When Kids Become Christian And Resent Your Atheism September 12, 2009

When Kids Become Christian And Resent Your Atheism

A reader sent in this dilemma:

I was raised as a full-on, tongue-speaking, fundy Christian.

After getting married, having a couple of kids, and generally settling into life, I started to question my Christianity. Over a period of a few years, I became an atheist. My children were very young at the time.

My first husband and I divorced while I was still a Christian. After the divorce, he continued to take them to church on his weekends. After I became an atheist, I no longer went to church but I never came out as an atheist as my entire family were (are) tongue-speaking, Bible-believing, spirit-filled, fire-breathing Christians. It would completely devastate them to think I wouldn’t be sharing heavenly bliss with them. So for now, they just think I’m back-slidden. They don’t know I no longer believe at all.

My spirit-filled sister recently preached at her church. Before her sermon she got everyone to come out the front and renounce their sicknesses. She said god was a healing god and they shouldn’t be sick. She said they shouldn’t accept sickness as it’s not part of god’s plan. So she said a loud prayer and there was lots of shouting and crying out to god during the whole experience.

I know this because she gave me a copy of her preaching CD.

Two weeks after her preaching, she was sick! My current husband and I were having a little chuckle over this fact.
My daughter suddenly turned to me and said, “Why don’t you just let people believe what they want to believe?”

I said they can believe whatever they’d like! But if someone says something silly in public, then I have the right to comment on it.

My daughter came back with the same statement and no matter what I couldn’t make her understand my point of view. She then started crying because she said I was attacking her religion.

Now, although I don’t believe, I have never told my kids what to believe. I’ve just told them to examine everything and not simply believe something just because someone else said it was true.

She’s told me she believes in god, but doesn’t believe in parts of the Bible… My daughter is still angry and feels like I attacked her. I can’t make her understand that I haven’t attacked her or even her religion, just something that someone from oher religion said.

How could I have handled this better?

Also, although I know this is probably wrong, I must admit that I am a little disappointed that she is just going along believing it all when I feel she should know better! She has the tools, she knows where the religion came from, and yet still she chooses to believe it.

Any suggestions or comments for the reader?

Is she being too harsh with her comments about religion? Should she refrain from making comments about religion at all in front of her daughter?

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  • The daughter, to me, sounds a bit too young to appreciate fully the ironic context of the situation presented. In that light, anything anyone said could be misconstrued as an attack on her religion.

    I, however, am all for continuing dialogue. Keeping quiet about things always hurts in the long run.

  • Old Beezle

    Funny, that’s how my mother responds when religion comes up and she feels I’m attacking her by expressing my own beliefs: she cries like a little girl. That’s emotional blackmail. That’s because religion is all about irrational emotion. Christians have finally achieved their ultimate goal: to become as little children…and cry…and whine…and be completely oblivious to rational thought and logic.

  • phoenixphire24

    Perhaps the daughter, who has already admitted to not believing in certain parts of the bible, is starting to feel her belief in the religion slip and feels threatened by ANY comments against it. When some believers begin to move away from their beliefs, they will desperately cling for a time because the doubt makes them feel very uncomfortable. I don’t think anything that was said was particularly critical of the family’s religion, and you should try and keep the dialog open. Perhaps she is doing more thinking than you believe.

  • Sadly things like this just take time. My mother is a Jehovah’s Witness and until I was 17 I believed everything she told me even though I had the skills of critical thinking it doesn’t even come close to the complete denial that your parents could be even slightly wrong.
    Your daughter has church based reinforcement coming from all directions. You are the only one saying anything different so she’s going to assume your are wrong and everyone else is right.

    Until she is at an age where she can truly branch out and start making her own opinions the best thing you can do is take the high road and be respectful while still promoting her critical thinking skills. This will help when she finally does start to question things because you know the church isn’t saying anything nice about you.
    I wish you the best.

  • First of all, she’s a cool and intelligent mom. Tod bad her daughter cannot appreciate that.

    The daughter needs to understand her mother did not attack her, but did attack her religion because of a very clear reason: it does not make sense. At the end the girl will appreciate to have a mother who can think by herself.

  • stephanie

    Actually, I think it’s a little harsh to deal out such criticism in private while keeping a deceptively supportive role in the family. That inconsistency might be what’s causing problems with your children. If your children see you laugh at others behind their back, perhaps they wonder if you might think of the same of them?

    For this particular issue though, it’s easy to restate that you are actually laughing at the fault of pride- which is considered a deadly sin in Christian circles so should be easily understandable despite religious viewpoint.

  • The daughter seems to be responding to our friend’s ridicule of her sister, not necessarily her atheism.

    Our friend should know as well as anyone the dilemma her daughter is faced with. “Spirit-filled” Christians can be horribly intolerant and judgmental. Faced with a choice between her unbelieving mother– and rejection by the rest of the family– or the pressure to conform, what choice can she make?

    The narrative most familiar to this poor girl is that of the heroic and persecuted child of faith honoring her backslidden mother. If our friend continues ridiculing the rest of the family, she’s going to push her daughter into the marty role.

    It sounds like our friend has some understandable anger about being surrounded by so much judgmental Christianity, but she’s going to need the patience of a (forgive me) saint to get through the next few years with her daughter. She probably needs to either get some counseling or a very sympathetic friend to help her deal with that anger so she can be gentle even while the Christians are metaphorically beating her up.

    I don’t envy her.

  • Rachel

    I think you have to be supportive of your daughter no matter what. I also think you have to be really honest, and up front about what you beleive.

    The think you want to avoid at all costs is your daughter feeling like her beleifs and opinions don’t matter.

    Although my situation is unique (I literally was raised by a monster), I remeber at 14 coming out as an atheist, they were’nt even upset. My mother just brushed me off and told me I was to young to have an opinion. It makes you feel like you are worth nothing. Now this was a very small incident, but indicative of my mother who I have not spoken to in over 10 years.

    If this was my kid. I’d expose them to as many different people/situations as I humanly could, I’d be honest and upfront about my own opinion and i’d make her feel like her beliefs and opions where every much as important and valid as my own. Hell I’d drive her to the fundy church every day if she wanted me to. It would be about mutual respect and that what she thinks and beleives matters, but also to toughen up, open your mind and learn about the beleifs of others and not take them as a personal threat or insult.

    I think if you brush her feelings off, this is the exact type of thing that drives teenagers to be sucked into these crazy churches, because they think the people in the church value them more.

  • Matto the Hun

    I can’t help but wonder if some of the other commenters’ observations about the mother having a chuckle at her sister’s absurd beliefs is a part of it.

    The mother is right on one hand the belief is not only absurd but also dangerous. It deserves reasoned ridicule for those reasons alone.

    What I think the daughter is not seeing is the shit storm that will happen if her mother comes out to her sister and the rest of her family.

    Maybe the mother should come out. Then the daughter will see what real (unreasoned) attacks are.

    Maybe then she will see the difference. Maybe.

  • teaparty

    its funny how the only discernment an educated person needs to decide between atheism and Christianity is how Christians are not the ones attacking other peoples right to raise happy healthy intellectually psychologically sound children its the atheists!! i cant believe here that any child’s point of view or actions that are not harmful hurtful or violent are even being negatively attacked at all children are innocent and parents are the ones responsible you cant say “well betty is such a great mother her little devil child just doesnt appreciate her” its scientifically and phsycologically UNsound!

  • I don’t think you should have to feel like it’s your views that have to be silenced and accommodating. I don’t think you need to patronize anybody by treating their faiths as delicate vases you must be careful not to break. You’re only enabling and tacitly promoting this attitude that their beliefs are unassailable and off limit to criticism and critical reflection.

    Your daughter obviously cares enough that I’m sure she’d love to talk about her faith plenty. So, why don’t you two say, “These are important matters, they’re not ones we avoid dialogue about but since they’re so important we have to make sure they don’t come between us. So, once a week or so, we’ll sit down and just discuss as two people in search of truth. We’ll respect each other’s ideas and listen to each other and practice thinking through the reasons for our beliefs, etc. And then the rest of the time, we won’t talk about it or we’ll stop talking about it whenever it gets too frustrating or intense, because ultimately our relationship to each other is more important than our disagreements.”

    Something like that says you will respect her beliefs enough to discuss them. You will not tolerate an attitude that she and her church are specially exempt from giving reasons to people for what they believe. And you’ll demonstrate that she has to listen to other people too and that respect for beliefs takes the form of taking them seriously, respectfully, and taking the time to understand and criticize them. Anything else is living avoiding the difficult task of really becoming intimate with each other emotionally and intellectually. Anything else simply caters to our emotional immaturities, our fears of conflict, and our insecurities. She’s insecure that her faith will be punctured or mocked. You’re insecure that your lack of faith is something that might unduly infect someone or smother or scare them.

    Both of you deserve the respect and growth that comes through dialogue, if you ask me. In my view everybody grows but they either grow together or they grow apart. You can make your and your daughter’s search for truth something you do together and through which you form bonds of agreement and shared thought or you can grow apart further and further as you never think together but always separately from each other.

  • Matto the Hun

    Just to clarify… I’m not putting my “auto-destruct” option as necessarily good advice… merely as an option.

  • Richard Wade

    The comments so far are very insightful and I agree with most of their suggestions. Making it even more complicated and delicate is the fact that the daughter has divorced parents. She has a natural instinct to be loyal to both parents, but one or both may be subtly or overtly disapproving of the other. This pulls her in two different directions in a catch-22 that must eventually break down. She may have to eventually make one the “villian” and the other the “hero,” as undeserved as either characterization may be. It hurts very badly to do that, and the hurt is expressed with anger. This often happens with divorced families even if they agree religiously.

    The girl overheard her mother laughing about the sickness incident with her second husband. That makes it even more volatile. Step parents have a tough role to play. Children often see them as the cause of their parents’ divorce, even if it is not factually so. Being pulled apart by divided loyalties, the children will use the the step parent as a convenient scapegoat to rationalize and mitigate any conflict. It gets very convoluted and irrational. So perhaps in the girl’s mind she sees her mom in unity with her father’s replacement, disparaging her father’s, her aunt’s and the rest of the family’s beliefs. The tug-of-war increases in intensity.

    The mother does not feel comfortable to be open about her atheism to the family, but the girl may be more aware of it than she is letting on. That is still another conflict for her, to have to maybe feel guilty about keeping the secret from the rest of the family, or maybe tell the others, and feel guilty about tattling on her mom. Double binds all over the place.

    Yet another complication is that the girl sounds like she is in puberty or adolescence. That period of time is often marked by mother-daughter conflicts over any topic that happens to be at hand. Children going through their early process of differentiation from their parents sometimes show mechanical, reflex disagreement and opposition, without any rational process involved. One simply has to endure it until it passes.

    It is going to be difficult if not impossible to sort out all these possible contributors from the overtly-stated conflicts about religious beliefs.

    I suggest large amounts of patience, keeping the dialogue open and honest, but seasoned generously with lots of “I love you.” Time will probably help to heal the wounds. With increasing maturity over the next several years, the girl may be able to accommodate the differences of views of all her family members.

    Raising children to think for themselves means that they will do just that. They will inevitably have many thoughts that agree with yours, but there will also be thoughts that oppose yours. That’s when you have to tell yourself, “Well, that’s what I wanted.”

  • Richard P

    I had a similar conversation with my daughter, She remarked about a comment I had made to a mor(m)on out on a recruiting spree.
    She said she believed and I should not reject them for their beliefs. I simply told her I had a right to believe differently, and a right to voice my opinion when someone gives theirs. I also told her if she had thought it out, she was free to believe what she wanted. but, I had a right to disagree with her, just like she had a right to disagree with me.

    I always found direct honesty to be the best way to deal with situations, and especially ones like this.

    A few years later, a situation developed when this conversation started again, this time it was her laughing at someone else about their religious beliefs. It turned out she had decided it was silly after all.

  • Carlie

    There’s also the mother-daughter issue. Given the timeline, I’m guessing the daughter is just entering or early teens? That’s a nasty time period all around for the mother-daughter relationship. She should keep that changing dynamic in mind; it might not be about the religion so much as just another part of trying to be different than her mom and fighting against anything that relationship symbolizes.

  • The Mother in this situation

    Thank you all so much for your comments. You’ve said some really good things that have helped me feel a little more at ease about the situation. Probably things I knew already, but it helps to hear someone else say it.
    Thank you all

  • It would be easier to make a comment if the age of the daughter was stated, but I can say that based on my own experience of raising a believing child as an atheist parent that the parent has to be very careful how he or she approaches the issue of religion around the child. Discussion is one thing – ridicule is another. An adolescent in particular will internalize the criticism no matter what you do. My son always knew I would discuss the issue with him rationally and now that he is an adult I can be a little more “careless” with my comments. If I had done it when he was a teenager the results would have been disastrous.

    If you are going to maintain the position that you aren’t going to tell your children what to believe you forfeit the right to do so, even obliquely through criticizing others.

  • The Mother in this situation

    My daughter is 14, almost 15

    Thanks CJ. Although I try not to ridicule xtians I’m sure it’s obvious in my speech that I think the beliefs (which I once held) are irrational.

    And yes, my fear is that my discussions will only push her further into xtianity.. That will be her rebellion…

  • Curran

    The “let people believe what they want” statement would generally tell me she is not yet mature enough to look at it from all angles & doesn’t understand honest criticism. But I do wonder if a similar situation would have occurred had they been laughing about someone’s choice of a political candidate in front of a daughter who also supported the same candidate. Religion is maybe only half the reason she was upset, the other half that she may be worrying that she, too, is being ridiculed when she’s not around.

    As long as the discussion was honest & only their beliefs were attacked, then I really don’t think it’s a bad thing. Frequent criticism, however, can be a turn-off. Maybe she’s at the age where she’s forming beliefs or opinions, but has not quite learning how to defend them or think through them. Hopefully she will realize that the complement to the “freedom to believe” is the “freedom to criticize what someone has the freedom to believe.” However, many adults act like that, which to me is there problem, which tells me that they need to toughen up. Just keep it clean & keep it rational, & things will probably be better in a few years.

  • ChameleonDave

    Now, although I don’t believe, I have never told my kids what to believe.

    You haven’t done a good job of parenting, then.

    You are supposed to educate your children. This means telling them what to believe. For example, your kids should believe that 2+2=4, that animals procreate via sexual reproduction, that Xmas gifts are brought by family and friends (rather than Father Christmas), that rainbows are light refracted by water particles (rather than a sign of Jehovah’s covenant that there will not be another Flood). There are plenty of things you should make sure they believe.

    If you don’t do this properly, it’s your fault if this backfires on you and you have to deal with kids sobbing because they’ve overheard you saying that Santa isn’t coming.

  • The parent has done nothing out of order.

    Certainly the conversation needs to continue (in as gentle a way as possible) – because they both need to understand /why/ the daughter sees this as an “attack on her religion”.

    I see this a lot – it’s as if the emotional self-deception that underlies seeing that as an attack appears to be part of the self-defence mechanism of the religious meme. But whatever the cause, it’s better that both mother and daughter understand it, and that they see it for what it is. This may take a long time!

    Do religious ideas automatically deserve respect not accorded other ideas? Why is that necessarily so?

  • Aj

    Again, letting your kids go to church to get indoctrinated by Christians is probably not the best idea. Churches expect undue respect, they encourage people taking offence and then propagate the false belief that they have a right not to be offended. Clearly this is learnt behaviour, the daughter is mimicking probably the only actions she has seen from peers and authority figures when irrational beliefs are questioned. It’s a good defence mechanism, allows them not to think about it, use emotions instead. Perhaps the daughter has similar irrational beliefs, and this is why she feels personally attacked.

    It should be easy to argue against. It matters what is true, many of these beliefs are not only unjustified but also contradicted by evidence therefore almost certainly false. Some of these beliefs, especially those about health are harmful even fatal. It should be hard to defend a position against these beliefs. Unjustified beliefs must be challenged. Values like the desire for reliable knowledge, caring about what is true, are perhaps innate, but they can also be dulled and sabotaged. It’s good to ask for questioning, critical examination, but this has got to be exercised and prompted.

    If Christianity wasn’t good at undermining common sense and intelligence then it wouldn’t exist. There’s also hope that you can change someone’s mind, persuade them with good arguments. The more invested someone gets with their Christian community the less likely they’ll think critically about it.

  • littlejohn

    To paraphrase the late Alfred Hitchcock, have her destroyed.

  • Bleatmop

    Sounds like the kid is being hypocritical to me. She want’s the mother to respect her beliefs by having the mother repress her (non)belief. I’d call her out on it and make it patently clear that she is being a hypocrite.

    The mother pointing out the irony in what her sister’s predicament was in no way attacking her daughters belief. Allowing the daughter to get away with insinuating that is only going to allow her to continue to live in her egocentric world, imo.

  • jeffcia

    You might approach it like this:

    Would you ever pick up a book that has no cover and believe every word of it – not knowing if it is supposed to be fact or fiction?

    Do you believe that people make up stories like those of the Greek and Romans, even though they are not true?

    Explain this is probably what happened with Christianity as well. Explain that we have no idea who wrote the 4 gospels, and they are the cornerstone of their beliefs. They are also estimated to have been written from 40 to 150 years AFTER the death of Jesus, and that is a long time to embellish a story!

    Good luck. Many of us will cross the same bridge too someday, as I’m sure many of us do not push our views on our kids, and they often pick up religion from others.

    – Jeff

  • The Other Tom

    The first thing I have to say to the reader is that it’s time she comes out of the atheist closet. There’s no way she’s going to be able to set a good example to her daughter of how to live life as a rational atheist if she won’t even open up and admit she’s an atheist. Instead of giving her daughter the lesson “You can be rational and logical and be a good moral loving person”, she is giving her daughter the lessons “it’s okay to lie to family to get what you want” and also “popularity is more important than honesty.”

    Yes, it will cause tremendous family upheaval with the mother’s family. This is life. Either they’ll get over it, or they don’t deserve to have the mother in their lives. Right now, they don’t really love the mother – they love the person they erroneously believe the mother is. It’s time to correct that.

    Next, I disagree with those who say that the mother should respect the daughter’s beliefs. If the daughter believes in nonsense, it’s the mother’s job to teach her about reality, regardless of whether the nonsense the daughter believes in is christianity or the tooth fairy. What I would say, however, is that the mother should respect the daughter’s personhood – it’s important to teach the daughter about reality, but it’s also important to be considerate and kind to her. Recognize that she isn’t going to want to hear about it all the time, that the daughter’s life can’t revolve around being taught to discard her religious superstitions, and that life should largely go on as normal – just a normal in which the mother expresses, politely, that she understands that there is no god, when the daughter insists there is one. “Well, I believe you’re wrong”, in a calm tone, is about as strong as it needs to get.

    At the same time, the mother shouldn’t be putting up with bad manners. If the daughter decides to throw a tantrum about it, she should be treated appropriately – not because of her beliefs in nonsense, but because of the tantrum, and the distinction needs to be made plain. “You can say that, but you have to say it in a polite manner and discuss it like a civilized person, as I am doing with you.”

    Also, it’s important to respect the fact that the daughter has to have a relationship with her father, and make clear that the mother’s lack of belief is not intended to come between daughter and father. “Your father and I are both trying to do what we think is best for you. That’s why he takes you to church, and that’s why I don’t. The fact that we disagree doesn’t mean I think he is a bad person.”

    The daughter was clearly upset over the mother’s snickering at the aunt – the mother’s schadenfreude. Consider that this may have much less to do with religion than it does to do with the snickering. Children and teens can be oversensitive to such things. It might be a good idea for the mother to discuss it with the daughter, explain what schadenfreude is (happiness at the misfortune of others – like laughing when someone slips on a banana peel), explain that it’s normal and that while it’s impolite it’s not based on any actual hostility, apologize for it (it’s not a huge thing, a little apology won’t be the end of the world, and remember that the apology is for the snickering, not for noticing the discrepancy between reality and the aunt’s beliefs), explain why she felt that way, and promise sincerely to try – just try – to be a little more polite – in general, not about religion specifically. This may help the daughter to understand what happened and why, and to put her in a better mood to listen a little more.

    Pushing atheism on the daughter isn’t going to help, as I’m sure everyone has figured out. Calmly disagreeing with her and offering to discuss why, in a calm and friendly manner, may help. Setting a good example that atheists are good and kind and loving people too is probably the best thing to do in the meantime.

    And finally, remember, as has been pointed out, that the teen years are a time for rebellion and disagreement. Many teens grow to 18 thinking their parents are idiots, go away to school, and slowly come to realize that perhaps the parents weren’t quite so stupid as they’d thought. Sometimes it takes longer. I was 35 when I finally started being able to overlook some of my father’s mistakes to see some of his virtues. Just always make sure your daughter knows you love her come what may, and then when the time is right for her to be calm and think rationally, she may be ready to turn to you to hear what you have to say.

  • Let her be…. hopefully she will be exposed to rationalism eventually. But she needs to understand that criticism is a part of life… just as hazing between kids in school (hey, we all made fun of the ugly, nerdy, fatty kids… its only natural… kids are cruel) and RELIGION IS NO EXCEPTION. You believe in an imaginary being, accept its consequences.

  • A few things:

    One, I agree with Stephanie. By criticising someone in private while steadfastly refusing to declare your own beliefs in public, you’re sending a mixed message to your daughter. It says “it’s not OK to talk to people about the way you feel. The better thing to do is to laugh at them behind their back.”

    Secondly, from the way the letter was phrased it sounded more like a comment on irony than one on religion itself. Put in a secular way, if somebody said “I never get sick, because my immune system is awesome. I could swallow a vat full of medical waste and not get sick from it” and then got sick the next day, it would be equally as funny.

  • muggle

    Are you all on acid? Mom laughed at her sister getting sick? I’m sorry but I’m totally on the daughter’s side in this. That was a pretty fucked-up thing to do. Ha ha ha, your aunt sermonized on sickness and now she’s ill. Ha ha ha.

    I’d be pretty pissed off too if I were the daughter and I’m 51, not 15. Right now I’m of the impression that Mom’s even sicker than Aunt. I mean she and new hubby laughed about auntie being sick. How totally, totally fucked up!

    It’s one thing to shake your head at news stories where some stranger falls ill after this type of sermon and say where is your god now? But to take glee from it? And this was the aunt she was probably encouraged to love for 15 years. It’s an argument against God belief certainly but do you all really take such delight in the suffering of other human beings?

    Shudder. I hope not.

    The mom is totally in the wrong here. And should really perhaps seek some counseling. Or at least get her fricking priorities straight.

    And she should profusely apologize to her daughter for acting like it’s funny that her aunt is sick.

  • Muggle, she didn’t say her sister was struck with cancer or anything, she just got sick. It happens. It’s apparently not life and death but a minor setback for a day or a few. Her daughter wasn’t grieved her aunt was dying. The issue was her aunt’s silly belief she could “renounce” sickness and even demand this stupid thing of others. The mother giggled at the irony of someone demanding other people to renounce their sickness, practically BLAMING them for being sick as though it was their fault they weren’t “claiming God’s plan for them” or some such nonsense, and then, appropriately getting sick herself.

    Anyone who starts putting nonsense ideas in people’s heads that their sicknesses are somehow connected to their lack of faith or their lack of attunement to God’s plan quite deserves to get sick to embarrass them from saying such stupid things about other people’s illnesses. (No, they don’t deserve to get sick and DIE, just get sick so they don’t think that’s a good thing to mention as a sign of lack of faith).

    And YES they deserve to be LAUGHED at. Because taking seriously the idea that sickness gets healed with renunciations of sickness or with prayers rather than with medicine encourages a dangerous mindset that leads in its extremes to rejecting medicine altogether and sticking to faith healing, which winds up being a form of faith killing.

  • Claudia

    The mother should absolutely NOT stop discussing religion in front of her daughter. It sounds like she may be the sole source of rationalism to her child and she has a responsibility to try to bring up a rational adult.

    She may want to cut down on the snark. Let’s face it, as a community we are fond of making fun of the irony and stupidity of religion, especially fundamentalism. If the girl is a christian then she may in fact feel attacked by those sorts of jokes. However the daughter must be made to understand that religious belief is no more exempt from criticism and analysis as political belief or musical taste. It sounds like she’s buying into the notion that a belief shrouded in religion becomes off-limits for criticism. This mustn’t be allowed to happen, both because we have a general interest in putting religion on a level playing field and because I think the mom should have an interest in make sure her daughter considers her religion also up for questioning. That way, when she’s older and possibly less sheltered, she can revisit her religious beliefs and hopefully get rid of them once she allows them to be analyzed like any other belief.

  • Roman

    I would say that you handled this situation fine, where you failed is in everything that led up to it. As an atheist parent I feel it is incredibly important to explain how and why I believe the way I do because the odds of them getting exposed to a nonreligious viewpoint outside of the house is almost nil.

    I think that you should definitely start laying out the reasons and logic behind your beliefs. It will probably be a long and painful process but I wouldn’t just sit by and let your children be duped.

    Good luck to you.

  • I used to be your daughter–I was Catholic until college, and my own mom an atheist. What she did was to always ask questions about my beliefs, and let me know about questions and thoughts she had that brought about her unbelief.

    I think that helped me come about in the long run because I began to ask those same questions.

    She didn’t criticize my belief. She merely made sure I was aware that those questions were not being answered by the church.

  • anonymouse

    Chameleon Dave, I am pretty sure you don’t need to tell someone they are a bad parent for what was implied as telling their kids what to believe in a RELIGIOUS context. You’re just being rude.

  • Shannon

    First of all, the title is wrong. the child didn’t “become” a Christian. If I have the time line correct (from the post) the entire family was Christian, including Mom, and the kids were raised to believe in that. Then, over time, Mom became an atheist. And now the daughter is still stuck in that religious world. Her one parent is still a Christian, and her extended family on both sides are also Christian.

    I’m not blaming Mom in the least, but I think looking at it from the child’s point of view would be better than blaming the child as some of the harsher comments here do.

    I agree with those who say that mom should watch what she says around the kids as far as other family members. This isn’t about religion, but if I laughed because a family member got sick, I’d probably hear an earful from my daughter. We tell our kids to be kind, don’t laugh at people, don’t make fun, and then we adults go ahead and do it. Yeah, they call us on it.

    I think a calm, non-snarky conversation is in order. Probably many, many conversations. If she hasn’t come out as an atheist to her daughter already (I wasn’t clear on that) then do it. I agree that being “in the closet” with her family might be sending a mixed signal to her daughter but I’m not sure on that one. It might just be more trouble than it’s worth to tell them right now. Mom will have to decide if it’s worth it, or dangerous, based on the family (and custody issues).

    I think the best thing the mom can do is to politely state her own opinions and respectfully disagree with others when the conversation comes up. But laughing at someone is not the way to do it. Save that for when you’re alone with other adults 😉

  • SeekingDuck

    You haven’t done a good job of parenting, then. You are supposed to educate your children. This means telling them what to believe. For example, your kids should believe that 2+2=4, that animals procreate via sexual reproduction…

    That’s just silly. Doing a “good job of parenting” isn’t about indoctrinating your children in the correct set of facts, especially from an atheist / rationalist perspective. It’s about teaching them how to think and how to reach good conclusions. And it’s also about respecting them as autonomous human beings and acknowledging that no matter what you teach them, at some point they’re going to make their own conclusions.

    I don’t want my kids to believe that 2+2=4, I want them to understand why it’s the case, and to know how to reason about the implications. Sometimes they will end up reaching conclusions I disagree with or even know to be false — there’s no way around that. If I make sure they agree with everything I think is important, that will make me more comfortable in the short term, but then I’m not really teaching critical thinking.

    This girl is going through some complicated family dynamics during one of the most confusing and emotional stages of life. It’s not “rational” to expect her to behave counter to all human psychology and emotional development and immediately recognize whenever she says something that doesn’t make sense. Jumping all over the girl for being a bad daughter or irrational or whatever is missing the point.

    The point is, her objection probably wasn’t really about what she said it was. The “attack” she’s talking about isn’t really just that one comment. That’s just a manifestation of the deeper split she feels. She’s still trying to make sense for herself of why different people believe different things, and why that can carry so much animosity. The fact that there was no real animosity in this instance doesn’t really change the situation that she sees everywhere else, even if she isn’t articulating where those tensions are really coming from. Her objection isn’t really irrational, it’s just a failure of communication (and probably partly of self-awareness — surprise, sometimes what really bothers someone is different from what they say is bothering them. That doesn’t mean the person is bad or irrational, it’s just part of how the mind processes things.)

    As far as advice, I don’t think I’m really qualified (it’s not as though I’ve figured out how to deal with my own family’s religious conflicts), but as best I can tell it sounds like the mother responded the best way she could. Make sure to explain that you aren’t trying to take away from other people’s beliefs, but that you can still respond to what people say. (Especially in this instance, it might be good to emphasize the harm done to other people if they think every time they get sick means they don’t trust God enough.) Beyond that, just try to understand where the daughter is coming from and be careful about that subject — there’s a difference between criticizing someone’s behavior and actually making fun of them, and even if the latter is justified it sounds like it’s a hard thing for this girl to work through right now. Loyalty is a tricky thing: even if I know my friends or family are wrong about something, I don’t always like someone else making fun of them for it. Context is a huge issue there. Best of luck hashing through this stuff…

  • I don’t think you did anything wrong
    My oldest son who is currently 15 is from a previous relationship. His mother is a super Christian. My son is heavily involved in his church. Slowly he is moving away from all of that. I have not said a thing about it. We talk about religion often but never from a personal standpoint. He makes some very keen observations.

    At one time, I thought he would remain a fundamentalist, but he has been surprising me lately.

    All in due time…

  • I don’t know if it’s the same for Muslims and Jews, but this is almost universally the reaction of Christians if you point out any errors or inconsistencies in their religion – they overreact to it and treat it as if it is a personal attack. If you say people should look for proof instead of just taking things on faith, they overreact to that as if you’re making a personal attack.

    I don’t mean just religious faith. I mean in the sense that people shouldn’t just blindly accept anything without proof. Like the X-Ray glasses promoted in comic books or those things you put in your shoe to “draw out toxins” through your feet.

    Sounds reasonable, I hope? Try getting that point across about faith to a Christian some time. They’ll act like you’re mocking them personally and all Christians in general. That mental and emotional short-circuit drives me freakin crazy sometimes.

  • Aj

    The author clearly states that she and her husband were not laughing at the suffering of anything. They were laughing at the cognitive dissonance, or failed claims at healing. I’m getting disappointed with the comments on this blog lately, it’s as if people aren’t trying.

  • muggle

    Do you not see how that appears to be laughing at the aunt’s getting sick? It just wasn’t appropriate to do in front of the daughter and frankly doesn’t make mom much of a sister.

    If daughter had asked even a few weeks down the road if maybe prayer helps, then you could gently say remember auntie tried that and then got that cold?

    This method was just totally cold and unfeeling. Mom probably didn’t mean to be hurtful but she was. Therefore, she should apologize.

    And not expect much tea and sympathy from daughter next time she gets a cold. Given the example she set.

    Frankly, as a mother and a grandmother, I’m cringing. I could not comprehend doing this to my daughter or grandson. Snicker, and she said the lord wouldn’t let her get sick…

  • Aj


    Do you not see how that appears to be laughing at the aunt’s getting sick?

    No I don’t see it, because it’s not there. To describe it like that is to demonstrate you don’t understand what they were laughing at. The end.

  • The Mother in this situation

    We weren’t laughing at her being sick, but at the irony of her being sick.. and it was a chest cold that she had… something she was over within a few days. (and my husband and I were talking to each other, daughter was just in ear shot)
    And my “new” husband and I have been together for about 10 years. My daughter sees her father but she was only 3 when we split.
    Just wanted to add that to clarify.

    You guys have said such wonderful things. Thank you so much. I feel so much better about it AND you’ve given me good insight as to how to continue on from here.

  • smoo

    She should ask her daughter why she will not let her mother believe the way she wants. Respect goes both ways. She may not get it right away, but she will get it eventually, and may even appreciate that respect for others came from an atheist, while those at her church did not extend the same olive branch.

  • J. Allen

    Well, your daughter will likely be exposed to heavy religion because of her father and the rest of your family. One good way to foster critical thinking is to ask tough questions.

    Instead of just laughing at your sister, you could have said “Isn’t it strange that she said disease is not from God and then got sick shortly after? Doctors know that disease is caused by germs, which is why you don’t see a lot of sickness nowadays. We can visit the high school biology teacher if you want to see some bacteria for yourself…” or something like that.

    Don’t mock your sister’s beliefs per se, but just calmly offer another idea and ask permission to give evidence. Your sister is effectively lying, and you can prove it with science, but you have to get your daughter interested in seeing the evidence for herself.

  • Shannon

    To the mother, I’m not trying to pick on you, but the line between laughing at a person and laughing at something the person was involved in is very fine. You might have been laughing at the irony of the situation, but your sister was still the major player. Many of the adults (me too) reading here see it as laughing at the sister, I don’t doubt that’s what your daughter honestly saw too.

    But it’s obvious that the problem is much deeper than that. It’s got to be very hard for you to be in a family like that, but I’d say it’s even worse for your daughter. She’s still a child, still not even sure what she believes in life and her parents don’t agree either (and now that you gave her age that makes it worse – you couldn’t pay me enough to go through puberty again!). It’s a very delicate situation for her.

    But from what you wrote, I think you get that. I hope it works out well 😉

  • SeekingDuck

    muggle, you’re blowing the “suffering” angle way out of proportion. You’re acting like getting a cold is some personal tragedy rather than a routine inconvenience that happens to most people at least every year or two. It’s like if someone said “If you have faith, God will prevent all injury from befalling you! Renounce all injuries, just like I did!” and immediately after walked into a telephone pole and bruised their forehead. It’s a minor injury, it will be gone in a couple days, and it’s not “cold and unfeeling” to laugh at that sequence of events.

    The Mother, I’m glad you’re feeling better about the situation!

  • christi

    If a Christian ridiculed an atheist, he or she would be called all sorts of names. By ridiculing her aunt, you ridiculed her faith. Ridicule is one of the most potent forms of attack.

    I can understand the frustration of holding to your belief system in an atmosphere that must seem hostile. However, I would encourage you to take the higher road.

    Your daughter has shown you her pain and vulnerability. Show her respect by honoring her transparency. Apologize and go the extra mile by asking her if there is anything else you have done which has been an attack.

    By the way, we’ve heard enough “non-apologies” this weekend from Kanye and Serena. Don’t disqualify yours with a “but you…” if you want her to hear your sincerity.

  • When having a debate of any kind (even a simple conversation where two people have differing points of view count) you just have to realize that getting angry and / or crying are simply tactics to win said debate.

    Try to disarm them apologizing for any percieved personal grievances but remain firm of the facts and the point. Remaining calm and rational and not compromising your points is the only way to handle such a situation. Just remember, crying is literally a strategy for coercion in this situation. And if you stay firm and resolute and don’t let yourself get caught up emotionally you can actually have a very strong impact on someone in that state as well.

  • SeekingDuck

    When having a debate of any kind (even a simple conversation where two people have differing points of view count) you just have to realize that getting angry and / or crying are simply tactics to win said debate.

    Um… seriously? You’ve never had a disagreement where you got angry except as a strategy to “win”? I’m not sure your take on anger and crying is useful for communicating with most 14-year-olds.

    And if you stay firm and resolute and don’t let yourself get caught up emotionally you can actually have a very strong impact on someone in that state as well.

    When I was somewhat younger than 14, I had a family member who would say horrible things to me and then when I was reduced to tears, would pull the “Look at how calm I am. Why are you raising your voice?” trick. It did have a strong impact on me, which is why I didn’t speak to him for the last 15 years of his life.

    I don’t think the mother here said anything horrible, but that doesn’t mean it’s good to treat the whole conversation as a contest or struggle for rhetorical dominance. The actual family issues are a perfectly normal reason for these kinds of emotions, especially at that age, and writing the whole thing off as a manipulation strategy won’t lead anywhere good…

  • Aj

    Justin Chase,

    When having a debate of any kind (even a simple conversation where two people have differing points of view count) you just have to realize that getting angry and / or crying are simply tactics to win said debate.

    Try to disarm them apologizing for any percieved personal grievances but remain firm of the facts and the point. Remaining calm and rational and not compromising your points is the only way to handle such a situation. Just remember, crying is literally a strategy for coercion in this situation. And if you stay firm and resolute and don’t let yourself get caught up emotionally you can actually have a very strong impact on someone in that state as well.

    I can wholeheartedly agree with the parts not in bold. Remaining calm and sticking to the points is the best response, although quite hard.

    Expressions of anger and crying in debates are often caused by emotional response. You could make an argument that indeed they are strategies for coercion in a debate, but not consciously devised strategies, evolved emotional response to social stimuli.

  • McBloggenstein

    To the mother,
    What does your ex husband think of your atheism? Is it possible that on his weekends (after taking your daughter to church) that he has spoken unnaprovingly to your daughter about her moms un-belief? I could imagine him having a conversation with her based on his worry that your atheism will influence her beliefs, and in so many words warn her that you may make fun of her or look down upon her for believing (not that you would or do… just that it would be a usual scare tactic to plant into a budding Christian’s mind in order to separate them from the bad, free-thinking un-believers).
    It’s just strange that if you make her feel like it is her choice like you say, that she would react like that unless someone else is telling her to feel like she is being made fun of.

  • The Mother in this situation

    Her father doesn’t know I’m an atheist although he may suspect it. I would imagine he thinks I’m just “backslidden” both my children say that he doesn’t speak about my belief or non belief but I’m not sure I believe that.
    It is her choice, I wasn’t telling her not to believe, I was talking to my current husband about something my sister said.

    And being honest, I’d prefer she didn’t believe a fairytale but I know I have no control over that and I don’t tell her that, even if she might be able to read it between the lines.

    What I want MOST OF ALL is for her to research her belief and not just believe it because I or anyone else have told her to. I want her to have a reason to believe or not believe. And I’m completely upfront about THAT issue with her!

  • Stellar Duck (not related)

    muggle, you’re blowing the “suffering” angle way out of proportion. You’re acting like getting a cold is some personal tragedy rather than a routine inconvenience that happens to most people at least every year or two. It’s like if someone said “If you have faith, God will prevent all injury from befalling you! Renounce all injuries, just like I did!” and immediately after walked into a telephone pole and bruised their forehead. It’s a minor injury, it will be gone in a couple days, and it’s not “cold and unfeeling” to laugh at that sequence of events.

    The Mother, I’m glad you’re feeling better about the situation!

    SeekingDuck, you may just have proved to muggle that I’m a cold horrible person as I laughed at your scenario.

    But truthfully I may be horrible because I would also smile at a lightning hitting a church I think. Though I suppose the mostly have protection for that these days.

    But again, I would probably laugh my ass off if God turned out to exist after all.

    I don’t really have a lot to add to the proper topic as I think you guys have done a great job.

  • Bradley

    I guess I’m confused. Can you really accept any conclusion your daughter or anyone else would come to based on “research” and having a “reason” to believe? Or will you only accept it if she comes to the same conclusion you have? Because then you can’t really criticize or laugh at anyone else’s conclusions. Or are you the judge of whose “research” is thorough and who’s “reasons” are sound?

    This “respecting others rights to opinions” stuff is sticky. Do any of us REALLY do it? Are we talking about Tolerance = respecting someone’s right to have a different opinion but not necessarily agreeing with it, or this “New Tolerance” = respecting someone’s right to have a different opinion as long as it doesn’t disagree with yours and they admit that your opinion is just as right and possibly much more enlightened and there for renounce there belief as only their opinion and not Truth?

    Are there ultimate Truths or not? Can two differing opinions both be right? Is 2+2 really 4? And why? Because you and others agree on that conclusion? What if I disagree? Are you going to laugh at me behind my back?

    And do you teach your daughter that the stove is hot and will burn your hand or just let her figure it our on her own?

    And I agree with other’s that you are acting extremely hypocritically and should not be surprised your daughter is confused and hurt. But then that would be criticizing you and your choices or actions or beliefs.

    Are you shaping her opinions or letting her have her own. At what age is a child ready to be kicked out of the nest? Man, why do we even have kids? It’s a lot of responsibility!

    Why do you really care what any of us think? shouldn’t you just figure it out all by your self? And what ever you decide will be your decision so how could it be wrong? Or should we be trying to shape others?

    Come on, we all have opinions that’s part of being an individual.

    Just a little stream of consciousness, sorry.

    But I would seriously like to know how you (any of you) balance all these things. I struggle with it myself.

    Pleas don’t just write off my comments, I need answers!

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