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Dec 26 2008

Advice to an Atheist in an Intolerant Family: Help, Please?

Intolerance
What advice would you give to a young atheist in a family that’s entirely intolerant — belligerently so — of their atheism?

I got this letter the other day from a 19- year- old atheist, asking for advice on how to deal with their family: a family who refuses to accept this person’s atheism, to the point where they have fights about it on a daily basis.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and since my counsel was asked for, I want very much to give it. But on this one, I really can’t speak from experience. I was lucky enough to have been brought up in a family of non-believers: exactly how lucky I’m just beginning to realize, as I hear more and more stories like this one. So while I do have a few thoughts, I also want to throw this one out to my readers, and see if any of you have any better advice to offer than I do. (Yes, the letter writer okayed me doing this: I’ve stripped out identifying information, including gender.)

Here’s the letter:

Pink floyd the wall scream
I am an atheist in a very Catholic family. My family prides itself on its faith, and they are quick to demonstrate it at any opportunity. I am a nineteen year old student, who ironically, attends a Catholic school (the basis behind that one was athletics, not beliefs) and I have been constantly fighting my family over the last five or six years on my beliefs. My mother is a very devout Catholic, and when every Sunday comes around, we have screaming matches and I’m getting very upset over this. Throughout the years, she has attacked me on a daily basis over what I believe, and it is impossible to argue or reason with her because she will simply will not listen. Her biggest argument is that there is, “so much evidence! What about all the miracles that have taken place over the last century” and so on and so forth. Another popular “discussion” point is the creation of the universe, to which she writes down God as creating the Big Bang (she’s not a Creationist, she believes in evolution but believes that God has a big hand in it) and citing that life could only be possible because of a Higher Deity as it’s “too complex”.

I really don’t know what to do anymore. If she cannot respect my beliefs, then how can she respect me as a person? My family has tried to shove religion down my throat, and they are relentless in their “Crusade”. I’m tired of all the fights that I have to endure on a consistent basis and I’m tired of all the “You know that deep down you
really believe in God” comments. I could go on and on about it, but in the end, I am just left with frustration.

Do you have any advice on how to approach the matter?

Money_trap
There were a couple of big questions I needed the answers to before I could even begin to tackle this. I wrote the letter- writer back, asking if they still lived with their family, or were financially dependent on them. And I asked if they’d tried the technique Ingrid used with her fundamentalist relatives. If her relatives pressed the subject of religion, Ingrid would say, in a firm but calm voice, “I really don’t agree with you” — and then she would change the subject, and just wouldn’t continue any conversations they tried to have with her about it. Here’s what the letter- writer said:

I have tried Ingrid’s approach many times, although it has never worked. My family gets too enraged and won’t let it drop not matter what you say or argue despite how much logical reasoning you use. Once the subject is raised in any context, it can take ages for the dispute to settle down. It’s impossible to win because my family just won’t stop.

Currently I do not live with my parents; I am usually at school (I am a freshman in college). However, I have a long winter break so I am back with them. I forgot how bad it was arguing and dealing with them until I got back. I actually am somewhat financially independent due to my past work experiences and academic/ athletic scholarships — while my family certainly contributes financially to me I believe I can sustain on my own. I will soon be leaving permanently though to go back to school and to live in (name of city deleted) where I will work. I don’t want to burn bridges with my family; I just want them to understand what I believe and I don’t want our relationship to potentially end on a bad note.

There are just a couple of things I can think of to say before I open up the floor. First: I am so sorry about this. You have all my sympathy. My heart breaks for you. This totally sucks.

Atheist debaters handbook
Now to actual practical advice. One: When you talk with your family about this, be sure that you aren’t making it about how their beliefs are wrong and your atheism is right. Don’t try to de-convert them. Try to make the conversations be about who you are: countering the common myths about atheists, explaining that you’re a moral person who wants to do good in the world, that you have meaning and happiness in your life, etc. Don’t let them say untrue or bigoted things about atheists without contradiction… but don’t get sucked into arguments about theology or evolution. That’s not going to get you anywhere. And anyway, it’s not the point. This isn’t about “winning” an argument. It’s about trying to have a relationship with your family.

The only other advice I can think of is this:

Coming out
If you had a gay or lesbian friend who came to you with this exact same situation, only about their queerness instead of their atheism — what advice would you give them?

I’m guessing that the advice you’d give them might be a clue as to the advice you should try to take yourself.

And based on what you’ve told me, I’m guessing you might well tell them, “If you’ve tried to explain who you are and why that’s okay, and if you’ve tried to live and let live and to just change or drop the subject when it comes up, and none of that has worked and they’re still making your life a misery… then you might have to take a big step back from your family, or even cut them out of your life entirely for a while.”

Hopefully not forever, but for a while. You can close a door without burning a bridge. You sound really anguished and frustrated, and it seems like you could use a break from this. (A break doesn’t have to be an either/or thing, btw: you can, for instance, still see your family, but only for a day or two at a time instead of for weeks, and/or less often than you currently do.)

It’s what a lot of LGBT people have had to do when their families belligerently refused to accept them. It’s extremely hard. But it’s less hard than tolerating abuse.

If you decide to take this step — and I hope you don’t have to — then do it carefully. Don’t storm out of the house in the middle of a screaming match. You might even do it in a letter (and have a friend read that letter and do a venom check on it before you send it). Make it clear that it’s a step you don’t want to take, that you hope it’s a temporary one and don’t intend to cut them out of your life forever, that you’ll keep the door open as much as possible. But until they can treat their adult child with basic respect, they won’t get to have that child in their life. (Again, don’t make it about the content of the argument: make it about your relationship with them and how they treat you, not about atheism versus theism.)

Wallet
And make sure your financial and other practical ducks are lined up first. Make sure you really can put yourself through school, that you have someplace else to stay during vacations, etc. Also: Make sure you have a good support system, especially from other non-believers. See if you can find an atheist/ secular/ humanist organization in your city. (And, of course, keep visiting atheist blogs and online forums.)

Now, if you’d said that you were financially dependent on your family, I’d probably be answering somewhat differently. I’d probably be suggesting that you temporarily disengage from your family without confronting them about why. Instead of saying directly, “I can’t talk with you when you’re screaming at me, and I can’t have a relationship with you when you’re constantly pushing me to change,” I’d suggest you simply back away from spending time with them without an explanation. But that’s just postponing the inevitable. And it’s not really fair either to you or to them: it’s not giving either of you much of a chance to reconcile down the road. If you can be independent from them, I think letting them know why you’re (temporarily) disengaging is a better option.

Perspective
Finally, I’d add this: Try to see it from their point of view. Yes, I agree that their point of view is wrong. And nothing excuses the way they’re treating you. But remember: They’re probably very worried about you. They may think you’re headed for a life of immorality and despair; even that you’re endangering your immortal soul and condemning yourself to an eternity in hell. And that has got to suck for them. If they really don’t have any sense of how life could be meaningful and valuable without religion, the fact that their child has left it must scare the crap out of them.

I don’t know if that will help in any practical sense. But it may help you feel less rancorous towards them, and more sympathetic and able to forgive. Regardless of what happens in your relationship with your family, it may help you come to terms with this situation and find some peace.

But again — none of this is spoken from experience. So I’m asking my readers: Have you had a similar experience with your family when you came out as an atheist? Or if not you, has anyone you’ve known had this kind of experience? If so, what did and didn’t work? How has it changed over time? What worked in terms of improving your relationship with your family… and if the answer to that was “Nothing,” what worked in terms of helping you come to terms with a bad situation?

24 comments

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  1. 1
    Spencer

    As a fellow 19 year old atheist living in a family made up of Catholics and Episcopalians, I can sympathize from experience with the letter writer. My personal experience is different from the letter writer’s in that my family, with the exception of of some of my cousins and siblings, does not know that I am an atheist. Having attended mass with them as recently as Christmas eve, they’re convinced that I’m a practicing Episcopalian who has held to the teachings of his upbringing.
    I’ve kept my atheism from them since I was a junior in high school. It’s been difficult going through the motions and “faking it” but I’ve always thought that the inconvenience of pretending to be an Episcopalian would be far better than living under the scrutiny and misunderstanding of my close family.
    I don’t see this current situation changing anytime soon, but I wonder, when I’m older, what I will say to my family if/when I get married that “I don’t want this to be a religious ceremony, I don’t want to be married in a church”.
    I’ve found that religious beliefs and political views, or lack of them, need to be kept at the doorstep when it comes to interaction with a family that is openly intolerant towards other views. Your connection to your family transcends their religious views and your lack of them. I assume that that is something that the letter writer is well aware of, and I encourage him/her to make this case to the family. Be as open and honest with them as you can be, and stress that you don’t want your differences to break the important ties you have with them. If they can’t meet you halfway with this at first, then I hope they will come back to you in time with open arms. Waiting for that to happen will hurt, no doubt about it, but that’s just the way it goes.
    Rest assured that you aren’t the only young non-believer at odds with their family’s lack of tolerance.

  2. 2
    Rystefn

    I have no experience with family flipping out like that over my disbelief, but I do have experience with cutting off family completely. Yes, it’s a hard decision to make, and not something you want to walk into without thinking about it very carefully… but it’s rarely as life-altering as most people think it will be.
    It’s a rare family that will cut you off in return, most will happily welcome you back into their lives, and most of the rest will at least be willing to try to patch things up. Whether they understand why you felt the need to do it or not, they will understand that it was clearly something you felt very strongly about, and will try to find a way to make things right between you.
    More to the point: if they don’t, then it’s better to walk away sooner rather than later, because a family that stubborn and unforgiving isn’t exactly the healthiest group of people with which to surround oneself anyway.
    Unfortunately, there is also the chance that, no matter how much they are willing to try, they may simply be incapable of letting it go, or even avoiding the subject around you. It’s a sad reality, but sometimes all you can do is walk away and never look back.

  3. 3
    IsaacJ

    I’m a former Jehovah’s Witness turned secular atheist myself. My family are not JWs, but I have had to separate myself from most of them for other reasons. It’s the in-laws that are a problem for me now as nearly all of them are JWs.
    If the person seeking advice can resolve this in another way, I suggest they go for it. But if they have to cut off their family as I have done, I have some suggestions that might be useful. As you can see, this post is long; sorry about that. :-(
    I would make it clear to the family what is happening and why. You could tell a trusted family member who is in touch with all the rest (like your mother or father or grandparent) that you are at a breaking point. Confide in them and tell them that if the family can’t treat you with even a little respect and learn to handle your beliefs, then you can’t handle being this miserable whenever they are around. Chances are that the family has just been repeating the same old junk over and over again for years, so tell this person that you are tired of them beating a dead horse. (And you’re the horse!) You are miserable and something has to change. No one has the right to stomp all over you this way.
    Make this person or persons understand what this is doing to you and that you are ready to drastically cut back on your time with the family, or even cut them off entirely. Make this person understand that your willingness to avoid the family is a reaction to your family’s awful behavior, and that you are desperate to fix the problem. But the next step is the family’s and you can’t make them change. So it’s not like you have a lot of choices.
    The point of this conversation is to show that you are trying, you want things to get better, but you simply can’t force them to treat you decently. They must do it because they love you and want to close the divide which has formed.
    Ultimately, you are leaving the decision in their hands. If they keep abusing you and don’t see you for a long while … well, they’ll know why.
    If you do cut them off, I would first take it in steps. I would disappear for a while (a year? six months?) and then make a few overtures. Give it another chance and see if they’ve changed. If they routinely lose it on you again, you can stay away for a longer time. Either they’ll learn to treat you with some decency, or — eventually — you’ll disappear from their lives entirely.
    It’s up to them. And that’s the point. Let THEM choose whether you stay or go. At least you won’t be all to blame if you do have to cut them off. I Hope you can find a better way. If not, at least this will make it easier to do what you must. Hopefully a few family members will learn to treat you right so you don’t have to cut everybody off completely. You can stay in touch with these people while avoiding big family get togethers where you’ll be attacked by the rest.

  4. 4
    Monte

    I actually got divorced over this issue. My ex-wife, who was a non-practicing Catholic when we met, reaffirmed her faith in a big way after we were married and wanted me to convert. She couldn’t accept my atheism. She accused me of being too arrogant to accept God to trying to guilt me by saying how much she feared I was going to Hell.
    She even went so far to have me talk to a Jesuit priest, thinking he could get me to see “reason”. I actually had some interesting conversations with him about my refusal to join any organization that had condone atrocities in the past, and the Church’s misguided population policies in Third World countries today. Ultimately, while he and I disagreed about the Church, he informed her that true faith cannot be forced, that I was someone who was knowledgable of the church and its teaching, and that most likely I would not convert.
    That did not stop her from trying but at least I had gotten someone from the Church to see my point of view and explain it to her. My advice to the person who wrote the letter would be to talk to a sympathic priest, explain their point of view and see if they would talk to the parents. If they are going to a Catholic university, their might be a good Jesuit professor who would fit the bill.

  5. 5
    Will

    This isn’t about religion, per se. Your declaration of independence has disrupted your family’s system and your mom is going to war with you to bring you back to the fold. (It’s interesting you refer to “family” a number of times but it seems like mom is the only one who gets under your skin.)
    Here’s my advice: stop. “It’s impossible to win because my family just won’t stop.” Stop trying to win. Stop talking about it. Stop trying to justify yourself. Stop arguing. Stop with the logic. Don’t try to make them understand what you believe. Don’t threaten a cut-off. Don’t threaten a “break.”
    Be clear, use short sentences, smile, and use silence: “Coming to church?” “No.” “Why not?” [Smile and be quiet.] “You know you’re going to hell.” “Thanks for you concern, mom.”
    See? It takes two to argue. No one wins after an argument: You’re still an atheist and she still thinks your a closet believer. It’s not that you haven’t found the best argument. Hard belief is logic-proof. It’s that both of you keep arguing and keep expecting a different result. And that’s the definition of craziness.
    So, stop. Stop engaging. She and your family love you and think they know you best and what’s best for you. Great. At your age, your getting a good idea of who you are and what’s best for you. You want them to understand that and love you for who you are. That’s admirable though, currently, unrealistic.
    Love yourself and figure out a way to love your family. Figure out other topics upon which to converse. When the hot topic is brought up, smile at them and shut your mouth before an argument begins. You want to break the cycle of hotheadedness and fervor? Stop participating in the cycle.

  6. 6
    Christine

    I’m a 21 year old atheist, also at a Catholic school with a long winter break, though I’ve stopped going home over said break. I’ve taken the road Spencer has, with the whole just-don’t-say-anything approach. Truthfully, letter-writer, I admire the fact that you “came out” as an atheist to your family; mine is decidedly less religious, and I still haven’t gotten the courage to do it.
    Anyway! I’d say do a combination of stepping the hell back and limiting your contact with them as much as possible, and doing what Will suggested. You’re not going to be able to convert them, just like they’re not going to be able to convert you. So just… stop arguing. Stop engaging. Don’t act like you’re ignoring them, but just give short, polite answers, and if it gets too hostile, politely excuse yourself. “I don’t feel like we can really have a civil discussion about this, so I’m going back to my room until things have cooled down.” Use I statements– I feel, I think– and try to avoid accusing your parents/family of… anything.
    I’d really avoid the whole complete cut-off thing unless you’re 110% sure you can support yourself. Catholic school tuition ain’t cheap (sayeth the senior who’s graduating in June with $70,000 in debt). And just remember– even at its worst, you’re not alone. There’s lots of us out here.

  7. 7
    ErinM

    I’ve had success with both the “stop engaging” approach and the “step back” strategy (for different reasons than religion). The main reason both of these things worked is because it forced my family to recognize that I was not a child, and that my parents could no longer control my behavior or beliefs — I was a person in my own right, and not an extension of them.
    Financial independence, physical distance, and demonstrating greater emotional maturity are all different paths to the same goal.

  8. 8
    Rebecca

    When problem solving, it’s useful to see that there are many options, that few problems, particularly interpersonal problems, really boil down to either/or. So here’s another option:
    When someone else starts an armument, state calmly that you and he or she have had this conversation before and it has become both painful and unproductive. Then say clearly that you would prefer to change the subject, but if the other person refuses, you will leave the house for a little while, rather than continue. If you are not allowed to change the subject, then leave, stating politely how long you expect to be gone.
    Go outside. Walk/bike/drive to a cafe and have a nice calming cup of tea. Visit/call a friend who understands. See a movie.
    Will this make a difference? I have no idea. But it’s a non-confrontational option that also serves to give you regular breaks from the pressure and anxiety. Seems worth a try.

  9. 9
    LisaG

    i don’t know if this will help, but sometimes it helps religious folks if you turn the tables on them. I had this conversation when i was tired of being badgerd by a friend about my atheism.
    I just asked him if it would make him happy to beleive that i’d converted. when he said that it would, i smiled and told him he had my permission to beleive that. I said “i’m converted. go away”
    Then i went back to my homework. He got a horrified look, said, “that’s…horrible…” and never tried to convert me again. He got the idea–My philosophies were not going to change.
    this is a short term non-solution at best, but at least they would have to re-think their approach. it might also drive home the point that your worldview is not going to change on their say-so.

  10. 10
    The Count

    It took about 21 years for reconciliation with my family to happen and I don’t know why they did that because by that time I did not care and they died shortly after. I can’t offer much in the way of advice, but I can tell you what happened to me and you can use that as a shared memory to see one possible outcome.
    I was born in Rome, Italy and raised in a hardcore catholic family. Maybe the culture shock of coming to the US in 1961 and living in Hawaii did it, I don’t know, but I was exposed to some interesting Asian concepts through my school friends and their parents and I really got soft on religion as a whole. My parents never noticed since I toed the party line at home and I never mentioned that I was actually thinking independently. As a seven to thirteen year old, I wouldn’t have known to do otherwise anyway. I didn’t see myself as an atheist, I didn’t even know the term then. I just saw catholicism as a bunch of bull.
    However, at thirteen I was sent to military school on the mainland, my only other choice being seminary school on the other side of the island and I knew I did not want to go there. They did notice that I never went through the confirmation thing (the first thing I was supposed to do when I got to the mainland was hunt down the nearest church). That’s when things blew up, I spoke my mind and life became intolerable. The funny thing is that I did not forsee their extreme reaction. I never realized how hardcore they were. My parents were already financially committed to my secondary education, but once I graduated from high school I was on my own. I was the only student whose parents did not attend graduation (some bitterness). Right out of high school I went into the Navy, which is how I was able to afford college.
    My parents initiated the steps of cutting me off. I was told to never speak, write or visit them. I suppose that since I was young, the one who was exiled, that I was already independent and that I had my future to look forward to, I was somewhat indifferent. From my perspective, I had left home at 13, since they sent me off to a high school 5,000 miles away from home. I also don’t know if there was an ulterior “Dear Abby” type motive to cutting me off, but if there was they certainly stuck to it… um… religiously. I suppose, in retrospect, I didn’t think it would go on for 21 years.
    I wrote letters, sent cards and left phone messages in general and for important events in their and my life. Since they lived in Hawaii and I was living on the east coast of the mainland, fresh out of school, married and without much money I only had one chance to come and visit. Their car was in their parking space but after 10 minutes of knocking on the door and calling out, I left. The worst part of all, was that our son didn’t have both his grandparents, and he was eight when my parents died.
    So, one day, quite out of the blue I get a phone call from my dad, he starts talking to me, says he misses me, my mom comes on and starts talking to me and they literally act as if the intervening 21 years had never happened. The problem is that by that time I was a different person and I’m not sure if I cared. In my mind they crossed the last line when they chose to ignore my son (more bitterness than can be imagined). They died about four months later and I did not grieve. My son and wife never met them and when they died I had not physically laid eyes on them for 21 years.
    What can you take away from this? Maybe that bridges get burned whether you like it or not. :x Well, at least, all situations are unique. I suspect that my situation was generational, my parents were born in 1910-1914 while I was born in 1953, and cultural, they were raised in pre-war Europe while I was raised at the crossroads of the Pacific in the 1960s. Frankly, the important thing is that you’re still talking. It may be unpleasant, but there’s worse. I suppose physical separation, as has been mentioned already, is more the answer. Your basic out of sight, out of mind. Just never forget to respond to any of their overtures and don’t stop communicating with them and NEVER stop telling them that you love them. I’m hoping your family is a bit less dysfunctional. Also, the cat’s out of the bag, so unless your truly reconvert or you’re willing to be completely dishonest with them and yourself, you cannot put it back in.
    One last thing, don’t feel bad for me. While it could have been better if it had worked out differently, I don’t have any regrets. I am happy and comfortable with who I have become, and The Countess and The Royal Spawns have no lack of love, affection and attention. Ultimately, it is your own path you have to worry about.

  11. 11
    Bob

    Attitude-wise I was originally going to say something similar to Will, and mention that it IS possible to argue your point at the same time, get them to stop attacking you, and (rarely) eventually lead them to reason – but you’re never going to pull it off at 19.
    It requires certain life skills that many people don’t even have at 40 (or ever).
    It requires:
    1) Total security and confidence with who you are.
    2) Emotional detachment without simply pulling up a wall. You can’t make someone see your point of view by blocking them out. Rather, you see, feel, and sometime acknowledge their emotion, but it simply doesn’t effect your life.
    3) You must retain a clear focus to the issues on the table. They will slide around quite a bit when their arguments don’t seem to work. Sometimes you slide with them, sometimes you get back on subject, but you have to keep track of what was covered – what they stated, and what they answered or avoided.
    4) You need to be well versed on the subject matter.
    It requires you to debate while simultaneously not letting their craziness effect you, and (usually) without them feeling directly threatened (1). A fine line to walk!
    The initial goal, then, is for them to stop trying to convince you – not for you to convince them. This is likely to repeat every get together. Over time, what you want to accomplish is for them to alter their argument based on your rebuttals. This is the very beginning of a dialogue. And the very beginning of a logical process on their part. (Hmmm. That didn’t work. Let’s try this next.)
    Anyway, Will’s approach is probably best for you.
    To do effectively, you still need confidence and emotional detachment. And again, I know many people who don’t have these qualities at 40, but the good news, is that you don’t have to pull it off perfectly to be effective, and you’ll get better over time.
    If you falter, accept that you slipped, then gather yourself and go back to: “Be clear, use short sentences, smile, and use silence”
    It may be hard at first because your family will likely know how to push your buttons. And as soon as they see a crack in the armor, they’ll get worse.
    Now, some people mentioned distancing yourself from the family, or just distancing yourself physically for the moment. Depending on your family, the latter may not work unless you leave the house.
    If you can stick to disengaging, you shouldn’t have to leave, but it may be helpful to you to have that option available if need be.
    For instance, make hotel reservations, or arrange for some kind of lodging in advance. If things get bad you can always tell yourself “I remain here by my own choosing. They do not have power over me, I’ve made arrangements and can leave at any time.” Sometimes, just knowing you have backup, or options, can be just enough support to sustain you.
    And if you do decide to leave, then do it. Don’t get halfway to the car and come back. It’s all or nothing. Remain unemotional and make sure they know why you are leaving, don’t just sneak out.
    They have to understand that it’s their action that leads to a particular result.
    If they try to come after you or not, don’t come back until the next day.
    Still, I would think that leaving is the fall-back position.
    Good luck.
    (1) Some people will respond better if you take an offensive position, but it REALLY helps to have already established some common ground. And this isn’t likely to work on you mother. Still, your attack can’t end up as bullying them into agreement, because that’s not REAL agreement.

  12. 12
    Sue

    I’ve so, *so* been there… Two things to add to all the good advice above.
    1) it gets easier. Twenty years after I came out to my family as an atheist, they still haven’t accepted it – but they have at least stopped arguing about it. At least most of the time ;-)
    2) remind yourself and them that your relationship is about more than agreement on religion. This is difficult if your parents believe that their most important job is to bring you up in faith, but it’s do-able. Some of my most belligerant religious friends (who are otherwise very nice people) have been disarmed by being told that if they persist in trying to convert me, we can no longer be friends. I think this point is often lost on the very religious, because they believe so much that they’re doing you a favour. You need to make them see that they’re not.
    It’s difficult, especially when you’re so young. Good luck.

  13. 13
    miller

    I’m in a similar situation–an ex-Catholic in college, but I haven’t had a single problem with my family at all. My own experience inclines me to think your family’s reaction is atypical. Maybe if you get some other Catholics or Christians to speak with them, they’ll see how they’re overreacting. Maybe you can bring home a Christian friend, or ask their priest to speak with them (assuming the priest is reasonable). Or maybe it won’t help, I don’t know.

  14. 14
    Leum

    I’m going to echo Will: Don’t. Engage.
    One of my friends can argue any subject endlessly, and the only way to get them to shut up is to say, “I agree with you completely.” S/he knows you don’t really agree, but no longer has a foothold.
    I also suggest you take a look at the blog Halfway There http://zenoferox.blogspot.com/ to see how Zeno Ferox deals with his father (admittedly their problem isn’t as severe as yours, but I bet it once was). You might even e-mail him for additional advice.
    Finally, if you do cut off your family (which I hope doesn’t become necessary), be aware that getting financial aid will be difficult. You CANNOT fill out the FAFSA yourself until you turn 24, no matter how estranged you are from your family.
    Best of luck!

  15. 15
    efrique

    It seems quite plain that the family isn’t the least bit interested in coming to terms with someone not believing as they do.
    The family is intolerant, and thinks that’s a good thing. They are not interested in discussion or logic.
    The most likely resolution I see is to leave at the earliest feasible opportunity. Sometimes time and distance can help people recover a little perspective.

  16. 16
    Steven Alleyn

    I think the issue here might be that the letter-writer’s parents are paying for his school; if that’s the case, it could be very problematic to take my advice:
    Burn the bridges. Tell the family that “I am so made that I cannot believe.” That if they believe in God, they have to believe that he made the letter-writer that way for a reason, and if they don’t like it, I think the letter-writer should tell them off and then leave.
    Family is important, but happiness is moreso.

  17. 17
    goat

    There’s been some great advice. I certainly can’t top any of it. Just wanted to point out a duck which may be out of its row….
    I don’t know what Catholic school you are attending but disbelief may endanger that. I almost attended a Baptist school on scholarship, but I went somewhere else for other reasons. A couple years later I learned that being queer or atheist was grounds for expulsion. Glad I didn’t go. Anyway… private universities have their own rules. These may necessitate a bit of discretion on your part, assuming that a transfer isn’t appealing.

  18. 18
    Glen

    Your recommendations, and those of several commenters resonate with me. Will mentioned Writer’s “declaration of independence.” True. I had similar control issues with my father (not involving atheism and/or being gay, though I am both), to whom I did not voluntarily speak for six years. (During that period, he called me once; so loving.) I would add as possible subtexts, a certain shakiness in their theism and/or their doubts about being good parents. “How could our child not believe the ‘overabundance of evidence’? Where have we failed?” Gay people, certainly, have heard that tune before. People don’t react so viciously to things they do not feel threatened by.
    Writer mentioned moving away permanently to continue school. Good. Distance and caller ID are friends. (I moved from Ohio to NYC about 10 months before the “final straw” descended; I was 20; those 550 miles helped.) Lay the ground rules early on: “We’ve had this discussion before and we’re not having it again. If you insist on pursuing it, you will be speaking to a dial tone.” Screen your calls. If you don’t feel the stamina needed to control a potential “situation” calmly, don’t pick up.
    Though it will not be pleasant, stop accepting any financial help immediately: it will undoubtedly become a flanking attack. (“Oh, listen to the self-sufficient atheist who still cashes our Christian checks!”) Working a part-time job or having a very tight food budget will, from the descriptions, probably be less stressful. It would also bolster Writer’s self esteem, too: “I really don’t have to take this any longer.” If there are obligatory family visits (such as a wedding), be sure to have or rent your own car.
    I understand, of course the burning bridges metaphor, but it sounds like Writer’s family has a near infinite supply of matches and gasoline. To mix metaphors, Writer and his/her family obviously know how to punch each others’ buttons. During the “distance and quiet time” period, Writer needs to learn how to disable his/hers. The family’s ultimate defeat (and the word, “win,” was used) would probably be Writer’s indifference, a kind of “Why tell it to me?” attitude.
    Finally, recognize that there may be (probably be?) no optimal resolution. With any kind of luck, the family will decide what is more important, and choose their child; if not, well
 Even if a reconciliation of a kind is possible, things will never be the same. Though my father and I ultimately got on well, for my part, love never revived: too many events and too many years.

  19. 19
    Marley Fitz

    This young woman will learn so much from this experience. I would advise her NOT to engage in conversation re: religion at this point in her life. I don’t think her parents are treating her as an adult (even if she is 19). I don’t think they SEE HER as being an adult yet. They will continue to do their best to persuade her that their point of view is the correct (and only) point of view.
    As she grows older, she can dip her toes into these waters again, as far as conversing about religion w/ parents.
    For now, all she needs to remember is this: She does NOT have to PARTICIPATE in their arguments re: When the topic comes up, she should simply refuse to discuss it. If they cannot respect her desire to handle it in this way, she should leave (but make sure she says goodbye. Don’t leave in anger).
    This will see her through many difficult situations in her life. Just wait until she gets married. This strategy will serve her well.)

  20. 20
    AA

    I imagine that putting yourself above them, completely putting down their efforts, and acting as if nothing they ever do will change you is the best way to make them more desperate and make more powerful attacks on you, so try not to do that.
    I’m not sure if this will help, but here’s a short story that could be applied to a lot of things:
    If your hunting buddy Jed is an exaggerator and comes to the bar one day bragging about the moose he saw that was as big as his SUV, you just smile and nod and move on. You don’t stand up, flip over the table and call him out on his lies. Sure, you’re every bit right, but you look like an ass.

  21. 21
    vel

    I have not had this experience when I came out. However, I will say that being related to someone by DNA does not make them someone you *have* to deal with or have to respect or have to love. If they are stupid and hateful, leave. It’s that simple and that hard. But know that you will find a true family, not just those you share biology with.

  22. 22
    sav

    There is a lot of good discussion going on here. A lot of valid points are being made. The hard part is that you, the letter-writer, will have to sort through it all and determine what you think might be the best course of action for you at this time.
    I’m 37 and a former Catholic. I was never really Catholic, though. I was just raised in a devout Catholic household. There were times where I bought into the drama and iconography of it all, but the hour–the hour–after I was “confirmed” in my junior year of high school, I took the cross that the priest gave me off my neck. I gave it to my parents as we were standing in the parking lot and told them that not only was I not Catholic but that I seriously doubted there is a god. That through them for a loop.
    I don’t know if anyone else has ever felt this way, but Catholicism isn’t just a religion. It’s also sort of an ethnicity. You’re expected to be Catholic because your parents are, you’re expected to marry Catholic, you’re expected to think of the world in terms of Catholicism. All of my parents’ friends went to our church. The pope is the spiritual leader from whom all knowledge flows, etc. etc. Family is everything even though in my family, at least, they didn’t seem to really give much thought to that beyond the fact that we share the same blood–the whole “blood is thicker than water” thing. To reject Catholicism is to reject the family itself.
    Perhaps folks of other religious persuasions have felt that, too, but the ones I’ve spoken to have not–at all. They find my situation unusual. But with my family, there wasn’t much love or respect in the house, either, and that may have contributed to my feeling of being raised in a Catholic mafia.
    I now don’t have contact with my family, but the reasons for that have little to do with my atheism and more to do with abuse suffered and the fact that I’m queer.
    Cutting off my family was the right thing for me to do, but I didn’t do it totally until I was 33. I did it because I felt that I was the only one doing the work. No one wanted to meet me halfway. Now there were times when my anger and frustration clouded my judgment, but I had to live through that to learn from it. I took a hiatus from my family while I was in college and shortly thereafter. Then I started to have more contact with them, because I felt I had grown and could better deal with them. But I still always found myself on the defensive. No one in the family could let go the fact that I was different. They just couldn’t deal with it. I became very anxiety-ridden–more so than when I was an insomniac teenager–and my physical and mental health was compromised. So I said good-bye to my family, and I haven’t turned back, not even after having children of my own.
    So why am I telling you and everyone else this? A lot of the stories here are similar. Mine is special to me because it’s mine. It may not be special to you. But I happen to find comfort in the fact that other people have dealt with the same kind of thing (not exactly the same thing) you’re dealing with, and we’ve lived through it. I hope this story, if anything, gives you hope that you will weather the storm. That may seem like really frustrating advice because it is. You want a solution now, I imagine. I wanted one, too. But your reaching out to this blog is a good step. These days we have a lot of the world at our fingertips, and we can reach out in ways we couldn’t dream of before. I’d keep doing it. I wish you all the best.

  23. 23
    bernarda

    I had no problems with my Lutheran parents. At eighteen I left home and didn’t see them for about ten years. My younger sister did the same thing when she became major.
    Where is the problem?

  24. 24
    jemand

    sav, that is fascinating about you saying catholicism was for your family almost an ethnicity… I was raised as Seventh day Adventist and that same attitude is widespread in churches and the Adventist University I’d managed to start attending before deconverting. Something about the radical counterculturalism of a CHRISTIAN attempting to worship on SATURDAY for 3-4 generations plus a strong tendency to vegetarianism in response to a “prophet” of the 1800′s tends to produce a cultural environment that is very hard to break out of all at once… and is seemingly akin to an ethnicity.
    As for me, I still do all the passive things that make life easier for the family (and don’t brand me as the heretic attempting to brainwash my much younger siblings), I attend church, sit through family worship and prayers, but never pray myself. That seems to be working for me, but I haven’t quite said specifically to my family (other than my brother) that I am an atheist.
    Anyway. Random thoughts.

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