Ask Richard: Atheist Despairs for Love and Respect from Her Mormon Family December 8, 2009

Ask Richard: Atheist Despairs for Love and Respect from Her Mormon Family

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Hello Richard,

Thank you for taking the time to read my email, I sincerely hope that you are able to answer it.

My situation is this, my fiancé and I are both in our mid-twenties, and atheists. He is an only child with parents who are not religious in the slightest. My family….well, they’re Mormon. Very Mormon. I have been openly atheist to my family for three years (took two years to get the courage to do this, and to get out of their financial influence) and they still don’t respect my beliefs. They claim to love me, but they continually mention their religion around me and mock my principles both political and religious. Recently, I asked my mother with utmost kindness and respect that she speak to the family about respecting my opinions when my fiancé and I are around. She grudgingly, after much uncalled for theatrics, claimed that the family would do so.

Here is where I am in the wrong: I didn’t trust that my mother forwarded my message to the family because, well, I expected to be getting some angry calls/emails about it despite how much I labored over that message to make it respectful and non-combative. So, in my weakness and suspicion, I hacked into her email and saw that she wrote an extremely offensive, condescending and outright petty email about me to my siblings claiming I had gotten very angry with her and that my demands were “childish” and that if the family showed me Christly love, that I would eventually “come around” and that she “wanted to strangle me” sometimes. I find this deeply offensive, especially given how I have made special efforts to be kind to her ever since I moved out a few years ago because I still wanted a relationship with the family. My fiancé and friends all think I am too nice to them, and I think I agree now. I obviously can’t reveal to her what I read, as reading her email was absolutely and utterly wrong of me to do, but I can’t exactly believe her or my family anymore when they say they love and respect me ….knowing how they REALLY feel about me.

I feel as if I do not have a family of my own anymore. I have my fiance, in-laws and friends, but I love my parents and siblings and nothing can replace them, but I cannot be around toxic people who do not respect me…respect is very important to me…and I don’t see myself having a relationship with them without it, but I can’t make them give up their deep felt hatred of me and my atheism either.

Any advice to help me deal with this loss would be appreciated.

Sincere thanks,


Dear Alice,

There’s an old saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

I can understand your wanting your mother to act in the role of a diplomat, using her credibility and influence to appeal to the rest of the family to treat you and your fiancé with courtesy. Unfortunately, to do that she would have to actually want there to be a reconciliation based on mutual acceptance instead of a reconciliation based on you complying entirely with her wishes.

Instead, she mischaracterized you, and it appears that she was more interested in gathering more family agreement with her opinion of you than in fostering understanding. Her suggestion that they show you “Christly love” may be why you didn’t get the negative blowback from them that you expected.

One very important thing to sort out is the difference between respecting your beliefs and treating you respectfully. Let go of the former, and demand the latter. They’re never going to respect your beliefs, any more than you will ever respect theirs. You think their beliefs are absurd, and they have a similar opinion of yours. However, you can still treat them respectfully as persons, and they can show you the same courtesy.

Remember, you are not your beliefs, any more than you are your clothes or your other possessions. You were a person before you had these particular beliefs, a person just as deserving of respectful treatment as you are now. Your beliefs are important to you, but they do not define you, they only distinguish you. What you actually are is what you actually do.

Live, act and behave respectably, and respect others for their respectable behavior. In this way, agreeing or disagreeing about beliefs becomes unimportant. They can be set aside in favor of being loving, warm and respectful. Those are all doings, actions, behaviors. You are what you do. Thoughts, opinions and beliefs cannot tilt the most sensitive scale. They are insubstantial. They are not you, they are not others.

During the time that has passed since you wrote to me, if their “Christly love” has manifested itself as treating you and your fiancé with graciousness and decency, refraining from the mockery and deliberate emphasis of touchy subjects, then great! Enjoy the affection of a mature family that can value people over opinions. Then there’s no need to read further.

However, the family gatherings may still be filled with passive-aggressive remarks or thinly disguised disdain, or “the chill” may still be difficult to tolerate. At the end of your letter you speak in a tone of grief, as if all hope for any relationship is lost.

Perhaps not quite yet.

Your relationship with your mother seems to be currently entangled in a power struggle. She wants you to comply, to obey, to return to the faith, and that is simply out of the question for you. So she will be the last person to give up the manipulations and the divisive tactics. Your siblings on the other hand, may be more open to accepting you.

If you still wish to, you can still take action on this. You can make another attempt to express yourself, but this time directly to the whole family. The fact that you know about your mother’s misrepresentation by hacking into her email doesn’t matter. Yes, it was wrong. Now forget about it. Your explanation for taking this direct action would simply be because nothing has improved. Don’t even mention the conversation you had with your mother. If someone asks, say that you had spoken to her about your concerns, but for some unknown reason, nothing had changed. Then leave it alone.

A direct, all-at-once letter to every person in the family would prevent anyone from being able to mischaracterize it to others. Revise your original respectful and non-combative message, the one that never got forwarded to them. Tell them that you love them and that you would like to be able to feel loved and accepted by them. Make it warmhearted, but not pleading. You come with open arms but not on your knees.

Tell them that your love for them does not require that they change their beliefs, and that they should not require such a price of you.

Explain how all of you can treat each other with respect and warmth even if you disagree on certain things. Include some specific suggestions about how you can “get along” at family gatherings, such as by talking about the things you have in common rather than the things on which you differ. Conclude with your hopes of being part of a family that supports each other without demanding that everyone see things exactly the same, a family that simply gives love freely, rather than uses love as a way to persuade someone about an opinion or belief.

Of course, it may not work. But since you sound like you’re about to declare your relationships dead at the scene, you don’t seem to have much to lose by trying. Maybe one of your siblings will become more relaxed and accepting of you, maybe others will follow suit in different degrees. Maybe in time they will prevail upon your mother to soften, rather than the other way around, as you had originally hoped.

Alice, you are creating a new family that is quite different from the one that created you. This says a great deal about your intelligence and strength of character. I applaud your values of kindness and respect, and I am sure that you will bestow those values onto all of your loved ones, and everyone who comes into contact with you. How much they let in is up to them.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Wow, that hits close to home. Speaking from my own, very smiler situation, speak your peace with humility and grace, always be respectful and polite, but stand your ground. And most importantly, give it time. Even if you don’t get the result you want right now, don’t ever give up on family. It took my Baptist family a long time, but things are okay, if not great now, and getting better all the time.

  • You are all much bigger and better people than I. This hit close to home for me as well. But if my mother had sent such an email to the family, I would not be able to forget that so easily.

    “Silence is compliance.” How fortunate for the mother to get away with something so dispicable without so much as a slap on the wrist.

  • Is it possible that she is just asserting her own identity and independence, which happens to most people – and religious belief is just the visible sore that can be picked at.

    Maybe she should give her family some distance and at a later point she will reengage but in a different form of relationship. Her old life needs to be separated so her new one can be built and nurtured, and once this has happened the old relationships can be reintegrated on new terms.

  • Julie

    @Alessa: I agree. I think I’d make up a story about my mom having accidentally CC’d the email to me, or one of the relatives forwarding it to me. This wouldn’t be something I could let slide.

  • C

    I would actually argue differently. My parents are similarly controlling of me, however without the religious aspect. Nothing will change their minds or behavior, and trying to do so is only emotionally and physically draining.

    To keep my sanity, I eventually had to give up. As disappointed as I was, I have been much happier since I stopped trying to appease the unrealistic expectations my parents had for me to change.

  • I have something to say about this…and, if the letter writer is willing (and my friend is notified in advance – he’ll have no problem with it), I believe I can offer some, if not from me then from him, some sage advice.

    I live in Taiwan. I was employed teaching English at a high school at which my friend was likewise employed. He came to Taiwan as a Mormon missionary.
    When we met he was no longer a missionary, and perhaps had come to question the faith claims in which he was raised. I’m not sure how central I was to his conversion – he was already examining doubts – but perhaps I was the proverbial straw that broke Moroni’s back. He credits me with pulling the last of his blinders off, and I admit to taking a bit of chuff for that.

    He is now an unrestrained atheist / Darwinist and teaches introductory philosophy at a secular university in Utah. Yeah…he went home, or back into the Lion’s Den (as it were), perhaps girded and determined to save others as he had been saved.

    In any case, and as he related to me, there was a period of time during which his family and friends vacillated between shunning and acceptance. I think his family was rather more tolerant or, at least, not so disingenuous as the writer’s have apparently been…and that may or may not be the point.

    What I can say, with some degree of certainty, is this:
    The writer’s parents, in both attitude and subterfuge, are no different than racists who object to a mixed marriage.

    It is horribly sad – crushing – that they lack the ability to be honest, even in their rejection of the writer’s perspective. To say one thing to her face and another to her siblings bespeaks the error of their dogma.

    Nevertheless, one goes through this life once…and to be true to thine own, if ever there were a commandment, is paramount.
    The writer may love them, may suffer for their inability to be tolerant, fair, reasonable or truly loving. But, as simple facts display with regard to matters both religious and otherwise, there comes a time when one must…MUST…be what they are: Gay, atheist, republican, pagan…

    But this remains: When one leaves (and I do not wish to seem harsh) a cult, one cannot expect those who still cling to the illusion to NOT react strongly.
    In such circumstance there may be severe price to paid.
    Pay it.
    Continue to love them. Love will never hurt anyone.
    If you are rebuked…if you are shunned…bear it.
    But in this, as in all things, be true to yourself.

    This was my advice to my ex-Mormon friend…and he’s doing better than fine.
    If the writer would like to talk to him, I have no doubt he would welcome the opportunity.

    cousinavi (at) gmail (dot) com

  • Leilani

    Wow… If I didn’t know better, I would think that letter was from me.

    I struggled with my relationship with the fam and finally decided to walk away. It was painful and difficult, but they will never be able to accept me because what the religion teaches. They will always patronize you and treat you like you are broken.

    When you have children they will take your kids to church behind your back, get them blessed (and maybe baptized). I speak from experience. My mistake was trusting my mom to watch them on a Sunday.

    Every family is different, but in order to stay sane and protect my children, I had to cut off all ties to my parents, brothers, cousins and grandparents. I have felt so much better since doing so.

    Sometimes the family you are born into doesn’t love you enough to accept you and can’t love you unconditionally. Her mom sounds A LOT like my mom.

    It’s very painful and I empathize.

  • I’m not Mormon so this may or may not apply.

    If children are in your future, then when you become a parent your own parents may start to mentally adjust their relationship with you and become more comfortable with you (and your husband) making family decisions (including religious decisions). So things may get better as time goes on.

  • Joffan

    I would add that your family will still talk a great deal about the happenings at their church and the social circle they have there. If you focus on the social aspect, such conversations can slide fairly painlessly by without conflict.

    The other future event that your mother may already be thinking of is your children, should you decide to have any. Richard might have some ideas on what storms lie ahead and how best to ride them.

    ETA: Great minds, Jeff.

  • I think the letters author should confront her mother. Make it known how much her mothers lies have hurt her, and that it is her mothers actions – not her beliefs – that are driving her from the family.

  • Adam

    I am an atheist who grew up Mormon, and I have seen this play out both ways.

    Unfortunately, Mormonism is a very polarizing religion, and while it can be enhance unity among families whose members all remain faithful, once one person “apostatizes,” the church practically forces the rest of the family to make a conscious decision to prioritize one above the other.

    So far I have been lucky: my family has chosen to put family first, and have been very accepting of me since I came out as an atheist. But I know many fellow apostates who have not been so lucky. Even more disturbing is that I fear that–as a believer–I might well have been one of those who prioritized church above family.

    The church doesn’t explicitly state that family members should shun/disown/divorce apostates, but it gives ample cover for those who are inclined to do so. It’s very much about plausible deniability. They would never cop to encouraging families to act this way, but the cultural cues are real and prevalent. Those who choose to put family first face constant reminders that they are swimming against the current.

    In my experience, greater acceptance tends to come with experience and maturity. Mormonism promotes a black-or-white, one-size-fits-all worldview which thrives in immature minds. It’s easier to shun wayward family members when you believe that your church has all the answers, and you’ve got everything figured out. When people begin to understand that reality is not as simple as the Mormon church paints it, then they tend to be more understanding. When I came out about my disbelief to my dad, he was very understanding. But he admitted that if I had approached him about this even two years earlier, he would have reacted very differently. YMMV, of course.

    Your very existence as an apostate challenges the worldview of the believer. If you are the first member of the family to stand in opposition to that worldview, then it is understandable that they would be very defensive. They may even consider the loss of one soul to be an acceptable price to pay to convince themselves that all is well in Zion.

    However, families that have seen several members go astray tend to recalibrate their priorities. They acknowledge that, on some level at least, Mormonism doesn’t work for everyone. Rather than disown everyone that fails to live up to their worldview, they come to accept the cognitive dissonance that arises from the fact that Mormonism is failing to deliver on its promises of “forever families” and love each other unconditionally.

    Unfortunately, the only advice I can offer is, if your family members are currently committed to putting church ahead of family, maybe things will change as they get a little more experience and maturity. Don’t cave to their condemnation, but continue to love them unconditionally (from a distance, if necessary) until they are ready to do the same.

  • Edmond

    I would tell mom that one of my siblings decided to forward the email to me, and let them squabble over figuring out who it was!

  • Tizzle

    I would like to defend the mother, to give a different perspective. She wrote an email you were never supposed to see. She is hurt by your actions (whether she should be or not is not my point) and she needed to vent. She chose to vent to your family members, who understand her point of view. You’ve probably vented about your family to your atheist friends or fianceé as well.

    The mother may be of a generation that doesn’t quite understand how permanent emails can be, or how precarious. She certainly didn’t display that ‘Christly love’. But she did have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

    I’m pretty sure my family talks about me like this…but you should hear the things I say about them to my closest friends (never on the internet). It’s a part of the healing process, if a despicable one.

  • I wonder what sort of gossip goes on within the family about me. I know it happens because of a couple things cousins have said, and really offensive passive-aggressive “anonymous” comments on my blogs, but I shudder to think about what is said about me as an Exmormon gay atheist that I never hear about.

  • G

    @Tizzle: well, yes, but: as a mother is supposed to love and support her children unconditionally, it is quite hard to realise that, well, in this paradigm your mother is not your mother. As the vice versa: for a child it is considered normal to loosen the ties and speak not too nicely of your parents.

    As to the ‘keep loving your family’ advice, I would like to suggest to keep loving them from a distance. Keep in tough rather with yoru friends than with your family.

  • DemetriusOfPharos

    Oddly enough, this is what I thought would happen with my family (right down to my family being Mormon) but by the time I said flat out “I’m atheist” I had already given up on the vast majority of my family, and the ones I cared about (Mom, couple Uncles, Grandma) couldn’t care less that I am. I’m lucky in that, I realize, because my ex-girlfriends family (and her to, in retrospect) were not so accepting.

    I eventually just took to mocking right back, and now I have an “ex”. My priorities are probably very different from the letter writer though.

  • littlejohn

    Trouble with your mother? Have her destroyed.

  • They claim to love me, but they continually mention their religion around me and mock my principles both political and religious. Recently, I asked my mother with utmost kindness and respect that she speak to the family about respecting my opinions when my fiancé and I are around.

    Your family don’t have to respect any of your opinions. They don’t have to respect your politics, your religion, your choice of fiance, your football team, your choice of career or the cut of your gib. If they don’t then that is tough, family is like that. What they should do though is have the decency to respect you enough not to make these things an issue. The former is forgivable, even expected with family. The latter is disgraceful.

    I’m afraid that they probably still see you as a child rather than as an adult in her twenties. Why is that? Do they think that you are going through a phase perhaps? Never underestimate the ability of people to deny the evidence before their very eyes when a comforting lie makes them feel better.

    The only way that they will treat you with the respect that you deserve is if they can stop seeing you as they imagine you and start seeing you as you are. One way to do this is to take a break from them for a time. Familiarity breeds contempt after all and you will gain some time to become more comfortable without their rudeness and criticism. Another is to confront the image that they have of you and replace it with the strong, independent woman that you are. I can’t see it being easy though.

  • Hammurabi

    I have to agree with hoverfrog, your family does not have to respect your new beliefs. You are probably accustomed to having that type of respect because up till recently your beliefs have been their beliefs, ta-dah! instant respect. If you want things to change for the better, you have to stand up for yourself. You don’t need to be the aggressor per se, but when they mock or misrepresent your viewpoints, you need to be able to defend your position. Pick your battles of course, some times a joke is just a joke.

    Be informed, be confident, impress them with the weight of your understanding and if your family relationships still fall apart, at least your self-esteem will be intact.

  • Bob Carlson

    Mr. Deity was a Mormon, but I suppose that sending her family a CD of Mr. Deity skits wouldn’t be the best idea. 🙂 It seems a bit odd that Mormons should be so concerned about a wayward family member given their belief that posthumous baptism will save non-Mormon family members. As I understand it, that is the primary reason that the Mormon church devotes so many resources to the study of genealogy. All folks who study genealogy benefit greatly from their efforts, so should be grateful for them even if the reasons for them seem bizarre.

  • erica

    ALICE! My family is mormon too, and I once, with a very guilty conscience, saw some emails that I oughtn’t have also. I’m probably a couple years younger than you, but after a few years of my friends asking why I even spoke to my family, I learned that it’s just best not to. My family treated me terribly, like I had sinned beyong belief for not going to BYU for college and going somewhere else instead. They hate me for my politics and liberty, I think.

    Eventually I realized family is not blood, family is who is really important to you and supports you, and you them.

    I’m not lucky enough to have a fiance like you, as some other issues with mormonism left me pretty wary of ever thinking I’m capable of a real relationship, but I spent my thanksgiving with a replacement family: my best friend from school, whom I study with, and happens to be gay, his cool older brother, and their two moms. Drinks all around: that was real family. They’ve already invited me over for Christmas, while I received a short hand-written note from my father in the mail recently that said, “don’t bother trying to set foot in our house at christmas.” (that’s paraphrased, to be fair.”

    So you tell me, what’s family?

    Don’t put up with their crap anymore. And visit They help.

  • Carol

    Richard, will you marry me? (Don’t tell my husband!) 😉

    Wonderful advice, as always.

  • Cherie M

    First of all, congratulations on your engagement! Good luck with the wedding and brace yourself for “so when are you converting him *wink*” comments.

    Having grown up mormon and still in contact with my very mormon family, I’ll give a few points I’ve learned.

    1) Your parents (you didn’t mention your father.. if he is not around or not alive, my apologies) likely see you as a child for a couple of reasons. Mormons tend to their “eternal” view where you’re all one big family and you will ALWAYS be their children. Not in the sense of offspring, but in the “kid” kind of sense. The other problem may be that with you not marrying “into the faith” they may feel that you will remain their spiritual responsibility until you repent and return and convert your fiance/husband. I spent several month in Australia a few years ago and during that time my parents were FORCED to treat me like an adult since I was too far away to control. Now I live near them again, but any time they start trying to pressure or guilt too much, I simply cut down phone calls and visits.

    2) From the sound of things, they are loyal to their religion, not you. This is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with when it comes to my family and I still have a very hard time. I struggle to understand how my parents can treat me with disdain and disrespect when I simply disagree with them or when religion comes up. It’s worst when they go on about how mormonism is about family. It’s hard, it’s hurtful, but you are not at fault and have NOTHING to do with it. They can’t reconcile their religion and their family as separate. Again, this deals with the doctrine of eternal families. After shopping on Sunday and admitting as much to my mother, she broke down, cried and went “How have you strayed so far? You’re ruining my eternal family!” Try and understand that due to their religious teachings, your family believes that you are lost to them forever. It can be very traumatic and can make people say and do things you never imagined your parents doing. Try and be strong and let your fiance help you through this. Anytime they are cruel, distance yourself and try and remember they have been indoctrinated thoroughly and that indoctrination and subsequent guilting are techniques to keep families in the mormon religion.

    3) Politely acknowledge events in their life that deal with their religion. I’m not sure if your family is the same, but mine talk about what they do in their religion almost non-stop. For my mother and sister-in-law, it IS their lives. If there is preaching, politely excuse yourself from the conversation or room, or if you can, excuse yourself from the even completely. Whatever they do, don’t play the game. Be polite, be courteous, but be firm and consistent about your boundaries.

    4) The last conference, mormons were told to tread carefully with “apostate” family members. They were cautioned about loving TOO unconditionally and how sometimes shunning is appropriate lest they condone poor behavior. For some this meant doing what they were already doing, for others it meant being more respectful, but for many, there has been a sort of backlash against non-mormon family members. It’s an incredibly cruel thing for a religion to tell its members that love towards children IS conditional. It’s heart-breaking and infuriating to get that from parents on the basis as something as simple as belief. Ignore any and all criticism of your “behavior.” You don’t have to defend or explain yourself beyond stating you have different beliefs than them and that’s all there is to it. Don’t let them attempt to make you feel guilty or bad because you have a different opinion.

    Good luck with all of this. Remember, you will have to be the bigger person for much of this. Some mormons are kind and loving with their “wayward” family and others are not. They are people like us and we are all imperfect.

  • Susann

    Actually, Mormons ”have” to honor everyone else’s beliefs, under the Mormon claim of ”allowing all men [and women!] to worship how, where or what they may.”

    You can most definitely, calmly, call them on any attempts to shove their beliefs down your throat by asking if Mormons don’t still believe in respecting the rights of others to worship ”how, where or what they may.”

    Ultimately, though, you may have to cut them loose. If they choose to not respect you, they do not love you – you’re only a Thing to them be that Thing ”daughter”, ”sister” or etc. If they will not be kind towards you, cut them loose because life is too short. Mourn the loss, then move on, free of them dragging you down every step of the way.

  • llewelly

    Move and don’t tell them your new address.
    Change your phone number and don’t tell them the new one.
    Get a new job and don’t tell them where.
    Do not say goodbye – just disappear.
    Cut them out of your life.

  • AxeGrrl

    erica wrote:

    Eventually I realized family is not blood, family is who is really important to you and supports you, and you them.

    There have been a lot of wonderful comments and advice in this thread, but imo, your words above are the wisest.

    I’ve always hated the ‘blood is thicker than water’ mantra. Family isn’t something one should take for granted as something that just ‘is’ ~ it’s something that’s created by peoples’ actions.

    And I say this as someone who has a wonderful ‘blood’ family 🙂 But I also have people in my life that are just as much ‘family’ to me despite not being relatives.

    At the end of the day, the only people who deserve to fall into the category of ‘family’ are those people who love, respect and support me and vice versa.

    Blood gets far more ‘automatic’ respect than I think it deserves.

  • BK

    My solution to this would be to confront her and then inform her matter of factually that she would never hear from me again. And I’d make good on it.

    This is my theory about family: I choose my friends, I DON’T choose my family. If my family wants me to want to be around them, they have to also be my friends. I feel no inclination in the slightest to be around them just because of a chance blood relation to them.

    I don’t scream at, belittle, or argue with them. I simply cease contacting people who obviously aren’t my friends.

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