Ask Richard: Atheist Wants to Reconcile With Parents August 9, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Wants to Reconcile With Parents

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

Dear Richard,

I’m 21, financially and socially independent, and happily living on my own. But my relationship with my parents can only be called distant. We only see each other once or twice a year, call once every few months. When they found out I was an atheist in high school, they freaked out (i.e. initial yelling and mandatory church for two months, complete with chilly silence every weekend) and it caused a huge rift, and a serious lack of trust on my part. In the end the congregation noticed something was wrong with me, mom begged me to start going through the motions at church, and I refused. After that they started to ignore my “sleeping in” on Sundays until it became understood that I wouldn’t be joining them at church. My dad even forgot I was an atheist until I mentioned it a few years later in passing.

My two other brothers have a much better relationship with them, one of them just doesn’t seem to think about church and the other is openly nonreligious. I think I want to reconcile, or at least try to understand them more. Their only real leverage against me is refusing to give their FAFSA tax info (they don’t help with college) but I’m still worried that if I bring up my atheism in a serious way they’ll just freak out again.

My dad is proud and confident, while my mom worries a lot about image and is emotionally fragile. She’s probably hurting over the distance between us. They’re both in their 60s. We’re from the Midwest. Any advice on how to mend this atrophied relationship?


Dear Kevin,

Firstly, I admire the fortitude and integrity you showed as a youth. I think your wanting a reconciliation now is a sign that your strength is more deeply maturing. It takes energy to maintain enmity, but it takes deep strength to make peace. Sometimes the rifts in families cleaved by religion are too deep and too painful to ever heal, but much more often after sufficient time passes, it’s merely a matter of someone realizing that love is more important than keeping up a conflict that others have forgotten or would like to forget.

When we are young, our experience of time is short, and our experience of life is narrow, so the injustices done to us seem long and awful to us, and within our personal reality, they are long and awful. But every day lived is a day added to our total experience of time, so the time we spent suffering the old injustice diminishes in proportion. Every day lived also adds to our experience of life, with much worse injustices that we either suffer ourselves or witness in others’ lives. So the severity of the old injustice diminishes in proportion as well.

In short, we gradually grow bigger than the thing that upset us long ago.

Too often our resentful stance of having been hurt lasts much longer than the actual hurt we felt. We cling to our “rightness” as the one who was “wronged.” But then for those of us who are lucky, or those of us who are wise, whichever way you like to think of it, a voice begins to whisper in our ear. The voice of forgiveness whispering to you is the voice of the best of your humanity. Listen to its counsel.

To forgive, begin with empathy. Remember that in most family conflicts like this, on the surface it looks like everyone is angry, but actually everyone is afraid and hurt. Realizing this can soften your own feelings toward the other person, and can begin giving you some empathy for their emotional experience. When you see that the initial shouting and authoritarian reactions were out of fear and hurt rather than out of unkindness or a lack of love, then you can disarm your own anger that covered your own fear and hurt. It’s sort of like untying a tight knot. If you get any one part of the knot looser, that begins to loosen up the rest of it.

Ask your brothers for their suggestions, and ask to just hear about their own experiences with your parents. They may have useful insights for you.

From your letter, it sounds like the way your father and possibly the way your mother have dealt with the original upset has been to forget about it. Sometimes this is an effective way to move on and mend a personal hurt or an interpersonal conflict between people.

However, sometimes there are “things that must be said” before healing can be complete. This is an overt discussion about what they did and what you did, what they believe and what you believe, the hurt you both felt, the love you both feel, and the kind of relationship you both want. This kind of discussion carries the risk of opening old wounds as much as closing them, so one should carefully consider if the “things that must be said” are really needed for healing, or are just one more chance for a shot at the “enemy.”

So some reconciliations have to start with “the things that must be said”, other reconciliations do that later, and others never need it.

From my impression of your letter, I suggest that you first try the simpler, less confrontational approach. Just start having more contact with them, and skip any big important discussion for now. Demonstrate your love for them rather than describing it. Call them, email them, send them pictures of yourself and the things you are doing. Tell them of your successes, but also privilege them with a little of your private concerns, your disappointment about something happening in your life lately, or your apprehension about something coming up. Let them see their son again.

Most importantly, ask them about themselves and what they are doing, ask them for pictures and stories. Go beyond “How are you?” They have friends, work, hobbies, interests, concerns. There are both good things and challenging things that come with being in their 60’s. Be interested in all of it. Being interested is one of the best ways to express, and more importantly, to practice love.

They might mention their church activities. Let them describe them if that’s one of the things they’re doing. If they venture into trying to convince you to rejoin, don’t react with your old hurt, just gently say something like, “That’s an important thing for you, but it’s not for me,” and move on in the conversation.

If however, you get the sense that they want to initiate the “things that must be said,” let them. Just listen. Listen with patience and empathy, remembering that it’s all about fear and hurt and rather than anger and lack of love. Reply if you can remain calm, but you don’t have to reply if you’re not ready. You have the right to say “I want to think about this before I respond to you,” and you have the right to take as long as you need. At any time you can also call for a halt if your feelings get too tense, and say that’s exactly why you want to stop for now. The “things that must be said” can be said in small installments. Sometimes that’s better than a long, exhaustive and exhausting discussion.

Reconciliations are seldom completely smooth, free of bumps and blunders. If you keep your intention focused on your love for them, you will keep to your course despite a stumble or two. I think it is well worth trying. Please write again to tell us how it goes, and I’ll publish it. I’m sure we would all be interested.


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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  • Robert L.

    If you’re financially independent, why bother reconciling? You’re frankly better off without them. If they’re not helping you with college fees it’s a clear sign that they will do anything to get you back into “the fold”, including damaging your future employability and education. This is blackmail, pure and simple. Once you finish college, I advise you to break with them completely. Stop visiting them ASAP, because that is just rewarding them for being blackmailers and a sign to them that you are somehow still under their control. Stop answering their phone calls and emails; change your number if you need to. Cut them off, like you should have done the moment you became financially and socially independent. Perhaps to them, not having a son would be better than having an atheist son. Either way, you need to get out of this poisonous relationship quickly. There might be forgiveness in love and friendship, but there is no forgiveness for those who actively try to stifle your development. Stay strong and break free.

  • Daniel Lafave

    When I looked into this, I was a little staggered to find that there is no mechanism to legally compel parents to file a FAFSA.  It’s especially absurd given that the IRS already has the relevant information.  How many students can’t get financial aid because their parents hate them for being gay, atheist, etc…?  We’ve created a system where parents have control over adult children until they are 24(?) through their refusal to fill out a FAFSA.

    On a more personal level, religious people always think of religion as something that brings people together, but they ignore the ways in which is drives people apart.  I only met my paternal grandparents two times in my life even though they lived into my 20s, because they were very devout Catholics and my parents just had no interest in raising us Catholic.  How sick is it that people would decide that their Jesus Cracker is more important than their own grandchildren?  I would ask my parents, who is more important, you or Jesus?  If they pick Jesus, they are just sick people that you shouldn’t want to have anything more to do with.  If Jesus is really more important to them than you, they are just shitty fucking parents.

  • Wait, the way I understood it was that the only thing they currently give him toward college is their FAFSA information, which further conflict might jeopardize. How is that blackmail?

    I had a friend whose parents wouldn’t give their FAFSA information, even though she lived at home while going to school. They just didn’t want to give their tax information for some reason. It’s not the end of the world if they don’t give the information.

    I say reconcile. If they try to withhold the last shred of “support” they give him, they lose claim to any shred of moral high ground they have remaining.

  • Johannsone

    I loved your response, these sentences struck me as very profound
    “When we are young, our experience of time is short, and our experience
    of life is narrow, so the injustices done to us seem long and awful to
    So much truth.
    I sit in a similar situation and having more spiteful family had to finally realize my life with them hurt me more than without. It is hard, it was hard. I was homeless for a bit, I never was able to go back to college. I could never save enough.  I still struggle,but today I feel better about me and less hurt about yesterdays.
    Today I am working on fulfilling my kids dreams. We work hard to help them reach their goals, whether I think they will fly or fail.
    I wish I could add more wisdom to the above advice. I do. Ultimately, in the end, it’s all up to you. If you want to keep fighting, keep fighting. If you wake up one day exhausted by the struggle, let it go. You can’t be the only one fighting for love. Corny, I know, but true. Hurt may seem huge now and time infinite in your youth, but life blows past. Hurt diminishes and time picks up pace. Chose the way you live wisely, you are the one living it. Good luck. I’m feeling it for you, either way.

  • TJ

    Fuck them! They sound useless and you’re better without them.

  • Don’t lay expectations on claims of high moral ground – once familial emotions get involved – things like this are ignored by most people.

    Be aware that you don’t need the FAFSA information, so don’t feel you have to be lead by the nose there.

    Stand firm but don’t be agressive.  I think what people are saying about listening to them and their side is very important.
    By the same token you have the right to be heard too.  Once they have had their say, politely insist that it is your turn now, or ask that a date be set for your turn.

  • I like this advice and I want to add some input from my own experience. My mother and I were never estranged, but we couldn’t talk about religion for a long time after I became a humanist. Reconciliation came gradually, almost without effort–I spoke often about the things I did believe in–helping others, caring for the environment, being a good person. Over time, this made it clear to my mother that even without faith in a higher power, I was determined to be a good person and a productive member of society. I became a known quantity once again. A few years ago, when a co-worker said,  “I can’t understand atheists. They don’t believe in anything.” My mother replied, “Well my daughter’s an atheist and she believes in all kinds of things.” It’s still touchy sometimes, but I think my mother has learned to appreciate my take on the world and I accept her at her moment–sometimes she is more open, and sometimes it just isn’t a good time to talk about it. But it’s no longer a strong point of contention and she bases her affection on who I am rather than my beliefs.

  • rhodent

    Robert, you are making a lot of assumptions here.  The letter only says they don’t help with college; it does not say this has anything to do with the rift (I know plenty of people who got no help for college from their parents for a variety of reasons, the most common simply being the parents couldn’t afford to).  There is nothing in his letter that says they are emotionally blackmailing him in any way.  There is nothing that says the relationship is poisonous, only that it is strained.  There is nothing saying they are actively trying to stifle the letter-writer’s development.  Your advice may or may not be applicable to what you read into the letter, but it simply is not applicable to the letter as it was written.

  • Johannsone

    FAFSA – allowing parents to hold kids hostage. I mean, what parent doesn’t want to help their kids have all options open?
    Ask my kids why they haven’t talked to their grandparents in 3 years, because my son refused to walk the ‘roman road’ and be saved. shitty fucking parents is right.

  • Daniel Lafave

    Can I just say, I really hate this wishywashy kumbayah advice.  The parents were very wrong here and they haven’t done anything to make amends.  Kevin should say that he wants them to do something to make up for the forced indoctrination and coldness.  They put Jesus over love for their own son.  He should ask them why they would do that.  Why is Jesus was so much more fucking important to them than he is?  Sadly, for a lot of people Jesus (or Allah, HaShem, etc…) is more important than anything else, even relationships with loved ones.  It’s religion’s deepest sickness, putting imaginary friends above their own children.

  • Kenneth Dunlap

    Not helping with college is a lot different than refusing to supply information for the FAFSA. Without that information a student cannot get financial aid. The parents actually tried to hamstring the person’s college education. They did try to “stifle” Kevin’s development.

  • T-Rex

    I’d flat out ask them if they love their religion and imaginary friend more than they love their son. Depending on how they answer should give him all the information he needs on how to proceed or end the relationship. Any parent that doesn’t answer “their child” is not worthy of a relationship with their child and should be cut off permanently. Fuck religion.

  • Anonymous

    As a foreigner I have to ask:  what is FAFSA?  Why is it important?

    Relationships go both ways.  By all means extend the olive branch but if they don’t reciprocate or try to blackmail you with Jesus talk then cut your losses.  I have a perfectly fine relationship with my father that involves seeing him for one weekend a year and talking about once a month.  Less would suit me because we just don’t have anything in common.  More would be fine too but we just aren’t that bothered.

  • Wren Combs

    It is the form you file with the Federal government to apply for student aid for college.  Without your parent’s information, you can’t request aid.

  • He can use his own info as for FAFSA long as his parents aren’t claiming him as a dependent. If they are, then that is a separate conversation to be had. If not, then you will probably qualify for a good amount of funding (depending on how politics want to support higher learning and the funding thereof for whom it is out of reach).

  • Daniel Lafave

    Even if someone is not claimed as a dependent for Income Tax purposes, they are still dependents for the purposes of Federal financial aid until they turn 24.  Without parental information on FAFSA, you are only eligible for unsubsidized Stafford loans.  So, no Pell grants or Perkins loans.  And beyond that is your university’s policy on their aid.

  • Annie

    The beauty and incredible wisdom in Richard’s response almost brought me to tears.  I could identify with the parents by simply imagining my daughter coming home in a few years and announcing that she had joined the pentecostal church.  As a parent, I would feel that I failed.  I would worry about her mind, and I would desperately try to bring her back to reason.  Now Kevin’s parents have the additional worry of their son’s salvation, and of not meeting him again in their afterlife.  These seem silly to us, but if they are devout, these are very real and serious concerns for them. 

    I have never regretted giving my all to a troubled relationship (even if, in the end, it failed), but I have regretted the ones I abruptly severed.   I hope Kevin takes time and consideration before he decides what to do next, and I wish him the best.

  • Daniel Lafave

    He should just tell them that they are wrong about his salvation.  Not agree to disagree, but that they are simply wrong.  I’m sick and tired of treating religion like it has any sort of intellectual or social respectability.  They’re people who were indoctrinated by their parents and wanted to do the same harm to their children.    It’s sick, not an expression of parental love.

  • Kevin,

    I would advise to try to reconcile with them.  They are the only parents you will ever have and you only have one life to live.  They will probably be religious to the day they die.  You may not agree with their religion, but you can accept that it is what they believe.  At this point in life they may not really have a choice but to believe what they do.  There is too much inertia with how their brains are organized for them to change.  If it is unavoidable to discuss religion with them, you could mention that since it is true that you won’t be spending eternity in heaven, you all might as well spend more time together in the here and now.  That is something that all parties can agree on.  Find a way to make things work.    You could even go to church with them if you visit them since it would be of your own free will (and not them forcing you to).  It might even give you all some discussion points for afterwards.   Basically they have to get to the point of accepting that they are not going to be seeing you in an afterlife so it is in their best interest to spend some time with you in the here and now.  The only thing you all disagree on is the reason why.  But you all can agree that you think you will not see them in an afterlife because there is no afterlife and they think it is because you have not accepted Jesus and therefore Jesus won’t let you in (or something like that).  
    Good luck.

  • Alice

    He didn’t say they were threatening to pull the Fafsa, he just said that it’s the worst case scenario if his attempts to reconcile went badly.

  • aerie


  • aerie

    I’m tired of the tip-toeing and white gloving as well.  That nonsense is what got us where we are now.  ‘Live and let live’  doesn’t work on a one-way street –  they refuse to let others live. It’s time to say out loud that faith & religion are *not* noble pursuits & undeserving of special treatment (or tax exemption status). 

    I get the argument for respect and playing nice-nice, I do.  But it has to stop when ‘respecting’ religion means ‘sit down & shut up’ – while we watch the very foundations of  our country being destroyed & human rights trampled upon.

    You don’t get any filthier as a human being than putting  ‘god’  or ideology before your own children.  Pure & selfish cowardice. 

    If their god does exist, he can go fuck himself.

  • aerie

    Why do we excuse old people for their continued bigotry, hate, and ignorance just because they’re old?  What is the cut off age for being a decent human being? 

  • Ooh. You’re right, I misread that the first time. Could’ve been clearer.

  • The decency we should be concerned about is our own, not someone else’s.  The best measure of our decency is our willingness to treat others decently even when they are not perfect in our eyes.  There is no “cut off age,”  but cutting ourselves off from others because we think that our own decency must depend on them being decent first is to abdicate our responsibility as a decent human being.

  • Daniel Lafave

    I just don’t understand why he should acknowledge any hurt they might have felt.  Their hurt, if any, was unreasonable.  If I could raise my grandparents from the dead and talk to them about the issue, I wouldn’t acknowledge any right of their to be hurt that I’m not a Roman Catholic.  My parents never made their giving up Catholicism a condition on a relationship, but they made it a condition on us.  There are a lot of things I dislike about religion, but the way that it divides families is certainly one of the worst.  With today’s youth rejecting religion at a fairly high rate, stories like Kevin’s must be happening all across the country. 

  • You can argue and argue that other people’s feelings were “unreasonable” and not get any better relationship with them. Or you can accept the fact that what they felt and what you felt were the reality at the time, and move forward from there.

    When they learned of young Kevin’s atheism, his parents mainly felt fear, and they tried to counter the thing they feared by controlling him.  Kevin mainly felt hurt. Their efforts to control him didn’t change his mind, so they gave up. Their fear and his hurt continued, and they all became emotionally distant from each other. According to the letter, nobody was actively trying to keep the conflict inflamed. Everyone was simply avoiding any chance of rekindling it.

    As time passed, Kevin began to heal and to realize that he was now bigger than the hurt he had felt. He wondered if he could have a more relaxed and loving relationship with them even if it might not be perfect. After all, he had two brothers who seemed to have found a way. He considered the risk of stirring things up again, and the risk that he might be disappointed, but he still thought it might be worth a try. So he asked my advice for how to attempt it.

    Kevin has grown and matured, and he will keep that regardless of whether the reconciliation is successful.  His parents may have grown and matured as well. This is a chance to find out. Older people can and do grow and mature.

    Yes, you’re right that stories like Kevin’s are happening all across the country. But they’re not all just the first part of his story, the part about painful divisions.  Many also include the second part where people grow beyond their conflicts and remember the value of the love that is still there underneath.

    We should always be open to that possibility and encourage giving it a try, or else we will be guilty of the same self-righteous pig-headedness that we condemn in some religious people.

  • Hi Daniel, please see my reply below. This column is getting too narrow. Thanks. 

  • Judith Vorster

    If you don’t mind me saying so – Amen 🙂

    There are some things, in fact many things, that are more important than being correct. A good relationship with your parents in the last years of their life is one of them.

    You get to appreciate that when you have kids of your own.

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