September 26, 2005

Maybe you could tell your dad that you've done everything possible to believe in God, but you just aren't able to do so. If you just absolutely cannot find a way to believe -- more so than not wanting to believe or being mad at God or whatever -- I've never been able to understand why this should result in punishment. I'm not an expert on Biblical matters, but it seems to me that you're not refusing to accept Jesus as your saviour because other Gods are getting in the way -- it's just that your brain is not built in a way that will allow you to believe in God. And I'd consider use of logic, scientific fact, Occam's Razor, etc to be things that could result in you being unable to believe in God. This is how I've explained things to people concerned for my soul. I find that most people think you must be mad at God or turning away from God and it really stops them in your tracks if you say that you cannot be mad or turning away because there is no God and your brain is obviously not designed to ignore the evidence before you. Many people think there must have been some hurt, anger or disappointment that led you to atheism, rather than scientific process.
posted by acoutu at 9:27 AM on September 26, 2005

Meta-messages are important. We're all doing our best, some do it through religious means. On occassion my dad sings at church, or it's mothers day and my mom wants to show off the grandkids, I bite the bullet and go to church with them. It's an hour of my time and it means the world to my folks. This only happens once or twice a year, but regardless, don't be a hard ass.

But yeah, emails concerning your soul's eternal damnation are pretty annoying. I'd just gently tell him you guys aren't on the same page spiritually right now and him pressing the issue will just drive a wedge betwixt you guys.
posted by glenwood at 9:27 AM on September 26, 2005

I think it is important to have this talk and commend you for it, however you should be aware that this isn't going to go away. It will surface again every time there is any significant change or opening. In my experience, life-changes such as marriage, will receive pressure regardless of any agreement you've come to with your parents. Worse (much worse) will be the pressure and the outright defiance your parents may subject you to regarding your wishes for any children you may have.

We had to completely cut my mother-in-law's unsupervised access to our son for repeatedly filling his head with fire-and-brimstone stories, for telling him how his parents were bad people who would be going to hell, and for making him promise not to tell us. We discovered this fact after our son suffered weeks of nightmares which he was too afraid to tell us about. She did all this *after* formally and repeatedly agreeing never to do anything like that. Evidently, for her, the Bible's exhortation to proselytize trumps any oaths or agreements she might make. Hopefully, your experience will be different, but be careful.
posted by Invoke at 9:50 AM on September 26, 2005

Best answer: As a Christian, can I offer my perspective and a suggestion?

There is nothing wrong with you suggesting they no longer bring it up-but tell them it is okay if they pray for you.

The big deal is they really do love you and they really are concerned for your eternal destination. However bugging you won't do any good, from either your or their perspective. And if they truly are people of faith, prayer should be enough. It isn't like you don't know the particulars of the faith, so communicating those facts are not the issue.
posted by konolia at 10:13 AM on September 26, 2005

delmoi: I just want them to leave it alone. I don't ever expect them to accept what I believe because they are sure my soul is damned to the fiery pits of hell.

Well, if you don't want to lie about being religious, or more religious then you are, just tell your parents the truth, I guess.

You can always soft-pedal it. Accepting Jesus doesn’t require you to actually go to church, you can do it on your own. You can just tell your parents that you find personal reflection sufficient, and think that will be enough to stay out of hell.
posted by delmoi at 10:29 AM on September 26, 2005

Maybe you could tell your dad that you've done everything possible to believe in God, but you just aren't able to do so.

I think this is a bad idea, given the audience. Evangelical Christians aren't going to just accept that and move on- rather, they tend to see "excuses" like that as a challenge to show you The Way, since if you'd just let Jesus into your heart...
posted by mkultra at 10:58 AM on September 26, 2005

There's been some great advice here. I second Larry C, "Don't confront, and refuse to get in an argument/debate," mds35 "Be prepared for this conversation to last a lifetime," and slimslowslider. And while I think shepd is funny and probably right, I think going that route is ultimately hurtful and destructive.

I think you can tell them that you are on your own path, your beleifs are personal and valid, and maybe that you'd appreciate it if they'd stop pressuring you about religion. It can be more of a conversation about pressure than beliefs; tell them to back off. Eventually you may be able to talk intelligently with them about faith (even though the Jesuit philosophy of critical inquiry is Catholic, so I have found "fundies" unable to even understand the benefit of such a dialogue), but I suppose that you'd mostly have to softpedal around them. I really do think it is important however that you don't lie. You are as important an influence and example to them as they may think they are to you.
posted by scazza at 10:59 AM on September 26, 2005

Here's a book for you!
posted by Pollomacho at 10:59 AM on September 26, 2005

"Dad, I gotta tell you, I've been worshipping our Dark Lord Lucifer for a while now, and I don't think it's a faze... No. Just kidding. I just don't believe in the Southern Baptist church anymore, and want you to leave me alone. I just told you that so you could always say 'Well, at least she's not a Satanist...'"
posted by klangklangston at 11:17 AM on September 26, 2005

4easypayments and konolia have it pegged, I think.

I used to work closely with a very good guy who was a fundamentalist. Over the years he and I became close friends. He was mannerly and respectful enough not to proselytize, but eventually he told me just how painful it is for him to contemplate that most of his friends (including me) and half his family will surely burn in hell.

He said he routinely prayed for all of us.

I told him that I appreciated it. (Which I did. It strikes me as silly, but then I also realize it's a sign of his love and concern.)

I also told him (truthfully; I'm an agnostic, not a hardcore atheist) that although can't make myself believe, and that my understanding of the world doesn't lead me to think that I should do so, I also recognize that if in fact there is a God who wants me to acknowledge him, I'm sure he will let me know in some way, and I'm open to the possibility that it could happen.
posted by tangerine at 2:03 PM on September 26, 2005

Is it just me or was the general consensus of the Should I tell my parents I'm agnostic thread that the guy shouldn't tell his parents about his agnosticism, while the consensus here is that chiababe should tell her parents? (Or, if I'm misreading something, please let me know.)
posted by Handcoding at 2:58 PM on September 26, 2005

That question was "Should," this question is "How." They're starting from different assumptions.
posted by occhiblu at 3:31 PM on September 26, 2005

Unfortunately, I think any "soft peddling" of your beliefs will encourage your parents to view you as a challenge, not a closed book, and you'll get more pressure to participate/convert/"re-connect with the church".

I'm an athiest and my Mother is a devout Catholic - she struggles with the idea that a person whose intellect she respects does not share her faith, but we've each said our bit and the matter is at rest.

If your father is a fair man, he should respect you enough do the same.
posted by Crosius at 3:54 PM on September 26, 2005

Leslie, Do you want to go to heaven when you die? Dad

I can't really answer that question, Dad. I don't believe in heaven, and I can't really say whether I do or don't want to go to a place that doesn't exist. Love, Leslie.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:46 PM on September 26, 2005

Find your common ground, even if it is just turns out to be unconditional love and loyalty to family.
posted by Oyéah at 9:44 PM on September 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

I realize this is a little late to reply, but my significant other is going through the same thing. He had grudgingly gone to his family's Evangelical Lutheran church throughout high school, but upon graduating and finding commiseration in a Philosophy 101 class, he came out to them as atheist. (It all started with him--a kid living away from home, mind you--putting a Darwin emblem on his bumper.) They chastised him forever, moreso his dad than his mom. They lectured him every weekend and made him cry. They finally kicked him out of the house. He rarely stops there anymore, rarely talks to his parents, and rarely speaks about them. His grandmother, who is very serious in her faith, wrote him a letter for his birthday telling him he is a coward for not going to church and owning up to how "wrong" he is, that I (his s.o.) am a portal to Satan, and that he is hurting his family in so many ways. He couldn't read it--he had me read it to him. I know he's deeply hurt inside about it.

I told him that it is obvious to me that he has his mind made. I also said that he will just have to wait around for his parents. Eventually they'll realize that he's their son, despite religious boundaries, and they might try to at least start some small talk again.

Situations like that make me neverendingly happy that I was raised without religion.
posted by sian at 12:05 PM on October 1, 2005

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