Ask Richard: Should I Accept a Scholarship from My Mother’s Church? November 1, 2010

Ask Richard: Should I Accept a Scholarship from My Mother’s Church?

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I am an atheist and I attend a state funded university. My family is not poor, nor are we rich, we are just in the middle. My mom has inherited too much money for us to qualify for any financial aid or scholarships. I went through an existential breakdown in high school causing my grades to not deem me fit for any “good student” scholarships or anything of that nature.

My mom however is a devout member of her Methodist church. I had been in the same church my entire life, never fully understanding or believing, just going because it was what I had always done. I went to church camps for the fun and games and never even gave two thoughts about the Christian message, it was just silly to me. I went to church only when my mother forced me through taking away activities or groundings if I skipped out (now I only attend Christmas just so my mom does not completely hate herself). I was sure of my non-beliefs early in high school, but never “came out” to my mother as a non-believer until later. When I did about three and a half years ago, she cried her eyes out. Now she thinks it is a phase and tries to grasp my non-belief but never can. She thinks it has something to do with my father dying when I was 13 or some gripping experience of that nature that “took me from God” instead of my just lifelong skepticism.

Even with all of that, our (her) church has always been there for my family. When my father died and my mother started a homosexual relationship they were there (although some disapproved most never judged). Most of them are great people I have loved my entire life; I have connected with them just never spiritually, so my question to you is it wrong for me to accept scholarship money from this church my mother attends and I theoretically still belong to?

Morally perplexed,

Dear Brent,

I love people who have moral/ethical dilemmas. It means that they really want to do the right thing. Many ethical decisions hinge on the biggest word in the world, “if.”

It would be wrong for you to accept scholarship money if you did so by deception or false pretenses. If the church is offering you a scholarship with the requirement, or expectation, or assumption, either stated or implied, that you are a believing member, in essence, a Christian, and if you were to misrepresent yourself either actively by lying, or passively by failing to make your non-belief clear to them, then it would be ethically wrong to take their money. It’s about honoring the spirit in which the gift is given, if you will excuse the expression.

To be thoroughly ethical, to be deeply ethical you must not think only in legalistic terms, trying to dance nimbly around technicalities to get what you want, perhaps rationalizing something like, “Well they didn’t write down any requirements that I have to be a believer, so I just won’t tell them.” If they want to give it to a bona fide Christian, then failing to tell them the truth would not be honoring the spirit in which the gift is offered. That would be deceitful and disingenuous. Defer to not just the “letter of the law,” but also the intention of the giver.

So it is important for you to find out if there is any stated or unstate expectation, or preference, or if it is required for you to be a believer in order to receive this money. You might try to ascertain this discreetly, so that you can decide what course to take. If it’s required that you be a genuine Christian, then drop the matter right there. If it makes no difference to them, then just apply for the scholarship. But if it is expected or preferred that the money should go to a believing member of the church, then to ask for it in a thoroughly ethical way would require you to reveal your lack of belief at least to the people who would be making the decision. Then you will have to decide if “outing” yourself to them will be worth having only the chance of getting the money, and what social effect, if any, revealing that might have on your mother.

Yes, being ethical can sometimes get complicated because there can be so many “ifs.”

If you see that it is ethically necessary to let them know where you stand, and if you think it’s worth a try, you have a pretty good template for talking to or writing to them right here in your letter. I rearranged some of it into a suggested statement:

You and the congregation have always been there for my family, and I am very grateful. When my dad died, most of you were supportive and not judgmental of my mom when she reached out to another woman for companionship. That shows how big your hearts are. You’re great people. I have loved many of you for my entire life, and I feel a very close human connection.

But I have never felt a spiritual connection. Since I was very young, I have never believed in God or the Christian message. This has nothing to do with your actions, and nothing to do with any rebellion or traumatic experience of mine. It is only due to my lifelong skeptical nature.

I would very much like to accept the scholarship, and I certainly do need it, but I want to be completely honorable and honest with you, and to be sure that you really know the person you are helping. I have a strong moral and ethical instinct, and I am practicing it right now by telling you these things. I hope that knowing all this, you will still consider me for the scholarship. Regardless of your decision, I sincerely thank you.

Brent, whether you take my suggestion or not, one way or another I’m confident that you’ll get your education completed. It might take longer than you’d prefer, but if you’ve done it entirely in an honest and above board way, then you will be someone who uses the knowledge and the credibility that your education gives you to make the world around you a little better. Perhaps a lot better. We don’t really need more professionals as much as we need more deeply ethical people, people who are champions at doing the right thing. I wish you the best, and I have a feeling that you’ll be among the best.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tim

    I agree with Richard on the fact that if they’re offering it on the condition that you are a believer, then it would be wrong to accept it. However, if they’re offering it no-strings-attached, of course you should take it! Get back some of your family’s money the church has tithed away over the years.

  • muggle

    I second being honest while applying. However, if it’s going to stigmatize your mother, even in her own head, I’d think of her good and look for other funding.

    Some unions offer scholarships, for example, if you have any family members that belong to unions. Search on-line. Enter the FFRF essay contests specifically for freethinkers and double-check government requirements re your mother’s money not qualifying you. Sit down and talk with your school’s financial aid office. They will probably know of things you don’t. Also, if your state has a higher education department, they probably have a help line. Call them.

    Honesty doesn’t always shut one out. My daughter works for Catholic Charities providing respite for parents with children with disbilities. She was worried about being outed after taking the job so on the interview was upfront in telling them she doesn’t believe in god. I’ve heard worse about them nationally but it elicited a giant yawn and a we don’t care about that from the local branch. She’s been with them over a year now and loves her job because she likes helping people.

    So give people a chance. They just may surprise you. As they did when your mother had a relationship they didn’t approve of. It seems like a broad-minded church. I would think of your mother who’s been through a lot and talk it over with her first. You don’t need to necessarily follow her wishes but think of all she’s been through and let her know what’s coming whether you honestly get the scholarship or turn it down.

    Good luck!!!

  • Screw honesty.

    They we’re quite happy to fill your mind full of crap for X number of years – even if they were doing it with the best of intentions.

    And they get that money by exploiting the gullibility of the rest of the “believers”. Why should you feel bad about scamming the scammers?

    Far too often religious groups are praised for being magnanimous with their privileged position without anyone questioning why they have that position in the first place.

  • prospera

    The way I see it, the church is giving a scholarship to a long-time member’s family, rather than just you as an individual. Your mother is a devout member of the church. You are her son. If your mother does not have a problem with it, then I don’t see a reason why it would be wrong for you to accept it.

    I see this case as entirely different than if you, alone, were a member and misrepresented yourself as a believer.

  • Luther

    I would not even apply. If it is too late, then I would turn it down. Maybe you can take a loan.

    Yet I don’t know your situation and how much money is involved.

  • Brent, I think it is OK to accept scholarship money from the church if it is OK with you, your mom, and the church. After you review the feedback from this posting, I would recommend talking to your mom about it. As a devout member, the monetary gift could be viewed as a gift to her anyway… to help pay for your education. Kind-of follow her lead.

    If you are applying for the scholarship on your own, then that changes things a bit. Then you have a greater ethical responsibility to level with the church board that will make the decision of who gets the money. If you do decide to send a letter kind-of “outing” yourself, I think it is ethically permissible to frame the letter as coming from a young person who is still forming what they believe. As applies to everybody, the last chapter isn’t written until the last chapter is lived.

  • sailor

    I agree with Prospera.

    Take the money and don’t get so beholden you decide to become religious again.

  • He’s a member of the congregation. They are offering a member a scholarship. For all the harm that religion has done throughout the history of mankind and the fact that they pay no taxes in this great republic of ours, I’d say he is morally obligated to liberate that money to prevent it from furthering the agenda of religious evil.
    Take the damn scholarship and don’t look back, buddy.

  • I’m reminded of when I received a scholarship from my church while I was in high school and still a believer. I’ve been back a couple times since, for funerals and such, and although I don’t exlaim my atheism I choose not to participate in prayer or any other religious activities and always wonder if the preacher is wondering suspiciously if he made a bad investment 🙂

  • mike b

    Senseless symbolism is for religionists. Besides, you had to sit through all that nonsense. Take the money and study your ass off. Don’t apologize to anyone, and don’t lie.

  • if you tell them you don’t believe they won’t give it to you. think of the outcry and hassle it would cause the committee or preacher if word got out to the conservative members of the church. i’m with the people who say don’t bother and take it. this is con artist money and it’s always ethical to relieve them of it and use it on a good cause, like educating an atheist.

  • Carlie

    I think that following Richard’s advice would give the congregation an awesome example of how atheists can be ethical, and that even if they don’t accept you that way now, it might lay some groundwork for their stance to soften in the future.

  • cass_m

    I would pursue other avenues for money and turn this scholarship down, just like I would turn down a scholarship from any other organization I can’t support. I would also write the letter Richard suggests, if it doesn’t harm your mother’s standing in the church, to explain your decision.

  • SecularLez

    Meh. I’d take the money.
    I would never apply for a scholarship from a religious organization but in this person’s situation, I’d take the money.

    Thank goodness my college education is funded without religious funds.

  • Parse

    If they want to give the scholarship to Brent because he’s the son of a member, go for it. If they want to give it to him because he’s a member of the church family (through personal relationships, not necessarily faith), go for it. The ties that bind you and your family to the church aren’t just through faith – they’re in the support that was given, person to person, through times good and bad.

    But if they want the scholarship to go to a (current) member of the faith, you shouldn’t accept it. Theft by deception is wrong, even if you think the other group ‘deserves’ to be stolen from. An Evangelical Christian could use the same rationale to justify misrepresenting themselves for, say, an SSA scholarship – but just because they could do the same to us, doesn’t mean we should do the same to them.

    Besides, I would assume that the money is earmarked for a scholarship – if you don’t accept it, don’t be afraid that it’ll go straight into the Chick Tract fund. It should go to another student – and who knows, maybe they’ll question their faith in college, just like you’ve already done.

  • Don

    I REALLY like Richard’s advice.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the church still gave him the funds. Based on the history of support his family has recieved.

    I would be honest with them.

    I would always lean toward the idea of the atheist coming out. I never hesitate to tell people I’m an atheist.

  • Richard Wade

    Please pardon this gentle chastisement.

    Every time I answer one of these ethical questions, we get another handful of people who are nice enough to put themselves on the now sadly growing list of atheists who are untrustworthy.

    Thank you for the warning.

    Your childish, sophomoric rationalizations for why your larceny is somehow acceptable and morally superior to the larceny of someone else wouldn’t fool an eight-year-old. …Unless that eight-year-old has been hanging around you.

    If you consider the church con artists, and you con them, that does not magically make you not a con artist. If you’re both con artists, how is their cause a bad cause, and your cause is a good cause?

    Guess what, everybody thinks spending money on themselves is for a good cause.

    The next time some liar rips you off when you were trying to be kind, comfort yourselves with your own rationalization: “Well, at least that guy thinks it was for a good cause, himself.” I’m sure that’ll make you feel better right away.

    An atheist who justifies his lying and stealing of theist money because the theist got that money by lying and stealing, or because the atheist had to sit through the theist’s superstitious nonsense, or because history shows that theists in general are bad guys, or because the atheist will spend the money doing something better than some theist would, or any of the dozen or so worn-out, transparent, bullshit defenses for naked selfishness that I’ve had to read time and again, does not demonstrate how he or she is any better or even any different from the people he or she struts and postures as being so superior to. I don’t see any daylight between the two of you.

    You are what you do, not what you say you are. If the actual way you behave is just as dishonest, then all the talk your lungs can blow out doesn’t make you any better or even any different than the liars and thieves you despise.

    Picture the most notorious religious con artist you can think of, and point your condemning finger at him. There are three fingers pointing back at you.

    Gentle chastisement over.

    Please grow ethically, not just intellectually. If you struggle against dishonest and manipulative people, don’t end up just like them. If that happens, then what was the point of all that struggling?

  • Kamaka

    Hmmm..what an interesting thread.

    this is con artist money

    Why should you feel bad about scamming the scammers?

    They we’re quite happy to fill your mind full of crap for X number of years

    Yikes! C’mon, people, is there money enough to compromise oneself so?

    I would very much like to accept the scholarship, and I certainly do need it, but I want to be completely honorable and honest with you, and to be sure that you really know the person you are helping.


    Before I read the thread, I was only going to comment upon the wisdom expressed in this suggested letter.

    I am left to wonder at the ethical fouls stated above.

  • Kamaka

    @ muggle

    if it’s going to stigmatize your mother, even in her own head

    I have serious reservations about this position. As adults, do we have any obligation at all (this side of bank robbery) to alter our thoughts or behavior so as not to discomfort our parents?

    They “own” us for 18 years. After that, too bad if we are not as they wish we would be.

  • Thank you all so much; there was so much great advice.

    I would just like to clarify some things; I never applied for a scholarship, the church just gives money to those of the congregation in college out of there budget. I do think my mother told them I was in college.

    I guess in retrospect since my mother pays for my college the money really went to her and she gave it to me, so much of the ethical dilemma was circumvented. Again thank you all and thank you for protecting my anonymity by giving me such a glorious pseudonym!!

    P.S. I love this site and all the great causes the members champion. In regards to gays and church I guess I have always been spoiled with both of my mothers (yes I call them that) being very open and active in the church and seemingly no one having a problem. It has always opened my eyes that not all Christians are Fred Phelps, and if more people could understand that then it could plausibly spread to other Christians. One battle at a time.

  • AxeGrrl

    chicago dyke wrote:

    if you tell them you don’t believe they won’t give it to you.

    Uhm, did you read muggle’s post?

    Honesty doesn’t always shut one out. My daughter works for Catholic Charities providing respite for parents with children with disbilities. She was worried about being outed after taking the job so on the interview was upfront in telling them she doesn’t believe in god. I’ve heard worse about them nationally but it elicited a giant yawn and a we don’t care about that from the local branch. She’s been with them over a year now….

  • AxeGrrl

    Richard Wade, your ‘gentle chastisement’ was bang on.

    If you don’t have ‘Yoda’ tattooed somewhere on your body, think about it.


  • Ian Reide

    I say: take the money, take everything you can get from the church, those parasites have been taking from us since forever. Don’t feel in anyway beholden. Think of it as payback for all the trouble religion has caused.

  • muggle

    As adults, do we have any obligation at all (this side of bank robbery) to alter our thoughts or behavior so as not to discomfort our parents?

    No, but you do owe them respect and that would include not embarrasing them in front of their congregation. Quietly pass on the scholarship, quietly stop attending but don’t go making any grand announcements without seeing how that would make her feel. She may very well be supportive and say it’s the way to handle it but it should be run by her for her feedback first just because it is his mother who has been there for him and loved him all his life.

    It’s telling that you phrase it as your parents owning you for 18 years. No, they don’t. They have legal rights over you because they are legally responsible for you but they give to you and sacrifice for you out of love. Kids whose parents don’t feel that love don’t generally fare so well, law or no law.

    I was also considering the history mentioned in the letter. They’ve both been through quite a lot in recent years. They have been together. It should also be considered as to putting her through so much more before making a move to her church — which is a big deal in her life.

  • muggle

    Thank you, AxeGrrl. And Richard for your gentle chatisement.

  • I’m going to have to reply to this – even though it is unlikely that anyone will ever see it.

    Maybe “Screw Honesty” is over the top – I would consider myself to be very honest, but it’s nothing to do with being an atheist. As genocide doesn’t follow from being godless, neither does decency.

    My personal experience of this is similar – though different enough to colour my point of view.

    Firstly, I don’t live in a country where we are protected by something as “ethical” as the first amendment. Here (Ireland) the church has exploited and cheated itself into a position of extreme power, to such an extent that many people believe that “secular” and “hitler” are synonyms.

    My children are Christian (because my wife is) and they are eligible for a scholarship in their school – however, some friends of ours are also applying for this scholarship (and I hope they get it), but we’ve have been told that they are more likely to receive it because both parents are members of the faith.

    Now, what has my children’s education got to do with my beliefs? Am I unethical if I keep my lack of beliefs to myself?

    Obviously, it’s a different situation to Brent’s. But as with all ethical dilemmas: unless you see the world as good and bad/black and white, where is the actual line? I can think of many (realistic) ways to spin this where the line becomes very blurry, and the ethical imperatives just don’t hold up.

    All that said, Richard’s gentle chastisement is well received. Honesty is of course the best policy.

  • Richard Wade

    David McNerney,
    I’ve seen your reply, and your feelings of frustration are not lost on me.

    The situation you have described would certainly frustrate a fair-minded man, and it’s understandable that bitterness and vindictiveness might easily grow from that. I certainly understand your desire to see your children get every advantage, and I don’t fault you for that. You’re a good father. Good fathers provide for their children, and they also act as excellent role models.

    In general, I think the important thing is to maintain your own principles as independent of the principles or lack thereof of the people around you. If we base our conduct always in reaction to the conduct of others, then our conduct will probably deteriorate. We shouldn’t do the right thing only because someone else does the right thing; we should do the right thing, period. By being a man of independent principle, you will be giving your children a gift more valuable than the scholarship.

    I don’t see the world in black and white terms, but there are clear lines between honesty and dishonesty. There is no need to “spin” this unless one wants to blur those lines for their own selfish ends.

    Keep fighting the unfair practices of the church and its entanglement with civil government; just do it from a position of honest and above-board practice. You might not have spectacular success, but you can keep embarrassing them for their self-serving hypocrisy, chipping away at their foundation of society’s complicit acceptance of their unjust favoritism and their unquestioned authority. As an honest man, you will have credibility when people hear you criticize these unfair practices, and at the very least you won’t be adding more dishonesty of your own to the general atmosphere.

    I hope you and your family enjoy success.

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