Ask Richard: Religious Blackmail Part 1 of 2: Emotional December 6, 2010

Ask Richard: Religious Blackmail Part 1 of 2: Emotional

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

Dear Richard,

I grew up Catholic and my parents are pretty devout Catholics. I was skeptical for a long time, but I finally called myself an atheist after I had been living by myself at college. I haven’t had the guts to tell them this, and I often went to church with them when I visited to appease them.

Now, due to certain circumstances, I am living with them again after having graduated from college. Every week they ask me to go to church with them and every week I politely decline. I’ve begun having small arguments about religion with my father, and I’m sure he suspects by now that I don’t believe anymore. This led him to say, with tears in his eyes, that he has failed me. He wonders where he went wrong, what he could have done better. He thinks he is a failure because I am no longer a Catholic.

I think many people probably have this problem when they finally tell their religious parents that they don’t believe anymore. What can I say to reassure him that he did not fail? What can I say to make him see that I am still a good person? How can I comfort him about his idea that he will not be spending eternity with his daughter?


P.S. I really enjoy your advice! I hope you can help me.

Dear Katherine,

In movies, when the villain points a gun at the hero but the hero won’t give in to his demands, the villain points the gun at the hero’s loved one. The hero then feels far more pressure to give in. This is one of many forms of emotional blackmail.

Your father, whether he’s conscious of it or not, is applying pressure on one of your vulnerable spots, your love for him and your instinct to protect him from hurt just as he has protected you from hurt. He’s holding your loved one (himself) hostage, with sadness as the threat, and your religious compliance is the ransom.

I’m not saying that your father is a villain. He’s probably a decent human being, but he has his faults as we all do. This is a manipulation frequently used by parents, because they seldom see how very destructive and self-defeating it is in the long run. His saying “I have failed you” is really an underhanded way of saying “You have failed me.”

Ouch. That’s parental guilt trip number one. Don’t buy the ticket.

It’s important for you to sort out the difference between caring about his feelings and taking care of his feelings. You have done nothing to deliberately or even negligently cause him unhappiness. He created his unhappiness and contrived guilt as a “failure” entirely within himself, so you cannot take responsibility for fixing his unhappiness and guilt. There is no end to giving in to blackmail, and there is no end to being untrue to yourself in order to satisfy someone else’s expectations.

Of course one obvious thing do is to get out of depending on your parents and live on your own as soon as you can, but that won’t really change this dynamic between you and your father. That will only make it less of a daily conflict. You will still have to draw and enforce clear boundaries between who he is and who you are, what is his, and what is yours.

I suggest that you not try to argue this in religious or theological terms, such as saying that if there’s a god then it’s in His hands and neither of yours, or that perhaps God will be merciful because you’re a good person, or many other similar arguments. An approach like that will probably lead to a cul-de-sac of endless biblical citations and endless logical arguments, bouncing off of each other with no effect.

Instead, keep all your remarks about you in the here-and-now, and him in the here-and-now. Use only humanist concepts and terms. In your own words, you might either tell him or write him something like the following:


As far as I’m concerned, as a father you’re a success. You have always taught me to be a good person, and you’ve done a good job.

I’m a good person because of the good things I do, not because of the thoughts I am told to think. I think for myself, yet I am not selfish. I make my own decisions, yet I allow others to make theirs. I find my own way, yet I do not stand in anyone else’s way. By my actions I am honest, kind, fair, and have integrity.

I have listened to your guidance and watched your example, and I have followed much of it, but I cannot be a carbon copy of you. I’m a little like you, a little like Mom, and I’m not exactly like either of you. I am me.

I am responsible for my feelings, thoughts and actions. I don’t expect you to be responsible for my feelings, and I cannot be responsible for your feelings. I have done nothing to deliberately hurt you. If you decide to continue thinking that you’re a failure, that’s unfair to you, and it’s insulting to me. I think you can change your mind about this if you think it out more carefully. I cannot change your mind by pretending to be something that I am not. I love you from my real heart, from the real person I am. I will not, I can not fake my love for you by faking my beliefs.

So Dad, see your success as a father in how I actually live my life, this life, not what thoughts and beliefs may be in my head.

Katherine, a statement something like this expresses that you care about him, but it does not attempt to take care of him. You are politely handing his responsibility back to him. You’re not overtly calling him out on his attempt at emotional blackmail, but you’re clearly showing that you won’t give in to it.

This will probably not immediately improve everything between you and your father. I think that you will be able to find a more comfortable equilibrium with him, and he with you, gradually over time. He may try other ploys for a while, but if you maintain both your integrity, being true to yourself while still being a caring person, and your equanimity, staying calm, above the fray, patiently dealing with attempts to manipulate, hopefully he will stop that kind of thing and begin to cherish the strong, gentle, independent, intelligent and loving daughter that he sees blossoming before him.


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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  • Jeff

    Richard, you have much more patience and compassion than I have. If a man reaches parental age and is still at such a primitive level of development that if forced to choose between his child and the security blanket, he’ll take the blanket – I have nothing but contempt for him. All I can do is to walk away in disgust – and that’s so I won’t hit him.

  • Parse

    One counterpoint to your advice, Richard. This is merely my experience, and I know that the plural of anecdote is not data.
    Does he realize that he’s using emotional blackmail, and is he okay with it?
    I used to have a really rough time with my mother. She was extremely adept at using guilt for control. During college, I recognized the manipulation by guilt, and started to get angry/annoyed/whatever when I felt that somebody was trying to control me through such means. Needless to say, this caused a lot of friction between the two of us – she would try to make me feel guilty about something beyond my control, I’d get angry about the manipulation, and the rest of the day would be shot with arguments.
    What changed is that we talked about this, and I mentioned the guilt trips (the conversation also covered my (admittedly) poor reactions to them). She wasn’t aware of what she was doing, just as I wasn’t really aware of my negative reactions to them. We both agreed to work on them, and to point out to each other when we slip up. It hasn’t been all sunshine and happiness, but this has greatly improved our relationship.

    TL;DR: Calling out such behavior can work, occasionally.

  • Matt

    It’s like the parent and child have switched roles. 😛

  • To quote the Batman:

    “It’s not who I am inside, but what I DO that defines me.”

  • My parents used very subtle emotional blackmail as I was growing up since my older siblings had left the church and they were very happy that they had gotten it right with me and I was preparing for ministry. I spent my years of doubt and cognitive dissonance under that pressure which prolonged it for far too long.

    When I admitted to my mom that I was no longer a Christian she tried to add the blackmail of equating it to putting myself through the seminary and trying to take the blame for my loss of faith because they didn’t financially support me that year.

    After that conversation my parents and I did not discuss religion for more than two years. Now we can openly discuss it just fine.

    My advise would be to just drop it. Give him a few years to work through it and prove to him that you are a capable, responsible, and moral adult. Then you can talk about it again.

  • ManaCostly

    Absolute scientific knowledge… do want…

  • IMO, let him know that you believe there are multiple good paths through life and that he can be assured that whatever path you are on, it will be good due to his parenting. To acquiesce his beliefs, you could mention that if there is an afterlife, he shouldn’t rule out multiple ways to get there. If he thinks your departure from the Catholic faith is his fault, then say it is the fault of the Catholic church. They just didn’t make their case well enough. It is really nothing to do with your father.

  • Danish Atheist

    I believe my mother was honestly sad and puzzled when I came out as an atheist – both of my brothers did the same before me, and I think my mother was hoping my sister and I would “do better”.

    She was, I think, truly upset and thinking that she’d failed somewhere in her upbringing, because 3 of her kids had turned away from religion.

    After I thought about her reaction a bit, I told her she did a wonderful job as a parent. She’d tried to bring us up christian, but she always made an effort to bring us up to have integrity and to be skeptical when faced with authorities. And at the latter, she succeeded.

    We are all socially conscious people with empathy, we all have good jobs and function well.

    I told her all this, and stressed that my upbringing was fun and loving and safe, and that she made me be the person I am – a person capable of doing my own calculations and make up my own mind.

    I don’t always think parents are calculating and manipulative when they react like that – sometimes I think they are truly puzzled… and you have to remind them that you are who you always were, and tell them they did good…

  • My Catholic parents said the exact same thing to me. Is there a handbook out there or something? I told them that they had done great job as parents because I was a loving, compassionate individual. I’m financially independent and debt free, not addicted to drugs or alcohol, and in a stable and healthy relationship! I don’t think you can ask for more than that!

    I told them that they had raised us kids to be critical thinkers, to do research instead of asking for the answer, and to value our education. Is it any wonder all three of their children are atheists?

  • I think in this case, Dad’s also having a little trouble cutting the old apron strings. I think the letter writer needs to be patient with him and just show him how adult she is. I think he needs to know she can manage on her own too.

    The whole it’s my fault thing seems to me that he feels there’s some point of raising her he hasn’t completed. She’s living with them again after having completed college. Probably because she hasn’t found a job. I think she needs to seriously hunt for a means of self-support and move out and be self-sufficient and show him his job is not only done but that he did a terrific job in preparing her for adulthood.

    It’s kind of tough with the economy these days to accomplish that. I don’t envy young people starting out on their own and I understand the necessity of moving back in with parents when there’s no job that pays enough for your own place available but depending on mom and dad puts you and them in a weird place, kind of making them responsible for you but not, you grownup but not independent. Dad needs to see you independent to accept that you’ve grown up.

  • jolly

    I would say your parents did a better job of raising you than they thought they could. They raised you to be a thoughtful, moral person that cares about people, not because of the threat of eternal torture but because you can put yourself in others shoes.

  • I haven’t yet come out to my parents, I haven’t come out publicly (as my username suggests) anywhere yet, and when I do I’ll have to come out to my parents first (they use Facebook and while I could just put them into a limited usergroup I don’t want to).

    My father is a minister, my mother is the dutiful minister’s wife. They have a conservative, though not totally fundamentalist, brand of Christianity (they are young-earth creationists, totally onboard with AiG).

    Not having told them of my disbelief I can’t be sure how they will respond. I do think they will have a similar reaction to Katherine’s father. I do not think they will do this out of a conscious or unconscious attempt to manipulate me.

    Danish Atheist said the same thing that I feel. My parents will be puzzled, scared for me, and probably a bit scared for themselves (if I, their minister son, can question my faith and abandon it then maybe they are wrong, I hope they will ask themselves). They will be hurt that I have turned my back on the religion they believe in so much. They will wonder if they have messed up in some way in raising me.

    This is the biggest reason I’m scared to tell them. I don’t think they’ll disown me or anything like that, I think it will hurt them very much to learn this about me. But, I will tell them eventually.

  • Richard Wade

    Take your time with coming out, especially if you’re still working where you said you are in your story. You could be suddenly put into financial jeopardy, and this economy adds to everyone’s vulnerability. For a young person, a steady job and a healthy bank account make a huge difference in the wisdom of if and when to come out to one’s parents.

    Don’t put yourself into the predicament where you need your parents’ financial help just when they learn you’re an atheist. In addition to the possibility of emotional upheaval with them, you don’t need to add the possibility of financial pressure to conform with their religious expectations. Hopefully your parents wouldn’t try that, but believe me, it happens. That will be the topic of my next column.

  • littlejohn

    Or, you could simply push him down the stairs.

  • Silent Service

    Okay, Richard is way too wimpy and littlejohn is way over the top here. Down the stairs, littlejohn? That’s just stupid.

    Katherine, I highly recommend that you flat out tell your dad that you’re not going to be manipulated by tear jerking emotional blackmail. Point out what he’s doing and tell him that you’re offended that he would try to manipulate you that way. Then drop it and walk away. Every time he pulls that kind of crap point it out to him then walk away. Don’t fight, don’t argue, don’t debate. Be the mature one, but be strait up honest with him about what he’s doing. Otherwise he’s just going to continue doing it.

  • cheerfulchic

    Yes, I swear there must be a handbook for religious people to respond to their children who have “disappointed” them. There are so may stories out there like this, I just can’t believe it. It truly helps, knowing you’re not alone.
    Time really does wound all heels. 🙂 Give it time, but do not sway in your convictions. The more confident you become in what you believe or don’t believe, the easier it gets combatting the guilt trips and nonsense. Good luck to you!

  • Richard Wade

    Silent Service,
    You and Parse, (comment #2) are in agreement. That more direct and frank method has its advantages, and I’m glad that you both have suggested it.

    In counseling, it’s called “process commentary,” where you speak about the dynamic going on between you and the other person, rather than the content or subject of what you’re discussing.

    The disadvantage is that compared to the softer way I described, it generally requires more maturity and cognitive skills of the recipient, in this case the father, and it requires more ability of the sender to keep her temper in check. It cuts through the manipulation faster, but it can more easily backfire into a quarrel, with more hurt feelings. Then the more conciliatory, comforting method is probably never going to work.

    So I generally try the way I suggested first, then if the manipulator persists, as you predicted he might, the more direct and frank method can be tried, switching to “plan B.” If plan B is tried first, you generally don’t have plan A as an option any more.

    In Katherine’s case, if the first method fails, I got the impression that she would naturally shift to the more direct method, as long as she has sorted out her responsibilities from his.

  • arcane

    I would cut the dad a little slack; maybe it’s not so much that he’s emotionally blackmailing his son, but that the Church is emotionally blackmailing him. At baptism, the parents and godparents become directly responsible for the child’s faith (or lack thereof). I’m sure the Church does make them feel terrible for not “doing it right” and securing the next generation of lambs.

  • No need to worry, I have no plans to come out publicly soon. I just mean that I will, eventually, tell my parents.

  • Richard Wade

    That’s a good point. There’s a whole system of guilt trips, each recipient turning to pass it on to the the next person, like lined-up dominoes. The person at the very end like Katherine has to take the accumulated weight and momentum of the whole line.

  • Very good analogy.

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