Ask Richard: Should I Help My Boyfriend Fool His Parents, or Not? December 23, 2010

Ask Richard: Should I Help My Boyfriend Fool His Parents, or Not?

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


I always thought that I had it pretty easy as an atheist and that I’d never have to write one of these e-mails, but I guess I’ve made it to my first big atheist milestone. I’m a sophomore in college and I’ve been an atheist for about four years, and I was an agnostic for a few years before that. I was raised Catholic and went to church every weekend until I was 17. My parents and I hardly ever talked about religious beliefs though (as counterintuitive as that might sound). So while I’m very sure of my beliefs and worldview, I’ve never really been in a position to defend them, especially with an adult.

Now my boyfriend’s parents are very Christian, especially his mom. I’m not exaggerating when I say that all she thinks about is church (or something to related to it). She asks my boyfriend to go to church with their family every few weeks but he manages to find an excuse not to go (he is agnostic and his mother doesn’t know). Last night, she asked him to go to church with them next weekend, also indirectly asking if I wanted to go with him. He told her that we probably couldn’t, but on the ride home asked me if I would go with them one week because it would make his parents really happy and it would mean they wouldn’t ask again for a while. He didn’t seem to understand why I was so against that idea, so I guess I need an outside opinion.

On one hand, I know it would be a big favor for him and would make his life a lot easier. But I don’t feel right going to church with his parents under the impression that I’m okay with their religion, or even worse, a part of it. Is there any sort of compromise here? Am I making it worse that it really is, or should I stick to my beliefs on this one?

I figured it would be helpful to get the opinion of someone that’s used to navigating this tightrope. 😉

Thank you for all your help,

Dear Daphne,

Your boyfriend chooses to keep his agnosticism a secret from his parents. That is his prerogative, and if he is still dependent on them it certainly is understandable. But he is responsible for the consequences of that choice, both good and bad. The good is obviously that he doesn’t have to face whatever conflict and upset might arise between him and his parents. The bad is that he has to lie, to pretend, and to frequently come up with excuses to fend off his mother’s urging him to attend church with them.

It is not your responsibility to help him handle the undesirable consequences of his choice. You can if you wish, or if it’s no big deal for you, but if you don’t want to, if you don’t like it, if you don’t feel it’s right, then don’t do it. It might be a favor to him, but you are not obliged to do this.

If he wants to go to church to appease his parents for a while, fine, but I don’t really understand how your accompanying him would make that any easier for him or more effective or long-lasting in placating them. Encouraged by the two of you complying, I would expect them to ask more often, not less.

It seems to me that it might also result in unwanted invitations from them directly to you. Once you play a supporting role in his pretense, you will have to come up with your own excuses for not attending, and then you will have a pretense of your own with its consequences both good and bad, and those will be your responsibility.

If, as you say they might, they assume that you’re receptive to their beliefs or you even share them, they might try to enlist you to urge their son to attend more frequently. Then you will be unwillingly used for leverage. And when you get sick of all that lying and pretending, if you reveal your atheism to them, by implication you’ll be outing your boyfriend against his will. Then he’ll react to you for doing that, and they might blame you, the co-conspirator for corrupting their son, and on and on…

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”

Avoid starting a dynamic between you and your boyfriend in which gradually you are depended upon, and finally expected to help him keep up a charade that he has chosen to do for expediency. That would not reinforce him to become mature, self-confident, and forthright. Your strong reaction against his asking you to go with him might have been as much instinctively wanting to keep your relationship clean of that sort of thing as it was about not wanting to attend church for your own reasons and beliefs.

Unless his parents are very old and not long for this life, your boyfriend hiding his agnosticism while resisting playing the part of the church-going believer is not sustainable. Sooner or later they’ll figure it out, or confront their son directly, or he’ll finally have had enough of the farce and he’ll maturely and honestly tell them that he just doesn’t buy into their religion. You can give him moral support while he goes through whatever stages of this process he must, but I suggest that you politely and lovingly let him know that if he wants to attend church to pacify his parents, go ahead, but it’s not a good idea for you to get entangled in that.

Daphne, situations like these are never easy, and there are no guaranteed solutions. When we care about each other, as you and your boyfriend do for each other, and as he and his parents do for each other, we find ourselves in predicaments. We can ask our friends for advice or support, but we should avoid pulling them into a predicament too.


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
  • Erin

    I love the advice here, though I wonder if it would be a good idea to tell the bf’s parents’ “Yes, I’ll accompany you and your son to church, but I want you to know I’m an atheist.”

    No mention needs to be made of the son’s beliefs, and if asked he can respond however he wants. Of course let the bf know this is the plan beforehand.

  • Claudia

    My guess is that he reeeeaaaally doesn’t want to be asked if YOU are a Christian.

    Here’s an interesting hypothetical. Parents aren’t idiots. They can probably tell he’s at least cooled on religion. Perhaps his mother is concerned about this but, like a lot of people, doesn’t dare actually ask the question outright for fear of the answer. However she may be inclined, should he start going to church and you continually refuse, to inquire about your beliefs. Here he must either lie and turn you into a Christian or he’ll tell the truth. The danger at this point is that it leaves the mother with a very natural opening to directly ask her son about his beliefs, which would force him to choose whether he wants to lie outright to his mother, instead of the mere avoidance he’s done thus far.

    I would avoid going to this church. The closet is an awful place, and there should be only one direction; out. By asking you to go to church you are being asked back into the closet. Don’t go there.

  • “Yes, I’ll accompany you and your son to church, but I want you to know I’m an atheist.”

    No, better way to do it is not to tell them before you go. Play whatever hypocrisy there is in your favour.

    Someone will ask “Oh, and what church do you attend.”

    To which you obviously reply: “None.” and stand back.

    In all seriousness, it forces people to deal with their prejudices in public. They won’t want to have to answer the question: “Whatever happened to that atheist hussy that your young chap was walking out with.” They are likely to learn to deal with it.

    Or alternatively, your boyfriend will have to deal with it beforehand, when you say “Hold your horses there sunshine – they’re your parents.”

    The only way you can avoid having to deal with this, at some point in your life, is to break up with your boyfriend.

  • Ali

    I agree with Claudia. I think the parents already suspect that their son is not all that into religion.

    But perhaps they hope that some gentle nudging in the form of attendance will sway him.

    Or maybe all they care about is that he puts on a good front for the church’s audience. “Look at our good Christian son attending church.”

  • Erin

    @David, I do like the idea of coming out in the church, has a nice sense of irony/revenge. And you’re right that being in public can be helpful to you so the parent’s don’t start attacking you.

    @Claudia, I only suggest going to church because it is a good learning experience, but for adults in college who have their own opinions it may seem futile. It can be a nice gesture to the parents though, if this women thinks the relationship is worth placated them a bit with out lying to them.(I say learning experience because I have a small son and plan on letting him visit church with grandparents so long as they know the ground rules or I go with.)

  • Deepak Shetty

    I’d say go but your boyfriend should also inform them that you dont believe and you are only doing this because it matters to them , not because you believe nor will you ever really convert to any form of belief (This is my current situation my in laws know im agnostic but that I accompany my wife to church sometimes). However I also find it interesting to hear some of the sermons (usually to point and laugh at the problems to my wife)

  • odc

    i say go ahead and go. if you want to stay with the guy, you’re gonna have to jump this hurdle sooner or later. just be completely honest with the parents when they ask questions (and let your boyfriend know that’s your plan). going to church with them may be a good way to get to know them better. whenever i go home to visit family, i always go to church with them, because i know it makes my momma happy, even though they all know i’m a non-believer.

  • Daphne,

    It really comes down to when you want to have this battle with his parents. I agree that it is probably better to dodge completely going to church if you want to postpone having this battle a bit longer. If you go to church with them, things will inevitably come up in conversation.

    That being said, I don’t personally have the opinion that atheists shouldn’t step foot in churches. You could view yourself as a cultural anthropologist and just go to see what goes on in there.

    If you are willing to go but don’t want to engage in any religious deception, then come up with a compromise with your boyfriend where you two agree before-hand how you will present yourself. You could just tell them flat-out that you are agnostic towards religion. If they ask you any theological questions that you are not prepared to answer, just tell them that since you are agnostic you don’t think any of the stuff in the bible is “from God” and therefore don’t feel any urge to get involved with organized religion since organized religion is all mostly bible-based… At least that is how I might deal with it… Just do what works for you (and your boyfriend).

  • VS

    I agree with Richard’s advice. If it makes you uncomfortable, don’t go.

    I have gone along to church just to make my in-laws happy and all it has brought me, personally, is stress. When do I get a turn to be placated by them? Do I only get drop this stressor when I’m old and they’re dead?

    Don’t set this precedent if it at all bothers you.

  • Catinthewall

    This is kind of off topic, but kind of important. Those little square ads to the right are nice and relevant, as opposed to other BS ad systems. But would you please do us all the favor of not putting animated ads? That one that would be perfectly fine without a second frame with the colors inverted.

    Additionally, It really doesn’t encourage clicking, especially considering it says nothing about what the ad is for. Podcast? blog? amusing flash animations? I haven’t a clue! Chop the second frame, shrink the heads a smidge, straighten out the text, and there’s room to actually put some information in.

    As for the other animated one you’ve got, the second frame actually serves a purpose, but

  • happycynic

    Personally I’d try to find a way out of it that’s only lying by omission. For example, your family was raised seriously catholic. If your boyfriends’ parents aren’t catholic, your bf could say, “Oh, well she was raised catholic, and her parents would freak out if she went to some other kind of church”. And if they object to your parents’ supposed bias against other religions, well, they’ll have to eat their words when they eventually find out about you two.

    Ultimately though, the best thing would be to come clean to the parents. If it costs your boyfriend his college tuition then don’t do it, but as soon as you’re independent, that’s a good time to break the news to the parents. Because you keep a deception like that up forever.

  • SeekerLancer

    Ultimately this situation is tell them now or tell them later if you plan on advancing this relationship. It’s going to be hard no matter when you decide to do it.

    I like the advice that you level with them yet still humor them and go to church if they still feel that you should go with them after making that revelation. Just make it clear you’re not looking to convert, just to share time with them.

    Sometimes you just need to make a few concessions. I’ve made my position on God not existing clear to my parents, but I still attend church with them on Christmas because I don’t see the need to create drama by interrupting a tradition that’s important to them. Suffering through an hour or so of Catholic Mass once a year isn’t going to kill me. If anything it gives me material to criticize later.

  • It was actually a big step for me when I had a girlfriend who refused to pretend to be an Orthodox Jew in any way. I have friends who had similar experiences. You might be doing him a favor, really, to refuse to pretend.

  • Rieux

    Have to agree with Richard’s advice. This is a battle that the boyfriend has to have (or not have, his choice) with his parents. Daphne getting in the middle of it—as combatant, as roommate in the closet, as leverage, whatever—isn’t going to help anyone.

    I think Daphne’s opening is funny, though:

    I always thought that I had it pretty easy as an atheist and that I’d never have to write one of these e-mails, but I guess I’ve made it to my first big atheist milestone.

    “Ask Richard” has become such an institution in our ranks that e-mailing Richard for help is now a “big atheist milestone”! Richard and Hemant must be doing something right.

  • I’m with Richard. I can’t get behind the idea of going along to get along. It just delays the inevitable. And who says the religious are entitled to be “happy” at the expense of nonbelievers selling themselves out?

    Going to church after one’s nonbelief is known is a different situation, IMO. At that point, the nonbeliever can choose to go or not, because everyone knows where they stand. If you like to check in on the other side, want to spend that time with believing family members, or just enjoy sitting on hard wooden benches, good on ya. But before you’re “out,” I think you’d rightly feel a bit false going and pretending.

  • Silent Service

    I think you should tell your boyfriend that you’ll go to church after he tells his parents that he doesn’t buy their religious belief and admits his non-belief. If he wants you to go to church, then it will require him to be honest and come clean with his parents. Until then, you should never be asked to act as a shield between them. Nothing good can come of that.

  • mike

    You do not have to scheme or plot. This is actually very simple. Just say no. If they ask why not, reply that you do not want to. This goes for the boyfriend too. A child tells his parents why he could not attend. An adult states that he will not attend.

    You do not even have to explain yourself, you are not beholden to anyone. If someone asks for further information, you may simply remind them of this fact (in calm words) and that you do not have the time to give a complete accounting of yourself. If they would like to invest the time to get to know you then they are of course free to do so on your terms. Remember that they are coming to you, and therefore you dictate the tone and continuance of the conversation.

    This may be more difficult for the boyfriend, especially if he is financially dependent on his parents. But there are ways to assert your independence without incurring too much adversity. Keep in mind though, that if you wish to assert your independence, you must be willing to accept their withdraw of support if they predicate that on dependence.

    Now in the immediate situation, I would recommend not attending with the boyfriend. I would recommend that he not attend as well, but that may be more complicated. If his parents are nosey about his girlfriend in order to start a discussion about his religion, then he should stop talking about his girlfriend. A student can always play the “busy studying” card, and state that he attends a university to learn: not for girls and not for attending church (unless he is in a seminary or a religiously affiliated school).

    Just say no.

  • I don’t think that this actually needs to be as abrupt as, “Sure, we could go to church with you, but I’m actually an atheist and your son is secretly an agnostic.” It can be a useful incremental step. Daphne could say, “Sure, we can go to church with you. I’m curious to see what it’s like. I was raised Catholic, but I’m not at all religious anymore.”

    Yes, given the mother’s obsessive devotion to her brand of Christianity, she might see this as an opening to reel both her son and his girlfriend into the fold as a package deal. On the other hand, it puts Daphne on record as not practicing religion and makes her a tourist at the religious observance rather than a seeker. Uncomfortable for the boyfriend? Probably, but he’s a grown-up. Uncomfortable for Daphne? Maybe, but it’s a short visit to the religious zoo and might have a certain wacky entertainment value (but I don’t recommend laughing aloud during services). Does it mislead the mother? It may raise false hopes, but it does her the favor of gently putting her on notice that Daphne is not of a religious disposition and that her son is happy to be on close terms with a nonbeliever. It’s a transitional phase. Daphne will undoubtedly have to respond to future invitations with, “Oh, thank you, but once was enough to satisfy my curiosity.”

    Best case scenario: Mother gets a clue and backs off for fear of alienating son. Worst case: Mother demands that her son break off the relationship with the unbeliever and Daphne finds out if her boyfriend really has any balls or not. (And maybe that’s not such a worst-case result after all.)

  • Jon Peterson

    As a recently divorced member of an Christian+atheist marriage, I can attest to the fact that having devout Christian in-laws is not only awkward, but can be the source of severe divisiveness and anger.

    In my case, the in-laws frequently committed subversive actions and told outright fabrications about my character to other relatives. It eventually got to the point where I was ready to refuse to attend events where her parents would be present, because the harassment was not worth it.

    This also became one of the final strains on our marriage which caused the divorce. The majority of it was unrelated to the topic of religion, but this was certainly no small or easy situation. In-laws ARE your family. Consider that as you consider your future with their child.

  • cass_m

    In the past I would have said Daphne could go to church and as long as she doesn’t do anything disruptive it would be good/supportive of her boyfriend.

    But no. If she goes, they will use her as a weapon to force their son to go to church more often. If his mother was ok with him being less religious, she wouldn’t be regularly ask him to go to church. Should the relationship get deeper, this woman would be attempting to meddle in different aspects of their life.

    Say no now, don’t start a lie, even of omission, don’t give the idea that your beliefs are subject to peer pressure.

  • Say no, thank you politely and leave it at that. If they press, just say I’m not very religious and don’t care for church. It’s fine for you since you get a lot out of it but it’s just not for me. And refuse to get into an argument about it.

    I’m also somewhat suspicious that misery wants company and the chickenhearted (not the best quality in a “man”) just doesn’t want to endure it alone. I wouldn’t say no directly to the parents unless they ask you. I would just tell him get real. I’m not playacting for your parents. What am I 12? If I have to go to church to be accepted by them or you, we have major problems that we need to talk about.

    I’m sorry but I think he has a hell of a fucking nerve even asking you to compromise yourself this way. Drop him and find a man who can grow a pair.

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    One potential consequence of your boyfriend coming out to his parents is that they may try to put the blame on you. “Our little angel wouldn’t do this on his own; it must be that atheist slut he’s been hanging around with lately.” Of course it’s possible that they could be broadminded enough to acknowledge that their son became an agnostic after careful contemplation on his own, but you should be aware that the other possibility exists. It may even be a much more likely outcome for a certain type of mindset that would vastly prefer to believe atheism is a consequence of seduction by the minions of Satan rather than evidence and rational thinking.

    Of course, I still think that the best policy is for you and him to come out in some way before attending church.

  • jolly

    Since your boyfriend is the one asking, it is easy to say no. Simple. If you go to church, you will probably be labeled as a liar later. His mother is probably talking about church all the time because she is trying to draw him back into the church because she knows he is leaving it. As soon as he tells them, it will begin to stop.

  • LL

    I agree with Richard that this matter should be between your boyfriend and his mother. He needs to find a way to let her know gently without involving you at all. Otherwise, there’s a chance that she will assume you have influenced him somehow.

  • fuzzybunnyslipperz

    Let’s address the issue no one has really addressed yet. The second this woman opens her mouth to say anything to her boyfriend’s parents they are going to be like flies on manure. The boyfriend’s mother will never let the subject drop …ever.

    Daphne, I’m going to be very frank with you and you need to do the same to yourself. A parent like your boyfriend has will never let the issue of religion drop. Even if (to your face) she accepts that you are an Atheist and doesn’t pester you to convert or “get saved”, if you and your boyfriend’s relationship grows into marriage. She will be on your case about your future children. She’ll want to take them to sunday school, she’ll teach them about her religion and if she’s really awful about it, tell your future children ‘mommy and daddy are going to hell because they don’t love Jesus’.

    Are you ready for a lifelong battle like that? Is what you really need to asking yourself. If you do pretend and go with him to make the parents happy then how far are you willing to let it go? And how much control over your life are you willing to hand over to this woman?

  • Jacques

    Everybody who said that deception could eventually blow up in your face has a good point. My first thought on the other hand is that it’s never a good idea to out someone who isn’t ready yet, especially not to their parents. If this is what he needs to stay in the atheist closet for now, I would give it serious consideration if I were in your position. His situation with his parents is going to change as he keeps resisting indoctrination, and they will eventually figure out he’s not religious. I attend religious meetings, although very infrequently, to see what’s going on in the religious mindset. It is somewhere between infuriating and amusing depending on where I go, but always informative.

  • If you don’t want to go to church then don’t go. In a free country you get to make decisions like this and you don’t have to justify them to anyone. If they ask or the boyfriend asks then politely decline. You don’t need to explain, it just isn’t something that you’re interested in. You don’t have to explain why you aren’t going hunting for a pot of gold at the foot of the next rainbow you see, why should you have to explain why you aren’t going to church to praise a god?

  • James

    i’ve been an atheist for several years now but for the last couple of months, me and my sisters have been taking my grandma to church. she’s not mentally all there do to age and all that, and she’s really religious so to make her happy, we take her.
    i just sit or stand there and ignore all the praying and singing. i don’t seeing it as me going to church, but rather me taking her to church.

    that being said, it’s not generally helpful to pretend to be religious for others.

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