Ask Richard: Mother Gets Unwelcome Religious Advice About Her Shy Son October 17, 2011

Ask Richard: Mother Gets Unwelcome Religious Advice About Her Shy Son

Dear Richard,

I recently shared concerns I have with my SIL about how my 10-year old son is having a terrible time trying to interact with the kids in our neighborhood. We just moved here so he doesn’t know anybody, and he literally runs away if approached. (We’re seeking professional help.) She was very supportive, and it was a good conversation.

The next day she sent an e-mail to me and my husband, and she also copied it to my FIL, since she had told my MIL the things I shared with her about my son’s debilitating shyness/possible social phobia. That upsets us because she really had no business passing that along without our permission, but I guess I should have told her that our conversation was to be kept in confidence. The e-mail consisted of a long list of ideas of how to help our son cope with his shyness, and it was obvious that she meant well in sending it, because she loves our son very much.

However, one of her suggestions has us really upset because she knows that I am an atheist. I told her last year, and she accepted it and hasn’t treated me any differently since finding out. Here it is:

“Go to church, any one that you feel comfortable with. Teach him about God and Jesus so that he can have a faith life and an understanding of God’s loving presence for comfort and support, anxiety reduction and peacefulness…”

WTF? I would never dream of telling her to stop filling her kids’ heads with Christian dogma, so I’m in shock that she would expect me to teach my child something I don’t believe to be true. I’m sure she wouldn’t teach her children that atheism is a desirable philosophy to have, so I’m appalled, quite frankly. My FIL is not comfortable with my atheism, and told us once that he doesn’t think we’re being fair to our child since we don’t “teach him that he has a heavenly father”. The subtle needling that we get to take him to church is bad enough from my FIL, and now we get this little gem from my SIL.

Should I let her know that this advice bothers us, or do I just drop it to keep the peace? I feel like the implication is that my atheism is inferior to her theism, and by extension, my parenting is inferior as well. By the way, my husband is not religious, but he does believe there’s something out there. We agree that we should let our son decide for himself about the god hypothesis. I quizzed my son recently about his feelings, and he says he’s an atheist. He said, “How can something immaterial be more powerful than nature?” I’ve never thought of that one myself!

Righteously Indignant

Dear Righteously Indignant,

Whether or not you should say something or drop it depends on many things that only you could know, and some of those things you might not know. You’re trying to figure out what is in another person’s mind from what might or might not be implied messages in between her words to you. That can be frustrating and a bit crazy-making.

One argument for leaving it alone is that if it gets worse, then you’ll be sure, and you’ll be able to speak up about it with certainty.

One argument for speaking up about it now is that if you wait and it does get worse, you’ll have more resentment about it, and it will be harder to resolve things amicably.

It’s almost certain that your sister-in-law views her theism as accurate and your atheism as inaccurate, just as you have the opposite view. But you are feeling defensive and resentful about an attitude of moral and personal superiority that she might or might not harbor.

Your indignation seems to be based on your assumption that she is deliberately and consciously implying her disapproval of you, your atheism and your parenting, similar to the more explicit criticism you get from your father-in-law. That assumption about her attitude might not be accurate. Going by your letter, there is little indicated about her attitude, and much about your speculation about her attitude. Needling you indirectly might be her conscious intention, or her remarks might be due to simple insensitivity, forgetfulness, or a somewhat inept application of good intentions.

To quote Robert Hanlon, Robert Heinlein, Napoleon, and Goethe, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

If you decide to talk with her about it, a casual conversation would probably be better than returning an email. You had better results when the two of you spoke face-to-face. There would be two separate issues to discuss:

The first would be about confidentiality. Many people assume that personal or sensitive conversations are okay to share with others unless they are specifically asked to keep it in confidence. Because of my background as a counselor, I always assume that any personal or sensitive information told to me even in an informal chat should be kept confidential unless I am specifically given permission to share it, and only with specific people. A great deal of strife and hurt could be avoided if that were the more common assumption.

The second issue to discuss with her would be about recommending religion as a solution. You’re shocked and appalled that she would suggest something you would never dream of suggesting to her. Keep in mind that some, though not all, Christians think that the Golden Rule does not apply to their efforts to proselytize non-believers who don’t proselytize them. When confronted with the inequity of their unwelcome attention, they often use the paternalistic rationalization that they’re doing it “for your own good,” and that the salvation of your soul trumps any principle of reciprocity. They think they possess a divine license to break such basic social rules, so it’s often futile to try to philosophically argue them out of that position. Sometimes the only recourse is to simply tell them to stop.

In your own words and in a relaxed setting, consider saying something along these lines:

Thank you for being so supportive and caring when I confided in you about (my son’s) recent difficulties. I know you love him very much, so I’m sure you meant well when you talked to (your mom) about it, and when you sent (your dad) a copy of the email that you wrote to (me and my husband).

However, with personal matters, we would rather have the choice to involve them or not, so please keep such things between us unless I say it’s okay to share it with someone else. (My husband) and I of course will be just as careful with personal things that you share with us.

We appreciate your several ideas to help (our son), but as I hope you already understand, teaching him to become a Christian is not what we wish. We’re teaching him to think carefully for himself and to make his own well-considered decisions in life, including making up his own mind about religion. You have been very accepting of me despite the difference in our beliefs, and I want to continue to be accepting of you. I hope that we can stay as close and comfortable as we’ve been.

Something gentle like this might work, might not, or might work partially. When dealing with someone who is doing an annoying thing, people have their own preferences about tact versus frankness, and so people will apply them differently, or apply only one. There are no foolproof methods.

If a pair of tweezers will do a job, then there’s no need for a sledgehammer. I tend to prefer an escalating series of responses, giving a tactful request the first try, before moving on to a frank instruction, and if that fails, a pointed demand. That way, the person who is doing the annoying thing cannot claim that I didn’t give them fair warning before coming down hard on them. If you and your sister-in-law can be friends who have reached an understanding, that’s better than being enemies who have reached the end of their patience.

I think you and your husband are doing an excellent job of parenting your son. He sounds like a sensitive and thoughtful boy, and he’s lucky to have both of you. Try simple things like arranging for a neighbor to come over to visit with just one of their children. That way your son is on his own turf, and he might feel more at ease sharing his own toys and games with just one kid while you and the other adult are chatting close by. Then depending on the result, at another time try having another child visit. This will give your son a gradual easing into the neighborhood without the intimidating prospect of having to meet and trying to be accepted by everyone all at once. With the combination of the right professional help and your encouragement to think for himself and believe in himself, I think it’s very likely that he will adjust to his new social environment, and he will become confident and happy.


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
  • Bob Becker

    Right on the advice about confidentiality.  Wrong I think on the advice about  confronting the MIL in re: her suggestion joining a church to find a circle of friends for the letter writer’s  son.  The MIL sent along a slew of suggestions.  Best advice would be to take seriously any the writer  finds helpful, thank her for them and ignore the rest. I wouldn’t make a point of responding to that particular suggestion [note: it was a suggestion for the letter-writer, not an offer to introduce the child to a congregation on the parents’ behalf or in their stead].  

    The parents have  more than enough on their plate right now and a good relationship with the MIL   It’s be foolish to   borrow trouble inside the family when they really  don’t need to.   And based on what’s above,  they don’t need to.

  • Erik

    I don’t understand. They didn’t seem to be ramming church down your throat, it was more like ‘go to church’ was one of many suggestions they made. I was raised with Christians. If you are going to live among Christians as an open atheist, they are going to try to convert you from time to time.
    If they are being pushy and threatening you with visions of hell, then it’s time to get new friends. If they occasionally invite you to church or mention being saved and how ‘wonderful’ it is, then they’re the normal ones. These people really believe that you are turning away from eternal life, and that they can help you. It seems unrealistic to expect them never to bring it up again.
    Just my 2c

  • Anonymous

    I agree completely.   Were that the only suggestion or just one of 2, I’d get my panties in a bunch as well.  But if there were many other suggestions, it may be that she found the list somewhere and copied and pasted it to send or it is her list and she just included it as another suggestion.  I’d ignore it as one that doesn’t apply and look at others.  The way it is worded, it sounds like a carefully worded and caring suggestion.  Were you not an atheist, it might not be a bad suggestion, either.  (My son has integration and socialization issues and even as an atheist, I considered finding an UU church to attend, if only for socialization opportunities for him as a primary concern. Alas, there were none close to use at the time.)

    I also concur with the integration suggestion Richard offered.  Single playdates on his own turf would allow him to be comfortable and at ease, more able to socialize with a new child.

  • Elliott776

    I would check to see if the message was an automated response or pre-made response. Sometimes these “responses” are blanket letters that are sent out to everyone who asks for that kind of help. I would have called the person and asked about it because here in America its quite normal to refer people with social problems to churches. Churches have long been the ‘go-to’ place for these issues. 
    Remember that Atheists are the odd bunch in the group so troubleshooting ideas aren’t always geared specifically for us. 

  • How many atheists would suggest to their Christian family that they’d like to go present “the other view of god” at Sunday School? –you know, just for the benefit of the kids. Sorry, but horrible manners are horrible manners. 

    If you return the favor of presenting the “other side”, it is always the atheist who is condemned as rude. Sorry, a single standard should apply.

  • How many atheists would suggest to their Christian family that they’d like to go present “the other view of god” at Sunday School? –you know, just for the benefit of the kids. Sorry, but horrible manners are horrible manners. 

    If you return the favor of presenting the “other side”, it is always the atheist who is condemned as rude. Sorry, a single standard should apply.

  • Bill

    Is the atheist really the one who always comes across as rude?  I think that there is a single standard here.  Christians who “shove their religion down other people’s throats” are constantly criticized for doing so.  Even though in some cases they are simply presenting “the other side”.

  • Rich Wilson

    If I may play Evangelist’s Advocate for a minute:

    I understand you don’t believe in God.  I also know that not accepting God’s love means you will spend eternity in Hell.  Not something I’d wish on my worst enemy, never mind someone I love.  I know nobody would choose hell, so obviously you just don’t understand the importance.  Yes.

    I’d agree with not using a bigger hammer then necessary, but I’d also make sure the boundary is clear, because, out of love, she will continue the assault.  And if she can’t reach you, she’ll do an end run on your son. 

  • Trina

    Even if this wasn’t a personalized reply to begin with, I expect that the SIL has heard of the ‘cut’ function in emailing (though it’s possible that I’m wrong).   I’m inclined to agree with the basic conversational tone that Richard suggested.  An issue unaddressed often becomes a larger and much more serious issue, whatever the subject matter.

  • A reason for it not being cut may be that she looked at the list as a whole and thought it was good, and forgot that detail that her audience was not religious, or assumed there was some sort of equivalent for non-religious people. I know that if my family ever had to give me similar advice, they may do the same, and if asked about it, realize the mistake in detail, but the jest of the advice would be the same. Find some local atheist group to go meet other like-minded individuals.

  • I think it boils down to how and when one does it and to whom. If asked about religion or lack there of then by all means discuss it, but when unsolicited “Advice” is given it is pretty rude.

  • Not to be a huge stickler, but some people do actually choose hell. Silly right?

  • Rich Wilson

    As opposed to not believing it exists?  I have said that I would prefer hell to submitting to an authoritarian that would threaten me with hell. 

    I guess I don’t see that as the same as ‘choosing hell’.  I can’t imagine anyone who believes in the doctrine deciding that they’d like hell, but I’m not firm on that.  Any assumption about people in general is generally wrong.

  • Piet Puk

    Can you explain what you mean by this? Are you talking about war journalists that seek out war zones to do their jobs?

  • AwesomeCloud’s mom

    The basis of the suggestion is pretty good: take your son somewhere where he’ll see the same people over and over again but not be pressed into interacting with them right away. (Of course, it would depend on the church – you’d need something between a megachurch and a church that stuffed all the kids into Sunday school.)  Other types of community groups would suffice, if you shop around until you find something in your area that fits the criteria. It’s too bad your SIL didn’t emphasize that instead of the Jesus angle. I mean, technically, a Unitarian Universalist church would accomplish the same thing, with less Jesus. You could try a martial arts class, or something else that keeps the kids too busy to really socialize – unless your son is unable to physically be in the same room as other kids he doesn’t know. In that case, I don’t know.

    As for whether you should be offended, I have no idea. My relatives make remarks like that to me all the time, so to me it just sounds like an everyday occurrence.

  • Anonymous

    What the hell is she talking about? Who or what are her SIL, FIL and MIL?

  • Abbreviations for the people you inherit as relatives when you get married:

    SIL = Sister in Law
    FIL = Father in Law
    MIL = Mother in Law

  • Sister-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law.

  • Erp

    Or to expand, father -in-law and mother-in-law are your spouse’s parents.  Sister-in-law can be either your spouse’s sister, your sibling’s wife, or your spouse’s sibling’s wife  though in this context it seems to be the first. Historically mother/father-in-law could also be a stepparent.  

  • I don’t think its rude for an atheist to conversationally suggest an alternative viewpoint to the religious, and it would be hypocritical of me to reject the opposite. It would also be hypocritical of me however to criticize the believers who take even the idea of open atheism as an insult if mentioned, and them condone the opposite behavior by atheists out of a twisted sense of parity.

    I don’t just want a single standard, I want a single rational standard.

  • To this I’ll add some of my experiences. To some believers, the idea of good person = church goer is ingrained at a deep level, to the point that they don’t immediately see the disparity unless prodded.  I’ve had a believing friend include me in a group of ‘good christians’ and when I pointed out that they know Im an atheist, they said words to the effect of ‘you know what I mean, ‘good people’, and I did know, because this was what I grew up with.
    It is a blatant case of christian privilege showing, but it might not be consciously confrontational.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you

  • Mr Z

    Seriously? I know that the nuances of human relationships are complicated, but in this case the situation is not complex at all. The writer’s SIL suggested the bible and christianity. Their bible commands stoning children who will not obey. All she need do is command the child to obey or stone him according to her SIL’s advice… which is not good advice at all. She can clearly ignore and berate such advice as stupid. Not even her in-laws will suggest stoning the child so there is no advice in their religion which is applicable except through interpretation and deceit. Ignoring such advice with scorn if asked is not a problem in my view. Love is a complex thing and something the christian religion is all to illequiped to deal with.

    Her SIL is a silly ride who at best should be ignored, and at worst called on the carpet for deliberate interference through involvement of others. Do not let such ill go unpunished or you will have to live with and deal with it for a long time.

  •  From what limited information was given as to the relative’s intent, there’s no reason to escalate this. It appears that an ignorant person made an ignorant suggestion.  You can choose to be
    offended or you can just learn from the experience and move on.

  • Mr Z

    Richard, one more thing. Why is she asking Christians for relationship advice? Would she ask a crack addict for dietary advice? Would she ask a pothead for advice on balancing her checkbook? Would she ask a drunkard for advice on how to stop drinking? Seriously, why is she asking believers for advice? Talk about distasteful! They are NOT to be trusted. She knows they are deluded to begin with. Why … oh why did she ask any of them for advice?

  • Good point.

  • Good point.

  • Ogre Magi

    It is pretty common for Christians to slip in a little proselytizing with every thing they do

  • Eskomo

    Believers make up 80% of the US  population. Can’t trust them for any advice?

  • CascadiaJefferson

    totally agree here. Were it in person it would bear a brief dismissal, or whatever conversation follows. In a list of items in an email, I wouldn’t even address it, just take it as a sign to prepare a few strong, concise explanations of your position in varying degrees of politeness should it come up in the future.
    In this context though, especially with a family member who hasn’t made an issue of it otherwise, and who likely doesn’t have enough influence to reach yr son, just treat the suggestion as you would that of a loving and slighty quirky friend who just knows a good crystal fairy cleanse would bring you the same joy and success they attribute to it.
    Which is to say, unless she starts bringing crystals over or trying to drag your son off to the grove alone, you can probably let it slide.
    At ten the son is old enough and certainly sounds rational enough that you shouldn’t have to worry about him at least until he’s a bit older and the biggest threat to his rational beliefs will be the cup size nestling that little gold cross.
    Also, if the issue has more to do with involving FIL, or at least you say she’s been more accepting, you may approach from the angle of appreciating her acceptance of your choice in raising your son outside the organized church, but as her father has been more outspoken about it and you’d prefer to avoiding the topic when he’s involved.
    If she suggests it again, just say you don’t think that while he’s struggling with social acceptance is the right time to start teaching him about hell, sin and damnation, especially since he’s bound to experience Worse discrimination as a doubter with a nonbeliever parent (and especially in his peer group).

  • Anonymous

    The letter was written by the Sister-in-Law not the Mother-in-Law.  It was copied to the mother-in-law and the father-in-law.

    Additionally, I have to disagree with your analysis. I don’t think that the fact that it came as one in a group of suggestions lightens the impact of the suggestion. 

    If the suggestion had been “Find and start attending a church that you feel comfortable with,” it would be one thing.   There are for example Unitarian congregations that an atheist could attend and still be comfortable because the focus is on community and not theology.  Such a suggestion could be taken as, “find a group that establishes a kind of community that might foster interpersonal relationships.”

    This however is not the spirit the suggestion was made in. This was clearly “get that child some Jesus lovin’ and he’ll be fixed.” It was a direct insult to “Righteously Indignant’s” world-view.

    I’m not certain whether letting it slide or confrontation – or even the degree of confrontation – is the best course of action, but I think it’s pretty clear from the wording that the SIL meant to insist that “Righteously Indignant” is incorrect and that she and her child needs “God and Jesus” and “a faith life and an understanding of God’s loving presence.”  No matter which way you slice it, that is an insult.

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