Ask Richard: My Father Nags Me to Go to Church April 6, 2010

Ask Richard: My Father Nags Me to Go to Church

Dear Richard,

I am a 20 year old student living with my father. He’s a Christian, with very firm beliefs. Recently, he’s been pushing me to join a church. He believes that joining a church would be extremely beneficial to me. However, he doesn’t know I’m agnostic, except for my sister, no one in my family knows. I’ve given him various excuses as to why I don’t want to join a church, but he won’t let it go. Anytime I have a problem, he uses it as an opportunity to push me to attend church. I’m not sure how he, or any of my other family members would take my lack of faith. I’d been planning on waiting until I was no longer dependent on them to “come out”, but his pressuring me to become a faithful churchgoer is becoming hard to deal with. Is there any way to tell him I’m not interested in going to any church, without explicitly saying I doubt God exists?


Dear Mary,

I think it it is wise of you to wait until you feel the situation is right for you to come out to your father about your agnosticism. You have no obligation to tell anyone ever, and certainly not to disclose it when it will complicate things and create far more disharmony and stress for all concerned. Over and over in these family scenes, I’ve seen that the right timing turns out to be much more important than the right words.

So you want to get your father to stop nagging you to go to a church, but you don’t want to tell him yet that you doubt God exists, and I’m going to assume that you’d rather avoid telling him a flat-out lie, such as, “Oh I’m going to First Church of (blank). It’s several miles away, but so far I like it.”

Flat-out lying is a popular option, but I generally avoid advising people to do it. Lying is demeaning, degrading, demoralizing, and in your case could have serious drawbacks, like having to disappear every Sunday morning and to bring back church pamphlets or whatever if your dad continues to pry or be curious.

I’m going to suggest an alternative that I’m not going to pretend is that far away from lying, but you might not feel as guilty doing it. There may be quite a lot of truth in it for you, but you will, at least passively, be allowing him to continue to assume that you’re a believer. But what other people assume about your beliefs is not your concern. As I said, I don’t think any non-believer owes that disclosure to anyone, given the awful things that so often happen. I see nothing wrong with keeping that private until when it is in your own personal interest to divulge it, if ever.

Tell him nature is your church. Say something like,

“Dad, churches and all the social stuff that go with them just aren’t for me. When I’m in a small, crowded building I don’t feel close to God. But when I’m outdoors in nature, I feel close to all of creation, and I feel I’m a part of a much bigger thing. It’s glorious and inspiring and rejuvenating, and I always come back feeling my spirit is restored. I’m sure that you don’t think that God can only be found inside a church, right? Churches and congregations are great for those who benefit from them, but they are things of man, and I’m sure that you agree that no things of man can pretend to contain God. Dad, I love you and I know you want the best for me. I assure you that I’m taking good care of my body, my mind and my spirit, and going outdoors into nature is doing all of that.”

If that sounds too pantheist for him, you can assure him that you always take your Bible along with you. Just keep it in your car or knapsack. But if he still insists on you going to a church, then I think you’re going to have to take a stand, and gently but firmly say something like,

“Look Dad, I’m an adult now, and you need to accept that. I have to make my own decisions and find my own way. You’ve done a wonderful job guiding me and helping me, and I’m very grateful. And now you have to let me walk my path for myself, being the good, responsible adult that you raised me to be. Please don’t keep insisting on having this exactly the way you want. That would be prideful, and I’m sure you don’t want to be doing that. If you believe that God is in charge, and that God provides everything we need to find and be with him, then you know that no place and no person in the world is out of his reach. This is the way that is right for me at this time in my life, and this is the way I’m going to do it.”

And then Mary, I suggest that you actually go frequently outdoors into nature, if you don’t already. It really is good for your body, mind and emotions, if you substitute that for “spirit.” There’s a long tradition of thinkers both religious and secular seeking clarity and renewal in nature. Whether you can go up to the hills, out to the woods, down to the river, or just over to the park, students are seldom the worse for regular doses of sunshine, fresh air and exercise.

When you have some problem and your father uses it as an opportunity to push you to attend church, reframe that parental controlling into a positive suggestion, and thank him for it. Say, “That’s a great idea, Dad. You’re right. Thanks!” Then immediately grab your always-handy knapsack which always contains granola bars, bottled water, and a small Bible covering up a copy of “The Demon Haunted World” and head out the door, singing “The Happy Wanderer”. This tactic will have the instant benefit of getting you away from his nagging, and you have cleverly framed it as his suggestion. It may also have the more subtle behavior modification effect of gradually getting him to stop harping on it, since every time he does, you’re suddenly gone.

In our society, early adulthood can be a difficult time because young adults usually have their fully developed mental independence, but often not their financial or physical independence. Parents teach their children how to grow up to be adults, but often those grown up children then have to teach their parents how to stop being parents, and shift to adult-to-adult relating. It can sometimes take as much love and patience for a young adult to guide a middle aged parent as it does for a young parent to guide a small child.

…Val-deri, Val-dera, Val-deri, Val-dera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…

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  • Mary,

    I like Richard’s advice a lot. I’m a little partial to the “naturalistic Pantheist” idea myself.

    My only other suggestion is that your father probably has some particular reasons for saying attending church would be “extremely beneficial”. He may have benefits in mind that are not strictly theological. If he is thinking of the social aspects, then perhaps you could join some social clubs to remove that concern of his. If you are socially integrated and “communing with God/nature”, then that together may be enough for him. But at the same time, do what is right for you and don’t just try to please your father.


  • At the blog, Ziztur and her boyfriend do what she calls “faith infiltrations”. They (who are atheists) regularly visit different churches and blog about the experience. As an alternative or supplement to Richard’s suggestion, I would recommend something similar—consider it a form of sociological research. A way of studying why and how people believe the strange things they do about religion.

    If you live in an area where it can be found (one not too rural) you might also check out a unitarian universalist church. There’s no requirement to believe in God (or anything else). Many parishioners are atheists/humanists.

  • Parse

    Something that’s a bit of a tangent to what Richard says: stop giving excuses, and just say ‘No, thank you.’

    I’ve found that when I give somebody an excuse, oftentimes it’s heard as “Oh, I would, if not for this reason.” Heck, I’m guilty of this myself, although I try to avoid making this error. They’ll look for an answer to the excuses, thinking if they can fix those, you’ll change your mind.

    If your father keeps pushing you in spite of flat refusals, try telling him that your religious views are very personal, and that you’d like him to respect that, just as you respect his beliefs. It may be closer to the truth than what Richard’s suggesting, especially if you aren’t much of an outdoors person.

    Then, if he keeps pushing, go ahead and give Richard’s line. That being said, if he does have firm beliefs, I’d put good money on the fact that he won’t be happy until you attend the same church he does.

  • Well, I guess I don’t agree with faking a religious ritual (sitting in awe of nature) in order to get out of another religious ritual (going to church). It’s still lying, anyway you look at it. Honesty being the best policy, I would tell dad that I’m 20, I feel I’m old enough to make decisions for myself. Said in a kind way, of course. He might pull the “not in my house” card, which would be his right, living with others always has compromises of some kind. Whether or not any reasoning can appease your father would come down to his reasons for wanting you to go. There’s a good chance he might not even know why but is merely doing it because that’s the way he was raised.

  • I would like to echo David E’s advice about the Unitarian Universalist church. UU’s are extremely accepting of people with any (or no) religious views, and it can be really nice to meet people who will accept you whatever you believe.

    I would like to give one critique of the UU church (from my experience at my local branch) before you go: Some bits of the service seem to be a bit contrived. I think it stems from wanting to make the service accessible and familiar to people from Christian churches, but particularly the singing of Hymns (most of which contained no religious references) seemed a bit superfluous.

  • Killer Bee

    I’d bet a fair amount of $$ that that advice will not fly.

    1 – The father might be getting anxious because of social pressure from the congregation or the pastor or others in the family.

    2 – He will probably just tell her to put up with it because that’s what the Bible says – “to not neglect the gathering together of the Saints as some are wont to do.”

    3 – He will probably say, just stay for the main sermon and then you can have your alone time with god later.

    4 – How will you learn about god if you just read the Bible by yourself? “The Word of the Lord is not of any man’s private interpretation”

    5 – As Jeff mentioned, there’s the purely social aspect for Mary’s sake.

    I’d just go once in a while until I was out of the house just to make the old man happy. It’s usually only a couple of hours.

    He might just want you to go with him to have all his family together(you didn’t mention your mother). Sometimes people have pictures in their head of what life is supposed to look like. I had a friend who wanted me to have a beer with him all the time in a bar. I hate drinking, and bars. But, he just wanted to live that picture – 2 guys shootin’ the crap at the local tavern.

  • Judith Bandsma

    See if there’s an unprogrammed Quaker meeting in your area. The silence is wonderful, no one will pressure you about your beliefs, you can even admit you don’t believe and you’ll still be welcome.

    The best thing is the Quaker stereotype…your dad will feel like you’ve become a ‘pilgrim’. 🙂

    And you might actually enjoy it.

  • Thegoodman

    I think that Mary might be a little naive about what her father is asking her to do. If he didn’t raise her to go to church every Sunday, it is likely he is now asking her to go because he doesn’t approve of her lifestyle. 20 would be a very difficult age to live at home.

    If Mary is a normal 20 yr old, it is likely that she goes out with her friends frequently, occasionally drinks alcohol, dances with boys (*gasp*) and occasionally has sex with one of them. This is perfectly normal and acceptable behavior for a 20 yr old. I have a feeling that the issue is that her father is having a difficult time seeing his little girl living the life of a young adult and likely thinks that church will keep her clothes on and also keep her out of trouble.

    I also disagree with Hemant a bit about his advice. The old “I am an adult, so you have to respect me….” doesn’t really work when you still live with them. Mary isn’t an adult. Sure, technically she is an adult. But she lives with mom and dad, eats at mom and dad’s house, probably still drives the car mom and dad bought her, is probably on a family cell phone plan, and is either in college or working a low paying job. You can’t try to tell you parents how grown up you are and then turn around and slam your bedroom door that still has your old “My Little Pony” stickers on it.

    If Mary wants to take a stand, telling her parents how she feels is her only option. If she wants to act like an adult, then she should grow up and get her own place. If she wants to continue life as if she is in high school, unfortunately she is still under their roof and must abide by their rules. If one of her father’s rules is that she attend church with them, so be it.

    Also, Mary is only 20 yrs old. Living at home is perfectly acceptable, especially if you are in college. The downside is that you do in fact still live at home. There are benefits and there are disadvantages; you must choose which has more weight and decide.

  • DGKnipfer


    Don’t lie or tell weird stories of communing with nature. Dad might think you’re a Wiccan and freak out. Some religious people really freak out about anything that smacks of nature worship. Just tell him no. No is a perfectly acceptable answer.

    If he keeps bugging you about it, ask him why it’s so important to him. Make him explain why it’s important to him. Don’t accept any of his reasons though. Keep asking why that’s important. He’ll have a hard time answering but the questioning should be turned back on the person who really needs to answer why it’s important for you to go to church; your dad. Be polite though. You should actually be interested in why your dad would want you to go to church. Knowing the answer will really help you to understand him better and may bring the two of you closer.

  • Mary

    So, this is the Mary from the letter and I guess I should have been more explicit in my letter, based on a few of the questions/misconceptions from comments.

    My parents are divorced, and up until last summer I lived with my mother and sister. I now live with just my father.

    My father says that he’d be fine with me going to a different church from him, so long as I go to a church. however, he then qualifies this by saying he’d rather I not go to certain types of churches, as they are really just fronts for cults (his words).

    If Mary is a normal 20 yr old, it is likely that she goes out with her friends frequently, occasionally drinks alcohol, dances with boys (*gasp*) and occasionally has sex with one of them.

    Honestly, I’m not a normal 20 year old. I rarely go out with friends, don’t drink, etc. I spend most of my “free” time at home or with my mother’s family.

    Anyways, thanks for the advice, and the comments expanding or offering different suggestions. And if this comes out wonky, blame the weird coding, I can’t seem to get it to work in the preview.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I like the idea of “church visits”. I noticed in the letter that her dad was not insisting that she go to “his church”, only “a church”. At 20, she can reasonably claim that it’s too soon for her to commit to a particular church. But to make Dad happy, every so often she can do a “visit”, and check out a local UU congregation, or an ethical society, or a Quaker meeting. And to make Dad happy, she can throw in an occasional visit to a traditional church, if only to remind herself why she left.

    And she only has to keep it up until she is financially independent and out on her own. And by then, she might have enough notes on different churches to write a book!

  • Thegoodman


    If it is just you living with your dad, it sounds like it might be good for you to connect with him. Is it possibly he mainly want you to go to church to spend time with you? His motives are not clear since we don’t know anything about him (you don’t have to divulge anything either, just saying..).

    If it were me, I’d try to find out exactly what his concerns/motivation are for me to attend church with him. This can make the inevitable conversation about your doubts much more comfortable since you will know before hand where his concerns will be.

    Its possible he just wants to spend time with you and he isn’t good at coming up with anything else to do together, this is especially true if he is under the misconception that you are as devout as he to the church.

  • Renee

    I do not agree that lying to your dad will help the situation any, after all, deceit achieves but a shallow victory.
    As a loving parent your father wants the best for you, in Church he sees a path to morality which is something every parent desires. In church life he sees you being a better person and living a healthier life.
    As a Christian he cares for your eternal condition and sees church attendance as hard evidence that you are a believer. He wants you to believe what he believes because Ephesians says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
    However, you are an adult, your own person You say you don’t want to ‘come out’, but there are only two reasons people don’t want to ‘come out’:they are afraid they are wrong or they are afraid they will get in ‘trouble’ because they are afraid they are wrong. Your dad is afraid too, he is afraid he is loosing you, that you are drifting to a place he cannot follow. You need to not avoid the topic of religion, nor do you need to make an argument out of it. If your agnostic then you have a reason. Ask questions related to your reason to your dad . After all, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” is something he has to fulfill as a Christian. That is part of the other reason he wants you to go to church, he is afraid he does not know how to answer the questions you obviously have about your beliefs.You may think he can’t see that but a person’s life will reflect what they think is true.
    Don’t worry, if you address this calmly there will not be conflict. Also, I am sure your father will always love you no matter what you believe.

  • Lysistrata

    I would recommend that you find a Unitarian Universalist church. (Your father may consider them a “cult” because they have no creed-the Christians are a little afraid of that. But tell your father that several presidents, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, and Mark Twain were all UUs that should to convince him it isn’t a “cult”. ) First, they accept all faiths and no faiths. Second, they have a strong young adult program 18-35 that helps to build people’s concept of themselves. Three, many times they will have an adult education group entitled Building Your Own Theology that gives you a chance to explore your own ideas of religion. Four, the churches are very big on social justice so you can point to you father all the good work you are doing that can save you soul.

  • Mary,

    I am a little curious what church your father belongs too and what other churches your father considers “just fronts for cults”.

  • Mary

    My father attends a mega-church called Vineyard (I’m fairly certain it’s a Wal-mart type of church, in that there are many “branches” across the US). I attended this church for a while when I was a teenager spending my weekends with him after my parent’s divorce. If you’ve seen a satiric or parody depiction of a mega-church on TV, that’s pretty much what this one is. They have an in-church bookstore, two cafes, and the main hall attracts roughly 2000+ people for each sermon (one sermon on Saturday, and two on Sunday mornings).

    I’m not sure what churches he would consider cults, only that there are some.

  • Richard Wade

    Your encouraging Mary to speak her mind gently and respectfully to her father has its merits, and I hope that when that finally happens, the outcome will be as positive as you portray.

    However this statement I cannot leave unchallenged:

    You say you don’t want to ‘come out’, but there are only two reasons people don’t want to ‘come out’:they are afraid they are wrong or they are afraid they will get in ‘trouble’ because they are afraid they are wrong.

    This is simply not true. Those are definitely not the “only two reasons.” People who begin to have doubts about their religious beliefs often remain silent because of the doubts themselves, but that reason for silence passes as their doubts continue to grow into certainty.

    Far longer, they continue to keep their views secret because of the very real possibility of serious and painful consequences from their families, friends, employers, and communities. They have seen it, heard of it and have been warned indirectly all their lives. If they merely share that they are not convinced of gods, suddenly the Christian love can vanish, and the doubter is treated as if they are a dangerous and shameful criminal. They are screamed at and accused of terrible things. I have witnessed families treat their own children like dog feces even though they’ve always been loving and loyal to their family.

    Their families try to blackmail them to attend church or to profess belief again on pain of having their college funds cut off, or being kicked out of the house without a place to go. These are not always just threats. They happen. The idiocy of trying to coerce someone to have faith should be obvious to anyone with an IQ over 40, but they do it anyway.

    To all those commenting here who advocate a policy of telling the truth without being circumspect about the consequences, please do not be blithe, self-righteous or naive. It is easy for anyone to talk about just telling the truth when they are not the one who will be severely punished for telling the truth. It’s easy for anyone to say just take the risk when they’re not the one standing in harm’s way.

    Yes, telling the truth is most often the best policy in general, but sometimes it’s downright stupid.

    And it’s easy for someone who is already grown up to say “just grow up.” Adolescence and all the insecurities that must go with it is bounded by facts of physiology much more than attitude. It ends slowly, and it varies greatly between people. There are very adult 17-year-olds and there are very adolescent 24-year-olds. It is not simply a matter of some being brave and others being spoiled. There is no specific age at which we can say that all people are suddenly adults in every way. Young people have to simply endure society’s impatient expectations as their brains finish the last of their development, and it takes as long as it takes.

    Adults should keep in mind that each young person has whatever are their own resources of courage and clarity at their present level of development. Just because something was easy for you at that age is not a reason to say it should be easy for someone else.

    Offer your positive and encouraging suggestions to young people in that uncomfortable transition zone, but remember that there are no cookie cutter solutions. Each solution depends on many factors that only the people right there can know, and it’s hard enough for them to sort all those out.

  • llewelly

    Whatever else you do, Mary, start preparing to move out as soon as possible. Save every cent, look for a better job, etc. Once you’re moved out on your own, it will be a lot easier.

    Lysistrata April 6th, 2010 at 6:48 pm :

    But tell your father that several presidents, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, and Mark Twain were all UUs that should to convince him it isn’t a “cult”.

    Mark Twain, eh? A few quotes:

    A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell — mouths mercy, and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!

    (The Mysterious Stranger)

    Adam’s temperament was the first command the Deity ever issued to a human being on this planet. And it was the only command Adam would never be able to disobey. It said, “Be weak, be water, be characterless, be cheaply persuadable.” The later command, to let the fruit alone, was certain to be disobeyed. Not by Adam himself, but by his temperament — which he did not create and had no authority over.

    (The Turning Point of my Life, in Essays and Sketches of Mark Twain )

    See also, What is Man?, Adam’s Diary, and Eve’s Diary. For those who can understand metaphor, there is plenty of anti-religious material in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and most of his other books.
    People who know a thing or two about Twain know he was, if anything, more critical of religion than most of today’s so-called “new atheists”. If you want to make UUs look acceptable to a stereotypical American Christian, either don’t mention Mark Twain, or first make sure they know nothing about him.

  • TJ


    I know this must be a very difficult problem for you, but my advice is based on the viewpoint that finishing college is a MUST; it has to be top priority.

    I do understand that you are in a tough position, forced to choose between accepting his advice or potentially losing support from him (financial or otherwise), but keep in mind that once your have a degree and a job, you will be in a much better position than if soemthing happens to jeopardize your chance at a degree.

    So if you need to temporarily accept an uncomfortable situation, whether it be white lies about your ability to go (busy with job / homework, etc.) or actually attending a church – whichever you can more readily accept – keep in mind that it’s fairly short-term (a couple of years?) and that the payoff is that you’ll be prepared to be finanaically self-sufficient for your whole life.

    Best of luck to you…

  • christi

    If Mary wants the nagging to stop, she should move out and stop living off of her dad. If she can’t respect who he is, she shouldn’t live under his roof. Speak the truth — I don’t believe what you do — and take the conseqences.

    It’s possible that Mary’s dad just cares about her. He believes that what he has and knows would help her.

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