Atheist in need of advice: How to cope with family?

I offered to post these letters anonymously to our blog to solicit more feedback from others who might have more, or better, ideas to help this person—to make it simple, let’s call him “John.” My offer was accepted, and so I’m sharing. In brief, John suspected that his mother was being influenced by religious relatives. And the relationship between him and his mom, which had been cordial, became strained. I suggested he not go on a hunch, but address this issue with his mom directly, to just ask what had motivated the change—so they could at least have a conversation based on whatever was actually going on. This is the reply I received after he took that advice:

Thanks for responding Tracie,

I took your advice and finally confronted my mom about it, asked her about her acting weirdly like getting snappy when I share a recently published article which I found cool (because my sister is also a bit of a nerd), constantly reminding me that “sexuality is a choice” and making me bow my head during grace. She was sorta dismissive about it but she came back to me and she said something that I’m not quite sure how to react to.

Before I say this and give the impression of any serious mental illness in the family, I best put down a few things first. I may have mentioned that I’m from a neo-Pentacostal background, and I don’t if you know this but some parts of that denomination are into speaking in tongues and faith healing and stuff. More importantly, the idea that demons, spirits and god himself can speak directly to you during prayer or dreams isn’t that alien. One of my aunts, who seems to hate my guts to no end by the tone of her verbal abuse, claims to have these particular gifts of prophecy. Secondly, my sister, who is 14, is not as crazy and can be a bit more cynical and critical about things. She’s still a devout Christian but is more liberal with social views as she believes god gave us the freedom to sin, as I said she shares my interest in science, believing that God worked through natural processes, intervening in things such as the big bang and over coming ‘irreducibly complex mechanisms’. Mom never used to have a problem with this because she’s still a Christian, which is more than she could say for me, but other parts of the family sorta warn her to stay faithful and because they can be really ruthless on that, I stay well away from any religious opinions she wants from me.

Anyway, with that out of the way, my Mom told me that my Aunt had a dream and that in this dream it was revealed that all of mom’s 3 children would be together in the after life. Of course the conclusion was that either I was going to drag my sister and brother to hell or I was going to come back to the faith. The really horrible part was that I wasn’t joking when I said that my mom can be really easily influenced by those around her. She said that it was really really important that I return to the flock because she does want all of us going to hell. That was followed by how some in our family wanted me out of the picture to my ‘Satanic influence’ doesn’t get to my siblings any more as they evidenced with my sister, although she seemed really upset with that prospect so I’m hoping that means she isn’t going to do it. I’ve considered lying and just saying I was a Christian again but I’m a notoriously bad liar and that just isn’t sustainable.

I know how this might sound, I’m trying to get around the idea that this is coming from a dream too. I guess I had some inkling on what to do before but now I have absolutely no idea what to do. Thanks for you reply again.

My advice to him after that was this:

Well, first let me say “well played” to your conniving aunt. She was able to set up a scenario where you are not only responsible for yourself, but now for your siblings’ eternal well being, as well. Bravo to her for finding a way to put the screws to you, and your mother, and force more pressure. It’s interesting and almost masterful. If it wasn’t so diabolical, manipulative and wicked, I’d almost admire it.

I will give you a couple of options that could help:

1. I can post this letter anonymously to the blog and ask people for advice and opinions, and you can see what others might come up with.

2. Here’s my “next move” suggestion (and I won’t be offended if you choose Door #1 over this, since you know the players better than I do): The scenario we’re in is that we have you, and two siblings. All of you will suffer the same fate in the after life–good or bad–but we don’t know which fate. This binds you and your siblings together in a sort of Corsican Brothers way, in the mind of your mother–who loves you all and wants none of you–and clearly not ALL of you–to suffer eternity. Her response to this is myopic: Pressure YOU to become a believer/good Christian–in order to save your siblings and yourself.

First: There is one really large problem: You are saved through faith, not works. And you do not control your faith. Belief is not a simple choice. I cannot choose to believe that I’m blind–while I sit here typing on my computer, looking at the monitor as I do so, seeing perfectly well. Nothing, short of convincing evidence of my inability to see, would be sufficient to get me to adopt the belief that I am blind. Your mother’s pressure, then, to force particular behaviors upon you, is not useful to anyone, as bowing your head, attending church, even getting you to agree to conform to her standards of sexuality–will not alter even an ounce of your unbelief. So, her methods are unproductive in light of her goal. If the goal is to get you to *believe* and have faith, and ultimately save you (and your siblings)–focusing on your actions will not accomplish that.

Next: If god already knows that you and your siblings will all end up together–then your fate is, apparently, already sealed. Your aunt may not have been provided the knowledge of WHERE you all will end up–but the fact that god is already able to say that he is able to see you all together in the afterlife, means he has observed your fate. So, at this point, however it plays out is just getting to a place where you–in practical reality–already are. Your future life events–and those of your siblings–constitute “going through the motions.” If anyone was able, at this point, to change anything, then the prophecy should have been that “if something doesn’t change, they’ll all end up together.” As it was a solid, then it is a done deal. If god already knows what will happen (isn’t he omniscient?), and can’t be wrong–then nothing you or your siblings or anyone else can do, will alter that fate. So, might as well just relax and accept it.

In the end, if god is just, then the fate of your siblings does not, and cannot rest with you. They will be judged on their own beliefs and actions, and you on yours. And we should trust god to make the right call–as a righteous judge. If, in the end, your siblings and you are found worthy of hell fire, then you, your siblings, and your mother can rest assured that your fate is a just one, and deserved. If your mother believes that you are the sort of person who should suffer for eternity for a lack of belief you cannot control, if she believes god would only mete out such penalties to those deserving of them, then she should not worry over you or your siblings. Whatever is best and right will be done in the end, for everyone involved. And if your mom is destined for heaven, then she will embrace your (and your siblings’) eternal torture as a good thing, and be happy with god in that ultimate end.

That is how I would address it if it were my mother. When my mom wanted to force me to attend church in my teens, I told her that I saw that as her way of saying I was not mature enough to make my own choice in the matter of adopting religion/joining the church–as a choice of “no” was not acceptable. So, I told her I refused to make any choice unless the choice I made would be accepted. She actually let me stop attending at that point.

But I don’t presume to know your mom. And it might be an entirely different situation.

Let me know if you want me to post this anonymously for feedback.

And his update is as follows—the last I heard:

Hi Tracie,

I might have to do what you recommend telling her in your second suggestion seeing things are beginning to escalate after I confronted her, those who are close to my nan who doesn’t think I’m of the devil think it’s a ‘little’ crazy to throw me out, but most of them still listening to my aunt. I have already told my mom in the past that because I’m not like her in ways of trusting things on faith alone and needing to be convinced to truly believe something, I think that’s why she’s resorted to just cracking down on how I behave.

Thank you so much for all your help,

You now know about as much as I do about it. Any helpful thoughts?

10/8/2013 UPDATE:

The young man temporarily moved in with a friend to give himself and his family some space. Here is what resulted. Give yourselves a much deserved pat on the back:

Good news!

My mom ended up calling my phone because she actually got really stressed out from the implications of driving me away. My nan actually came to my place to regulate and everything is looking good. Mom is still feeling worried over my aunt’s little prophecy and she’s still weary about my sister but I took the user ‘Malte’s advice (comment #14) with that. She said she understood that I needed convincing and she thinks that if we study the bible together she can save my soul. At the same time, if it was reading the bible that made me an atheist than I hope it may have a similar effect on her, if not liberalize her to the point where my sister is, discarding much of the dumb stuff as either history, myth or didactic allegory. I have my nan to thank for a lot of this, her intervention really got much of my family to cool it, but I also have to thank you. That status quo wasn’t getting anywhere and I doubt we could have gotten to this point and I don’t think I could have worked up the courage to even confront her by myself. I need you to give a huge thanks to Malte, badgersdaughter and Jamie Gairns please, they were really helpful. A couple of bruises and scratches were worth it, but I don’t think my mom will stay very close to my aunt (who hates my guts a little bit more some how) for a while after, which I feel sorta guilty about.

I’m so happy this worked out, it was looking really scary there for a moment. I really cannot thank you enough Tracie, I can only hope that other atheist kids get so lucky.


  1. ludicrous says

    Perhaps try to move the focus back to the aunt’s control behavior.

    For example: I think aunt ( )’s dream has long been to control our family. I am not even sure she actually had a dream. Maybe she wanted to run the show so much she just dreamed it up. Whether she did or not, I am not going to allow her to control me. My behavior is between god and me, aunt ( ) can bow out.

  2. Sally Davis says

    I am assuming that John is a teenager and still living at home and still dependent on his parents financially. This is always a problem in religious families when the teen decides to think his own thoughts and they aren’t “approved.”

    I was the parent in a similar situation once, back in my fundy days. So, I understand the anxiety and pain that John’s mother is feeling. No parent wants to live with the idea that the child they love so dearly could spend forever in hell. No matter that there is no such place. John’s mother thinks there is, and she is clearly upset.

    John, OTOH, wants to have his freedom, not a ridiculous idea when you’re in your late teens. It’s a normal part of growing up.

    My advice to John is this: For the period of time while you are dependent financially on your parents, you simply have to appease them to some extent. Try to see it from her viewpoint. She is suffering mental anguish (I once cried all night long, so I understand this), even though her fears are pointless.

    Avoid the subject. Try to behave in ways that please her. Avoid lying if you can, but you can fudge stuff a little if it will make her feel better. Are you attending church? I’m not sure what would be required for her to think that you are “returning to the flock”, but toss her a few crumbs. Any little thing will make her feel better. If she feels better, your life will be less stressful.

    I know I’m sort of advising you to be a bit deceptive, but I suspect you aren’t very far away from independence. That time will go by rapidly, and it will go by easier if you play ball with her just a little bit.

    Toss her a bone and then avoid the subject if possible. Do some really nice stuff for her that has nothing to do with religion.

    Once you’re independent of her, all bets are off, course. You will be free to be your own person. And you’re free in your mind right now, every day.

    I bet there are a zillion married people in America right now, today, living just like this to keep peace in their homes because they have a very religious spouse — with no end in sight. Your situation is far preferable, and you are beyond lucky that you figured out the scam called religion while you are still young. I took decades to do the same thing. Your whole life is still in front of you.

  3. Anniemouse says

    This is something that really bugs me about people who consider themselves good Christians. The bible is very clear that fortune telling and prophesy are strictly forbidden, and come from the Devil–so how can John’s aunt be having these dreams? Doesn’t that make *her* Satanic, not John? (Side note; I bet his church claims they ‘follow the Bible exactly’, while picking and choosing what they want.)

    Also, the Christian belief is that God is all-knowing and all-powerful…so if John is simply going through the motions of Christianity to suit his family, then that is something that angers God.

    Sorry I can’t be more helpful. This whole situation is extremely sociopathic and the only advice I can offer for John is to get out, because those who claim to care for him are more invested in causing trouble for him and trying to mess with his mind. People who care for you don’t treat you that way.

  4. Natalie says

    First of all, I think he should either unfriend his mom on Facebook or limit the posts she can see to avoid adding fuel to the fire in the future.

    How old is John? Is he still living at home and dependent on his family’s financial support or is he independent? If his actions could potentially leave him homeless or interfere with his college education, I would say lay low until he can support himself independently. That might mean going to church on Sunday with the family and “keeping an open mind.”

    Not knowing the players involved, I might tell the mom that I empathize with her fear for her children in the afterlife despite disagreeing with the premise. I’d probably tell her something like, “I’m sorry you’re hurting, but if there is a god, he hasn’t revealed to me the evidence I require to believe in him. You can continue to pray for me if it makes you feel more at peace.”

  5. says

    Hey There,

    First I’d like to take a moment to empathize with you. While my situation is not the exact same, it has incredibly similar. It is unfortunate that any of us have to deal with this.

    I am studying social sciences and humanities. A large part of my studies is how people think, and the actions that result in their methods of thinking. So, that is how I will address this issue. It seems apparent that your method of thinking, and your mother’s method of thinking are significantly different. While I believe (and it seems you do to), your mother’s actions and by extension her method of thinking is detrimental to your relationship, in her mind, the opposite is true. I highly doubt your mother has immoral intentions. I have been quoted saying: “Here we sit, black and white, accusing each other of the same crime.”

    Unfortunately, I cannot give you an “easy answer” on how to resolve this problem. However, I would like to point out a few things that may not be obvious. Our actions are based on our beliefs, and our beliefs are based on our values. From what I’ve read, I conclude that your mother values her religion over her relationship with you. However, given she did not completely write you off, that shows she does still value her relationship with you to some degree, so there is still hope! In my opinion, the best thing you can do is to figure out what you value, and how much, then work from there.

    In my personal experience, I value my sense of self, higher than my relationship with my mother. My relationship with my mother was detrimental to my sense of self. I tried working things out by direct confrontation, and appealing to my value of sense of self (and I encourage you to do the same). Unfortunately, my methods were ineffective to improve our relationship. Finally I took a hard stance, and told her that I value myself, and my sense of self highly, and our relationship was detrimental to that. I gave her an ultimatum. Until she was willing to accept me as my own person, and stop pushing her views on me, I could not continue the relationship. Unfortunately, I did not speak to her for about 4 years after that. Eventually, she came to accept me as my own person, and valued our relationship, so we have since been working on rebuilding it (which is still tough, but now doable). I wish things didn’t have to get so extreme, but honestly, wishful thinking (intercessory prayer) really doesn’t work.

    While I realize this sounds harsh, I would like to paint an analogy to an abusive spouse. Sometimes you have to distance yourself for a bit, and build up your self respect, to a healthy level. Don’t fall in to the easy trap of “blaming the victim”.

    I hope you find some value in me sharing my similar experience, and it will help you to achieve your goals. Again, it is a terrible situation, and I’m sorry you are in it. I wish you all the best.


  6. Jamie Gairns says


    These storms are never easy to weather. I have had a few issues pop up where I was expected to fall into place and tow the line, but given my personality that would be pretty much impossible. So, bear in mind this won’t work or apply for everyone, but it worked for me.

    Many moons ago, my sister brought home a guy who immediately came across as a very bad character. It turned out he was FAR worse than my first impression, but that is not the focus here.

    As a result, I had a very unpleasant stand off where I was given an utlimatum: either I accept her with him, or she would be out of my life. My only interest was in my sister’s well being, and I knew that she would never be happy with this guy (which she wasn’t). I couldn’t watch her throwing her life away, so I chose an exile, of sorts. My parents pulled out the stops .. throwing guilt at me, ultimatums, threats, pretty much everything they thought that might force me to give in. At one point, I decided that my peace of mind and my integrity (something that my parents strove very hard to instill in me; they were very successful).

    So, I decided on a life without hypocrisy. I told them if they wanted a son, they had to back off and accept me as I am. It wasn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was close (for me). We came to an uneasy truce where we agreed not to pick at the scab and just accept our differences. Seven years went by before my sister and I spoke, and when we did it was like no time had passed. She forgave me, I forgave her, my parents were happy. Lessons were learned by all.

    On a lesser scale, my mother was a born again christian and tried to bring me into the fold, but it did’t work. She used threats, again, and that didn’t work.

    So … all I can say is draw a line and say everything is cool until you cross it. I don’t WANT you to cross it, I won’t cross your line … all I want is that we respect each other and stop trying to interfere. It will very likely escalate, there could be threats .. but all I can say, the threats stop when they realize they won’t win, and that there is no gain for anyone.

    You love your family, they love you, but sometimes family forgets they don’t have the right to overstep their bounds. Just think or ask, “Would you treat anyone else in the world the way you treat me?” (and vice versa, of course). That is a line in the sand .. that is reasonable and, I think, could work.

    Good luck!!

  7. Mandy Blue says

    Remember they all loved you before you knew religion, they loved you while religion was in the equation and they should love you now that it isn’t. Unconditionally 🙂

  8. Michele Fore says

    I also would recommend reading David G. McAfee’s book “Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist.” He is very helpful with this stuff.

  9. Bicarbonate says

    How old is John? How many years longer would he stay with is family if he were a christian? Is this the kind of family that could/would pay for him to go to college, set him up in business or what not? i.e., what’s at stake besides love, harmony, affection, a place to live now? Could he go live with his grandmother?

    The aunt’s claim to have had this dream is really insidious. If his mother is easily swayed, I’m not sure reasonable but complicated and kind of technical arguments about His omniscience and salvation/ damnation would help. She is acting out of fear and that’s an emotion.

    My instinct would be to make an appeal to her innate sense of justice (also a feeling) and belief that God is good. Simply, that a good God would not do that (and if he would, then he’s not worth believing in). And that this aunt is not above God and why the heck is she trying to break up this family?

    Also maybe, point out the aunt’s other attempts to control people. Times she’s been wrong with her predictions, ways in which she makes other people miserable, and so forth.

  10. says

    Wow. I’m overwhelmed by the immediate efforts posted here to reach out and help someone. At first I only saw one response, and felt somewhat down, since I’d shared the post on several atheist areas of the internet I’m aligned with. Then I realized that there were several ‘pending” posts–just waiting on moderation–new people who came here specifically to help with this person’s situation. That’s amazing. Thank you all.

  11. says

    >I’m not sure reasonable but complicated and kind of technical arguments

    My goal was not to argue with her, but to respect and adopt her own paradigm of how the world works, as a solution. My intent was not to argue with her about what she believes, but with work with her USING her own beliefs. I offered it, because it worked with my own highly religious and superstitious mother. “If god wants me to join the church consensually, then I must be able to consent–and you’re telling me I can’t, right?” I came at her from the standpoint of “This is what you claim you believe, and so wouldn’t it work like this [plug in explanation that shows what she’s doing is counter productive using her own paradigm of the world/life]?”

    I also hoped to relax her fear using the “Trust in your god” line of reasoning: “Surely god is good and will do right by us all–don’t you believe that?”

    That being said, it may not be the best response to John’s situation–which is why I offered him more replies here at the blog–which I’m VERY grateful to be receiving here on his behalf. Thanks for your feedback, and the opportunity to clarify what I was trying to do in terms of my own advice to John.

  12. ludicrous says

    I like Sally’s suggestions @2 above.

    I would just like to add to what she said about lying. Try not to take the conventional religous view of lying. If you are trying to take care of your mom, protecting her from her sister and protecting her from her religious fears for her family, you can decide that you are making an ethical choice by lying.

    If there was any likelyhood at all that you could help her escape her religious prison, the truth might be the better choice, but her deconversion does not seem likely at this point.

  13. Bicarbonate says

    I agree with Ludicrous at #11 and Sally at #2. It is really important to recognize that lying is not always wrong, it is often the most ethical thing. We all recognize this is true when for example we don’t admit to an ugly person that they are ugly. We call these white lies, social lies. It’s difficult to admit that bigger lies can also be ethical but that is the case. If you lie to save someone’s life for example, then in that situation lying is not just ethical, it’s imperative. The most commonly cited example to illustrate this is: imagine you are hiding Jewish children from the Nazis and the Nazis come to your door and ask if you are hiding Jews. Obviously, you are going to lie.

    Abandoning belief in a magic man in the sky is easier i many ways than to abandon the idea that lying is always wrong. When I took this step, I was overcome by an immense feeling of loneliness and solitude. I would so love to tell the TRUTH all the time and to everyone. But there are so many situations in which telling the truth is just downright mean and selfish.

    I think Ludicrous is right that the way to think through this is to ask what’s the best for everybody in this situation right now, how to protect them. And that’s a lonely thing to do, a loving thing to do.

    Whatever “John” decides to do or ends up doing, all my sympathy and understanding are with him.

  14. Bicarbonate says

    I think we actually agree about this. I was just emphasizing the feelings side of the question rather than the logical ones.

  15. John Kruger says

    I am not all that sure if John wants to “play ball” here, and escalating things with the aunt might not be advisable. I’ll leave it to him as to how wise it might be to try and contradict the aunt.

    That being said, there are more than a few things the Bible has to say about fortunetelling and mediums. Biblical arguments might have a lot more sway than traditionally rational ones with John’s mom. In particular, I would suggest the following:

    Deuteronomy 18:10-13

    There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God.

    The rational argument of “how do you know this dream came from god and not something malicious” could be bolstered by asking if the spirit professed Jesus followed by:

    John 4:1-3

    Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

    There are probably some other good ones you could search up with the words “bible” and “fortunetelling”.

    Again, this kind of arguing is going to undermine the aunt’s entire “claim to fame” and some pretty severe lashing out ought to be expected if she starts to become challenged. It does not sound like the aunt has all that great a relationship with John anyway, but at least this might give his mom enough pause not to take the aunt quite so seriously. Proceed with caution, but the bible is very against personal prophecies. Leaning and arguing from the Bible could have the effect of convincing the mom John is trying to come back, while at the same time backing the aunt off.

  16. Malte says

    Well, here it goes.
    Best plan I can come up with really.

    Tell your mom, that if there is a way for you to find your way back to the faith, you will take it, but that it won’t be easy, because you can’t accept things a true just because.
    Tell her also, that you can’t do it alone, that you want HER and no one else to guide you on that path. If there is anyone able to save you, it’s her.

    Then, if he agrees to help you, make a pact to study her religion intensely. Be openly sceptical about it, but show genuine interest in wanting to believe it if there would be a good to reason to. That might force your mother to think about why she believes what she believes and with any luck, even if she won’t become an outright atheist herself, she might become more open to accept your position.

    That’s pretty much it. Take her on a journey to actually learn about her religion by herself instead of just being told what to do by others. What bad can come from studying her own religion if it is true, right?

  17. Panos says

    Dear “John”
    Let me start off by saying that I deeply empathize with your situation, even though I was not raised under such a “serious” denomination of christianity. I’d like to argue that the most important thing right now is accepting the facts you have at hand and also managing your expectations. The sad facts are, firstly, that your parents’ are doing a horrible job at, well, parenting. I am suggesting you acknowledge they are wrong in believing the things they believe and doubly wrong in their trying to force those beliefs on you. Whatever has happened, the blame lies with the divisive belief system they’ve decided to adhere to. Secondly, you are in the quite difficult position of currently being underage and not financially independent. I hate it as I’m typing this, but a direct confrontation might not be the best approach at this point in your life. You need them, you might not like it, but it is true for now. Trust me, if you’re planning on investing your time after high school in higher education ( it is my suggestion that you do ), know that everything will be different at that point.
    In regards to managing your expectations, bear in mind that since your family’s faith is a particularly crazy one (glossolalia, prophetic dreams and the like) you might hardly make significant progress when it comes to them understanding you skeptical view of religion, let alone convincing them them that they are wrong. It is not difficult to distinguish between a productive conversation and one that would yield almost nothing. The most important thing with people you care about, like mentioned by someone else in a previous post, is drawing both parties’ lines and not crossing them. But I do think, sadly, it’s not yet possible for you.
    My advice:
    Even though you said that you are not a very competent liar, you can take an indirect approach. Accept in front of them that you may have lost your belief in Jesus, but you think that the best way to get it back is through doing good things. Do those things. Does your church do community work? Be a part of it. It might not be via channels you approve of, but you will be doing good things, you’re going to feel helpful, and it will be a step in the right direction for your parents. If they try to force too much too soon on you, kindly tell them that you are not willing to fake religiosity in order to make them feel comfortable and that if you are going to do this, you are doing this the sincere way since god can see through fake attempts. Is what I am describing sneaky and in a way tricking them. Absolutely yes, and I would not feel the slightest guilt. They are the ones that forced you to do this, it’s their rigid faith that has divided your family, not your skepticism.
    Do this when it is important, so that they feel at ease, but apart from that, focus as much as you can on your studies, you will find that it is very hard for a parent to complain about his kid working towards good grades. As far as I can tell, you have amazing incentive to get out of there as fast as possible, and education, as I hope you will come to find out, is one of the best investments you will ever make.
    Be calm and patient now, it is definitely going to be worth it. I really do believe that when the going gets tough, it is the tough that get going. And when it’s really tough, reach out to people sympathetic with your situation, like you did now.

    Cheers “John”

  18. badgersdaughter says

    I’d like to point out that throwing John out of the house is not a good way to make him accept Christianity. If he’s not a Christian at home, why do they think he will be a Christian when they throw him out? If all three siblings are presumably going to wind up together in the afterlife, it doesn’t matter if they’re separated by thousands of miles and kept in underground dungeons. It’s more likely to me that the other siblings, seeing their brother thrown out, are going to wonder exactly what kind of Christianity their family practices anyway.

    Oh, and it will be held over the heads of the other siblings too. Any sign of rebellion or just independent thinking will be met with wails of, “Oh no, they’re backsliding the same as John”. It doesn’t even matter if John reconverts, because they’re watching them all now.

  19. Corwyn says

    How about:

    “If are worried about where we will end up, you both should pray very hard to god to save us all. If you don’t pray hard enough…”

    This, by the way, is just as terrible as what they are doing to you, for exactly the same reasons. But, perhaps knowing the nuclear option, will make some lesser option more feasible.

  20. says

    When people make claims of experiencing divine revelation through their dreams, I honestly do not know if that is a situation that can be resolved through intellectual reasoning, particularly considering that’s already been attempted. Since it seems you’re in a position where simply leaving doesn’t appear to be realistic, its difficult to see what options you have left. I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you ought to do, but I’ll say that if it were me in that same situation, I believe I would try my best to just ignore it, difficult as that may be. I think I would merely tell them what my position on the matter was, how I felt about how I was being treated, and would hear no more about it, and if I was continually prodded on the matter, I simply would not respond. I would pretend as though I wasn’t being spoken to at all and just ignore them flat out. There’s always exceptions, but my experience has been that even the most persistent of bullies will lose interest if they’re not getting the attention they want. Failing that, if the problem gets beyond your ability to cope with, I would suggest you consult the internet for resources dedicated to resolving family issues. You might want to consider setting up a session with a professional mediator trained specifically in helping family members work out their differences.

    Best of luck to you.

  21. says

    For added ooomph John – You could build up a list of the anti-false prophets quotes – and wake one morning after memorizing them assiduously….Go into trance at the breakfast table – preferably with your aunt there… And start repeating their numerical notation over and over again until someone reaches for the Bible and reads them aloud to great astonishment of all… throw in some Latin and Greek for spice.

    I kid…but then I have a theatrical bent.

    It’s a very hard thing if you are under your parents roof and dominion. I think picking your battles is very important… in the long run know your Mom loves you and is working from her own framework. You will be an adult – free to roam in the long run. Focus on your internal thought process…deepening your understanding of the world on your own… There’s a lot to explore. Focus outward – on what you want your own life to look like – and start building towards that. Unhook from the docks mentally so you are prepared to do it in reality soon.

    We all have parents (most anyway). And there are any number of subjects about which they are wrong/crazy making. They are them and you are you – totally separate beings. Having your own lines and boundaries in your head is a good thing. The process of separation takes many forms…religion is but one. Sometimes it’s politics, sometimes sexuality, sometimes methods of auto -repair or number of pets. Know that this is all par for the course… war and separation forever need not be the outcome when viewed in that vein. All is as it should be – and you will eventually be your own man. And your mom will have her own thoughts about you and that…which you will never actually be able to change or control. It’s her “baggage” – You don’t need to fix it.

    The only thing you have control over – is how you feel and think about all of this.

  22. says

    Advising kids to have a “nuclear option” when they have a different world view than their parents is irresponsible I think…for most teens, that’s par for the course and part of growing up. Defining strong boundaries to resist co-dependent parents (most parents) is really important – blowing up your family because you have thoughts of your own – could put John into years of financial hardship and struggle which non of us are going to be picking up the bill for…

  23. says

    I like Malte’s advice…thinking aloud with your Mom about things she holds dear might be a way to bond as well… It will also make clear that the Bible is open to wildly different interpretations…

    Also be sure to display lots of loving kindness to everyone along the way so they can’t accuse of of being diabolic without looking silly.

  24. badgersdaughter says

    Yes, of course, let’s tell John to be sweet and loving to people who think he’s a Satanic influence on the entire family and treat him accordingly. Let’s tell him that it is his responsibility to make sure he doesn’t act so that he gets kicked out of the house.

    Um, what? He’s sixteen? It is not his responsibility to make nice to his abusers. It is their responsibility to take care of him because he is their child.

  25. julzabro says

    Whatever you do, remember that your journey toward what you believe or don’t believe is up to you and you only. I don’t know how long you’ve been a nonbeliever or how firm you are to call yourself an atheist but if you are solid about that I say be honest in as a respectful way as you can. If it comes down to an ultimatum like “return to the flock or get out” agree to go to church but do so as the wolf in sheep’s clothing knowing you will only have to go until you get out on your own. Learn as much as you can about what your family believes and observe how it affects them. Don’t lie to your mom about your true feelings about it but tell her you’ll go only because it’ll make her feel better. Hopefully that’ll still be enough to allay her fears or, at best, allow her to save face. Remember she is acting on fear not rationale. She has been indoctrinated into believing that this is best for you and your siblings. You know better but it’s not your job nor may it be possible for you, especially if your new to atheism, to attempt to open her eyes to reality. However, use every opportunity given to discuss her faith and your disbelief with as much respect as possible. The more you and her can talk about it respectfully, the less of a riff it will cause in your relationship. Realize that not many relationships can withstand this, it depends on the level of tolerance each person has. I don’t know how dogmatic your mom is but the truth…your truth should never be sacrificed or hidden because of that. Reality/truth doesn’t promise happiness especially when surrounded by those who can’t/won’t embrace it, it simply is what it is. Keep us updated and know that you’re not alone.

  26. says

    Don’t have time to read all of the responses but I would like to share my thoughts and hope they are not redundant: First off, how old are you, does a path of alienating your family have a chance of leaving you homeless? After that, I would drop the notion that you can change your mother, aunt, or nan’s minds about these things. UNLESS they show some sign or interest in hearing you out then you are not going to change their minds and all you are doing is damaging that relationship. That being said, what is the value of these relationships to you? NEXT, it sounds like your relationship with your siblings is better and that they may be conducive to at least understanding your positions and being tolerant of them even if they do not share them. SO the most important question to ask is: what are these relationships worth to you? Can you sacrifice to preserve them? As I am sure you are aware these may be the most important people in your life as a whole, especially your siblings IMO because they will be with you the longest of anyone in your life. That being said: this is not my advice just what I have done, and what I would do without knowing your family or situation. I can’t have people in my life that believe in nonsense and will tell me that I am going to burn in eternal hell fire if I don’t believe in their fairy tales. I have family that I was able to tell off at a very early age, but it was no risk on my part and they have come around and we simply don’t talk about these things. (Though after watching TAE it is getting brought up next time!!!) Ultimately no one knows what is best for you except for you, but the answers to some of the questions I posited should lead you in the right direction. Good luck!!!

  27. says

    Setting up a nuclear style standoff (accept me or else) is likely to backfire in the worst way, and since it sounds like this guy is 16ish, it will put him in a very unhappy, unhealthy, and just damn uncomfortable position for the next two years. After he is independent, this may be a better option, but I don’t think is a good one right now. While I agree with posters who say that his family should just take care of him and love him unconditionally, I am not sure that will actually happen without some finessing on the part of the son. I agree with Malte, and would propose something similar, but asking Mom if it is okay to look at Christianity more broadly (and if she is up for it, other religions as well). The young man will be able to find much more liberal views among individuals who believe in the same god, and he may be able to help mom rationalize a path where she doesn’t have to give up her religion (which is unlikely, even if he is convincing — psychology suggests that accommodation is not an easy thing to do, and she gets a lot of support from individuals who believe in this faith, and she herself probably is supported by this faith) but can still love and support her son. So if he goes to his mom and discusses other views (after all, the pope said even atheists can go to heaven), he may be able to move her to a more neutral position, AND she believes that he is a seeker. It might buy him some time. (And help him to better know how to debate theists, and have the knowledge to help others to move away from religion altogether.

  28. Tawn says

    I agree, the best method may be to discredit the aunt’s dream rather than try to reason through, assuming the prophetic dream is true. This entirely depends on the mother. It also doesn’t have to be to try to claim the aunt is a controlling liar.
    Perhaps the aunt has had other dreams which didn’t come true? Perhaps these dreams are hit and miss…

  29. says

    I feel like a lot of people here are treating this like a strategy game, where you need to prove to your family how ridiculous they are in order to “win.” I can’t see that working. You can use logic, quote the Bible back at them, show them their inconsistencies or hypocrisy, and it will probably come across as a cocky teenager rebelling against the family, nothing more.

    You might consider backing off on the verbal arguments – at least until you’re out of the house and on your own – and just trying to set a good example. Remember the saying, “Living well is the best revenge.” Keep yourself out of trouble, be kind to those around you, and be respectful when you disagree. (Let’s be clear – it doesn’t sound like your family is being respectful in the least. I’m not suggesting that your aunt, for example, deserves your respect.) If you show your family that, despite the fact that you don’t share their beliefs, you’re still a good, loving person, your mom may start to see that you don’t have to follow the family’s beliefs in order to be a good person.

    I’m reminded of stories that Dan Savage likes to recount (and read his column if you don’t already) of homophobic parents of gay children. Very often, finding out that the child that they love is gay – and is still that child they love – begins a slow process that changes their view on homosexuality. This often works where logic and argument do not. Your mother loves you, and that love, over time, may compel her to rethink her views. But the key is that you must not give her reason to believe that your atheism is making you a bad person.

    This may not work, of course. However, if your mother remains convinced that belief in God is the only way to avoid damnation, I think clever arguments are even less likely to work.

    Lastly, if you want someone to bounce ideas off of, feel free to email me or friend me on Facebook. Best of luck to you – you’re not alone.

  30. Bradley says

    I would seem to me that a victory in John’s situation is maintaining the status quo. A few thoughts:

    1> That the family as a whole is discussing how the situation should be resolved is an advantage. Large groups need time to reach a consensus.
    2> Because anything John would say in his defense is tainted by being an outsider, he needs to find a sympathetic advocate, preferably one with as much status within the family as the aunt. More would be even better.
    3> As to the whole prophetic dream thing, I think it falls into the “too diabolical to work” category. Sure, placing the responsibility for the fate of all three siblings on John is a dick move. But with all three fates being linked, were the family to abandon John to Satan!, they would be abandoning all three.

    In conclusion, John, try to convince the most sympathetic member of your family that if your aunt’s prophecy is true, its a really bad idea to expel you from the family.

  31. deesse23 says


    dont try to play according to your families playbook. You will never “win” THEIR game, on THEIR turf (aka religion and belief). So any discussion -in my opinion- will be wasted time and effort.

    The decision has been made by your family (mother primarily): YOU are the source of evil (scapegoat) regarding your family and siblings, and i dont think theres ANYthing that will convince her of the opposite. You know, there always has to be someone responsible, and in your families case they/she have chosen you.

    What i can recommend (from own experience):
    1) dont ever think they might be *right* not for ONE second. Just because the accusation is going to be repeated over and over again doesnt make it more true

    2) Dont waste valuable energy on getting out of it or trying to convince your mother. At the end you will be even more frustrated, but then additionally exhausted (and maybe depressed like i was). Save your energy!

    3) Because this is a family issue, you may think you are obliged to *try and try all over again, in a sense of “its my family/mother. Even if they are bad to me, i still owe them/her something ….”. You DONT!
    Yes, your mother raised you, but what you dont owe her is your mental health or future life as a whole. Just because she gave birth to you doesnt mean she OWNS you. Im saying this just in case the is going to pull this final ace out of her sleeve.

    Why am i saying this?
    I went through something similar. I was (Mentally) abused by my mother as well, but i was adult at least (20y). She accused me of horrible things, like breaking into her house, shooting at her (!!!), forging of my grandpartens last will and what not. She cussed like a sailor at me, and then finally told me “but i LOVE you, i am your MOTHER you know! Please come back to me, baby!”. I always felt i owed her to keep talking to her and get back on good terms. Boy was i wrong!
    At the end she called me betwen 20 and 40 times A DAY and left messages on my answering machine. I went close to (or had) a mental breakdown, before i relaized i HAD to do something.
    I finally moved to another town, got me a new job and a secret phone number. I havent talked or seen my mother since the early 90s (but i know that she hasnt changed a bit, my dad keeps talking to her …at times. I think shes mentally ill or someting, but…i cant do anything for her, i was just able to save myself).

    You all will notice the scheme that is so common with religion: “YOU are so bad you SoB, but i still love you!”

    Thats why i am saying: Its YOUR life!! Get out as soon as possible. You may have to cut lines to your mother, but….if thats whats necessary, then by all means do it.

    Its YOUR life and YOUR decision, dont let anybody (including me) control your thoughts or actions.

  32. billhelm says

    Maybe, say:

    You’re open to the truth, and if you get convinced that God exists, you are fine with it. And they should pray that God reveals himself to you, and that you will keep an open mind.

    It puts the burden on them and “God”, gives them a sense that you’re playing along, and allows you to be honest.

  33. Tower says

    Damn, that sucks.
    Honesty is important, but not so important that you are obligated to bend your personality to people who will made themselves and you suffer for the rest of your life if you give in.

  34. says

    I can’t thank everyone who posted with support and ideas, enough. I just opened my e-mail and discovered something I HAD to share. The young man who originally wrote for advice decided it was best to go and stay with a friend until things could be sorted. This seems to have given his mother something to think about…

    Good news!

    My mom ended up calling my phone because she actually got really stressed out from the implications of driving me away. My nan actually came to my place to regulate and everything is looking good. Mom is still feeling worried over my aunt’s little prophecy and she’s still weary about my sister but I took the user ‘Malte’s advice (comment #14) with that. She said she understood that I needed convincing and she thinks that if we study the bible together she can save my soul. At the same time, if it was reading the bible that made me an atheist than I hope it may have a similar effect on her, if not liberalize her to the point where my sister is, discarding much of the dumb stuff as either history, myth or didactic allegory. I have my nan to thank for a lot of this, her intervention really got much of my family to cool it, but I also have to thank you. That status quo wasn’t getting anywhere and I doubt we could have gotten to this point and I don’t think I could have worked up the courage to even confront her by myself. I need you to give a huge thanks to Malte, badgersdaughter and Jamie Gairns please, they were really helpful. A couple of bruises and scratches were worth it, but I don’t think my mom will stay very close to my aunt (who hates my guts a little bit more some how) for a while after, which I feel sorta guilty about.

    I’m so happy this worked out, it was looking really scary there for a moment. I really cannot thank you enough Tracie, I can only hope that other atheist kids get so lucky.


    That pretty well made my day–and I hope it did the same for you all as well.