Ask Richard: Atheist Grandfather Kept At Arm’s Length March 23, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Grandfather Kept At Arm’s Length

I have a problem about my grandchildren that is similar to ct with the nephew who is being brainwashed by his Christian mother. I’m 68 years old, and have at last returned to the position I held as a teenager: atheism. I spent two decades as a conservative Christian and went to seminary for three years in my late 30’s. I served about as long as a pastor in a conservative Lutheran synod. Having to study the Bible intensely, I realized I could not believe what was there and after a difficult struggle I acknowledged that I was an agnostic and left the church.

The older of my two sons was a very wild rebellious kid in his teenage years while I was in the ministry, and he was in his early 20’s after I first got out. He was a heavy user of alcohol and drugs like cocaine. Then in his mid-20’s he turned around completely, became sober and a devout fundamentalist Christian. I’ve never asked him, but I suspect that the religion may have come in through a 12 step program, and it may also have been the influence of his girl friend, whom he married soon after. They have given me three beautiful grandchildren, two boys aged 15 and 12, and a little girl now 4.

My son and his wife changed their church because the first very conservative church was not fundamentalist enough for them. I don’t have any idea what religious ideas our grandchildren are being taught because we see so little of them. We live a little more than 100 miles away, and they have not come to visit us once in the past 13 years, although they sometimes get more than half the distance to see her brother or a baseball game. My son’s mother, my ex-wife, lives fairly near to them and does not get many more visits than I do, but it is much easier for her to drop in on them.

Thus we only see the kids about 4 times a year, as it means a round trip drive of over 200 miles in one day. My wife and I cannot get away too frequently as we operate a large riding stable. I have often dropped broad hints about visiting us, and my son always responds, “maybe we will some day,” but it never happens. I sometimes feel like making a tart comment on the commandment to honor your mother and father, but I always bite my tongue.

They are always pleasant and genial when we visit. They seem to be excellent parents. There is no sign of corporal punishment. They spend a lot of time with the kids. The two older boys do well in school and are involved in sports, and all three are well-behaved without being little plaster saints.

My son and his wife do not thrust their religion on us beyond saying grace at meals, and I bow my head as I would to show respect for anyone’s beliefs. Equally, I do not say how I now feel about religion. They must suspect that my wife and I do not attend church. I’m a little uncomfortable about having to avoid these topics. It’s like tiptoeing through a theological minefield. However, I feel that it may not be safe to simply say, “I do not believe in God any more” as it might result in our being unwelcome to visit the children at all. It’s the kind of thing you can’t unsay once it is out in the open.

Then there is the question of how to offer a counterpoise to the kids’ religious upbringing. The best I can do is to bring science-oriented presents. When the boys were younger, they got a number of dinosaur models and books on dinosaurs. I am happy to see that the two boys are presently interested in scientifically-oriented careers: math teacher and engineer.

Maybe there is no good advice about this situation. I’m just slightly uncomfortable with it, and the world doesn’t always offer you an escape from your discomforts. However, I would be interested in hearing other opinions.

Freethinking Grandpa

Dear Grandpa,

You’re helping your grandchildren about as well as you can. I’ll talk more about that later. I think the main source of your discontent is that you and your son are strangers.

I would expect there to be an irresistible magnetic attraction for two boys to Grandpa’s riding stable. They would be constantly asking to come visit. Your son would need an equally powerful reason to stay away and have to continually disappoint them.

It seems very likely to me that he figured out long ago that you are no longer a believer, simply by knowing your history. You left the ministry when he was a young man. A painful struggle like that cannot be easily kept hidden. Questions, even if unspoken, remain hanging in the air. What happened? Your son may have put the clues together, or he may have candidly asked someone who knows you.

So your atheism may not really be a secret, just something neither of you discuss. Since his religious taste runs in the very fundamentalist range, he possibly feels a bit personally threatened by it, and more so regarding his kids. But if he already knows, that means he can tolerate you visiting on his turf, where your time is limited by the long commute, and where he feels more in control. If you want him to visit on your turf, you need to help him feel safer. To do that, you need to talk.

I agree with you that a wry remark about honoring thy mother and father would be counterproductive. Instead, tell him a truth about yourself. Something like this in your own words:

“Son, you haven’t visited us in 13 years, and it hurts. You and your family are welcome here, but we are welcome in your home only for a few hours after a long drive, four times a year . Is there anything I do or have done that keeps you away? If I have hurt or offended you, I cannot mend it if I don’t know what it is.”

Even though he could easily reply, “No, there’s nothing wrong.” you have still put it out there. You have stated that his unresponsive neglect hurts and that you wish it were different, and you have been willing to make amends if it is possible.

The emotional distance between the two of you might have nothing to do with religion. The divorce from your first wife, his mother, or the tension during his wild and rebellious adolescence could still be loaded with hurt and anger. If you were caught up in your struggle with your loss of faith just when he was at the worst of his struggle with his addictions, he might have felt that you weren’t there for him. The timing of such things are neither person’s fault, but blame is often given, and often not forgiven.

You’re mostly afraid of losing the right to see your grandchildren, but that is not likely if you handle it well, by not attacking him or his beliefs, just sharing your own feelings about your relationship. If he broaches the subject of your atheism, then acknowledge it and reassure him that you have no intention of discussing your views with his kids, so there’s no need to keep them away for that reason.

Grandpa, the tension that you feel tiptoeing around religious issues is fed by the importance that you give them. He believes what he believes. So what? Let the weight of it fall from your relaxed fingers. Such things should not perturb a man such as you, who has walked all the way through the belief gauntlet. Theism, atheism, these are insignificant trifles over which to sacrifice something so precious as love.

People regret losing opportunities because they waited too long, and the saddest lost opportunity is the unsaid “I love you.” You’re 68, and by my figuring your son is in his mid 40’s. Both of you could live a long time, but neither of you can justify wasting time when love and closeness could have been shared and enjoyed. With each passing day, his odds of sudden death get closer to your odds, not further. Paradoxically, having less time can give us more freedom—to get past our fears that hold back our hearts.

In the meantime, I think your science-oriented gifts to the boys and the little girl are right on target. Binoculars, microscopes, or just a hand held two lens loupe, one of my own childhood’s favorite toys, steer young minds toward a life of looking rather than just listening. Nothing too elaborate, just whatever you can afford and whatever they will enjoy. Nourishing their curiosity is the treasure inside the gifts. Where that curiosity leads them religiously is up to them.

Some day as teens or young adults they may have their own doubts, just as you did. At least one and maybe all are likely to have inherited some of your personality traits. But you should leave it up to them. If they come to you needing some understanding about these issues, you can be Freethinking Grandpa for them. Otherwise you can still be just plain Grandpa for them.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jesse

    “Theism, atheism, these are insignificant trifles over which to sacrifice something so precious as love.”

    I really enjoyed that line. Great response. Seems people sometimes care more about other people’s beliefs than the other people themselves.

  • Ron in Houston

    “Theism, atheism, these are insignificant trifles over which to sacrifice something so precious as love.”

    I agree with Jesse – that is simply an awesome line.

    I also agree with Richard saying that you can’t be sure what the source of the tension may be. People in families often avoid speaking their minds to prevent possible conflict. I’m sure there are numerous things my kids could be upset with me over and I’ve only got 20 years of history with my oldest.

  • I think your science-oriented gifts to the boys and the little girl are right on target.

    I would add to that one thing: gifts to broaden their understanding of what it means to be human.

    Get them a subscription to National Geographic, books on exotic countries and the people that live there, etc. Learning about the diversity of human culture and human morality can be as influential and moving as learning about the diversity of life on Earth and nature’s many wonders. This also opens the door for them to learn about human conflict and some of the darker sides of fundamentalist religion that they may not otherwise be exposed to.

  • Theism, atheism, these are insignificant trifles over which to sacrifice something so precious as love.

    I see I wasn’t the only person to latch onto this line. Seriously, Richard, you should write a book.

    (You haven’t already, have you?)

  • Richard, your wisdom leaves me in awe. Well said.

  • I was never close to my grandmother, but I have fairly recently learned that she was not religious. That knowledge alone has given me such comfort as I deal with less-accepting family members.

    Be kind. Be as present as you can. You cannot know the depth of your influence.

  • czechatheist

    I would suggest paying them University in some secular and atheist place, i.e. the Czech republic. They would suddenly realize, that the society can live very well without god, while preserving the cultural heritage of churches and monasteries in perfect condition (mostly for tourists). They would find out, that atheist society is much more tolerant than their church could ever be. They would find out that atheist don’t get stripped of their wealth for not acknowledging god. And as bonus, the foreign students here tend to be together, so they would be surrounded by multicultural society, which can also have effect on them.

    And if not, they can always join the mormons who are comming here in huge numbers to amuse atheist public by singing on the streets (or is there also other purpose to this? 😉 ).

    Yeah, and the schools are not so bad too, especially medical faculties. (don’t know about engineering, but since engineering equipment is second most exported commodity after cars, it also should be OK).

  • Killer_Bee

    I would expect there to be an irresistible magnetic attraction for two boys to Grandpa’s riding stable.

    Fuckin’ A. What kid wouldn’t want to be around horses!

    We live a little more than 100 miles away, and they have not come to visit us once in the past 13 years, although they sometimes get more than half the distance to see her brother or a baseball game.

    200 miles is nothing. I drive 300miles roundtrip practically every weekend just for pleasure. That’s in addition to the 200 miles I commute to work every week. It’s a bullshit excuse for them.

    Have you suggested having the grandkids stay with you for extended visits during their school breaks without their parents?
    You could offer to take them back with you after one of your visits and then drop them off again. It may be that your son’s discomfort at staying on your turf is the only problem. Ask in the presence of the kids if at all possible since they’d probably be happy to visit. Besides, parents need a break, too. They may be open to unloading the kids for a “grown-up” vacation.

  • Its hard to give advice without knowing more about your situation. In addition to Richard’s excellent advice, I’ll throw some other ideas out there for you to entertain. They may or may not apply.

    – as Killer_Bee said, offer to keep the kids for a long vacation. Your son and his wife might enjoy a week or two without the kids.

    – If you really think religion is the source of the problem, express an interest in learning the details about what your son believes. The fundamentalists I know love to talk about God. View any attempts by him of evangelism as a complement that he cares about you.

    – If the distance is the main problem, you could always sell your stable operation and move close to your son. Sometimes people are just plain busy and a four hour drive is just too hard. I was guilty myself of not visiting my mother all that much when she lived just an hour away. She ended up moving just a few blocks away, and now its convenient to drop the kids off for all sorts of practical reasons.

  • DGKnipfer

    None of the kids are alergic to horses, are they? If not, I can’t think of any reason that your grandkids couldn’t spend a month over the summer at “Grandpa’s Summer Camp.” It sounds like it would be a blast for them and a great chance for your son and his wife to enjoy a break.

  • Ed

    Really, really nicely worded and sound advice Richard. I too really liked:

    Theism, atheism, these are insignificant trifles over which to sacrifice something so precious as love.

    People regret losing opportunities because they waited too long, and the saddest lost opportunity is the unsaid “I love you.”

    It is easy to forget what matters most. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Richard P.

    Amazing Richard,
    Wonderful insight into the dynamics.

  • Danny

    Wow, I wish I had grandparents like that! *jealous*

  • Heidi

    I love that you give them science presents.

    Can you give them riding lessons? I would’ve been there in a second if I had a grandparent who wanted to give me riding lessons. In fact, have the kids seen pictures of your place, and of the horses? Show them what they’re missing.

    Another thing you might want to consider for the talk with your son is to tell him how truly proud you are of the way he turned his life around, and of his sobriety. Most people who try to get clean fail miserably. How many years does he have clean, now?

  • This is a bit of a side note, but this guys almost fits the whole 40 ish years as a Christian, but deconverts late in life…that was discussed earlier on this blog. Though he didn’t quite make it to the Magic # -70. Does anyone remember what I am talking about?