Ask Richard: Should We Deceive Our Aging Religious Grandmother? February 14, 2011

Ask Richard: Should We Deceive Our Aging Religious Grandmother?

Hi Richard,

My wife and I are both atheists. I’ve been open about it since my very early teens, but prior to meeting me a little over four years ago, my wife “Annie” had generally lived her life not thinking too much about religion. She didn’t buy the stories, but went along with her family, who mainly acted pious in order to please the matriarch of the family, her maternal grandmother “Ruth,” for whom religion is central.

Everyone holds Ruth in reverential awe—myself included. This wonderful, caring woman endured supreme hardships in her life, and her devotion to her family is boundless.

When we got married, an immense amount of strain was put on Annie to have a traditional Catholic ceremony. Being devoted to her family and by then well-accustomed to going along with religious observances if only to avoid rocking the boat, she was more inclined to go along with their wishes. I was not at all inclined to do so, and in the end, we decided it was our day, and we had an outdoor wedding performed by a very liberal minister who accommodated our wishes to keep god out of the ceremony.

The problem is, ever since the wedding, whenever Ruth and Annie are alone, Ruth will often express fear that our souls are at risk, and plead with Annie to have the wedding blessed by her parish priest, “father Peter.” It is an earnest and humble request, made by an earnest and humble woman. Given Ruth’s declining health (she is 87 and will soon need major surgery for a chronic heart ailment), Annie had recently been wanting to satisfy the request, if only so this gentle woman might have peace of mind that our souls are “saved.”

Neither of us are good liars, and we almost always default to the truth if only because it’s the easiest thing to remember. We’re also not hardliners—if I may call it that—so this blessing is meaningless to us, and wouldn’t be an affront to our “secular sensibilities” to go through with it if it eased Ruth’s conscience. However, when Annie called father Peter to find out what was involved with the blessing, her honesty was met with self-righteous and uncompromising indignation when she revealed that she didn’t believe in god, and only wanted to fake her way through the blessing in order to please Ruth.

The question we now face is, Is it worth devising an elaborate charade to fake this blessing, and very likely having to involve others in our tangled web, simply to allay Ruth’s worries? One lie begets another, after all—even if it is a white lie.

Honestly conflicted

Dear Honestly conflicted,

I’m glad that neither of you are good liars, and I hope you never have to become good at it. I would not suggest that you construct an intricate deception. The more complicated it is, and the more people involved, the more likely it is to fall apart, and getting caught in a lie is often worse than the “offense” about which one is lying.

Ruth’s worrying about this issue is possibly not as distressful to her as you might think. I get the impression that it’s part of a role she thinks she is supposed to play. For years, the whole family has been pretending to be pious just to please and accommodate her, so she thinks it is her responsibility to be family’s religious “Elder.” I suspect that in addition to yours, she considers all the other souls in the family to be at risk for all sorts of reasons, and she thinks it’s up to her to keep everyone safe and saved.

She’s wonderful and caring and has been through very tough times, so it’s understandable that everyone holds her in reverential awe. But that may have had the unintended effect of inflating her sense of authority and responsibility. I’m sure it’s not at all her intention, but her “humble and earnest” request is also intrusive and presumptuous when seen from a more detached vantage point, like mine. She is neither the resident family saint nor is she just a meddling spiritual hall monitor. So your response should not be to either of those inaccurate characterizations.

Firstly, I suggest that you minimize having Annie being alone with her, since that’s the only time that Ruth presses this. When she does, Annie should respond as noncommittally as she can. If Ruth really pushes it, then it may be necessary for a response that puts this to rest once and for all. Annie has had enough pressure and strain from the religious requirements of others, and hopefully she or the two of you can put an end to this issue, yet still leave Ruth with her own reassurances.

Begin by expressing your love for her and your appreciation for her caring. Call it “caring” rather than “concern.” Then tell her that the minister of your choice blessed your union, and that is good enough for your beliefs. Either leave it at that, or consider adding that you don’t think that God disapproves of your wedding or your marriage any more than he disapproves of anyone’s wedding or marriage that is done in good faith.

While keeping it warm and loving, have just a tiny hint of finality in your tone, to subtly let her know that this is not up for further debate. The phrases “the minister of our choice” and “for our beliefs” not-so-subtly imply that you have the right to your choices of ritual, and they’re not really subject to review by her. Essentially, you’ll be taking advantage of the ubiquitous “hands off my religious beliefs” etiquette that permeates society. Usually atheists are frustrated by the special privilege that the pious expect for their positions, but for once you can use it for your benefit.

Finish off with a big hug for Ruth, tell her what a treasure she is, and then on some prearranged excuse, quickly leave the room. That prevents any “yes, but” attempts to argue further.

Worded in the way I described, both of the statements about the minister, your beliefs, and God are true for you. In the strictest sense you are not lying, but I fully acknowledge without apology that it is deliberately letting Ruth deceive herself about what Annie or both of you believe. So it is not honest by my standards. I usually emphasize honesty, but in the ever-shifting balance between honesty and kindness that life’s predicaments demand, sometimes kindness takes the forefront.

Hopefully, Ruth will relax her efforts on this, and will decide that God will be fair and forgiving to this admirably loving, caring, and conscientious couple, and in this case he doesn’t really need her intervention to fix things so he can bestow his grace on them.

Once in a while the Almighty just has to get along without the help of mortals.

I wish Ruth a comfortable and speedy recovery from her surgery, with many more years of harmony and mutual loving devotion with the whole family, and I wish you and Annie a happy life together, free from the stress of others’ expectations.


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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  • Silent Service

    Richard is right that there’s nothing humble or earnest about Ruth’s interference. I suggest pointing out that Adam and Eve didn’t need more than a garden for their ceremony then tell her that you picked your minister specifically to express your connection to God. That’s all 100% true and all likely to alleviate Ruth of her anxiety. Then if it comes up again just smile at Ruth and tell her how nice it is that she worries about you, but that it isn’t necessary. Then drop it and ignore the subject. Ruth’s probably smart enough to get the hint after that.

  • Tori

    Bravo! Well done as usual. The balance between honesty, integrity and kindness is indeed a careful one at times.

    My then-husband and I were faced with much the same conundrum in a sadder circumstance when our infant passed away 18 years ago. She was gravely ill in the hospital. When the staff asked us if we would like to call in a member of the clergy to perform a baptism, I went with my gut and immediately said “Yes, Lutheran please.” Neither I nor my husband was particularly religious, and in any event we were of the opinion that our children should be adults before they decide what if any religious organization they should join. However, I knew my husband’s (Lutheran) mother would be greatly comforted knowing her grandchild was baptised before she passed away.

    Perhaps, if I had time to think about it, I would have made a different choice, but I don’t feel I deceived my mother in law. I felt I did her a kindness under very trying circumstances.

  • Thegoodman

    This may sound like a childish way to handle the situation…but have your wife blame you. She can tell Ruth she wants to but her husband will not consent to it.

    If me being the enemy will improve the relationship between my wife and one of her family members, so be it. Especially a particularly elderly family member.

    It appears as if the motivation behind this has as much to do with the peace of mind of the couple as it does the grandma. In the case of ONLY grandparents and mothers; the means justify the ends.

  • MrCheese

    If you ever think you might concoct an ‘elaborate plan’, watch a few episodes of a sitcom. Seinfeld or Frasier will do.

  • Nova

    Tell Ruth the truth: that Annie asked Father Peter for help with this matter, and that Father Peter said no and became indignant. It’s honest, and it puts Father Peter on the hot seat instead of you.

    Ruth: Father Peter, why did you do that to Annie?
    Father Peter: . . .

  • Silent Service


    Father Peter will have no problem blaming Annie for not being a believer. Bad idea.

  • Nova

    Salent Sarvice:

    And then Ruth will have to decide who to believe: Father Peter or her own family. Perhaps she’ll decide it is no longer worth the hassle and stop pursuing the matter.

  • anon

    Unfortunately, Ruth will probably believe Father Peter over Annie, whatever he might say, because there seems to be a common misperception among the religious that clergymen don’t lie.

  • cutthroatjane

    Richard, I wish I would have just come to you for help when my husband and I were getting married. You are always so helpful and seem to always give the best advice.

    I hope everything works out between Annie and Ruth!

  • Silent Service


    anon has it exactly right. And the Father would have the advantage of truth, not something I’m used to clergy having. Annie and her husband are nonbelievers. Ruth probably all ready fears that to a small extent.

  • everettattebury

    “reverential awe”? Give me a fucking break. This is just a very successful emotional manipulator who has intimidated everyone into appeasing her whims. Being old is not a virtue. Being about to die from heart failure is not a virtue. You know what would be a virtue in this woman? The ability to accept that other people have opinions that are different from hers, and that the fact that this upsets her doesn’t give her any right to impose her own opinions.

    If you’re not careful, the manipulation and guilt will stay with you even after she’s dead.

  • Ibis

    I dunno. What’s the big deal? If Ruth means that much to you, and this is something she really wants, and it’s literally no harm done (because there are no gods to get offended at any insincerity), just go for it. Tell Father Pete that the two of you would feel better having the marriage blessed by him (which is true because you know it would help Ruth out). It’s kind of too bad that Annie told him outright that they’re unbelievers as that’ll make it pretty difficult to talk him around now. She could probably have got what she wanted with a little bit of mincing here and there. Now he has to be careful that he’s not doing the equivalent of suborning perjury.

    I disagree with Richard’s hard stance. Yeah from an outsider’s point of view this person is butting in where she doesn’t belong. But we make compromises and sacrifices for those we love and among sacrifices, playing pretend for a few minutes is a pretty small thing.

  • ACN

    I’m concerned that you think Richard’s stance was “harsh” Ibis. It was kind, thoughtful and honest in what was probably the most appropriate linear combination given the parameters of the personal relationships involved, and the poor behavior by (certainly not my) father Peter fellow.

  • Ibis

    I didn’t say harsh, but hard–i.e. not bending. Richard’s response is all about trying to let Ruth down easy. Yes, it’s honest, but in my opinion, it’s honesty with an unnecessary cost. I might have a different take on it if this was the mother of one of the couple, who might expect to live (and interfere, say with children) for another thirty years.

    I also found it strange that Richard tried to make his approach sound less harmful to Ruth by speculating that her distress is really mild and that she’s likely more worried about not fulfilling her role as elder than about what she (reportedly) actually says is bothering her.

  • Beckster

    Maybe I’m a hardass, but it annoys me when people treat the elderly like children. Grandma is an adult and should be expected to behave like one. Obviously we have a responsibility and personal interest in making sure our elderly loved ones are cared for and supported, but they shouldn’t be tricked in order to appease their childish demands.

  • Considering that your wife already told Father Peter about her and your non-belief and he reacted with indignation about deceiving Ruth, I don’t really think going ahead with the blessing is really an option.

    These kinds of deceptions often tend not to work anyways. For example, when my wife and I were dating, we decided to take a romantic trip to Paris (where I proposed). Her grandmother was very traditional, didn’t approve of premarital sex, and certainly wouldn’t approve of this trip. My soon-to-be fiancé tried to deceive her by telling a little white lie about the trip. Of course her grandmother found out about us going together and my wife always felt bad about trying to deceive her. Sometimes it is just best to be truthful.

  • Parse

    The problem with that, Ibis, is according to the letter, they already tried that.

    However, when Annie called father Peter to find out what was involved with the blessing, her honesty was met with self-righteous and uncompromising indignation when she revealed that she didn’t believe in god, and only wanted to fake her way through the blessing in order to please Ruth.

    So the question is, do they fake faith to get Father Peter to do the blessing, or do they find a way to reshape Ruth’s expectations? They can do the latter while being true to themselves, but the former doesn’t even seem like an option any more – and even if it was, it would require flat-out lying to Ruth and the priest, and who knows what other obligations getting the church’s blessing would bring.
    The best case scenario, which Richard is trying to steer them towards, is where Ruth looks at the happy couple and says, “Hm, I didn’t think of this like that” and lets the subject drop.

  • Demonhype

    ho knows what other obligations getting the church’s blessing would bring.

    What Parse said right here. If it was just “smell the incense, do the ritual, okay it’s finished” then maybe it’s just a small meaningless thing, but from my experience the Catholic Church has plenty of rider obligations to the contract that are not such a small meaningless thing. If Ruth lives longer than you expect and is still kicking at 100 (and it happens that way sometimes), are you going to have your kids baptized (ie: entered irrevocably into the record as Catholics and used to prop up the Church’s political edge) and indoctrinated as Catholics, for example?

    I think Richard’s advice was spot on. It’s irritating when people lament that the elderly are treated like children–and then we all bend over backward to give them everything they want no matter how intrusive, as if they actually are children who must never be disappointed. I personally have a lot of respect for elderly people, so I would have a hard time pretending to be someone I’m not just to protect them from reality. Maybe if the person was obviously senile or had some comparable mental weakness, then treating them like a child and consoling them with deceit might be admissible to me (to a point), but if they’ve got all their marbles then they can cope with diversity like an adult, and I would have a major problem caving to emotional blackmail in that case.

    My dad’s well into his sixties now, and he says all sorts of nasty things to everyone, especially my mom (he was always like that to a point, but it’s gotten worse over the years). And when anyone calls him on his verbal abusiveness, he starts moaning about his health problems and age and how he won’t do that when he’s dead some day (ie: I’m old and possibly dying, so you should take my abuse with a smile and a song). I’m the biggest Daddy’s girl and probably the one who will miss him most when he’s gone, but even I get pissed at the blatant emotional manipulation. “Okay, so I’m constantly spewing out personally abusive language at everyone, especially my wife, but I’m old and have health problems so you should just let me abuse you all, especially my wife.” Sometimes I lose my cool and call him a mopey teenager (ie: someday I’ll be gone and you’ll be SORRY!), but a lot of times I use a tactic similar to Richard’s advice–not backing down against the manipulative behavior, but also making sure Dad knows how important he is to me. He really doesn’t want to be treated like a child or a sick person and gets upset if we say “he’s belligerent because of diabetes”, so when he acts like a child I remind him subtly to act like an adult if he wants to be treated as one.

    Well, my parents are the ones who raised me not to negotiate with emotional terrorists, even elderly ones–they just never thought I’d turn their teachings around on them someday! 🙂

    Here’s something that might help with Richard’s advice: Using any lessons Ruth might have taught Annie about respect or honesty or love or what have you–kind of using it against them, but in a nice way. Like when my parents try to push me to do something against my principles for money or to avoid a problem (even when they agree with my principles they do this), I remind them that they taught me that principles should not be sold out, that principles are more valuable than money or security and that people have died throughout history to uphold what’s right–and now they’re saying essentially that Rosa Parks should have done what she was told in order to spare herself the trouble. It kind of takes the wind out of their money-rightousness sails, because they really did teach me that when I was a kid. It’s also a little bit of payback/karma/what have you, because it’s also a kind of counter-emotional-manipulation. “So all the wonderful things you taught me in my life, all those wonderful ideas that have had such a positive influence on who I am, they were all just a lie that you don’t really believe?”

    Well, that’s my rather prickly passive-aggressive relationship with my folks :), but I’m sure Annie has plenty of nicer lessons she can work into the conversation. It could go a long way to reassuring Ruth that she is important in Annie’s life and has had a strong and positive influence on her. Maybe she’ll think that if she had such a strong influence on Annie that they are sure to get their marriage “blessed” one day, even if Ruth isn’t there to see it (well, surely she believes she’ll be watching from heaven, right?). At least she might not feel the same uncertainty or urgency about it and might lay off the coercion.

  • Jane Smith

    I’m usually a lurker on this list, but this story made me want to burst with anger.

    I totally agree with the person who said: “Ruth is simply an emotional manipulator who is used to being appeased.”

    My husband’s family was awash with people like Ruth (they’ve all since died, and I won’t pretend to be sad about it). Wonderful Christians who you weren’t “allowed” to disagree with in case “you hurt their feelings”.

    So Ruth’s made sacrifices for her family. Most people – especially most women, I might add – do that. And one of the reasons for making such sacrifices is so that the children in that family will grow up to be adults who are free to make their own decisions.

    I feel sorry for this couple. The whole story reeks of “breathing-down-your-neck” religiosity.

    And I also agree that if Annie and her husband don’t put their foots down now, the emotional burden will linger after Ruth’s death.

    Because really good manipulators like dear old Ruth can control people from the grave.

  • Suedomsa

    I don’t think it is necessarily lying when the grandma has been “lying” to herself about it all her life. You are just “speaking her language”. 🙂

  • Suedomsa

    I agree with other posters here that coddling Ruth’s ego and “reverence” is a bad idea. At times I will try to avoid specifically discussing my atheism with my fiances family, Ill bend it towards a philosophical context that leaves out god, etc. However if someone asks me if I believe in god Ill tell them the truth. Having confidence in who you are and not being overly concerned about how others react to that is paramount to being emotionally balanced. Ruth will eventually get over it, if she doesn’t, its not the couple’s fault and they should never feel guilty for being who they are.

  • Ben

    ‘Fraid I have to disagree with Richard on this one. This grandmother was undoubtedly subject to the same brainwashing that many of us were – brainwashing that is nearly impossible to undo if the believer is never exposed to rational, dissenting opinions. At 87, this woman has little to look forward to besides the fairytale of heaven waiting for her on the other side. I just think it’s cruel to dispossess someone at that age of the only thing in life that could be of some comfort to them as they contemplate their last days on earth with their loved ones – someone who can’t, under any circumstances, go back and live his or her life again free of oppressive dogma and perpetual fear of judgement. At this point, there’s nothing SHE can do to reverse the brainwashing. She’s doomed to believe until the day she dies. Don’t punish her for that. Go ahead and entertain her little fantasy. It will allow your beloved grandmother to die in peace and it will neither break your leg nor pick your pocket (apologies to TJ). IMHO, that’s what a real humanitarian would do.

  • ACN


    Apologies for the mis-parse of the text. I don’t think I put too many words in your mouth, so hopefully our disagreement can stand on what we actually disagree on, namely, the course of action.

    I disagree with your assessment of the situation as well. No one is asking them to dispossess Ruth of her opinions. It WOULD be cruel to visit Ruth regularly to yell at her about how silly her supernatural wish-thinking is. It is NOT cruel to kindly, honestly, and respectfully assert ones ability to make independent decisions.

    If what Ruth wanted, was to have a catholic wedding for herself, and to baptize her own children (my own views about such things aside), then I think your TJ quote would apply, and as observers we might say, “let her have her marriage blessed by the church, let her have her children baptized. So long as she teaches them good critical thinking and she and her husband treat each other respectfully, this falls under their right to make autonomous decisions since we are not directly affected by the outcome”. But that is emphatically not the situation. Ruth wants the write to impose her views about religion onto Annie’s marriage. The TJ shoe should be on the other foot!

    In the initial letter, the writer went much further than I think their obligations as a kind member of the family go to Ruth. Richard’s response takes into account the fact that they were already rebuffed by the priest as they tried to indulge her fantasy. I think your judgement about the humanitarian decision is better reserved for the priest who rebuffed Annie’s honest request to indulge her grandmother than for Richard’s response.

  • gsw

    Anyone marrying in a catholic church is required to promise to raise the children of the union as catholic.

    A promise made to a priest may be considered by some as non binding, but I would not lower myself to make a promise I did not intend to keep, just to keep an emotional blackmailer happy.

    Blackmail is always blackmail, and a promise is always a promise.

  • I’m always amazed at the considerate and well-measured responses in dispensing advice on this site. This is yet another gem. I’ve been in a similar situation with relatives myself, and I could have done with such sage words at the time, in dealing with it.

    I, too, get the sense that Ruth believes she is acting with the best of intentions, but yo really do have to draw a line in the sand. You cannot spend your entire like kowtowing to the religious “concern” of others.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    Bravo, Ben!

    I’m just waiting for someone to call you an accommodationist for suggesting that it’s better to be nice to an old lady than to be a judgmental prick for the cause.

    Like immature little children, bullshiting ideological atheists never fail to equate Ruth with terrorists who flew planes into buildings.

    Like it or not, mad-as-hell atheists, your friends and neighbors and relatives are always going to be mostly religious. Maybe it’s time for you to grow up and realize that there are more important things in life than your egotistical need to compel everyone else to conform to your parochial view of the world.

    Truth is important, but you don’t need to beat people over the head with it. Harmless people you should just let be. If they aren’t doing you any real harm, maybe you could return the favor once in awhile? Your inalienable right to act like a prick notwithstanding, of course.

  • ACN



    It doesn’t sound like you read the letter/response. They tried to just make her happy and were rebuffed by the parish priest. How far do they have to bend? Why is it a prick move to kindly and honestly assert your right to autonomy in the face of manipulation?

  • Naomi

    Gosh, everyone’s so nice (: Personally, I value honesty much more than kindness, since to deceive out of kindness seems so patronizing and disrespectful. So I would always tell the blunt, unapologetic truth. But I definitely see the other point of view- if she has been lying to herelf her whole life, she may be emotionally incapable of seeing the reality of the matter…

  • allison

    Richard, thank you for your helpful advice! We faced a similar situation and found a way to appease the grandmother with relatively few strings attached (“minister of our choice” was someone who was happy to accept my husband’s nominal status as a believer and mine of atheism), but I have to admit that the option we went with made us cringe at a couple of points. For me it was a relatively small concession considering that my husband was still at least nominally religious and the blessing meant something to him. Much of what it came down to was that the family was functioning in such a way that she was the matriarch. After we were married we handled her much the way you are describing, and it worked quite well.

    Honestly Conflicted, it is a very real possibility that the ailing grandmother will hang on for many years. My husband’s grandmother was ailing at the time we married, and she lasted another fifteen years. As my husband moved away from religion, she got more aggressive about the whole thing and we did ultimately have to make clear that we weren’t baptizing our kids, sending them to Sunday school, etc. We never out and out said “I’m atheist” but we stayed firm and remained polite when dealing with these issues. The reason I point this out is that the two of you might want to think about how you’re going to handle these issues in the long term, as you are potentially setting the tone for dealing with a whole series of events. Annie’s grandmother was not the only one pressuring you to have a Catholic wedding, so even if this sort of pressure is likely to return even if it is not coming from Ruth the next time.

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