Ask Richard: Paying for Religious Activities That He Doesn’t Believe In August 25, 2009

Ask Richard: Paying for Religious Activities That He Doesn’t Believe In


We have a very close family friend that is like a second mother to our children. She is a devout Lutheran (Missouri Synod) and so are her children. They likely suspect I’m atheist, but we don’t ever talk about it. The only thing they know is that I don’t allow our children to attend their church, Sunday school or vacation bible school.

Recently we were asked for money, by one of her children, to support a summer college trip with a Christian organization and we did so. There are obvious reasons for us to support the trip – their mother is like family to us, as a Christian (light) my wife sees no problem with this, and I see donating as preventing more problems than not donating might cause. And, I understood the trip to be part community service, part cultural awareness too.

However, the emails we have received have only dealt with one subject, the ability to do proselytizing. Each email is nothing more than a report on the successes and failures of the Christian mission. They are nothing more than the exploits of young missionaries. Not even a review of the local Schnitzel…

Now upon reflection I could have asked more questions of the purpose of the trip and so on – but it would not have likely changed the outcome. Yet, I find myself annoyed – even angry – that I supported this trip. The emails may not be inclusive of all the exploits and enjoyments – but as my only source of information they are deeply disturbing to me as an atheist.

Richard, I will be asked to support this child and likely others in the family as they all enter college this year and next. I do not want to support an endeavor that is solely intended to convert other kids to Christianity. Yet, I have the conflicts mentioned above to consider. And in the end, I might likely donate to simply avoid more problems than I would cause by not donating, or heaven forbid, actually challenging the emails (which I cannot do).

Can you provide some guidance on how to deal with this problem when it comes up again next summer.

Thanks and really enjoy the column…


Dear Bob,

You’re paying tribute. Nowadays, that phrase means to praise someone, but originally it meant to pay someone to not hurt you, to pay for peace. Conquered kingdoms paid tribute to Rome so that the legions would not come back. The U.S. and European nations paid tribute to the Barbary Pirates to not plunder their merchant ships. Store owners pay tribute to gangsters to not destroy their businesses.

In every case, the tribute steadily becomes more expensive, but victims will continue to pay because, as in your words, they see “donating as preventing more problems than not donating might cause.” The only way it ever ends is when the cost vs. benefit finally shifts far enough, and they stand up to the extortionists.

It sounds like the main reason that you give money to this family is out of a sense of duty to a close friend and to just “keep the peace,” and my impression is that this is for peace with your wife as much as with your family friend. It doesn’t sound like there is much, if any, joy in your giving.

It is completely legitimate that you would want your donations to go toward things you want to support, and of course, you resent paying for things that go against your values. But you feel uncomfortable about asserting yourself. You are clearly a kind and generous person, and as shown by your response to the emails, you really don’t like to confront people. There is an imbalance. Too much taking care of others, not enough taking care of yourself.

The peace you’re buying does not give you peace inside, so it won’t last. The cost vs. benefit is shifting, and there is much more of a cost than just your money. Your resentment is building up, and it’s like a poison. When your resentment finally boils over, the actions you may take could be damaging to all your relationships. In this situation, you’re alone in your atheism, and therefore alone in your conflict about funding these heavily religious activities. It would be very helpful if you had an ally.

You said that as a “light” Christian, your wife sees no problem with subsidizing the other family’s primarily religious undertakings. I can’t tell from your letter if “seeing no problem” means she only mildly supports this and would be sympathetic to your conflict, or if she strongly supports this and would see a big problem if you stopped your support. You have been able to put your foot down about not allowing your children to attend their church, Sunday school or vacation bible school, so you have at least some clout here.

Your wife is the most obvious choice for an ally. Talk to her about your conflicting feelings and your growing resentment, and how you don’t want that to get between the two of you. Get her on your side, at least to understand and help you with your dilemma, and help to find a workable solution. Whatever support you give to those children, if any, should be acceptable to your values, not just pleasing to others.

When people are asked for favors that they’d rather not do, they can respond in various ways:

  • Passively, which means not standing up for your own rights: “Oh, okay, I’ll do it.” (sigh)
  • Aggressively, which means standing up for your rights in a way that harms other’s rights: “No! And screw you for even asking, you jerk!”
  • Passive-aggressively, which is about not supporting your rights but also underhandedly harming the rights of others through slowness, forgetfulness, negligence or other half-hearted efforts to comply in appearance only: “Oh, okay, I’ll do it.” (but I’m going to be so slow and do so little that you won’t really get what you want, hee hee hee.)
  • Or you can respond assertively, which means standing up for your rights in a way that does not harm the rights of others: “Actually, I don’t want to do that, for these reasons… I’ll do this… but not that… Perhaps you can find what you need from this other source.”
  • In very rare cases it is appropriate to be passive, or in other very rare cases, aggressive. It is never a good idea to be passive-aggressive. That is extremely infuriating.

    Most often the best response is to be assertive. This is your assertive bill of rights:
    You have the right to act in your own best interest.
    You have the right to expect respect.
    You have the right to make a request.
    You have the right to turn down a request.
    You have the right to take time to think about a request.
    You have the right to change your mind. (This has to be balanced conscientiously with the duty to keep an agreement.)

    But all this is about trimming the branches of the problem; let’s look at what may be the root:

    Bob, you are keeping your non-belief only a thinly veiled secret from this woman and her kids, and they may already know. I wonder if you don’t feel fully confident that you even have the right to be the atheist you are. The values that conflict with donating to these religious things come from your atheism, but if you keep that hidden, or if everyone keeps pretending that it’s hidden, then you’ll have no reason to state why you have a conflict with all this. Coming up with false excuses for why you can’t pay for this or that probably won’t work. You’ll have to keep paying the increasingly expensive tribute to “keep the peace,” with all its poisonous resentment.

    Look into your heart, look at your behavior and see your goodness, your worthiness, your great value to so many people in so many ways, not just your money. You need not apologize or be ashamed about your lack of belief. That is the way you are, and that’s an integral part of the good person that you are.

    The key to freeing yourself from this is to assert your other rights: You have the right to not believe what you don’t believe, and to value what you value, and to be what you are. You have the right to give nothing, and you have the right to give with conditions.

    Legitimate charities have conditions. They require that their largesse must be used for the purposes that they intended. You’re an atheist. You will support this, but you won’t support that. You’ll help the kids on condition of this, but not that. Somehow, everyone in the scene, including you, seems to think that you owe them all this support. No, you don’t. Hopefully, they will be grateful for what you give if you so choose, and hopefully they will come to respect you for your integrity. But their respect for you is not what is important here.

    Your respect for yourself is what is important here.


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    • grazatt

      Maybe he could only give a small amount like one dollar or something. That would send a message!

    • Pony

      A.D. 980-1016

      It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
      To call upon a neighbour and to say: —
      “We invaded you last night–we are quite prepared to fight,
      Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

      And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
      And the people who ask it explain
      That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
      And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

      It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
      To puff and look important and to say: —
      “Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
      We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

      And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
      But we’ve proved it again and again,
      That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
      You never get rid of the Dane.

      It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
      For fear they should succumb and go astray;
      So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
      You will find it better policy to say: —

      “We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
      No matter how trifling the cost;
      For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
      And the nation that pays it is lost!”
      — Kipling

    • Also bear in mind that the more often you pay, the more likely they’ll resent it when you decide to stop paying, and take it as a given.

    • Tony Boling

      I wouldn’t wait until next year to speak up about it. If you do that they might miss out on some other opportunity to get their funding and blame you for it.

      In bringing it up you could always take the side that you thought it was more of a cultural understanding trip and you don’t like anyone forcing beliefs on anyone else no matter what those beliefs were.

      There are plenty of “light” christians that don’t support missions for proselytizing. You could just play up that angle.

    • Lilith

      That is a really excellent response from Richard that everyone should take to heart and return to for the times they get asked to do something they are not comfortable with.

      I have only in recent years learned to say ‘no’. I never wanted to be seen as selfish, or not a team player, so I said yes to a lot of things I really didn’t want to do and felt a lot of resentment, particularly when my acquienscence was taken as a given.

      Now I have enough respect for myself to choose how I spend my time, energy, and money, and I am much happier for it. Real friends respect my decisions and frankly I don’t care what people who can’t respect me think.

    • Eric

      Keep up the good work. Every time I think that your posts have run the gamut, you hit another unforeseen niche. You are not only helpful for the people actively seeking your advice, but also the rest of us, who get to learn vicariously.

    • JulietEcho

      Lots of good advice from Richard.

      When I was fourteen, I went on a Teen Missions International trip for three months to Zambia, which was supported by various family friends and church members, to the total amount of around $5000.

      The trip was spent entirely proselytizing – as we walked through villages with severely malnourished children covered in flies, were reminded to cover any sores on our hands and sanitize them constantly because of the high rates of HIV (as we shook hands with all the people we proselytized to), and ate heartily and lived well ourselves – using our extra money to buy souvenirs.

      I’m almost positive that not a single one of the people who donated to that trip had any problems whatsoever with the arrangement. While I was there, I didn’t either, although I began to feel uncomfortable as we visited the poorest villages, passing out Bibles and tracts. Once I got home, I began to cry at unexpected times, I was eventually haunted by the contrast between the horrible conditions I’d seen (and done nothing to improve) and my comfortable life in the US.

      Eventually, the whole experience shamed me, and it still does. I was young and fervently Christian at the time, but I still feel as though I should have been more ethically aware of the situation before going into it at all.

      You might do these teens a favor by sharing your reasons for not donating to these trips. It might provide the stimulus they need to consider the ethical implications of traveling to poor countries with thousands of dollars with the sole goal of proselytizing. If someone had shared such an opinion with me when I was fourteen and about to embark on such a trip, I hope I would have been troubled about the situation before-the-fact instead of months afterward.

    • I can only tell you my little story. In my family and among friends, I’m an open atheist but I’m married to a “light” Christian. Since it meant so much to her, I recently attended church with her for about two years. Of course during that time, there was pressure by the congregation to tithe at 10%. Well, I wasn’t about to do that, but I did tithe at perhaps around 2% for a while. That was kind-of my compromise. After a while, though, the conflict built up within me and I finally let the church know that I had irreconcilable theological differences with them and I wasn’t going to attend or tithe any more (and I had my “exit interview” with the pastor). I felt a lot better afterward. It was interesting, though. Even though I’ve been an atheist my whole life and was downright opposed to most of what was said in the sermons and small groups, it was difficult for me to make the break with the group that I had been a part of for two years. I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone who had been a part of a social group for their whole lives. As a social animal, it is very hard to break social ties. P.S. I think my wife is also relieved that we aren’t going there anymore. She didn’t have the courage herself to break the ties. I know my kids are happy we aren’t going there anymore.

    • JenV

      @ JulietEcho: I had a similar experience with a youth missions trip, except we went to Monterray, Mexico. I was young, but was struggling with Christianity in general at that time. I went on this trip to experience a new culture, to see a different country at the very least. Well, suffice it to say, it was terrible. We went from house to house, reading a script in terrible, horrible Spanish, entreating all of the “heathens” (read: Catholics) to repent and be born again. Of course, they were all very polite and nodded and said yes they would, gave us coca-cola and food (even though they had very little to give). After each day’s proselytizing, the we would gather together with the youth pastor to have a tally session, where we’d count up all the people we’d “saved” that day. I guess we were doing a great thing by preaching Jesus to Christians, eating their food, and drinking their sodas.

      I am still ashamed to this day that I went on that trip. Granted, I was a kid, but I still knew deep down in my heart that it was wrong to go to someone else’s home, shove my beliefs down their throat, and then leave with really giving nothing in return. Oh, I believe some of the boys helped roof a local house one day or something. Woot woot. Score one for Jesus, I guess.

      To the OP, I agree with Richard; don’t give money (or time!) to something you don’t believe in. You will not like the way it makes you feel! Be true to yourself at all times.

    • Luther

      Here is a secular group that actually does good works only in Ghana. Started by my friend, Marla Ludwig, the Backpackin Granny:

      PURPOSE STATEMENT: Bright Star Vision is a secular grassroots organization whose purpose is to create a world in which children are free from harm and disease, they are educated, confident and motivated; a world in which every child has clean water, food in their stomach, shoes on their feet, a smile on their face, and joy in their heart. This is who we are. This is what you can count on.

    • Carlie

      If they’re that close, does he give the children birthday/holiday presents in general? Perhaps he could give money for said holiday, with the stipulation that they can use it for anything they want. That way he’s still participating in mutual family support (takes a village and all), but not specifically for a religious trip. It would also be a bit of a thought-provoker for the child in question: do they want to save for then next mission trip, or get an ipod?

    • Ubi Dubium

      A thought I had is that perhaps you could offer to support some other activity her children will be doing instead. Perhaps they play a sport, or an instrument, or participate in other activities that you are more comfortable with. Or help them buy their textbooks, or something. Something that gives support to the child, but not a religious organization.

    • mkb

      First, thanks Luther for the information about Bright Star Vision.

      Second, I have had similar requests to support the missions of the children of my Christian friends. I wouldn’t worry that they will be upset if you do not contribute. They understand that some will, some will not contribute; there is no harm in their asking, but also no stigma in your turning them down. What I have done is give the kids the same money that I have given secular kids as graduation presents. If they choose to spend the money on proselytizing instead of partying, so be it. The one time that I gave specifically to a trip instead of this is your graduation money do with it as you wish, I told the young man that I was concerned that he might be spreading an anti-gay message with his proselytizing and that I would not support a group with such a message. Although he belongs to an evangelical group, it is not one that condemns gays and neither he nor I could find any anti-gay statements associated with it and he assured me that that was not a part of his message. As a result I gave him some money. I felt the opportunity to discuss with him gay rights was worth the cost.

    • Richard P

      Greetings Bob,
      I as I read your post I began to think of a similar problem I had.
      I had help a relative to send there kid to camp, I later found out that it was a bible camp.
      The solution I came up with was after it was done I had a talk with the relative. I simply told her that I was glad to help her and was happy her kid had a great time, but I also told her that I would not be able to support any religious events in the future. I did this as soon as I could before any more things came up. This avoided them coming to me for anything like that in the future, and saved having a confrontation at a later time that would have been more emotionally charged.
      Honesty is such a great policy.

    • Linda

      Richard, I’m really enjoying these “Ask Richard” posts. Thank you for taking the time. I’m certain that many people, including myself, are positively affected by the great advice you give, as well as the thought-provoking discussions by the commenters. Kudos to Hemant for this great idea!


      Is it possible for you to support the kids in other ways? If they already suspect that you are not a believer, then they shouldn’t have any problems accepting the fact that you would rather not support religious causes. Just as Richard suggested, if you make clear to them what you will and will not support and why, it may actually help the relationship by eliminating ambiguity and confusion on both sides.

      I never did understand why you would want to continue attending the church if they were not open to your non-belief. I agree that it is very difficult when we leave a group, because we do form relationships and bonds with the people we see on a regular basis. I’ve done it several times now with various church groups, and regardless of what they teach (i.e. we are family, etc.), there seems to be no substance to the relationships other than the religion as the common thread. And the thread is very easily broken as soon as someone has a new or different idea. Anyway, I’m glad your family is in agreement with and happy about your decision. 🙂

    • Linda,

      Thanks for your kind words and I agree that when one is honest with others about their beliefs, they can determine which are their true friendships and which relationships are shallow and contingent. I’ve personally seen that myself with people in that church I used to attend.

    • AxeGrrl

      JulietEcho…..great post!

      And definitely something I’d want to share with my child or ANY child before going on such a trip.

      Thanks for sharing that.

    • Ron in Houston

      Richard – you’re just too “self-helpy” for me. It’s clear that the guy is highly attached to his atheist belief system. So highly attached that he’s letting his annoyance (which by the way is all self-created by his attachment) get in the way of helping a very close personal friend.

      If the guy values his friendship more than his atheist belief system then he needs to stop annoying himself. No one is putting a gun to his head and he’s creating self-betrayal in his head.

      If he values his atheist belief system more than his friendship then say no and accept the consequences.

    • JulietEcho


      I think it’s quite possible to have both and reconcile the two. For example, what Richard suggested: be honest with your friends about your beliefs and don’t compromise them. That doesn’t mean you lose the friends (unless they’re *really* offended by the beliefs, which seems unlikely in this case as it sounds like the writer is quasi-out about them).

      Nobody’s denying in any of the Ask Richard letters that there are consequences for choices. The advice is aimed at helping people identify realistic goals regarding those consequences and work within the situation to try to attain them.

      Consequences aren’t things you have to just passively accept as some sort of punishment for your choices. You can anticipate potential consequences and try to aim for the best, under the circumstances you decide to choose.

    • Anonymouse

      I think Richard’s advice is good. The longer you donate, the more they will expect it. I can understand the difficulty in saying no, though. I have a hard time saying no, I hate hurting feelings, etc. If you decide to stop donating, I would draw on the update emails as a source of “inspiration”.

      When I went to church, we held missionaries in really high regard. Now that I am out of that mindset..I think it’s quite horrible in a way. People don’t need Bibles, they need FOOD. I’m sure there are SOME Christian-based charities out there that help w/o shoving religion down peoples’ throats, but you can never be sure.

      JulietEcho- you can’t beat yourself up over that. I can understand the guilt, but especially as a Youth churchgoer, there’s a lot of pressure to please fellow Youth kids, AND you get to go on a trip and feel you helped someone. That’s how they get you 😉 View it as a GOOD thing that you feel guilty for that. Some people on your trip are very proud of themselves for “helping” the “poor, unsaved” people.

    • Ron: I see, it’s okay for this Christian family member to have her sincerely held beliefs and act on them but not Bob? Do you really believe that? Bob should lie and hide who he is to make the person who doesn’t lie and hide who they are feel better? I’m sorry but that’s advocating hypocrisy.

      Personally I get offended when someone in my family expects me to help pay for anything their kids do. My parents never imposed on family like that. I’ll offer to have the kid do some work for me to earn the money for their trip/sport/etc.

    • Siamang

      Ron in Houston Says:

      It’s clear that the guy is highly attached to his atheist belief system.

      I don’t agree. For example if he believes that he’s supporting people who are using that money to spread harm, then this is a moral issue.

      It’s not about being attached to your atheist belief if you do believe that spreading religion among children is harmful.

      I wouldn’t give money for a kid to go to “turn you un-gay camp.” It’s not my “attachment to my gay rights belief system” that’s the problem. It’s what they’re asking me to support that I DON’T support that’s the problem.

      No one is putting a gun to his head and he’s creating self-betrayal in his head.

      Well, sometimes it’s the gut. Perhaps he’s starting to feel guilty when he reads about all the poor little kids who are having nightmares about hell by these folks called preachers who frighten children for a living.

    • Siamang

      And Noadi hits the nail on the head.

      If she ACTUALLY is a friend, a real friend worth having, he should tell her the truth.

      Real friends tell the truth. Real friends can handle the truth.

      Real friends DESERVE the respect of the truth.

    • Ron in Houston


      I do get where you’re coming from, but if he sees it as so vile and evil then why the “conflict?” Seems that you’d just say “no” and not be worried about it.

      I suppose technically he’s attached to the belief that his money to his religious friend should not support proselytizing.

      Either way, it’s the cognitive dissonance between his beliefs and reality that is the source of his problem.


      People act on their belief systems. Nothing wrong with that. However, a lot of times people don’t see how their beliefs about how life SHOULD work create them loads of misery.

    • Siamang

      I do get where you’re coming from, but if he sees it as so vile and evil then why the “conflict?”

      Well, perhaps his feelings are less extreme than “vile and evil”? Perhaps his emotions on the issue are just enough to cause stomach upset, but not enough to cause outright outrage and a door slam in her face.

      People do have ranges of emotional responses. That does not discount the logical conclusion that he shouldn’t support it if it gives him gnawing feelings.

      Plus also, if she’s a good enough friend to call a friend, she deserves the truth.

    • Aj

      Richard Wade,

      You have the right to expect respect.

      Respect has to be earned. I don’t give respect to those that have not earned it, and I don’t expect respect because it’s not for me to decide whether I have earned it.

    • JulietEcho


      Respect has to be earned. I don’t give respect to those that have not earned it, and I don’t expect respect because it’s not for me to decide whether I have earned it.

      Really? I tend to respect people until they give me a reason to lose some of that respect. Expecting people to earn it seems pretty unrealistic – what about people you’ve just met? What does it take for someone to earn your respect?

    • Charon

      @JulietEcho, AJ:

      There are different kinds of respect. If I don’t know a person, I give them general “you are a person” respect. Greater and more specific respect, “you are an expert in your field” or “you are a remarkably kind person” respect, that has to be earned.

    • pansies4me

      About two years ago my niece joined a Christian proselytizing group at college. She sent this long letter explaining how much she loved Jesus and she couldn’t stop smiling at the thought of being able to go to a training session to become a Leader in this group. Of course, she enclosed a form and an enevelope asking us for money to fund her training. I checked out the group’s web page, and the sole mission of the group is to proselytize, nothing else. We gave her not one red cent, and I was very annoyed at even being asked. She and her parents don’t know that I am an atheist, but I get so exasperated at the assumption that everyone thinks forcing your religious views on someone else is a good and noble thing. Fortunately, the donation slips were to be sent directly to the group, so my niece doesn’t know that we didn’t help her out.

    • Aj


      There are different kinds of respect. If I don’t know a person, I give them general “you are a person” respect. Greater and more specific respect, “you are an expert in your field” or “you are a remarkably kind person” respect, that has to be earned.

      Used without specific reference to what is being respected, I consider it a weasle word, or perhaps the concept that Jesse Galef refers to in a recent post on this blog as “constructive ambiguity”. Stephen Fry describes this usage of the word “respect” as “swollen out of all meaning” and “creepy”.

      What about them should I respect, just that they are a person? I never considered treating people as something other than a person, and it has nothing to do with respect. What we consider this owes I imagine is vastly different from individual to individual, culture to culture. So to say that someone should expect it from another is completely ambiguous, and a recipe for conflict.

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