Dealing with Believing Family

By this point in my journey out of Christianity I knew that I no longer believed in the god of the bible but I was still using an incorrect definition of atheist as “someone who is convinced that god does not exist” and it would be the better part of a decade before I realized that only covers a subset of atheists (sometimes called “hard atheists” or “gnostic atheists”). I called myself agnostic but definitely didn’t let on to anyone in my family.

I was in college but I had to talk to my parents on the phone or when I was on a break from school, or my extended family during holidays or via the occasional email. It was easy to ignore things like “we’re praying for you” or just bow my head and be respectful when someone else was praying. It became more difficult with more direct questions like “are you praying for grandma?” or “would you like to say grace?” when we were together.

To be honest, the only way I was able to deal with those direct questions was to lie.

I just wasn’t ready to tell the truth and deal with the consequences. I had expressed some doubts to my parents in high school and got the standard answers of “just pray on it” / “we’ll pray for you to overcome your doubts” or “we can’t understand God’s plan” but I never made the step of saying that none of those arguments were convincing and that I just didn’t believe what they raised me to believe. I valued my relationship with my parents above my ability to be honest about my convictions and was worried that I would introduce a rift between us if I ever laid out what I did and didn’t believe and why.

Now, almost 40 years old, I still don’t know if that was the right decision but I couldn’t see any upsides for my family by coming out as an atheist and I knew it would hurt them deeply. It just felt selfish to introduce that strife instead of the “harmless lie” of pretending to be Christian. As of writing this, I’ve still never had that conversation with anyone in my family except my sister.

Unfortunately, I think that pretending to be something I’m not was detrimental to my mental health and I struggle with anxiety and guilt over not being able to be honest but lying out of a sense of love. That’s the reason I started this blog. Maybe some day I’ll share it with my parents so they can take their time with processing everything or maybe we’ll all go to our graves never having confronted my disbelief.

With a little introspection, I think my parents are already part of this facade. I stopped going to church when I went to college and for a few years I gave the excuse of “I haven’t found the right church” or something similar but then they stopped asking. I dealt with being asked to pray by preemptively asking my father to say grace before a family meal instead. I moved in with my fiancee for over a year before we were married and while they didn’t throw the “living in sin” argument in my face (that was my grandmother), they insisted we sleep in separate guest rooms when visiting them until we were married. My parents aren’t fools, I think deep down they know I don’t believe but they’ve told themselves that I’m “backslidden” or that my “walk with God isn’t as strong as it used to be.” Maybe they’ve even secretly acknowledged to themselves that I’m agnostic but they don’t want to bring it up for fear that acknowledging it would be the same as condoning it.

Some day I would love to have a long discussion with my parents about why I don’t accept Christianity as true and I think if we could agree to be respectful and civil then we could have a very intellectually fulfilling conversation. I know my father in particular is interested in apologetics and has taught from the pulpit on multiple occasions so it would be an engaging discussion to be sure. This may be a fantasy but I am not looking to de-convert them (though I would be happy if they at least re-examined why they believe what they do) and if they were not trying to “re-convert” me it could be a great way to introduce honesty and epistemology at the same time.

I know my parents’ beliefs have changed over time. I would love to talk to them about theology and doctrine and really understand what they find convincing and why. I suspect that the strongest arguments would be from personal experience and they would likely not be open to introspection about those experiences as it would feel like an attack against them, personally, instead of an examination of potentially bad arguments. Maybe someday I’ll walk into that proverbial minefield and see if we can all make it to the other side together.

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