Would You Be Offended if Your Christian Family Didn’t Try to “Save” You? April 11, 2009

Would You Be Offended if Your Christian Family Didn’t Try to “Save” You?

Imagine you come from a deeply religious family.

You’ve just told them you’re an atheist.

There are tears and shouts and slammed doors. It’s to be expected, really.

But what if, after all that, your family didn’t try to argue with you? What if they just let it go? What if they didn’t try to “save” you?

Would you be upset? Insulted? Would you still feel loved?

Kinzer raised the question on the Friendly Atheist Forums:

… The fact that they don’t try help you avoid this punishment [of eternal hellfire] seems a little, well, mean and careless. If they do diligently try to convert you, doesn’t that mean that they care about you? That they don’t want you to experience any pain.

So what’s better?

Would you rather have your family leave you alone about your atheism? Or would you at least hope they try to convert you — even if it’s useless — because it means they love you?

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  • mikespeir

    There are no more committed Pentecostal Christians than my mom and dad. I’m sure that when I’m not around they spent a lot of time in lamenting my apostasy and wailing in prayer for my salvation. But they don’t ever overtly try to win me back. Offended? Hardly!

  • Don Pope

    I would be thoroughly relieved and not the least bit offended.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    The religious family in question may very well see repeated attempts at conversion as a kind of badgering that is bound to backfire, and I wouldn’t hold that against them.

  • Jesse

    My wife realized that it’s stupid for someone to be sent to a place of eternal burning for an honestly held opinion, so she doesn’t worry about my soul, even though she’s a Christian.

    My parents and extended Christian family have not hit upon this epiphany.

  • I’d rather they ask me why I don’t believe. And care to try to understand.

  • Those of a Calvinist bent believe there’s no free will and under the doctrine of Predestination, God already decided who would be saved and who would not, so why would they waste time trying to convert someone, once the gospel message has been presented once or twice? To them, it’s pointless to keep harping about it, since “obviously” the Holy Spirit hasn’t convicted them in their hearts to repent.

  • Carl

    Yes, to be honest.

    I often ask my Christian sister that if she really believes what she says she believes, (ie. that I’ll burn in hell forever), then why doesn’t she try desperately to save me. After all, if I had knowledge that a horrible fate awaited her (say she was about to get on a plane that I knew was going to crash), then I would go to extremes (breaking the law etc.) to make sure she didn’t get on that plane. And going to Hell is much worse than that, and I could die tomorrow.

    She usually tries to weasel out of it with something like “Well only God knows your true heart, so I can’t know where you’re going”. I assure her that I’ll definitely be going to hell (if mainstream Christianity is true), but that doesn’t seem to move her.

    So in some ways, I actually have more respect for those Christians that desperately prosetlyize, even though they are really annoying. At least I know that they genuinely care, even if they are batshit crazy.

  • Ido

    Hmm, I’d prefer my sodding parents would stop harassing me already, and realize my atheism is finite. So my answer is that religious parents should try to convince they son or daughter, but stop at some point, because otherwise it might get a little bad for everyone.

  • ungullible

    I think both examples are extremes in the spectrum, and both would be annoying. I would rather have family that was concerned, but expressed that concern in a mature, respectful way.

  • dfledermaus

    I would hope that my family knew me well enough to realize that I would not have made a decision like this without a lot of thought and soul-searching beforehand, and that they would respect my intelligence and integrity enough not to belabor me over it or reject me because of it.

    To put the shoe on the other foot though; I hope that I would show my family the same kind of acceptance as well. I might not respect their beliefs but I should respect their right to have them without argument from me. I suspect that under these circumstances there would always be an area of tension between us, but that all of us would realize that the love between us was more important.

  • That’s a very interesting question, because it points out the fact that many Christian family members proselytise to us out of genuine concern for our immortal souls, and we really should try to respect that – or at least appreciate that they care about us.

    Sometimes, though, it is difficult to tell the difference between a family member who is truly worried we are going to hell, and one who is only mad that we are somehow “different” from them.

    I am reminded of a recent story I read about a child being taken to the Watchmen movie by her grandparents, and coming home enraged about having exposed their grand-daughter to that ‘pornography.’ Their biggest concern: “what will other people think of us?”

  • That really depends on the person and their beliefs about salvation. Raytheist’s point about Calvinists is well-taken, and there are Christians who don’t see the point of preaching the gospel when they know you’ve already heard it, and think their time better spent in prayer. If a person really thinks I’m going to hell for all eternity, and they don’t care, that’s horrible. But those who do care may express that in ways I can’t see and can’t judge.

    I don’t resent people for trying to bring me back, because at least they’re acting more or less consistently with what they believe. Then again, I also like to argue. In a perfect world, of course, such a conversation might lead them to some critical thought about their beliefs. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and it’s worth noting that human beings aren’t perfect animals with perfect brains.

  • Ron in Houston

    If someone’s idea of love is that I need “converting” then I think I can do without that love.

    To me, if you “love” someone, you allow them to be themselves. In my mind, trying to convert or change someone is a subtle form of violence to the person’s beliefs.

  • I want them to leave me alone. They can pray for me if they must, but if they try to save me all the time, I just won’t spend any time with them.

  • matt

    “I’d rather they ask me why I don’t believe. And care to try to understand.” – Travis

    I really wish my dad and stepmom would try this approach. But they suffer from the double whammy of weak presbyterian-ish theology/ biblical inerrancy PLUS they’re conservatives in general, so instead of being all “why?” they just want to pretend like everything is still status quo, /(except for that god-hating atheist stepson of mine)/.

    But then again, I probably don’t help much because I suffer from some weird kind of altruism where I want to, as Dennett says, “break the spell.” Or at least get them to give up creationism, because in addition to effecting them, their support for those things undermines my quality of life. So I reach out to them more than vice vera. And I do want to know more about how they think.

  • benjdm

    So what’s better?

    Oh, come on. Let’s say there is this bully outside who is going to kick your ass. He’s going to keep kicking it every day, forever, unless you change your opinion about whether 2+2=5. You’re asking if it’s more loving for the family to keep trying to convince you 2+2=5 or to just let you get beat up every day?

    God is going to torture you for all eternity and your family considers him the epitome of goodness. They need to stop and think.

  • Dan

    When I (recently) told my parents that I don’t believe in their god, I tried to “soften the blow” by describing it as a personal journey of mine and saying I was open to anything they wanted me to read, etc. But now I wish I had been more blunt, as I’m now being inundated with crazy creationist books and emails from pastors who I don’t even know, etc.

    I can’t really complain about the attention, since I know it only comes from them genuinely caring about me. What bothers me more, though, is the emotional strain I am now putting on my family members. I wonder if I had been more straightforward in saying “I am an atheist” if it would have actually been less stressful for them (and for our relationship). Yes, it is ultimately “their problem” for having unjustifiable beliefs, but I wish I could somehow find the optimal balance of having open, friendly communication, without them holding out much hope for a reconversion.

  • amgentry

    My family feels sorry for me but pray and hope I revert to Christianity. My mom was heartbroken (she’s not even devout, she just saw my change to atheism as a major life change that has damaged my ability to be a decent person and make good decisions ((I’m seventeen)) ) but she told her mother about it about a month ago. My Nana is the one that I looked to for spiritual guidance my entire life and is a hero to me even post-religious nuttiness. Nana believes we view God as we view our fathers. She said, “Well, Morgan’s got a good head on her shoulders and I trust she’ll make wise decisions. She’s had a fantastic upbringing (Nana half-raised me). And if there’s anyone I’d like to ignore the existence of it’s that man Tony Niemiec (my estranged father)!!!”

    And while I know that Mom and Nana are concerned, it was good to see that Nana is [somewhat] rational and understanding. This being said, I’m just glad that I haven’t been way harassed by them. It’s tough because I know that they have little hope for me and look down on me, but I also know that they love me a whole bunch. It’s easier (and more comforting) to know that while they care and are worried, they’re not going to damage our relationships by trying to save my soul by force. I suppose it’s a healthier mix of the too.

  • Brooks

    After all, if I had knowledge that a horrible fate awaited her (say she was about to get on a plane that I knew was going to crash), then I would go to extremes (breaking the law etc.) to make sure she didn’t get on that plane.

    But you’re forgetting that the person they’re trying to convert you to following that can save you from the plane crash is the one flying the plane in the first place (in this case, it’s God who set this whole ridiculous plan up to begin with). I think a more accurate analogy is that it’s like what if your family were members of the Mafia and they were threatening you with violence to join the Mafia. How is it an act of love to be converted to the group who threatened you with violence in the first place and why would anyone want to spend an eternity in heaven with the Mafia? I’d frankly rather go to hell than worship Yahweh for eternity. Besides, I think it would also give ammuninition to Christians. Like awhile back I had to go to church with my family and during Sunday school, they were talking about this video on youtube where Penn from Penn And Teller was talking about this very subject.

    Penn said you had to really hate someone to not try to save them and now they’re all deluded into thinking that the seeds of faith have been planted in Penn and this is somehow proof that the bible is real. They’re all like “If even an atheist can be changed from our obnoxious proselytizing, then we can convert anyone because Penn is proof it’s obviously true!” I’d rather not give them fuel for their agenda or give them false hope that their beliefs have any legitimacy.

  • For me it’s no contest; I’d rather them leave me the **** alone. I don’t like these silly traditions of pretending to be touched by someone’s annoyances; I’m also tired of hearing harassment equated with “love.”

    I mean, think of it like this; if you really, truly believed I was going to hell — this place of eternal torment and never-ending suffering — then theoretically speaking, anything you could possibly do to sway me towards Christianity for any reason could be considered a valid effort; like slamming into someone in order to knock them out of the way of a speeding vehicle on a street corner. I mean, we’re talking about Hell, right? Anything is better than eternal torture, right?

    Thinking like that, it would be plausible to say that they’re justified in standing outside my house at all hours of the night, banging on my doors and windows, begging me to come out for a midnight intervention in the name of GAWD.

    That would really piss me off, I don’t care how much they “love” me. That’s not how I define love.

  • I would rather have them leave me alone. Any time my roommate says she’s prayed for me, or when my mother signs her letters “love and prayers,” I cringe and become a bit irritated.

  • If they try to save me, they’re telling me that I deserve to be tortured for all eternity. If they don’t, it probably indicates they don’t really believe that. Plus the first one is far less annoying!

  • amgentry

    To add to my above comment:
    Last summer I was in the hospital for a week. I had many people from my former church show up. They stood around and prayed for me and “reassured” me by letting me know that I’d be in their prayers. This is one of those times that I wish they’d leave me the hell alone. Praying isn’t going to make me feel better – that morphine drip is going to make me feel better. I thought it was downright inconsiderate and rude to subject someone who could not protest their prayers. My best friend outlines his take on the story here: http://dubiousmanifesto.wordpress.com/2008/08/19/ignorance-is-bliss/

  • Gerard Priori

    I don’t think I’d find anything as annoying as family members constantly trying to convince me that their imaginary friend is real. They can hold whatever beliefs they find personally convincing, but unless they extend to me the same courtesy, I could not possibly have a relationship with them. None of my friends or family have ever tried to convert me. I’d like to keep it that way.

    I won’t bring up religious topics around them–but if someone brings it up first, I’m not shy about saying exactly what I think.

  • Ender

    I think the fact that so many Christians don’t proselytize, even to those they are really close to, is because deep down they don’t believe in themselves. If someone truly believed to the core of their being that a loved one is going to hell, then they go crazy with the preaching.

    I’ve known people through my childhood who believed in fundie Christianity to the core; they are creepy people, but at least they try to save you.

  • It’s a good question, and I think the answer depends on the potential proselytizers’ motives, and how strongly they hold their beliefs. If they have genuine fear for your soul, such that you might not be with them in Heaven after death, then you might infer that they are attempting to convert you out of love.

    But just as religious folks demand a certain amount of respect for their beliefs, they should also afford you respect for yours (or for your lack of them). If on the other hand you take the view that the whole “respect for beliefs” thing is baloney, you may be inclined to argue with them about faith and reason. If you do this, and get no argument in return, is this because they have no answers, or is it because they are respecting your right not to share their beliefs?

    Tricky. Personally I think it is better to talk about these conflicts rather than let them fester, though I appreciate that’s not always practical.

  • murph

    On one hand it would show that they care. On the other it would show that they think there is something wrong with you, e.g. Parents trying to change their gay child. In my case my family is just ignoring it. I wish my brother would uncloset himself, it would help; but that is up to him. I assume some are PRAYING for me, but so far that has done what one would expect it to do.

  • It’s more convenient if they don’t try to save me. However if they really believe that someone is going to be tortured for eternity, can prevent it and do nothing to prevent it I’m not sure why I shouldn’t think that they’re really despicable people. Not offended though.

  • Helen

    Of course if they _truly_believe it they “should” proselytize their loved ones, but to be honest I just find this type of belief so truly absurd that I’d be unable to feel offended…

  • Miko

    If you come out of the closet as gay, would you be offended if your straight family didn’t try to “heterosexualize” you?

  • AnonyMouse

    This reminds me of back when I was a Christian.

    Our church has a very strict no-proselytizing rule. They believe that it is the responsibility of preachers and teachers to spread the Word and that the disciples’ job is to follow it. It falls under “neither cast your pearls before swine” and “concern yourselves not with the affairs of the world”.

    Of course, when someone apostatizes, that’s another matter.

    And frankly, that offends me more than anything else. Jesus commanded his followers to love everyone as they love themselves. In trying to follow this rule, I found myself filled with a deep sense of compassion and caring for all my fellow men – one that has lasted even after I left the faith. When you are a Christian, and you love someone (or multiple someones) that deeply, it is impossible to fathom why you should not be spreading the Word as far as possible. When you believe that the unrighteous will burn forever for their mistakes, refusing to share the gospel becomes a slap in the face to everyone you meet. You’re basically saying “I love you, but not enough to save your soul.”

    Frankly, I am offended that my parents consider my soul to be any more important than the millions of other people who could be saved (according to their beliefs) but won’t be because it’s against church policy. As a Christian, I would have given up my own immortal soul if it meant saving two others.

  • I do not talk to anyone in my immediate family, not because they tried to convert me, but because they are the type of people I would not be “friends” with outside the family.

    That being said, if they had tried to “save” me or “convert” me that would have just been another reason to sever all ties with them, or anyone else for that matter that tries to do the same.

  • So what’s better?

    Would you rather have your family leave you alone about your atheism? Or would you at least hope they try to convert you — even if it’s useless — because it means they love you?

    So my choices are:

    1. My family comes to some kind of grudging acceptance, which may lead to them thinking differently about me and my point of view, OR
    2. Engaging in a pointless masochistic nightmare of dysfunction where they go around in circles with me, neither of us budging an inch.

    Gee, they both seem equally appealing.

  • Hello. I come from a strong Catholic family. This weekend is the worse time for me…Easter. Last year my dad got loud and kept repeating that the Easter story really happened. We fight about morality to evolution. I would feel more loved if they didn’t keep trying to “save” me because it would mean that they accepted me for who I was and not who they want me to be. I do give them credit for trying but eventually I would like some acceptance and understanding just for my contentment.

  • I would not be offended at all, I really wish they would stop trying — or just stop talking to me at all. ( one or the other )

  • Most of my family does not know that I am no longer religious, and in no way do I feel like changing that.

    I would much rather avoid the subject entirely, or if they learned about it, I would rather they just accept it and move on. I don’t want to be proselytized to – I already know what my responses to such attempts would be, and I know that it would probably just make things worse for all of us.

  • DeafAtheist

    It’s a good question, but I’d have to say I’d prefer it if my family sat down with me and discussed it with me and tried to understand why than for them to badger me about it. So concern is acceptable but ultimately I’d prefer to have my position respected.

    My girlfriend is a devout Christian and when we first dated 15 years ago she made an effort to convert me part out of genuine concern for my immortal soul, but part because she didn’t feel she could handle a relationship with someone who didn’t share her beliefs. Today we do debate religion from time to time but we both make an effort to being sensitive and respectful of each other’s religious positions even if we don’t share them and even tho we both admit that the relationship would be easier if we agreed on the issue, we don’t make any effort to changing each other… only to reach an understanding of each other’s views.

  • Condensing this post into one sentence:

    If the dogma of the religious dictates behavior toward nonbelievers/deniers and you (a nonbeliever) is not treated as such by your religious loved ones, what does that mean?

    This is a WAY more common situation than Hemant leads his readers to believe. The hypothetical posed in the post is at a coming-out type of event when nonbelievership/deniership is declared by the nonbeliever. In reality, though, dogma in many (mostly the monotheistic three majors) religions says that the believer is obligated to kill anyone who even suggests anything less than complete submission to the god(s) of that faith (a good example is Deuteronomy 13:6-11). How often do the claimed believers encounter the “filth” they are supposed to kill? Every day. The violence can be replaced by attempts at conversion, which is the route that Hemant took…I go a little farther and claim that religious families have direct orders from god to kill their nonbelieving children/friends/coworkers.

    So, taking the scope of the question at its broadest (as I summarized above), what say we of little faith to the utterly disappointing lack of honor-type killings in the name of the one (many) true god(s)? One can only objectively conclude that either the faithful aren’t adhering to their dogma faithfully or are simply nonbelievers themselves.

    Hell, I’ll go so far as to suggest that these so-called believers are themselves suggesting their own nonbelief in their own dogma by not killing/converting you when you come out as an atheist, thereby warranting their own death at the hands of those that truly do follow god’s death orders.

    It may sound confusing, but it’s all written down for us to study in their “good” books.

  • I absolutely could not be offended if they didn’t try to save me. When my husband and I “came out” to my parents, (Pentecostal, evangelical missionaries), my mother sobbed, and my father got angry. He told me he was angry because he “didn’t raise me that way” and because I “knew better.” Which leads me to my point: I wouldn’t be offended because they know that I already KNOW what they want from me. They want me to say the words, believe and live in a completely ridiculous state of utter denial. They don’t see it that way, of course. They haven’t really tried, and I can’t blame them. I grew up that way, I know the dogma, doctrine, and all the words they want(ed) from me. Why would I expect them to try to save me after I decided that being “saved” at all is not part of reality?

  • I was quite relieved when my family didn’t have conniptions over my revelation that I’d lost my faith. Granted they’re liberal Christians rather than fundies, but they (my mother and one sister at least) are still very devoutly Christian. I think they showed their love by accepting me for who I am rather than trying to force me to change into what they are/might want me to be.

  • Joe Malapitan

    I think that the strict biblical interpretation of “going to heaven or going to hell” is dissipating and a lot of Christians are beginning to consider the possibility of a “lenient” or “more accepting” god. This of course, at least in the United States, did not arrive on its own by Americans simply realizing the possibility. Americans are realizing that in order to secure America’s economic prominence, they will need to learn to get along and be more accepting of others’ beliefs regardless of whether or not they agree. Economic globalization has a lot more to do with the dissipation of literal interpretations of the Christian bible than what is realized or acknowledged. Although, I haven’t really pried into the question, I don’t think my family is thinking that I’m going to hell. Or at the very least, they’re expecting that their god will be lenient enough to accept me.

  • DCKate

    I would LOVE that! My family is super Catholic – my parents seem to just get worse as they get older – and with them it’s not so much proselytizing to me (since, well, they KNOW that I know all the lines – I used to be one of them!) as it is laying on tremendous guilt trips about how much they worry about me and how disappointed they are in my choices, etc. etc. As much as I’ll never agree with them, it still kills me to think that I am a disappointment to my parents. The kid in me still wants their approval, you know?

  • Another explanation is that perhaps they are not *that* devout.

    Funny, though — I got baptised as an adult into the Episcopal church, reasoning that most adherents are not that serious about biblical inerrancy, and part of the reason I ended up leaving is that too many people for my comfort actually take some key verses, such as John 10:7-10 “I am the gate. Those who come in by me will be saved” seriously.

  • Weemaryanne

    I was mildly disappointed when my parents didn’t fight with me. (Hell, we’re Irish Catholics, we’ll fight about anything.) Dad only raised his voice a little and said, “Well, you’re still coming to church with the rest of us.” I pointed out that, although I had said I no longer believed in a god, I hadn’t said I wouldn’t go to church.

    End of conversation.

    They didn’t even try to get the parish priest to talk to me. Then again, Dad didn’t much like our priest, because he was an alcoholic who kept trying to get his hands on the parish bank account. (Though not on the parish kids, at least not to my knowledge.)

    So while I was a bit annoyed, I was more relieved to have no big quarrel over this insignificant matter. At 16 I had better things to think about, so I forgot this until recently.

  • Shelly

    “I think the fact that so many Christians don’t proselytize, even to those they are really close to, is because deep down they don’t believe in themselves.”

    I know that many of the people posting on this site won’t want to hear from a teenage Christian, but I only wanted to comment on this previous comment. I just wanted to say that maybe the reason that some christians don’t preach at non-christians until their ears fall off is because it won’t do any good. Not that they are giving up or anything, but maybe preaching at you doesn’t do any good. I have read many of you say it, you are tired of being talked at. My belief on this whole preach area is that I am working on living my life and loving people and not on reciting random sunday school quotes at non-christians. Why would I expect you to sunddenly listen to my way of thinking if that is all I talk to you about and I never live it out? Being a hypocrite already got us Christians into a rut and a stereotype so I don’t think that living up to that stereotype would help any.

    Mostly I wanted to say that preaching and not preaching may be a little more complicated than not believing in what we say we do. Maybe after getting that glazed over look a couple times some Christians realized that no one was listening but themselves.
    I know that this doesn’t have tons to do with the original question but I thought that it fell under the same general idea.

  • CatBallou

    That is an interesting question. I came out as an agnostic when still in high school, and my mother was very upset. I didn’t get out of the Sunday morning obligation for church, however.
    In retrospect, it seems strange that my mother never wanted to really talk about it, or ask why. She kind of ignored it. For my part, I spent a lot of time trying to “open my heart” and give whatever power was out there a chance to touch me. It never happened. And I didn’t want to debate with anyone, because I didn’t want to be the cause of someone else losing their faith, “just in case.”

    I think my mother was just trying to ignore something unpleasant. She even sent me Easter cards occasionally, until my sister finally told her that it was disrespectful. Eventually I realized that I was a full-blown atheist, but I never discussed the distinction with my family.
    My mother is 80 now, with absolutely no diminishment in her mental capacity or vitality. But she’s a little bit narcissistic, and a couple of times she’s tried to say something dramatic like “where did I go wrong,” as if my decisions were all about her. I have no interest in discussing religion with her now, because her faith is a major source of comfort for her, and her involvement with her church is an important social outlet.
    I never had a single religious discussion with my father. He went to church regularly, though. After he died last year, I asked my mother what his religious beliefs had been, and she said she didn’t know! It seems so strange that they were together for 60 years and didn’t talk about it. What can I say…we’re WASPs!

  • Not offended at all. My still very much a Mormon sister keeps trying to get me back to the church. I wish she would stop and treat me like her brother instead of some lost soul that “broke up the family”