“He who complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still.”
~Samuel Butler (1612-1680)
Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I know you get a lot of emails about people having difficulty reconciling their atheism and their parents, but I need your advice.
My family is heavily religious (Christian) – both my parents and my younger brother are prominent members of their respective churches. For several years, my atheism has been an open secret in my family. It was never spoken of, but I noticed that my parents would subtly punish me and my wife. It was small but hurtful things, such as canceling plans at the last minute or finding a way to ask what church we were attending in every conversation. Later we found out that my parents gifted my brother the land he built his current house on and are buying him a new house because he wants to move twenty minutes away. There were never any such gifts or offers for me or my wife.
Two years ago, I got laid off and dropped out of college to pay the bills. I recently got a full time job for the first time since then and applied to return to my undergraduate school. Unbeknownst to me, my loans for the last semester I attended and left had been canceled and I had a $7,000 bill that I had to pay to re-enroll. My wife and I tried everything to get a loan, but to no success. I finally asked my parents to cosign on a loan. They refused until I agreed to start attending church and become an upstanding Christian. I had to have the loan to finish my undergraduate in time to begin law school next fall, so I accepted their ultimatum. Please note that no money (or offer) came from my parents, only their signature.
I feel like a hypocrite, attending church while internally railing against the dogma I hear. I feel like I am deceiving everyone there. I also am finding a growing resentment towards my parents. They chose to hold my education and my future hostage to their religion. Is my relationship with my parents beyond repair?
You’re wondering if your relationship with your parents is beyond repair. Well, let’s take stock:
They passive-aggressively penalize and needle you and your wife.
They give your younger brother land for his house, and buy him a whole other house. You get nothing. When you’re over a barrel and need them to cosign for a loan, they extort an agreement from you to attend church and ostensibly become a devout Christian, knowing that this is very much against your views.
I think the first thing to repair is your own life. Worry about your relationship with them later.
You’ve already agreed to their conditions, and you have already begun to comply. So we don’t have to be concerned about that decision, it’s done. Feeling the guilt of being a hypocrite and a deceiver as well as, I’m sure, humiliation is the fee you are paying for their help. “A growing resentment” is the very least reaction I would expect from anyone in your position, but right now that is not a priority.
Concentrate on moving on from this point. Do whatever it takes to keep your job, and save every penny. Manage your education very carefully, both academically and financially. Pay off the loan as soon as you can without putting yourself into debt in some other way, and then get out from under your parents’ domination and this ridiculous play acting of the “church-attending, upstanding Christian.” After you are financially stable and self-sufficient, after you are sure that you will never need their material help again, then you can consider if the relationship is reparable.
By that time, it might not need repair, it might need resuscitation. It is missing a vital element, respect. Their behavior shows no respect for you, and I would be surprised if by the end of your indentured servitude you still have any respect for them. Aside from that is the matter of your own self respect, which may have been damaged by all this as well.
For love to ever be possible, there must be respect. For respect to ever be possible, there must be honesty. There is no honesty here. The “open secret” in the family about your atheism means that it is known by everyone but not honestly acknowledged by anyone. Your parents’ passive-aggressive mistreatment of you and your wife, and their cagey favoritism for your brother is more of the pattern of less-than-truthful interrelating. You agreeing to fake your piety for them is more deception.
Finally, there is their astonishing act of self-deception, either thinking that they will get sincere religious belief from you by using coercion or bribes, or that after being blackmailed into attending church you’ll “come around.” This shows a lack of understanding about people and a lack of clear thinking. Small children can be compelled under duress to accept things they doubt, but trying to force an adult to believe something against their will is asinine. The most they will get is compliance, and to believe it is genuine and heartfelt is self-deception.
After your repairs on your own situation are complete, if you want to rehabilitate some kind of relationship with your parents and brother, start by honestly but calmly sharing your views, beliefs and feelings with them. Sweep away open secrets, speak the unspoken truths. Describe the relationship that you want to have with them. Keeping your composure, tell them how their behavior has affected you and your wife. Talk about the hurt, but leave the anger out of your voice. Listen willingly to their hurt if they share it.
Your parents and brother might or might not be receptive; it is hard to predict. It could take a long time. If this is like building a bridge across a chasm, you can only build your half. If they do nothing, at the very least they will be able to see you more clearly and understand you more accurately.
Curtis, I have seen families that were split even more deeply than yours gradually heal and become whole. If at first they don’t respond favorably, don’t write them off. Just leave your half of that bridge reaching out to them, and make it clear that your heart is open to them. Maybe some day they will reach out too.