How Do I Tell The
Family About Me?

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <>
To: "RCJ21483"
Subject: Re: How Do I Tell Family About Me?
Date: Monday, January 15, 2001 9:20 AM

Part of our role is to serve those atheists who either choose not to be part of a group or who cannot find a group (or don't fit in with the local group, etc.). Also, any situation you might be in is probably not unique, and others may benefit from either tackling your questions or comparing notes with my answers. We're here to learn.

It is not necessary to express your views to him. Though we all hope for the freedom to be able to be candid with our views, keeping quiet is sometimes the best option. Many people are forced into a situation where they must actually lie about their atheism and pretend to be theists. It is this last situation, more than any other, that we seek to change.

Though he is accountable for his own behavior, his behavior does not make you a bigot. At worst, he is forcing you to be an unwilling hypocrite. And since he is forcing you to be this way, he is accountable for your hypocrisy, not you.

Meanwhile, he cannot make you believe anything. At most, he can only force you to pretend; at minimum, he is making hypocrisy your most convenient option. But, people cannot easily make themselves believe one way or the other (we are basically at the mercy of what we see, and our minds tend to believe what we see, not see what we believe). If we cannot easily change our own beliefs, how much more impossible is it for someone else to change our beliefs?

And certainly this is offensive! But we can do only so much to effect the behavior of another.

As I stated in my exchange with Cameron Pearl, for her to privately pray for you is entirely innocent. But for people to announce to a known atheist that they are praying for that atheist (particularly, to announce that they are praying for that person's "salvation") is a form of bigotry. Were this anybody other than your Mom, you might be justified in confronting such behavior. But this is your mother, and there may come a time when she is the only person you've known for longer than a few months. (I've been in that situation more than once, when every person I knew, outside my family, was someone I'd met only a few weeks or months earlier.) So, it pays to be careful -- lenient -- particularly when getting along and keeping the peace is potentially the most important goal you can have with an individual.

You are in it further than that: as a minor, you currently depend on your parents for survival. This is all the more reason you'd want to keep the peace.

Most importantly, parents (hopefully) give their children the best they know how to give. If your parents are religious, then religious instruction is, to them, an important matter to pass on to you. If they believe the dogma of the religion, then this is all they know and the best they think they can come up with.

Also, many religious people don't place a lot of weight on the belief system (the dogma, the superstition, if you will) but on the social aspects of religion. My friends are Greek-American and their family, thought hardly religious, is very involved in the Greek Orthodox Church near my home. It is the center of all social activity among Greek cultured and Greek speaking people. The belief system is way down on the list of their priorities, but they go through the ritual while attending the services because that's what you do during the services. Afterwards, they meet in the adjacent room and eat wonderful food and talk about the real world. This is the focus of the letter "The Medieval Environment In Modern Greece": national solidarity in Greece is so crucial that the people feel the need to focus their cultural identity, and this focal point happens to be membership in the Greek Orthodox Church.

You do well to be open to the possibility that this cultural link is what your folks are trying to give to you. This may not be the case, but at least be open to the possibility that this is what they have in mind.

He is doing the best that he can with what he's got. He cannot be faulted for doing what he thinks is right. You don't have to agree with him, either.

His folks (most likely) passed their religion on to him and he (most likely) accepted it without question. To question the religion of one's fathers is one of the toughest endeavors I can think of, and not many people ever even try to do this, much less succeed at shedding their family's religious tradition. You have a leg-up in that your parents each came from different religious traditions. This means that they (at least in part) questioned the traditions of their parents, because inter-marriage is discouraged in the Roman Catholic church (but not necessarily within the Episcopalian tradition).

You are carrying this trend a step or two further by rejecting your family's religious traditions altogether. Meanwhile, he may be reverting to the lessons of his youth for whatever reason. Many of us undergo such reversions, and to transcend this tendency can be a lot of work (see the discussion on novelist Anthony Burgess's "Vestigial Fear Of Hell" for a case in point). For your father to reach the point where he could marry outside the Church might have been quite a feat for him, and now that he has relaxed, reversion would seem only natural. I'm not here calling it good, I'm simply accepting it as natural.

If they are still supporting you, you do well to play along -- unless the two of you can come to an agreement. If they support you and there is a disagreement, your choice is between going along with them and becoming self-sufficient -- unless you can reach some sort of agreement.

As an adult, you are free to set your own behavior and to be responsible for your actions. As a human (adult or youth), you are free to set your own opinions: nobody can force you to believe this way or that.

If you think your father might be open to a reasoned argument, we discussed this in depth in a forum piece called, "Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response?" The bottom line is that we all have choices we must make, and sometimes neither alternative is pleasant. But this forum piece, I think, covers most of the issues involved in trying to reason with a religious parent. The other piece I might recommend would be "Growing Up Atheist In Honduras," though I've already covered much of that material here. Ivan's situation is remarkably similar to yours, though the situation he describes seems more brutal than the one you describe. That piece might contain a few points I've missed here, though.

This is a legitimate fear. Then again, he's a big boy now, and probably able to handle it. Furthermore, this religious kick of his may be just a phase.

James Call said, in the "Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response" piece,

  "Just what level of charade is necessary in your life in order to live comfortably with the people around you is something for [you] to gage for [yourself]. It's somewhat ironic, I suppose, that as a Mormon I was taught how important it was to have the courage of your convictions. It was a lesson I learned well and carried into atheism. I think that has garnered me more respect from my family and others than any kind of compromising would have. I don't think I'd feel as good about myself either."

When you commit to spending time with someone, it is necessary to work at finding things to do together. This does not often come naturally, and usually takes effort. What have you done together besides go to Church? Find something, some activity, that you really want to do, that he would support, and ask him for his help in pursuing your goal. This could range from fishing to sports to social activism to opening a business -- anything that gives you a common interest and that elicits his natural desire to help you grow into manhood with the best advantage he can give you -- anything that can help distract you from your differences of opinion regarding religion.

As I have said many times, arguing over whether or not a god exists is one of the stupidest reasons to get into a fight. People who take their religion seriously might disagree, but there are ways to assert yourself and still keep the peace. Silence is one of the most effective methods: talk about anything but religion. George Washington was probably history's most accomplished master at keeping his religious views a secret. Even when asked, he was extremely adept at remaining silent. As Thomas Jefferson describes it,

  "Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice."
-- Jefferson's Works, vol. iv., p. 572

I've never been in this situation, so I cannot tell you, from personal experience, what has worked for me. I can only tell you what I think. To me, the most effective stratagem would be to play up the hypocrisy angle: by forcing you to go along with the church routine, particularly as Ivan's parents did (forcing him to kneel, etc.), they were forcing him to lie about the true thoughts within his mind. Jane's friend's father was doing the same thing, but to a much lesser degree.

You cannot prevent him from being offended -- short of lying to him, which, to me, is the ultimate offensiveness. But, he might be open to reason, at least in respects to you wishing to be true to the thoughts in your own mind. I discussed this in the exchanges with both Jane and Ivan. You might want to read some of the writings of Robert Ingersoll or Thomas Paine. Both spoke very forcefully on these matters, as did Thomas Jefferson. These links are to marvelous collections of quotations, the first two being book-length works edited by Joseph Lewis, and the third being my own compilation, the result of several years' worth of study of Jefferson's writings, looking specifically for material along these lines. We have complete pieces from each of these writers as well, listed in our Historical section.

My views regarding the hypocrisy of forcing someone to pretend to be religious comes mainly from these three men. After going through these lists of quotations, I imagine you'll have plenty of momentum and ammunition to be able at least to present your case. Whether he goes along with it is a different matter.

That's the best you can do. As long as you show that you love him -- that you love him the way he is (as long as you're not trying, in any way, to change him, but are simply desiring that he accept you the way you are) -- you do well.

There is no guarantee of success in any of this, but I think this is the best you can do.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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