Ask Richard: Atheist Lying to Grandparents for Atheist Father June 3, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Lying to Grandparents for Atheist Father

Dear Richard,

My entire immediate family, from my parents down to my eight-year-old sister, is completely atheist. However my dad’s family are deeply Catholic, and ever since I was a child we’ve been pretending we are as well, to the point of actually attending church occasionally so we could lie convincingly and not trip ourselves up when attending family weddings/funerals/etc. We lived far enough away from my grandparents and visited them infrequently enough that we could get away with it. When I questioned the charade my dad explained that it wouldn’t be worth the arguments and attempts to “save our souls” that would ensue if we admitted the truth.

Now if this man is his forties is happy enough lying constantly about his faith so as to not provoke his mother’s wrath, that’s his business. But nearly two years ago I left home to go to university, and am now living close enough to the extended family that I see them on a more regular basis. Regular enough that I’m becoming both guilty and frustrated about having to lie to them so as to not drop my parents in hot water.

I don’t want to have to keep lying to them, but I don’t want to cause discord in the family. I don’t know what to do. Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.


Dear Torn,

I’m not going to recommend that you continue to lie to your grandparents, but I’m also not going to recommend that you “out” another atheist to his parents against his will.

This is something that you and your dad need to work out. It’s not clear how long ago you questioned the charade to your dad, but talking about this with him now would be the first thing to do. Listen again to his reasons and concerns. Tell him your feelings, and why this is becoming increasingly difficult for you. For instance, when you visit your grandparents, what does the deception actually require of you? Is it an elaborate and demanding set of pretenses like those when you lived at home, or is it more about just saying “uh huh” in a vague way at the right times?

Some people may say that your dad ought to stop hiding and tell his parents so that you don’t have to be lying to cover for him. I can see the point of that argument, but it is also important to not assume that this should be as easy for one person as it is for another.

For example, your relationship with your parents sounds very different from your Dad’s relationship with his parents. Growing up amidst the freethinking of an atheist family versus growing up soaked in the guilt and authoritarianism of deeply religious Catholicism will produce enormously different outlooks with different psychological strengths and weaknesses. We are very much affected by our unique upbringing and are not just freestanding independent personalities.

You and I were born into atheism, but your dad had to fight an inner battle to be free of the Cult of Guilt and Fear. In some ways those who have to struggle can be left stronger than those who don’t have to, but in other ways they are left with very tender vulnerable spots.

Torn, I cannot give you a definite “do this.” I can only send you to your dad with an awareness of these issues. Talk these over with him and the rest of your immediate family. They all have a stake in this, down to your eight-year-old sister. Try to use as much empathy for their predicament as you have frustration for your own predicament. See things through each other’s eyes.

Beware of rubber stamp moral rules that are applied mechanically to a simplistic view of life. “Honesty is the best policy” is a great sounding rule until real life complicates things with all sorts of other principles such as compassion, respect, freedom, and fairness, which are all just as important. If somebody thinks these problems are simple, then they’re not looking very closely, they’re not thinking very thoroughly, and they’re not feeling very sensitively.

If the guilt about lying to your grandparents is bothering you so much, then perhaps you should start with telling them the truth about yourself. You can “out” yourself without implicating the rest of the family, and you can face whatever are the consequences. You’ll see whether or not what your father has been avoiding is as bad as he thought it would be. Then the rest of your family can decide what to do based on what you have experienced.

We are living in a time of great transition. We are finally seeing multi-generational atheist families. Each successive generation is enjoying more freedom to express themselves openly, and so they respond to challenges differently. Those differences can cause some conflict between the older and younger atheists, but they can also be a source of insight, inspiration and creative solutions.

I think that you and your dad make each other very lucky people. You give each other much of which to be proud. Build upon that, and together you’ll come up with a creative solution.


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  • Jagyr

    “Honesty is the best policy” is a great sounding rule until real life complicates things with all sorts of other principles such as compassion, respect, freedom, and fairness, which are all just as important. If somebody thinks these problems are simple, then they’re not looking very closely, they’re not thinking very thoroughly, and they’re not feeling very sensitively.

    Take *that*, Immanuel Kant.

  • Claudia

    Certainly talk to your dad about it (personally I’d also include mom) but in any event, you can “out” yourself without outing your family. You’ll still have to lie (no grandad, its just me that’s the atheist) but it allows you to be truthful about yourself. Any lying you do from then on will be exclusively to cover for someone else at their request. Not right, neccesarily, but I think on a lower scale of deception.

    Of course you should try to measure it carefully. Lets assume you’re perfectly prepared to accept the shunning and mistreatment you might get from your extended family. That’s entirely your choice. However you should keep in mind that you may be condemning your dad to a lot of crap too. He’ll get a lot of scrutiny and likely criticism for letting you go astray, and plenty of demands that he reign you in, as well as his family checking to make sure he’s properly outraged at your atheism. Its ultimately up to you, but I think its highly reccomendable that you plan it out with your family beforehand, so they know what to expect and say.

  • Ted

    Claudia.. the point is that he DOESN’T want to lie. By suggesting that he say that he’s “the only atheist” a lie!

    I say tell them.. or better yet, use it as blackmail to get stuff while you’re in college from your parents. 😀 😀

  • Carol B

    Ted — but the writer doesn’t want to cause discord in the family, either. I agree with Claudia: Torn should talk with his/her parents/family — maybe the family will agree to all come out together. Or maybe only Torn will come out. In that case, at least Torn can be honest about his/her own atheism, while protecting the family until they’re ready to come out… But giving the family a heads-up, so they can be prepared for the fall-out, seems key.

  • Stephen P

    If the problem is that your grandparents keep wanting to talk about Catholicism, one possible approach is as follows. Tell them that you have recently been reading up on the child rape and cover-up scandal (which is probably true – and if not you should certainly make it true) and are greatly concerned about it. Say you don’t understand how an organisation that sets itself up as the fount of morality could stoop to covering up such crimes and aiding the perpetrators. Say you don’t understand how it could stoop to bullying the victims into silence, rather than helping them. Say that you don’t understand how it could choose as head of the church the very person who designed the cover-up policy. Etc, etc.

    You can approach this as diplomatically or as vigourously as is appropriate for your grandparents.

    They may decide that perhaps it’s better to change the subject, in which case at least you don’t have to tell any lies. If they keep coming back to talk about your faith, you insist (gently but firmly) that they first give proper answers to your questions – which they can’t do, because if you pose the questions carefully, they are unanswerable. You might perhaps say that you are not attending church any further until the catholic church puts its house in order. (Based on past history, that will give you a breathing space of a couple of centuries.)

    And by making clear that your unhappiness with the church is based on the church’s own actions, not on anything that your parents have told you, you can also deflect any attempts to discuss the beliefs of your immediate family.

  • If I were Tom, I’d prepare myself for the worst case scenario: being cut off from the extended family and having my relationship with my Dad tested (Dad can easily be resentful that his kid can “come out” while he feels like he can’t).
    Regardless, don’t do anything in the heat of passion.

  • prospera

    Beware of rubber stamp moral rules that are applied mechanically to a simplistic view of life.


  • Torn,

    However this turns out, try to use it as a way to get closer to both your parents and your grandparents.

    One side rationalization… since no-one really knows what goes on in another person’s mind, (especially concerning beliefs) it really isn’t all that much of a lie to withhold what you think someone else believes (or doesn’t believe). If your grandparents ask you about your parents, you could always get all philosophical about it. Say that all you really know is what you believe.

    P.S., most Catholics I know only go to church twice a year. If that is fairly typical, you could tell him with a straight face that you are a “cultural Catholic”. 😉

    P.P.S. It would be funny if your grandparents were really atheist but were pretending to be religious because they thought their children and grandchildren were religious. 😉

  • I live far away enough from my parents that it was easy to abandon Catholicism without creating a big stir. On visits home I would not balk at accompanying them to mass, since that’s a good place to see family members and catch up, especially if Dad is treating everyone to brunch afterward. However, I simply stopped reciting the responses and taking communion when those things no longer meant anything to me. Such behavior gets noticed, but my parents are skittish about heart-to-heart talks (afraid what they’ll hear?) and never commented on it.

    Eventually they decided it was easier to let me sleep in and they go to early, early mass on their own. We go to breakfast afterward. Surprisingly painless. Of course, I’m sure they’ve clicked a lot of rosary beads on my behalf, calmly expecting divine intervention to bring me back to the fold. Don’t think that’s going to happen.

  • Kamaka

    I think Stephen P’s advice is spot on.

    My way of dealing with religion questions (Why don’t you go to church?), for a long time, was to say my spirituality was a personal matter I do not care to discuss.* That side-step strategy worked very well for me, kept the then in-laws off my back.

    *I came out lately. Now I say I’m a flaming atheist.

  • mouse

    Disclaimer; in no way shape or form am I saying “keep lying” OR “come out.” You gotta do you, as the kids say.

    Another thing you have to consider – and this is why it is so important to talk to your dad at the very least – is that if you come out and Dad doesn’t, he may still take a lot of flack from the grandparents. My poor mother never heard the end of it from my grandmother when I came out as an apathetic agnostic. “What have you been teaching that sweet little angel,” pretty much became my poor mom’s new name while I was in high school. And I didn’t warn the poor woman EVER when I sprung a new shocker on my grans.

    At least if you talk to dad first, he will be prepared to deal with any criticism from your grandparents that might be forthcoming, regardless of your individual decisions about how public you want your lack of belief to be in the family.

  • Amritha

    Great response, Richard. It helped me resolve something I had been wrestling with for a while. Thank you 🙂

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