Should Atheists Attend Church Functions to Please Family and Friends?

Bored-In-ChurchThis morning I’m writing surrounded by the clamor of a hundred separate groups of kids and adults executing the well-oiled machine that is Vacation Bible School.  At my family’s church, VBS is a major production.  Hundreds of volunteers and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars come together to make this happen each year, and my girls love it.  Two of them are up on stage right now helping lead hundreds of kids in group worship, complete with smiles, hand motions, and buckets full of youthful enthusiasm.  My home church does everything big, just as you might expect from any organization with an operating budget upwards of $10 million.  This is the world I grew up in, and now my girls are growing up in it as well.

“But wait a second!  Aren’t you an atheist?  Why on earth would you let your kids be involved in stuff like that?”  It’s worse than that, folks.  I actually got them up and dressed and drove them here myself.  I’ll likely hang out around here until they get done and then take them home only to turn around and do it again tomorrow.  It’s summer, so I also see a swimming pool and the new X-Men movie in their near future, but VBS and church camps and trips are a big part of my children’s summer every year.  How on earth can that be if I am a non-believer, you ask?  Make no mistake:  I have strongly negative opinions about some of the prejudices which these experiences are weaving into my children toward critical thinking, same-sex relationships, gender identity, body shame, and general self-image.  Trust me, these things are difficult, and I have my work cut out for me.  But life is complicated, and it’s even more complicated for deconverts like me whose families didn’t follow us into our apostasy from the faith of our upbringing.

I continue to cooperate with my girls’ mother on things like this because it’s in everyone’s best interests to do what we can to maintain good relationships, even to the point of making painful compromises when necessary.  I’ve discovered there will never be a shortage of people ready to tell you they know better than you how to parent your own children, but these are my children and I can decide for myself what is best for them in their particular situation, thankyouverymuch!  Sometimes people have helpful things to say, but often what they have to say only shows how little they know about the intricate details of my life.

People in a position like mine have to make a lot of compromises.  In all honesty, because the social privilege is overwhelmingly on the other side from where I am, my “compromises” are usually more like capitulations, accommodating the needs of others in order to keep the peace.  I’ll be the first to admit that I probably do that too often.  But you have to understand that as an atheist in the Deep South, I am greatly out of sync with my surrounding culture, and because of that I have to choose my battles very carefully.  Keeping my girls from something they enjoy just doesn’t fall into that category for me.  One day I will have a lot of work to do in translating what I think and believe into terms that my girls can understand.  I’ve already begun that project here on this blog through writing them letters to share with them at some point in the future.  In the meantime, I’m doing what little things I can to maintain a good relationship with my girls until such a time comes that we will have to tackle these emotionally challenging differences.  Long story short, though, I’m simply doing what I have to do right now to make this work.

Should We Give In to Their Requests?

I recently received a question from a virtual friend who is similarly stuck between his own atheism and the faith of the rest of his family.  I’ll post his question here, followed by my reply below:

If you are the only non-Christian member of your family, how do you handle things like Christmas celebrations, baptisms, and other major family functions that center around church and Christian beliefs that the rest of the family embraces? As a personal example, every year on Christmas Eve our family (including extended family from out of town) attends services together. I hate being “that guy” who refuses to participate, so I go, knowing that it’s as much for family bonding as it is for worship. But the family also sings Christmas carols, decorates a tree, exchanges gifts, etc…, all practices that I gave up years ago with everyone except my family. The family basically engages in two full days of Christian-based festivities that are very alienating to me. (I know decorating a Christmas tree isn’t Christian, per se, but it is in the way that my family does it).

I have a baptism coming up that the family has been invited to. Is it appropriate for me to show up and support the family, or hold true to my principles and effectively just join them for lunch afterwards? How do you handle these situations?

That’s a tough one. My short response, though, is that obviously that each person will have to feel out his or her own level of comfortability. I tend to err on the side of swallowing my own needs in favor of accommodating those around me. And in certain circumstances, that seems like the easiest path to take. For example, when my extended family gathers to pray before eating big meals, I don’t stand off by myself in protest; I join them and hold hands and even bow my head a little so as not to distract them. I don’t close my eyes, because for some reason that crosses a line for me, plus I’m entertained by watching how the little kids act during this ritual.

But events that require attending a ceremony are asking more from me, and I have to factor into my decision variables like the following:

  • How close to me is the person who’s asking?
  • Is this a once in a lifetime thing, or something that happens very frequently?
  • Just how much will it upset them if I stay behind on this one?
  • Just how much will it upset me if I have to endure it?

All that has to be weighed in to see what the best decision should be. Personally, I have no principle keeping me away from things other than a desire to maintain a good relationship with people, which you might think would usually entail going instead of not going.  But there was a time a few years back when I had to choose to stop going to church because it was upsetting me to the point that it was affecting my closest relationships. It’s all well and good to be a sacrificial, accommodating person; but if it’s building resentment inside, you might wanna watch that. Choosing to stuff your own feelings only works for so long, and eventually this has to be openly addressed.

My friend Captain Cassidy over at Roll to Disbelieve wrote a post that I wish I had seen back when I was still married. She writes about learning to feel at home in your own life, and how sometimes that requires making sure that others around you learn to take your needs into consideration just as much as their own. Now, that gets tricky, because they have been taught that they know your needs better than you do. They have been taught that no one needs to be an atheist. Everyone needs to be what they themselves are. So they feel they are only loving you when they pressure you into participating in all that they do. But at some point, if they love you, they must learn to recognize that this is not what you want. If they love you, they shouldn’t always ask you to do all the accommodating to their preferences.  That may not match their definition of love (“I’m just afraid for your soul”), but perhaps their definition of love needs to be challenged.  Perhaps it’s time they learned to love you better.

So you see there isn’t a good, short answer to this question.  Each person will have to weigh out all of the factors playing into his or her specific circumstance.  I lean toward accommodation in order to maintain a good relationship with the people I love.  But a person’s ability to do that depends on a number of variables like how emotionally manipulative their specific variety of religion happens to be, or how burnt out on that tradition the person being asked has become.  For some people, so much emotional loss and pain (or even abuse, either subtle or overt) has accompanied their church experience that returning there sets off “triggers” that make it an extremely painful thing.  For those people, my main advice is to encourage them to take up advocating for themselves and their own needs.  It doesn’t help anyone for you to put yourself into a situation that will hurt you or cause you to lose a piece of yourself  just to make others happy.  But if that’s not where you are, and if you can endure what’s being asked of you without it really costing you much of anything, why not just go?  In that case, what harm will it bring?

How about you folks?  What say you?  For those of you stuck in my friend’s situation, how do you handle these requests?  I’d like to hear from you.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I hear “The Chicken Dance Song” being sung, and that’s my cue to move farther away from the auditorium.  And on that note, I leave you with one of my favorite Mr. Bean segments:

 

 

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24 Responses to Should Atheists Attend Church Functions to Please Family and Friends?

  1. Kurt Wolery says:

    When in situations like this I imagine myself on my deathbed (morbid, I know) and ask myself if I would regret not going for any reason. This helps me see the bigger picture and hopefully make a decision that preserves my most important relationships.

  2. James says:

    It took my family a while to accept that I am atheist. When I first told my mother, she sort of laughed and said “no you’re not”. I was probably about 13 years old, this was a year after going through the confirmation bit into the catholic church; something I felt pressured into and knew that I was just going through the motions to appease the family. After a while and after meeting another like minded individual, I became far less inclined to attend mass to the point where I just made it not worth fighting me for.

    I continued to attend a catholic school to appease my mother and it really wasn’t all that bad. I just ignored the rhetoric and didn’t attempt to create any issues. I also had other reasons for staying: my friends were there, it would have been a much longer walk to go to the public school and being 13, I was a bit lazy.

    Fast forward a few years. It used to be family tradition to attend the midnight mass for christmas, which I stopped going to. I already had to attend other masses because of being in a catholic school, and for me, that was about all I was willing to endure (mostly because it meant I didn’t have to deal with class). I felt I was doing my due diligence in not making a fuss about it and causing issues at school. The way I looked at this case was that I was getting out of class to sit and ignore people, albeit in a church, and by complying, I wasn’t making my own life a living hell at school. Being picked on for other things was bad enough.

    After graduating and going to university, no one has bothered me to go to mass during christmas or any other holidays. I greatly respect and love my family and I think it sank in for my parents, that I wasn’t going to turn out bad for not attending church. I explained that despite our differences in views, it doesn’t affect how I see my family. I love them and support them and am standing up for myself and what I believe in, just as they are, and just as they taught me to do. Having been bullied in school, I explained that forcing me to do something I am against is no better than being accosted by bullies at school. I think once they realized that the two, in my mind, equated that way, they more fully understood. Funny enough, I found that my grandmother was more accepting and less questioning of me being an Atheist than my parents were. Something I certainly did not expect.

    There has only been three occasions since, in which I have willingly gone into a church. One was for a good friends wedding, and the other two were for funerals of family members. I respect my friends and family and in these three cases it wasn’t about what I believe vs. what they believe, but that we are all there to celebrate a large step in someones life, or to grieve the loss of someone dear to us together. As was said in this article, I think it largely depends on the event and how it might affect relationships with the people around you.

    For the day to day, I would personally not go. If a person is willing to hinge their attitude towards me based on something like not attending a sunday mass, I find that, a person like that, isn’t worth the time and effort. If it is family that is forcing this, respect needs to come from both sides.

    When it comes to major family/life events, I go out of respect and love for them. I don’t considering it “biting a bullet” by having to be in a church for these reasons, I just see it as being there to support and love my family in times of need. I don’t participate in the ceremony and whatnot, I sit in silent respect. I think I am quite lucky to have a family that understands and respects me, and I know not everyone has that luxury.

    • Andy says:

      Wow, awesome post James for real. I am 17 and continually forced to go to church every Sunday. My family is Southern Baptist, so they’re not short services. I was in exactly the same situation as you I greatly appreciate the advice.

  3. Lauren says:

    As a fellow atheist, I found this question to be very interesting. I was raised Jewish. While my family practiced the least conservative type of Judaism; we belonged to a reform synagogue, I began doubting the existence of a higher power as a teenager. Since I lived at home until college, I was forced to attend services on what were considered to be the “high holidays,” the equivalent of Easter and Xmas. In any case, after I moved to NYC for college, I never attended services again. I did go to a few Passover Seders, but that was more to see my family. Now, as a single childless woman, I m not in the same situation as you and the person who asked you the question, but I feel that you should not attend any religious affair if it makes you feel uncomfortable. If one parent is religious, then they can take the children. I’ve worked with kids my whole life and they are far more perceptive than most people think. They are also capable of understanding a simple answer if they ask why mommy or daddy doesn’t want to attend X event. Then, when they get a bit older, parents can offer a more in depth answer. I find it to be very selfish on the part of the religious spouse to expect the atheist to attend a religious event just to please them. It’s not the same as wanting them to attend some dinner with the in laws. That’s where you can and should compromise. That being said, I have attended the 3 Bar Mitzvahs of my younger cousins as those are one time affairs, but that’s where I would draw the line, with the exception of a funeral. Again, I’m not married and don’t have kids, but religious beliefs are very personal, or lack of them. No one should be expected to attend those events.

  4. John Benal says:

    What’s your custody situation? With mine, I have no say in the matter. If my kids want to go to church and such (or if their mother directs them to do) I have no say in the matter. I’ve simply had to resign myself that I can’t stop them from going if they choose to do so or are directed to by their mother.
    We might also keep in mind that the social aspect of church activities is frequently more important to kids than the theological aspect. Kids want to go to such things to remain active in their social circles, especially with school being out and the usual social interaction with their friends is likely reduced from the normal routine. My kids will spend this summer at catholic camps but they seem to be more excited about seeing their school friends than they are about the religious aspect (they attend a catholic school, not public school). Do these summer social activities continue to expose them to the barrage of religious propaganda that we want to counter? Of course, but I would pose that it’s no different than on Sundays. It just takes place during the week. Again, depending on your custody situation, you may or may not have any control over this anyway.
    Does having to accept this suck? Hell yes, but to preserve my sanity, I’ve accepted it for what it is. To be a non believer is an individual decision. We, as atheists, can only demonstrate and explain the basis for our decision to not believe and demonstrate through our own lives that to not believe is OK. You’ve done that well, with your “Letters to your daughter” segment being a great example. You may feel they’re not listening, but they do.
    I use the analogy of “Linus’ blanket” in choosing to believe or not believe. Believers, like Linus, cling to the blanket of religion for security. You’ve let go of the blanket. Others will let go in their own time. My kids will to, someday. That time may not come as soon as I like or it may not happen in my lifetime, but I have to accept that. We can’t take away the blanket, but they must let go of it when they choose to do so.

  5. Darrell says:

    This is a wonderfully realistic and nuanced article. I similarly choose to accommodate the christian beliefs and practices of my immediate family—like you, to the extent of holding hands while another family member leads a prayer. I know my boundaries and protect myself, and I am seeing to it that my teenage sons get ‘Cosmos’ and Neil DeGrasse Tyson as well as church.

    • Darrell says:

      I might add that Julia Sweeney’s hilarious and moving monologue “Letting Go of God” offers some of the best advice and example I’ve run across on how to act respectfully—and assertively—towards religious family members!

  6. karenh1234567890 says:

    In my case, it would depend on the church. For one thing, I was raised in the Episcopal church and still like to go to church, whether or not I believe all 39 Articles of the Faith. I still like the ritual and the songs. The Episcopal churches I went to were not very preachy. The sermons tended to be more along the line of university lectures or really boring. One priest we had was even a Theology professor as well as a priest. I don’t know what they were like when we were very young because we were sent to Sunday School before the sermon and communion.

    Also, I was never taught that my church was the ONE TRUE WAY. In fact as part of our confirmation classes, we were taken to other churches and a Jewish temple to see how other people worshipped God.

    If it were the preachy, fundagelical kind, I would avoid it. It takes me back to when I was 10 years old and my great aunts took me to their old-time Methodist church when we stayed with them during the summer. They didn’t drive and lived in a city in the Middle Atlantic states so it was hot and muggy. The church was two buses away. The church didn’t have air conditioning, so we sat in the pews in the semi-dark listening to a preacher rant about how the blood of Jesus was going to get you if you didn’t behave or believe exactly what he was preaching while fanning ourselves with rattan fans courtesy of the local funeral parlor. Instead of feeling the presence of Jesus or whatever the preacher wanted us to feel, what I felt was a massive heat headache and sort of sick to my stomach. I would not willingly go to a church where I had to sit through that kind of rant again, because it takes me back to when I was 10 in my head. When I have ended up there by mistake, like at a friend’s child’s funeral, it was all I could do to not get up and leave in the middle the rant (to me it isn’t a sermon because of the yelling and the threats).

  7. bananafaced says:

    I guess I don’t let religious functions bother me too much. I had a lot of practice after the age of 17 when I acknowledged (to myself) that almost everyone on earth has some sort of religious tradition/prayer/celebration and God(s) except me and a few others like me. I decided to use the time I spent going to weddings/Bar and Bat Mitzvahs/Christmas services/Buddhist Meditation, etc. observing the similarities and differences in each one. In the beginning I felt really alone. Then at some point all the prayers and pageantry were not interesting any more. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t sad. I was bored. Today, “I don’t close my eyes, because for some reason that crosses a line for me” too, like Neil says. I look around at all the rapt faces, deep into their spiritual world. I’m happy they feel good. I feel good, too, by keeping my secret to myself and not upsetting their world. It’s my invisible and silent gift to my “friends”.

  8. Andrew says:

    I’m a closeted atheist living in a home of born-again Christians. My parents pay for my college tuition, and they don’t charge me rent of any sort. They told me that so long as I am going to school and/or working, they won’t charge me a dime. The problem is I think those things can change if I were to come out as an atheist to them. I remember when I told them that I no longer see the bible as infallible and god-breathed, they were very hurt and disappointed, but they still clung to the fact that I loved Jesus as God’s son (which was true at the time). I still go to church almost every Sunday with them, including the breaking bread and wine service. I still have conversations with them on theology as if I was in their circle of thought.

    While I wouldn’t call this an easy thing to do, it isn’t very hard for me. I live in Central NJ; a hop, skip, and jump away from NYC. I have a large circle of friends that know of my atheistic stance, and several of them share that view, and most of them are very much not Christian. If they are Christian, they are very open-minded and not evangelical about it. So I have an outlet where I can be the completely honest and real me, which makes it very easy to put on the Christian mask once in a while to appease the family. If I didn’t have that outlet, I don’t know if I would be able to hold it in for my family and for myself. Once I’m independent of their resources, I’ll come out of the closet.

    • Kurt Wolery says:

      Tough situation you’re in Andrew. I think you have a good plan to stay closeted until you finish school and can easily provide for yourself. Hopefully you won’t resent your parents by that time. Greta Christina’s new book, “Coming Out Atheist” could be an excellent resource for you as you navigate these waters. Good luck my friend.

  9. Lee says:

    I’ve opined on this subject in the past and while I can understand the complexities and nuances unique to each situation, it seems wrong to “compromise” for the sake of saving face with individuals that are brainwashing your children. Having been raised in this exact environment I feel I can express relevant concern and perspective, though as you rightfully pointed out, there is no easy answer to this one. Personally, I “compromised” (regretfully) on VBS for my two youngest last year, but feel much stronger and confident about my resistance this year. My reasons are as complicated and nuanced as one that may compromise on situations like these, but in reading your post and thinking back on my personal experiences it begs reflection. I can honestly say I was indifferent towards the Christian faith at a young age (5-9) until one such VBS event changed everything. I’ll forgo details, but I do remember the over the top program, the extremely emotionally charged environment and those adults including my parents encouraging my “decision” on the day of my first salvation (which could have been any one of many such days). The point being, often it is one such single “event” that can have far reaching impact on an individual’s life (especially for a younger person). For me, the “feelings” I had that day at the ripe age of ten were as strong or stronger than any I had experienced before and solidified my faith for at least a decade after that…some argue the most formative decade. Had but one single respected adult so much as mentioned an alternative viewpoint during that time things may have been much different. We need every last one of those dissenting opinions to be vocal about alternatives. So, yes…while it may be “necessary” or even “wise” to compromise on things like this, I found myself asking a critical question. If one of my children had such an experience at even just one such event, will I be ok with what may and typically does progress from there if I were to say nothing in challenge? Ultimately, that answer for me personally is no. Should that answer be the same for every non-believing parent…that is admittedly more complicated.

  10. ubi dubium says:

    How I feel about VBS would depend on the kind of program it was. When I was a kid, at a Presbyterian church, VBS was not very different than Sunday school. We just learned some new songs, and did a whole lot more crafts. Like day camp, with a little jeebus thrown in, nothing too awful. I could put up with that kind of thing, the indoctrination level wasn’t any worse than usual. What kind of program is the one your kids are in?

    My other comment is on group prayers. I’m quiet and polite, and will even hold hands if everybody else is. But I never bow my head! First, if all the believers are closing their eyes and bowing their heads, then they don’t see that I’m not joining in. Also, it’s a great way to spot fellow non-believers, because they are the other ones looking around and rolling their eyes.

    • Joyce Rutter says:

      Hahah! Yes, I do the same thing during a group prayer that I can’t very well get out of, and have had the same thoughts as you. The first time I did this, a number of years ago, across the room was a man who did not bow his head or close his eyes. We exchanged a smile. Since then, I always do this during a prayer – helps make it interesting and bearable.

  11. TK says:

    This undoubtedly differs from person to person, so I appreciate the balanced approach. My wife and married young (20), while we were both heavily involved in ministry. We had our first child at 22, while I was working in full-time ministry. Although I had some nagging doubts, the chaos of eventually having three kids under the age of three, kept them at bay. I didn’t leave the faith until December of 2012. Desperately trying to not make it “a big deal,” I continued to attend church with the family. Simple answers, unjustifiable positions and false pretenses left me fuming each Sunday. Which, for my wife who hates debating, meant that Sunday’s were by-and-large quite frustrating. I stopped attending all together in March of 2013.
    Stopping my church attendance carried some consequences, my wife often shares how she feels treated like a “second class citizen,” now that I don’t attend with her, which is hard to hear, but easy to believe. Luckily with my work shift schedule, the phase out seemed less dramatic for my kids. Throughout the past year and half, I have made one exception…Mother’s Day. No particular reason, other than wanting my wife to know I appreciate her and feeling emotionally healthy enough to quell my frustrations.
    I will make other exceptions I’m sure (e.g. weddings and funerals), but I recognize that for others it isn’t as “simple.”

  12. bobcaron says:

    Weddings and funerals? absolutely. Baptisms? Only if you are the Godparent and they don’t know you are atheist. I have three Godchildren. No one ever asked if I was a Catholic. I almost got to be a Confirmation sponsor but now the church has an intrusive vetting process. I sadly had to declined the opportunity. I’m just tickled that friends think that highly of me to ask me to fulfill these rolls. My little charges are all grown up now. One married a Muslim girl and converted to Islam. The other two are either atheists or at least have a very muted religiosity. :)

  13. davewarnock says:

    I have a friend who pastors a fairly progressive church; though he grew up a strict fundamental Pentecostal. He and I meet sometimes for coffee and talk about faith and atheist issues, etc. He wrote and read a letter to his congregation this past Easter that was directed to those known as Christers- people who go to church on Christmas and Easter. In it, he acknowledged that most people who do that, do it for the sake of a loved one- a mom, a spouse, etc. It was very moving.

    His point was that the people who go to church for others are showing them love. It may seem like a sacrifice and indeed it is- but it’s being done for the sake of demonstrating that you love that person more than you cling to your own ideology or comfort level.

    I did that this year- on Mother’s Day. Went to church with my son and his wife and my wife. It wasn’t painful at all. I have found that I can use it to study people, which I find a fascinating adventure. (a homeless man came in and sat behind me for awhile- until he had to step outside to answer his cell phone!)

    I think I can do that from time to time. I can demonstrate to those that I care about- that I care more about them than what I believe or don’t believe. When I was a Christian, I was identified by what I believed. I don’t want my life to be defined now by what I “don’t believe”. I want, rather, to be defined by how I live my life…and how I love others. Going to important events at church with them can demonstrate that- and sometimes communicate more than our clever arguments against their faith.

    • That is about how I feel as well. I don’t mind going for the sake of supporting family or whatnot. I wouldn’t go to a revival service, but a wedding or Mother’s Day or (in a recent RL situation) supporting a relative who was getting engaged at the church in a nice ceremony and party. What might be okay for me might make someone else twitchy, and that’s okay; it’s all about finding that equilibrium and balance.

  14. When your daughters come of age and can understand your atheism, will they have happy memories of their childhood with you? I think they will, since you were willing to focus your relationship on their needs when it was important to them. It can help a lot if you are flexible in these situations. It’s like that question newcomers get in the South – What church do you go to? It helps to understand that the questioner is getting a lot more out of your answer that just what your religious beliefs are. They learn what part of town you live in, what your social class might be, and whether they have any friends in common with you. Since church is the integral social bond in many Southern communities, by recognizing that fact you are not taking the easy way out, you are taking the intelligent approach to remaining an important part of your daughters’ lives, and on good terms with your ex-wife.

  15. Alex says:

    In fact I’m at church right now. Its no big deal. I’m happy if they are happy seeing me at church. Good chance to socialize too, get to meet different kind of people here.

    Alex

  16. Stephen B says:

    When I visit my Dad back in Georgia (I live in Washington DC) I go to church with him. And it’s a hard core fundamentalist Southern Baptist church. It pleases my father to have his family around him at church and it upsets me not at all because it has no more power over me whatsoever. When I was younger and it did have power over me I would have found it intolerable. I guess as you get older you calm down and my unbelief is so internalized at this point that there’s nothing these folks can say to come anywhere near to undermining it. I love my Dad. If he has some fantasy about me returning to belief then what of it? He’s 84. Why disturb his few remaining years?

  17. el_slapper says:

    I’m the taxi for driving my wife(and daughter) to the Church. I attend, because there’s nothing else to do in this town that time of day. But there’s a counter-part : she does not complain when I speak about million years, evolution & other things to our daughter.

    There must be a counter-part, I think. At the same time, I live in a country where 4.5% people attend religious offices on regular basis, half of them being muslims, so it’s easier to me to ask for counter-parts…

  18. tlethbridge says:

    Florida in general is not really a southern state, but the rural central region I live in is. When I finally realized all of my searching for answers had resulted in deconversion, I decided I was not going to tell anyone. That would have remained the case except my daughter, an extremely bright high school student at the time, decided to deconvert and tell my wife about her decision. When I was assigned the task of “fixing her” I was left with an ethical dilemma and chose to be upfront.

    It was a rough patch at the beginning but six years or so down the road we are doing pretty well. I am honest with my wife about what I believe, and I feel that she is the only person who is entitled to that level of honesty. We continued to attend church for many years but stopped at her prompting. We say grace at every meal and I take my turn because this is important to her. I am OK with this, I think of it as a healthy reminder that I enjoy blessings that were not due solely to my own work and that I do not control many things I wish I could control. I don’t think there is a God listening, but I have no objection to the ritual.

    Personally, I love sacred Christmas music and creches and tradition. Christmas is a religious holiday and I have no problem with celebrating that element even if I don’t hold to that faith anymore. Christmas would feel empty without these elements and I would be the first to protest any decision to eliminate Christian carols and nativity scenes from our Christmas traditions.

    My wife is my best friend and I plan to grow (extremely) old beside her. If she determined we needed to return to church I would agree to it. My self identity as an agonistic/atheist is far less important than my self identity as a husband and father. I went through a period where I was terrified my wife would leave me after my deconversion; no ritual observance could be nearly so important as that.

    I think there is a lot of room to educate your children even without objecting to attending services. While we still attended church and my son was in the church youth group, I had the maneuvering room to disagree with sermons and lessons. He knows I support marriage equality and other positions that did not jibe with inerrancy. I believe he is still a believer but he has also had a crucial opportunity to examine another perspective.

    I know I am blessed (even if I don’t believe in a God who is blessing me) to have a wife who put me and our marriage ahead of religious doctrine. In the years since I disclosed my deconversion we have grown together. Religious faith is still a touchy subject, but I no longer fear for my marriage’s survival and my wife has changed her views to match mine on important issues. We have friends who are gay/lesbian/transgender and are involved in communities that would have been unthinkable years ago. I also respect the fact my wife has lost one parent and I have not. We both agree that we like ourselves much better today than we did years ago when we were judgemental and doctrinally bound.

    Neil, I think the parable of a mustard seed applies in your situation. If your daughters know there is another tenable alternative to the faith they have been indoctrinated with, you have done them a considerable favor. They will make their own decisions and you will have to respect them. I was talking to a wiccan recently whose son is a Southern Baptist pastor. She is proud of him and his accomplishments and apparently he can respect his mother and her beliefs. If all of us could just get to that point, the country would be a much better place.

  19. zinischel says:

    Thanks for this very encouraging post. I am a father in a large family who is very accommodating regarding the rituals and beliefs of my immediate conservative christian family. I would speculate that this is easier for people like myself who were once on the other side of the fence and can muster a certain amount of empathy with the situation. While I have shared my atheism with my wife, she feels I am in some stage of a spiritual journey that will lead me back to Jesus when it is all over. My christian in-laws also live with us and so I choose to go to church each weekend with the whole family to help maintain relationships but also to keep an eye on what my kids are being told and provide developmentally appropriate alternatives for them that get their skeptical minds working, and make sure they are exposed to ideas, people and perspectives from outside the christian bubble we all live in. I agree with the sentiment suggested here, it is more impactful to have relationships with those you love in the hopes that they will at least come to understand you, rather than separate yourself from them and let them form their own biased opinions about who you are and what you represent…on balance of course :)

    Love the posts, your letters to your daughters have helped me tremendously in developing my own thoughts on what I would like my own to hear from me

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