Friday, December 9, 2011

Christian parents of atheist or agnostic children

Update as of May 22, 2012: There is now a support group on Facebook for parents who find themselves in this position. It's not a large group (I just created it yesterday), but if you're interested you can find it here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/241694482603159/ You will need a Facebook account to join.

There is also a corresponding group for the unbelieving "children" (regardless of actual age, obviously) here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/406543069389528/


I'm not sure exactly how to start this post, since it's a response to the troubles that some of my friends (in various locations) have run into recently, and I really don't want to name names or even talk about specific situations. But it seems worthwhile to look at this topic again, only this time specifically in terms of family relationships.

Before I jump in, I'd like to point out some other resources that might also be helpful:
  • Friendly Evangelism - a while back, I wrote a series of posts on how Christians can talk to ex-Christians and non-Christians without driving them away, starting arguments, or giving offense. (It's best to scroll down and start at the beginning.)
  • Alise... Write! - Alise is a Christian whose (formerly Christian) husband lost his faith. She has some very interesting material on moving into and being part of an "unevenly-yoked" marriage. (Again, it's best to scroll down and start at the beginning.)
  • Better a good atheist than a bad Christian - John Shore talks about priorities.
  • What to do if your college-aged child turns his back on Judaism - Shula J Asher Silberstein's article is aimed at Jewish parents, but there's plenty there to help Christian parents as well.
The Friendly Evangelism posts were aimed at general communication, and (because of the way the question was originally posed) focused mainly on talking to people you don't know, in an online environment. Talking to a family member adds a whole new set of issues and potential problems. Now it's not just religious differences creating friction; you can cheerfully throw in family dynamics, generational differences, and a host of other things to really muddy the water. Fun for the whole family, right?

No. It's not fun. In fact, I can pretty well guarantee that it's not fun for anybody. The best you can hope for - the absolute best - is that it won't be a very big deal.[1] That's true whether you're the Christian parent, or the atheist/agnostic[2] child. It's a difficult, tricky situation. Which brings me to my first piece of advice:

Don't panic. I know this is a huge shock for you. I realize that - depending on your particular flavor of Christianity - you may be terrified by the thought that your own flesh and blood is now bound for Hell. You may be wondering how this happened, what went wrong, whether you could have done something to prevent it, and what happens next. You may feel that the world is out of balance, that everything is wrong. But whatever you do, share as little of this reaction as possible with your child. Wait. Walk away and have your primal scream in private.[3]

Remember that however difficult, unpleasant, and horrifying this may be for you to accept, it was at least that hard for your child, too. In fact, it was probably harder. That feeling that someone just pulled the rug out from under you, or kicked a leg out from under your chair, or punched you in the gut? They've had that. And odds are, if you're reading this, they've felt that in very recent memory.

After that, watch your language. Losing your faith is almost never a quick, casual decision. For most people, it's an uncomfortable and unwelcome conclusion to a long and painful search for answers. So anything you say, or ask, that sounds like your child chose to quit being Christian is going to be unwelcome at best. At worst, it's infuriating.

Similarly, anything that has to do with their relationship with God is probably unwelcome. People who are unhappy with their church (or their minister, or their faith community) just go find another church. People who are dissatisfied with Christianity itself but still believe in some sort of divinity will move to another religion, or become "spiritual but not religious".[4] To get all the way to atheism, or even firm agnosticism, you have to conclude that either God doesn't exist, or at the very least that He isn't active in the world. And once someone has reached that point, they don't have feelings about God. They don't see religion as having anything to do with God: it's just people. As far as they can tell, it has always been just people. So they don't "hate God" and they aren't "angry at God." They can't be; for atheists, that's like being mad at Santa Claus.

That said, they can be, and probably are, angry about being told for years about God. Once someone has concluded that God doesn't exist - or even that He isn't what they were told - they tend to feel like a great many people have lied to them. They tend to feel like they've been used and manipulated. They feel betrayed. If you're seeing anger, that's where a lot of it is coming from. That's not all of it, but that's a lot.

The other part of the anger is mostly - one way or another - a reaction to pain. Losing faith is painful. Losing faith means asking questions that peers, family, and authority figures may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, or inappropriate. (It feels a bit like admitting to people that you have a communicable disease.) In the process of losing their faith, a lot of people also lose friends, relationships, even entire communities. At its worst, losing your faith is like losing your whole world - or, worse, losing yourself. It's an experience of finding out that you aren't who you thought you were, that things you'd always relied on weren't true, or weren't there. This experience is made worse by the fact that very few people understand (and fewer accept) what the disaffected Christian is going through as they lose their faith - especially in more conservative, religious communities.

Basically, you should try to avoid anything that trivializes their loss of faith: anything that makes it sound like they're just being silly or childish or petulant; anything that makes it sound like a simple choice; and - and here's the hard part - anything that treats their lack of belief as something other than a lack of belief. Telling a former believer that they just had a bad experience with the church, or that they're just mad at God, sends a very clear message that you have no idea what happened to them and aren't interested in finding out.

Listen to people who know. As a rule, Christianity doesn't really prepare its adherents for the idea of people losing their faith. Changing from one denomination to another, sure - but dropping out of Christianity entirely? Rare few churches ever talk about that. Most churches assume that atheists have never heard of the Gospel, or at the very least that they've never been exposed to true Christianity. A casual reading of the Apostle Paul would suggest that there's no such thing as an atheist, that God's presence is so unambiguously obvious that anyone who denies His existence must clearly be in rebellion against Him. There are several problems with these views, but even if they were irrefutably true, here and now they're just not helpful.

By the same token, talking with your minister (priest, pastor, whatever) might be helpful, but odds are good that they don't have a lot more experience with this than you do. Despite what you (and they) might hope, their training isn't likely to be especially helpful, either. So by all means ask them for advice, but take their answers with a grain of salt (or, in some cases, an entire salt mine).

You know who's going to best understand what your child is going through? That's right... it's your child. Listen to what your child has to say about his or her experience. But - and this is a very big "but" - remember that losing faith is a process. It's not like buying a car, where one day you can just decide to go out and do it, and then it's done. Your child may not be able to fully articulate everything that went into their loss of faith, particularly not in a way that make sense to you. So listen. Ask questions if you must. Take time to think over what they tell you. Above all, do not demand answers. If you can accept that you may never understand what happened, that will probably help.

Treat your child like an adult. The age of the child is going to make a big difference, here. High-school or college age children may just be "going through a phase" or "rebelling" or what have you. Then again, they may not. I myself wandered away from Christianity in my early teens; I'm creeping up on forty now, and Christian beliefs still don't make any sense to me.[5] Either way, it's best to treat your child as if this is a serious conclusion that they've legitimately worked their way to.

That's doubly important if your children actually are independent adults. I shouldn't even have to say that, but I keep running into parents who can't seem to process the fact that their children can, in fact, make decisions and reach conclusions on their own. Despite the fact that these "children" are completely self reliant, gainfully employed, married, and/or parents in their own right, their parents either can't or won't acknowledge that they have the right and ability to be self-determining.

Be ready to make some adjustments. If your child is still at home, forcing them to go to church with you isn't going to magically turn them back into a Christian - in fact, it's rather more likely to drive them further away. The same goes for leaving tracts around for them to find. If you, or they, aren't comfortable talking about religion - or can't discuss it calmly, or whatever - then put the topic off-limits. (Sort like the "Don't talk politics at the family gathering" rule. Remember that one? The one that was put in place because Uncle Charlie loves to argue, and holds political opinions that are diametrically opposed to those of everyone else in the family, and can't or won't pull back before things get really unpleasant?) If your grown child isn't comfortable with taking your grandchildren to church, let it go. It's not that important, and it's not like they're going to grow up never hearing about Jesus.[6] Take a deep breath, be flexible, and try to focus on what's really important: your relationship with your child.

Above all, have faith. I know that sounds funny coming from me, but I'm serious. If you can't trust in your child, trust in God. Do you really think He's just going to let them fall? (If you just said yes, are we talking about the same deity? He'd sacrifice His only Son to save everyone, but you think He's just going to stand by when it comes to your child?) Do you really think He's all that concerned about whether or not they're aware of His presence? Especially when compared to, say, how they're living their lives?

Don't let your confusion and fear try to tell you the limits of God's grace and mercy. Have faith. Trust.

* * *

So that's my advice. I hope it helps. Comments are open. If there's something you'd like to add - something I missed, or something you think I got wrong - please contribute. If you have questions, please ask. If you've found other resources helpful, let us know. Discovering that your child has lost his or her faith is a difficult, unpleasant situation, but you can work through it and you can keep your family intact.



[1] At worst... well, I know of one case where a high school senior was kicked out of his house, his possessions tossed out on the yard to get rained on; not just disowned, but disavowed entirely.

[2] A quick note on terminology: "atheism" is generally defined as the belief that there is (or are) no God (or gods). Agnosticism is generally defined as uncertainty about the existence of God, or sometimes as the belief that it's impossible to really know whether or not God exists. In practice, there's a huge amount of overlap between those two positions. There are a lot of atheists who prefer to define the term not as definite belief that God does not exist, but as a lack of belief that God does exist. There are plenty of agnostics who are functionally atheist: since they see no definite evidence proof of God's existence, they assume that He doesn't exist.

[3] I realize that if you've looked this up on the Internet, it's probably just exactly too late for this advice. I stand by it nevertheless.

[4] Oddly, a lot of people find this easier to accept than the notion that their child doesn't believe in the supernatural at all. I say "oddly" because from a theological perspective, it makes no sense: in most Christian doctrine, a Buddhist is just as damned as an atheist. Though in all honesty, I think this particular part of Christian doctrine is based on a seriously misguided reading of the Bible.

[5] So my parents have been coping with my lack of belief for quite a long time, now.

[6] Seriously, in modern, Western nations, that's essentially impossible. Everybody hears about Jesus.

51 comments:

  1. Well written, reasoned and concise. Though I'm afraid the parents you might be addressing with this particular advice might not take it to heart, precisely because it is reasonable.

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    1. There are many reasonable Christian parents out here:)

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  2. Thank you. I'm sending this to my parents, who haven't thrown me out of the house but who have been terrible at accepting my apostasy and dissatisfaction with religion (which is not the same thing as God, no matter what my family thinks.)

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  3. This post struck a chord because hapaxson told me a few months ago that he considered himself an atheist.

    My biggest problem with this is *grief*; same as if he told me that he were an asexual or had no interest in reading or could not detect the taste of food; here was a whole aspect of human experience, one that filled me with delight and depth, that one of the people I loved most in the entire universe could not find joy in.

    I do not preach at or mock him. I do not think that there is anything "wrong" with him, just "different." I am not angry or shamed. Nevertheless, I am *grieved* -- and bless him, I do think he respects my sorrow as well.

    So I am giving him Dawkins' MAGIC OF REALITY FOR CHRISTMAS. And I am trying very hard to learn from him about those things that give *him* joy that leave me utterly baffled (see e.g. video games.)

    -- hapax

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    1. I agree and feel your same grief as a parent.

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  4. (I'm a serial lurker. I wouldn't usually comment, but this post hit me harder than I was expecting. hapax's comment, too. hapax, this is not intended as a challenge, rebuttal, or rebuke to you - it's just that what you describe resonated with me, and not in the most comfortable of ways)

    I'm an adult atheist with a Christian mother and many Christian relations, and I never lost my faith - I never had it. Rather, it took me till my teens to figure out, miniature egotist that I was, that the people around me genuinely believed, and weren't using Christianity as (just) a series of useful metaphors like I was. And once that had dawned, the honest thing to do was to step away, to admit that I'd been using the word in error all that time, and would be better suited by another one. 'Atheist' is the one that best describes my relation to the world.

    Mum and I don't talk about it much, but I'm fairly sure my atheism saddens her - likely for the same reasons hapax talks about; not because she thinks I'm going to hell, but because she thinks I'm missing out. And I can sort of grok that, but it still hurts. I've come to an understanding of the world that seems to me to be good and true and right, and it is painful that what I felt as a joyful gain, my mother understands to be a loss.

    I realise this is a tiny niggle compared to what many other atheist children are dealing with, but it seemed to bear mentioning. So maybe something to add to the list, albeit a long way down the line from things like "don't throw your child out of the house": consider whether it may be possible to be happy that your child has found a truth that works for them, even if you can't be happy with what it is.

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  5. @This Wicked Day -- I'm sorry, I was typing late at night, so I wasn't so clear. Or I expected people to pick up on the allusive message of my book references.

    Dawkins' new book is aimed at a younger audience, and the whole message is about finding joy and wonder in process of using science to understand natural phenomena, explicitly contrasting it to myth and religion.

    Since hapaxson *isn't* an adult, and hasn't fully formed his world view yet, and neither of us is stupid enough to pretend that he has, we're not in a position where he can say to me, "Be happy for me that I have thrown off the shackles of an outdated superstition and am now free to think rationally!" -- at least not if he doesn't want that to come back to bite him ten, five years from now.

    But he *can* say to me, "This is where I am right now." And I *can* say in return, "I don't share that, and to me it would seem a loss and a sorrow. But here, I understand and accept that others find it to be a joy and a liberation; read this and see if it helps you find your way."

    Which I suppose is a heavy burden to place on a book. But that's how we talk to one another in my family.

    -- hapax

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  6. Please don't apologise, hapax - your comment reminded me of something in my own life, and I headed off on my own little tangent. Although thank you for pointing out that hapaxson is not yet an adult; I didn't know that, and I realise now that I was imagining someone my own age (twenties), which probably contributed to how I reacted.

    I hope hapaxson enjoys his Christmas present - from what I've heard it's a thought-provoking book, and from what you've said, it was chosen with tremendous love and care.

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  7. Wow...I've got to say, the "adult child leaving Judaism" article was nothing like this post. It basically explicitly states that either your no-longer-Jewish child will come back to the faith once they get rebellion out of their system, or something traumatic has happened like a bad break-up or school stress that's the real underlying problem, with some implication that solving that problem will get rid of the atheism.

    I was raised Jewish, and like Wicked Day, I realized some day that I just had never actually believed. I went along with things because I got praised for them and I was a good girl, but just about the moment I started seriously considering my own thoughts on morality and ritual, none of it fit at all.

    It's mildly offensive to think of the author reassuring my parents that I'd grow out of it or that I had to be traumatized. For a lot of people, atheism is a default unless something else is experienced to tilt them to belief. It's that simple.

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  8. @ Samantha C - Wow, I really did not read it that way the first time. I think I was more focused on the advice being offered, and not really looking at the supposed causes... because I just went back and re-read it, and you're completely right. It's very much of the "they're in rebellion, or else something bad must have happened" school of thought. And that does show a colossal failure to understand the many reasons why someone might leave their (parents') religion.

    I'm going to leave it up, I think, because I still like the general tone of the advice - stay calm, talk to/work with your child, and remember that there's no way to force them to believe. But as an explanation for why/how someone would leave Judaism (or anything else), it's seriously incomplete.

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  9. Michael, this is a really great post, and I'm going to send it out to some friends. It's interesting, in my line of work I run into the opposite issue relatively often... Atheist/agnostic parents who have newly "converted" Christian children and it's amazing how similar the responses are, overall. Or, at least, the range of responses. What newly Christian kids often hear from upset parents is that they are being stupid/unintelligent/brainwashed/idiotic and that one day they'll "wise up." I think this same article could be helpful for them, because what it's really about is not Christian parents and atheist/agnostic kids, but about parents learning to give their children room to make their own decisions and determinations in life, and loving and supporting them regardless. Anyway, great stuff. Thanks for posting this.

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  10. Michael, thank you so much for posting this. I especially like the part about listening, and trust, so important, but often easier said than done.

    Blessings on you, and your family, Michael.

    Rebecca.

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  11. Brilliant read, thank you.

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  12. Perhaps Michael, this comment on my first visit to your blog will not be the last one.

    Even before I was thinking of marriage, I thought my children should be taught a religion - because I wanted them to decide for themselves whether to keep believing or not. Just like my Protestant non-churchgoing parents left it up to me.

    I turned to agnosticism but my wife is Catholic, as well as my three children. They all keep praying for me. Only my middle daughter goes one step further: every now and then, she and her eldest daughter want to talk with me because they simply cannot believe that I don't believe (in THEIR God). Of course, they won't convince me, and neither do I expect any of them to give up their faith.

    Paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling, I think that believers are believers, and nonbelievers are nonbelievers, and that very seldom the twain shall meet.

    I regret, and I am also amazed at the fact that this topic constitutes a problem the world over. All those parents should know Kahlil Gibran's poem "Your children are not your children". Why should one want his children to be, to behave, to think like oneself?

    Regards,

    Federico

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  13. Welcome, Federico, and thanks for adding your perspective. It does seem to me that some people are "built for belief" and others are not. I'll have to go look up the poem, though - it's not one I'm familiar with.

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  14. Actually it's not exactly a poem, like I also thought, it's a ballad.

    I only knew the first line, as a radical argument in the discussion why Europeans and Americans, although rather diverse in personalities themselves, differ so much from Asians and Africans.
    Of course - and fortunately so! - there are differences, some (most?) of them irreconcilable but many are compatible indeed. The outcome depends almost entirely on the wish to do so.
    My ancestors were Europeans; having been born in an Asian country and lived there until I was 15, I have known of contrasts but also of fine mixed friendships. So my thesis is: East is East and West is West, and sometimes the two DO meet.

    Wanting to read now what follows that first sentence, I have meanwhile looked it up, and herewith share the link with you. English is not my native language; I found the poetry rather difficult to read, and I'm not sure if I understood it well, but I think it is beautifully written.
    Hope you'll like it too. Greetings.




    http://www.bartleby.com/246/1129.html

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  15. I am a mother and grandmother who is grieving due to my son following his wife's lead and turning away from his belief in God. She has been reading New Age books that led her then to books on how to raise her child without God and how to teach Atheist beliefs to them. They were married in a church and up to last Christmas Eve they allowed prayer in their house and I could read my grandson books about God and play with the manager scene with him. However, last Christmas Eve I did that and she blew up in front of 18 people at the party and drug him through the house away from me crying and screaming "I want to play with Jesus". I was confronted by her and my son who was pushed by her to do so with telling me that they now were no longer teaching their son about God, since they no longer believed in Him. They said they would raise their son to be a good person instead without God. However the example my grandson saw was not showing him how to handle things like a "good person" that night when she blew up in anger. The day after Christmas I got a call telling me their rules which included me not being able to pray at dinner at their house and never to be able to express any of my beliefs. However, they want their son to have the freedom to chose what he beliefs an be exposed to all beliefs so it was a conflicting message they sent. Daughter in law is now reading several books that she leaves out for me to see when I visit regarding raising her children to be Atheist. She is teaching him to believe in Santa Claus who definitely is not real but said she did not want to teach him about Jesus who she does not believe is real...conflicting message again. Yesterday she had me read a book to grandson about Santa saving the world from pollution by him wearing a green Santa suit and getting everyone to recycle. She is okay with giving a know myth credit for saving the world and making him a hero in my grandson's eyes yet God is an evil word not allowed in his life. It hurts so much to see my own son walk away from all his beliefs because of her influence on him and now to have two grandchildren be raised up Godless and be controlled by her rules myself. I was looking for some understanding and people who could help me cope with all of this on this website. I did get some comfort from this blog but was surprised it was written by an atheist so was a bit confused if this is a place to get support from other parents who are grieving the losses that comes from children treating like you are evil influence on their children now because you do believe in God. I have kept my mouth shut around them and have to act like all is okay with us...when it is hurting so badly for me to be around them now. I know longer feel like a grandmother but just a friend of the family who does not share who I am with their children but just visits and has no real emotional involvement with their lives. I no long respect my son or his wife on their parenting skills and I have to pull back emotionally from my son too because it hurts so much to relate to him as my son. I still treat him the same and he does not realize my deep feelings because if I show them then they might not let me see the grandchildren at all. I feel very controlled by them...like I have to be the person they expect me to be in order to fit into their new beliefs as Atheist so I don't offend them by being a Christian. All of this breaks my heart and brings me so much grief.

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  16. Anonymous Grandma:

    Non-believers in (the Christian) God can be atheists, but as fervent worshipers of any other god (what a terrible double standard!) they certainly are not to be called atheists. In my opinion, atheist do not have beliefs, they rely on evidence.

    It seems to me that you are following the best course possible. If your children don't respect your belief, hold your breath and tolerate theirs - the only way not to lose your grandchildren.
    More often than not, children do not "miss" their grandparents as much as may be the case the other way round. As an agnostic at the age of 80, living in Argentina, I manage to get along very well with a wife, 3 children, 3 in-laws and 21 grandchildren, all of them devout Catholics. Since beliefs (by definition) are indisputable, they are not diccussed, period.

    I would love to give you some better advice but I'm afraid I cannot think of one. Regards.-

    Federico

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  17. I'm going to follow Federico's lead and refer to you as Anonymous Grandma. I hope that's okay. If there's something else you'd prefer, please let us know.

    Before we do anything else, let me answer this question:

    "I was looking for some understanding and people who could help me cope with all of this on this website. I did get some comfort from this blog but was surprised it was written by an atheist so was a bit confused if this is a place to get support from other parents who are grieving the losses that comes from children treating like you are evil influence on their children now because you do believe in God."

    Unfortunately, this blog really isn't a support group for people who find themselves in your position. It's basically just a place where I write about whatever happens to be on my mind.

    However, this particular article does get a steady stream of people dropping by to read it. I'm guessing, but I think that means that there are plenty of people out there who are looking for support, sympathy, and advice on situations like yours. So it might be possible to create a group where people could find the sort of understanding you were hoping for here. If you're interested in trying to start something like that, I'd be happy to help out.

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  18. Anonymous Grandma,

    Continuing on: the situation you describe with your family is... well, it's pretty horrible. Painful, unpleasant, scary... I don't think I have a good answer for you, but I do have a couple of thoughts that might be helpful.

    First of all, your son is an adult. It doesn't matter whether or not he was following his wife's lead; this is still a decision that he has made. So while it might be comforting to blame his wife for all this, doing so probably isn't fair or realistic.

    As far as the conflicting messages go... Well, if your son and his wife have left Christianity fairly recently, they may not be entirely clear themselves on what they want to teach and how they want to run their household. Or, what seems like conflicting messages to you may not seem so contradictory to them: Santa Claus, for example, may not seem like a problem simply because nobody gets to adulthood without figuring out that Santa doesn't exist; or because nobody actively worships Santa, let alone goes around insisting that everyone else should do the same.

    The blow-up on Christmas Eve strikes me as odd, though. I don't maybe, maybe your daughter-in-law just overreacted (in fact, it sounds like that's the case anyway). But is there any chance that they felt like they'd already told you about their beliefs, feelings, and expectations? Because a blow-up like that would make more sense if your daughter-in-law thought you were deliberately violating a rule that you already knew about.

    ...It doesn't have to make sense, of course. There's always the possibility that she was simply being unreasonable. I don't know; I'm just wondering.

    It definitely sounds like they consider your Christianity threatening - or your approach to Christianity, or something about you discussing your faith with your grandson, anyway. That might be a way to approach the problem: the better you understand what sorts of things bother your son and his wife, the more you can continue to be part of their life without compromising your own identity.

    And there are plenty of ways to share your Christianity without talking about it. I was looking for the scriptural reference, but actually I think this article might be more helpful. You don't have to be outspoken about your faith to be a good example of Christianity.

    I hope that helps.

    Michael Mock

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  19. Thanks for your original post. It helped me calm down a bit and think for a moment. I have been dealing with so much sadness that I can barely function normally. However, I will agree that this has been horribly difficult for my son (who is 18) to finally fully share with me. He was very respectful of my belief and feels it is genuine And also, as you alluded to, he WANTS to have faith but just doesn't. He feels he has tried and tried and searched and questioned and researched and is just at a loss at this point because he just doesn't have that faith. SO I also feel his pain in a strange way. I am just troubled by his going off to a Christian college this fall. He still wants to go there and I don't fully understand it. He will need to follow certain rules, attend chapel and church regularly, etc. He genuinely wants to go forward with this plan and I guess I just don't understand it. Yes, I asked him about it....and basically he said he feels comfortable with it and wants to go forward with this part of his life that he previously planned. I just don't get it. ANy thoughts on that?

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    1. I am an eighteen year old who has struggled with lack of faith for a long time, and have recently settled into a hopeful, unchosen agnosticism. I also have a great respect for many Christians, including my wonderfully loving parents. Unfortunately, this also holds me back from telling them. I can't bring myself to inflict this great pain on them - because I know their beliefs are very real to them, I know they would suffer so much knowing that I am no longer a believer.
      At the same time, I long to be open and honest with them, and feel so fake every time I attend church or bow my head before a meal. I just don't want to cause them grief.

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    2. I can't fault you for not wanting to hurt your parents, or for wanting to be honest about your (lack of) beliefs. So my initial reaction is, "Whatever you decide to do, don't feel guilty about it - this is a situation where there is no unequivocally right answer."

      It's your situation, and you're the one who's in the best position to judge what to do. That said, if you continue to wait, it may be possible to introduce the topic later on, in little ways, with less pain for your parents. Especially since you're most likely at a point in your life where you're becoming more independent and autonomous from your home and parents.

      If you want support, or advice, or just to know that you're not the only one in this situation, feel free to join the Facebook group (you may want to create an alternate, pseudonymous FB profile to do so).

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  20. My immediate reaction is, "That's great, as far as it goes. He's not feeling hurt or hostile towards Christianity, it's just that (for whatever reason and for however long) it doesn't work for him."

    My second reaction is that, as a parent, I would want to be very sure that he doesn't feel like it's too late to change plans. There are plenty of reasons why he might feel that way: money already spent/committed, friends already told about the plan, friends going to the same college. So if nothing else, I'd want him to be clear that it really isn't too late to change plans, if for any reason he won't be comfortable with the old plan. Just because you make a plan, doesn't mean you have to follow it through.

    (I got married despite some serious misgivings that I really should have listened to. It's not an experience I recommend to anyone. Admittedly, switching colleges is a lot easier than getting a divorce, but still...)

    And I guess that's the other thing I'd make sure he understands: if the college turns out to be a "bad fit" for him - for any reason - he can always transfer.

    (As always, my advice is offered strictly as advice - in the hope that it will help, not the expectation that it will be followed. Feel free to modify, tweak, laugh at, recalibrate, or completely ignore any or all of it.)

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  21. Very practical advice, thank you. And no, he doesn't feel hurt at all. He likes Christians lol. He thinks the basic tenets for practical living are great, it's the faith part, the lack of belief, the emptiness that there is no personal relationship to be found for him at all. I appreciate your time and advice; I'm normally apt at solving problems but my intellect is currently clouded by all these emotions!

    Any info on a support group yet?....I know that isn't your thing, but if you know of any ways to get started or have any other contacts for me I am willing.

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  22. I just contacted an iFriend of mine (Matt Mikalatos, who commented above). We're looking at setting up a group on Facebook, which ought to be easy enough.

    Actually, you could help us out. Can you see this group?

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  23. Yes, it shows up as a closed group.

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  24. Great! I went ahead and added someone who asked to join - I'm guessing that's you, but you never know - so the group is at least working. And the "closed" part means that anything written there is only visible to members of the group.

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    1. Yes, it's me. Thanks.

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  25. Beautiful article. Even though I've never had that experience, I did had a friend who had influenced my own faith come to the realization that he no longer believed in God. I'm not super-close to him, but even that was baffling and frustrating at first.

    Don't let your confusion and fear try to tell you the limits of God's grace and mercy. Have faith. Trust.

    Excellent advice for any Christian, for any situation.

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  26. How about advice for atheist kids who can't be loved by their extremely delusional Christian parents? There most likely is no god, religion being created to explain the things that couldn't be explained. The amount of stupidity I felt when I came to the realization! I had only thought it was real because the stories where branded into my head and I just went along with it. After thinking outside the box I began to understand that theology is just a cult. Religion teaches good life lessons and such, but when you start enforcing it like it's the law then you make it meaningless.

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  27. ...Tricky, because the situations are so individual. Let me see what I can come up with.

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  28. Also, check out the support group if you haven't already. There's a lot of good, sensible advice floating around there. http://www.facebook.com/groups/406543069389528/

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  29. My mother is very Christian. I have never accepted faith even with years of going to Christian faith schools and endless church Sundays. We had a very rocky time in my teens. She never changed, never accepted me and even through out my 20's could never accept the fact that I do not believe as she does.

    I am now 32 with two children. I have specified to her how I do not want my children taken to church or prayed with. They can make their own decisions after they are at least 10years old. She won't stop. She makes them pray. Sadly, I feel I am going to have to stop talking to her altogether for not respecting my wishes as an adult. This will mean not seeing her grandchildren, not being invited to family functions, period.

    I just want to send a message out. Respect your children and their decisions, one day they will be adults.

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  30. How do you deal with adult child that is living in our home with her children that will not answer questions regarding God, sacred holidays, sacraments.
    They went to Catholic schools, and take every opportunity to mock and personally attack my husband and I.
    They are grown adults that can't stand on their own, the children are victims to the parents ignorance. Religion exists in all forms in society.

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    1. My immediate reaction is that if they take every opportunity to mock and personally attack you and your husband, then they shouldn't be living in your home. That seems kind of obvious, though, so I imagine there are very good reasons why they can't live somewhere else.

      When you say they "won't answer questions" about faith, am I correct in thinking that you mean that your daughter (and her husband) won't answer their children's questions about religion? I'm not sure how to answer that. On the one hand, the adult child has a right to make decisions about how her children are raised. On the other hand, she's raising them in your house, and you - your beliefs and perspectives - deserve consideration, too.

      Bear in mind that I'm working from very little information here, and that I'm not any sort of trained counselor or therapist. My advice is just that: advice. But it occurs to me that if your adult children have to live in your house, then everyone in the household might benefit from meeting with an experienced, professional family therapist - someone who can help sort out all the different perspectives, and help you find ways to live together without so much friction.

      And, of course, if you want to talk to some other parents in similar situations, the support group on Facebook is up to twenty-five people now. It's not the most active thing in the world, but it's a good group of people - and if nothing else, it can be very reassuring to know that it's not just you.

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  32. I really wish my mother could read English, as this post would help with our current standstill. My mother converted to Buddhism several years ago, and raised me without any mention of religion at all. I grew up with friends of many different religions: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish. I am agnostic, and very much respect that other people have their own beliefs, but avoid going to religious gatherings so as to avoid offending anyone unintentionally. I actually get upset when someone insults another's beliefs because that is a sign of ignorance and is a sure fire way of creating unnecessary conflict to which actual compromise (and not simply agreeing to disagree) is, to my knowledge, extremely rare if not impossible.

    Anyway, my mother has been trying to make me believe in some religion. She doesn't care which, because she believes that any religion is better than not having one at all. She thinks that I should believe in SOMETHING so that my soul, spirit what have you, doesn't end up in a bad place. She also thinks that the only way I'll find a good kind life partner who won't take advantage of me and treat me well is if I find that person through a place of faith.

    I've told her time and time again that I have gone to church with religious friends. I've been to Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Catholic Churches, synagogues, mosques, AND Buddhist temples. I have prayed and meditated, but I know after many visits that I have not, and probably will not, find that strength of belief that my mother wants me to find. And I don't want to disrespect anyone by being there without truly believing. But she is still trying to "save" me. She knows that I am a good person, but doesn't believe that I can find a good person to spend my life with who DOESNT have a religion. She doesn't believe that I can find happiness and peace within myself without the guidance of some religion or other.

    She thinks it is because I am too scientifically minded to believe, but I know plenty of people, many of them close friends, who believe very deeply in God while going on to become doctors and scientific researchers. I can feel myself putting distance between us whenever she starts talking about my lack of faith, which I hate because I have always been close with her. I don't want religion to be the thing that drives us apart, but I can't seem to convince her that I am happy as I am and that she should accept me as I am with or without religion.

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    1. I've run into that attitude before ("It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something!"), and I still find it puzzling. For one thing, it seems to me that in some ways, what you believe is actually more important than how you got there - especially when it comes to how you treat other people. For another, if you've explored those beliefs and they don't resonate with you, then trying to pursue them seems more like to lead you to "a bad place" (emotionally, spiritually, or what have you) than just letting it go. It sounds like your mother is also assuming that morality requires some sort of religion. I don't think that's true, but enough religions make it their business to try to teach morality that it's an understandable confusion.

      One of the things you might point out is that different personality types interact with religious belief and religious experiences very differently. Some people find it easier to "make contact" with the spiritual side of things when they're alone; others find it easiest when they're in communion with a group of believers. It seems very possible that some people basically don't find it at all, or experience that side of themselves by exploring the workings of the physical world in and of itself.

      The other thing that might help is if you can somehow bring your mother to look at your situation a bit differently. If she sees you as "scientifically minded", as inquiring and analytical, then maybe she needs to realize that your search for knowledge simply is following a different path than hers. If she can see that as a different approach, rather than you being "spiritually empty", it might be easier for her to accept.

      The only other thing I can think to try to say is something that I find myself saying a lot: all of us, believers and unbelievers alike, are doing the best we can with the information and experiences that we have. Our beliefs are based on the conclusions we reach when thinking about these things, and we can't believe in things that don't make sense to us. Presumably, any deity worth its salt would recognize and understand that.

      I hope that helps, though honestly it probably says more about me and where I'm coming from than you and what you need to do.

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  33. If anyone needs a support group it's atheist kids with religious parents. Especially those who suffer the repercussions of persecution and religious intolerance which can range from emotional abuse, threats, blackmail and physical abuse and worse of all shunning and social ostracization. In some Islamic countries the penalty is death.
    Lets not kid ourselves who the real victims are most of the time.

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    1. ...Which is why we set up support groups for both.

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    1. First off: I'd really recommend that you copy this over to the "atheist or agnostic children of Christian Parents" group, here:
      http://www.facebook.com/groups/406543069389528/
      We have a fairly large group there, and you'll get a lot more feedback that way. It's a private group, so nobody outside the group will see what you write there; BUT, people can see the membership list, so if it's going to cause friction you might want to make a Facebook account just for that group.

      The letter might help, assuming your mom is willing to read it and really try to work through it... Which she may not be. She may not be ready to cope with the idea of you not being a Christian. In fact, her huge blowup may be a primal scream of panic at the realization that maybe this really isn't something will go away if she ignores it. (People dealing with what they perceive as big changes frequently start by completely freaking out and overreacting; it's not unique to situations involving religion.) So it might be better just to drop the topic completely. You've been open and honest about where you stand; give them a little time to adjust, and let them approach you about the topic when they're ready.

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  35. Great article, I'm 13 and came out as a liberal-atheist a few months ago to my conservative-christian family, and in that time my parents haven't let me miss a day of church, and signed me up for a six-month confirmation class at our church. Not to mention, since I'm "close-minded and need to learn more about God" I have become the family scapegoat.

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    1. Good evening, I posted a reply here, but don't see it posted. Perhaps it is in the hands of the moderator? Will eventually repeat it tomorrow. Have a nice Sunday, if possible without confirmation class!
      Federico

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  36. Sounds rough. I mean, the church part could be anything from "just kind of boring and useless" all the way to "really, hugely unpleasant", depending on the circumstances, but the family scapegoat bit is pretty harsh. If you want some people to talk to (and you have a facebook account), you're welcome to join the "atheist or agnostic children of Christian parents" group, here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/406543069389528/

    For whatever it's worth, I continued attending church with my own parents well after I stopped believing, because it didn't especially bother me and it helped maintain the family tranquility index. Still - obviously - just because that was the right answer for me, doesn't mean it was the right answer for anyone else.

    I also wonder if it might not help to describe yourself as an agnostic, at least to your parents. A lot of people still assume that "atheist" also means anti-Christian and/or anti-religion, while "agnostic" comes across as a lot less threatening - less "this is a bunch of crap" and more "I'm just not sure about this", if you see what I mean. That might seem a bit dishonest, but most of the atheists I know are at least somewhat agnostic as well, and most of the agnostics I know take an atheistic approach to their day-to-day lives; the terms are a lot more interchangeable than some people think.

    I'm still shaking my head about the confirmation class, though. I mean, are they doing that just to give you more "in-depth knowledge" of your church's particular dogma? Or are they actually expecting you to go through Confirmation at the end of the class? (I'm assuming your family is either Catholic or Episcopalian, and probably Catholic.) If it's the first one, it sort of makes sense - if they can't answer your questions, they'll put you with someone who can (or at least should be able to). If it's the second one, well... I'd do some seriously thinking about where this is likely to end, and what would be the optimal outcome.

    ...As with everything I offer as advice, remember that this is just my advice (and, in this case, more "just some thoughts" than, y'know, actual advice). So feel free to ignore, alter, consider, or poke fun at it. You know your situation better than I ever will.

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    1. Agree with your suggestion Michael, to speak of agnosticism instead of atheism. I tend to feel less sympathy for Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris lately. They are right in stressing the negative side of religions/churches but they do not accept the positive aspects of religions enough.
      What do you think of the term Unbeliever, would that be another alternative?
      Have a nice Sunday,
      Federico

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    2. Thanks for the advice, I tend to say that I am an agnostic-atheist, as in I don't claim to know that there isn't a god, but with no proof of it, I can't just assume it exists. As for the confirmation, my family is Methodist, which surprised me too (I didn't actually know that Methodists did confirmation)

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    3. I didn't know Methodists did confirmation, either. I know that the Disciples of Christ do it the other way around, with a sort of "promise" ceremony for babies and baptism usually around 13-14, or whenever the person is ready to decide for themselves; and I really don't know about anyone else.

      In that case, I am a little surprised by the strength of your family's reaction; I generally think of Methodists as being a bit calmer than that. If you don't mind my asking, how are the confirmation classes going?

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