My mother is a practicing Pentecostal Christian and has recently begun heavily witnessing to my five-year-old son. I was raised in this cult-like religion, but have been an atheist for nearly 10 years now. Although my mother and I have never had an in-depth conversation regarding my deconversion, she knows where I stand on the issue of religion.
The past few times my son has spent time with her (she lives several houses away so he doesn’t see her regularly) she has taught him religious songs and has talked to him about inviting Jesus into his heart, praying, Heaven, etc. She has placed prayer cloths (strips of cloth church members pray over) in his room and once when she kept my son and infant daughter overnight at her house she took them to choir practice and had the choir members pray over them.
To make matters worse she has asked my son to keep these things a secret from me, and his father who is also an atheist. Being five, my son of course cannot keep a secret, and told us what happened after each event. I’m not sure how to approach my mother regarding her behavior.
My mother and I have always been extremely close and I love her very much, but I am deeply saddened and hurt by her actions. I know that I cannot have a rational conversation with her because I have tried this in the past. When my son was one, she said she wanted to take him to Sunday School and I explained in as nice a way as possible that this was not going to happen. She became enraged and cried uncontrollably. The subject was never broached again by either one of us. My husband is angry with my mother and wants me to talk to her ASAP. I know that I have to speak with her about this, but I don’t want to permanently damage our relationship. Do you have any advice on how I can talk to my mother?
A Concerned Mother
Dear Concerned Mother,
I have no doubt that, as you say, you love your mother very much. You want to avoid permanently damaging your relationship, but it is already damaged. To make things better, you must take steps to not repair it, but to fundamentally change its basic nature.
I get the impression that your relationship with your mother is in a transition phase going from parent-child toward adult-adult. This is a natural developmental stage that is often the most difficult for older parents and their gown-up offspring to pass through. Parent-child relationships are primarily based on love. Adult-adult relationships are primarily based on respect. An adult-adult relationship cannot last without respect, even if love is there.
If you are reluctant to draw a line in the sand because your mother might stop loving you, ask yourself if her behavior shows respect for you.
She is being deceitful to you, doing things behind your back that she knows are unacceptable to you. Sneaking religious indoctrination into your son and then telling him to keep it all a secret from his parents is not just disrespectful, it’s outrageous. She is attempting to drive a wedge between him and his parents, and if permitted to continue, she will succeed.
If this is how she operates, then you are correct to describe at least her particular practice of her religion as cult-like. The first thing that cults do is to isolate the young target member from his parents, and then gradually encourage secretiveness and a rift. They plant the idea that the cult is good for him, and anything that contradicts the cult, including his parents, are bad for him. It is remarkable that ten years ago you were able to break away from such a pernicious influence, but it’s also understandable that you are still reluctant to fight that influence directly and openly.
But fight it you must, or lose your son to the cult.
Four years ago, your mother’s going into a rage and crying uncontrollably was a manipulation that effectively shut down all conversation about your atheism and your son’s religious education. By avoiding the unpleasantness of more of her infantile behavior, you have been inadvertently giving her the opportunity to underhandedly do whatever she wants with him.
So far, I have used rather harsh but I think accurate terms to describe your mother’s behavior, but I want to balance that with a note of compassion and understanding for her. I think it will be more helpful to not think of your mother as a villain. As David Silverman has said on more than one occasion, think of her as a victim of a system of irrational thinking that causes her to do these disrespectful and untrustworthy things. She has been trained her whole life to think that she’s doing the right thing for her grandson, although it is not really her prerogative to do so. Keeping that more forgiving viewpoint in your mind will help to reduce the personal resentment you might feel for her as the two of you wrestle with this adjustment.
You’re going to have to make some difficult choices. If you don’t, you will be leaving those choices to be made by your mother. Your relationship with her will have to change one way or another. It can become a relationship of respectful interaction with clear boundaries that you have set up, or it can be a relationship of resentful distance, disconnection, and loss of contact, because your mother finally went too far, and/or her influence on your son finally went too far. It would be very difficult to repair a relationship that is damaged in that way. Take assertive steps now.
You should not have to face this alone. Your husband should not be looking to you to “fix” this all by yourself just because she is your mother, and not his mother. I spoke of a wedge that could be driven between your son and his parents. Do not let another wedge be driven between you and your husband. The boy is just as much his son as he is your son. You are both equally responsible for his well being, and you should both participate equally in correcting this situation. Let this challenge strengthen your bond together.
You and your husband need to talk together at length and draw up a plan for very clear, very solid boundaries for your mother, including specific things that are acceptable and that are unacceptable. This must include anyone else she might try to use as an “end run” around your boundaries. Make sure that these are things that both of you will be able and willing to vigilantly monitor and strictly enforce. Write the whole plan down in detail so that there are no misunderstandings or differences of interpretation later, and so that all of you are always on the same page.
Be prepared for some attempts at cheating. Have proportional consequences already considered for such misbehaviors. The whole point of this is to avoid the ultimate consequence, the complete and permanent separating of your son from his grandmother, and you from your mother. Even with this plan that is still a possibility, but leaving things as they are, it seems an inevitability.
Then you and your husband, as a united front, should present your plan to your mother.
If she resorts to raging and crying again, and if that will make it too difficult for both of you to do this face-to-face with her, then you might write her a letter, making it clear that it’s from both of you, and spelling out the boundaries that must be respected or at least followed.
There will be upset. There will be tension. There will be reproach and attempts at guilt trips. If both you and your husband keep your dignity and remain “the adults in the room,” patiently modeling the respectfulness that you want to see come from her, then I think there is a good chance that eventually all of you can enjoy more relaxed and workable relationships, and your son can enjoy being with his grandmother without her trying to proselytize him.
I think you should definitely educate your son about religion on your own terms and with your own resources. If current trends continue, during his lifetime he will see a dramatic reduction in religion’s general influence over society, but he will still have to work and interact with many religious people. Having an accurate and objective understanding of religion in general will be helpful to him.
Please feel free to write again, letting us know how things develop.