Ask Richard: Help! My Dad Keeps Pressuring Me to Go to Church


May 13, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I am a 20-year-old student living with my father. He's Christian and has very firm beliefs. Recently, he's been pushing me to join a church because he believes it would be extremely beneficial to me. However, he doesn't know I'm agnostic, and except for my sister, no else one in my family knows, either. I've given him various excuses as to why I don't want to join a church, but he won't let it go. Anytime I have a problem he uses it as an opportunity to push me to attend church.

I'm not sure how he or any of my other family members would take my lack of faith. I'd been planning on waiting until I was no longer dependent on them to "come out," but his pressuring me to become a faithful churchgoer is becoming hard to deal with. Is there any way to tell him I'm not interested in going to any church without explicitly telling him I doubt God exists?


Dear Mary,

I think it's wise of you to wait until you feel the situation is right to come out to your father about your agnosticism. You have no obligation to tell anyone ever, especially when it would complicate things and create disharmony and stress for all concerned. Over and over in these types of family scenes, I've seen that the right timing turns out to be much more important than the right words.

So you want to get your father to stop nagging you to go to a church, but you don't want to tell him yet that you doubt God exists–and I'm going to assume that you'd rather avoid telling him a flat-out lie, such as, "Oh, I'm going to First Church of (blank). It's several miles away, but so far I like it."

Tell him that nature is your church. Say something like:

Dad, churches and all the social obligations that go with them just aren't for me. When I'm in a small, crowded building, I don't feel close to God. But when I'm outdoors in nature, I feel close to all of creation and I feel I'm a part of a much bigger thing. It's glorious and inspiring and rejuvenating and I always come back feeling my spirit is restored.

I'm sure that you don't think that God can only be found inside a church, right? Churches and congregations are great for those who benefit from them, but they are things of man, and I'm sure that you agree that no things of man can pretend to contain God.

Dad, I love you and I know you want the best for me. I assure you that I'm taking good care of my body, my mind and my spirit, and going outdoors into nature is doing all of that.

If that sounds too pantheist for him, you can assure him that you always take your Bible along with you. Just keep it in your car or knapsack. But if he still insists on you going to a church, then I think you're going to have to take a stand and gently but firmly say something like:

Look, Dad, I'm an adult now and you need to accept that. I have to make my own decisions and find my own way. You've done a wonderful job guiding me and helping me, and I'm very grateful. But now you have to let me determine my own way, as the good, responsible adult that you raised me to be. Please don't keep insisting on having this exactly the way you want. If you believe that God is in charge and that God provides everything we need to find and be with him, then you know that no place and no person in the world is out of his reach. This is the path that is right for me at this time in my life.

And then, Mary, I suggest that you actually go frequently into nature, if you don't already. It really is good for your body, mind and emotions, if you substitute that for "spirit." There's a long tradition of thinkers both religious and secular seeking clarity and renewal in nature. Whether you can go up to the hills, out to the woods, down to the river or just over to the park, students are seldom the worse for regular doses of sunshine, fresh air and exercise.

When you have some problem and your father uses it as an opportunity to push you to attend church, reframe it as a positive suggestion and thank him for it. Say, "That's a great idea, Dad. You're right. Thanks!" Then immediately grab your always-handy knapsack, which always contains granola bars, bottled water and a small Bible covering up a copy of The Demon Haunted World, and head out the door, singing "The Happy Wanderer." This tactic will have the instant benefit of getting you away from his nagging, and you have cleverly framed it as his suggestion. It may also have the more subtle behavior modification effect of gradually getting him to stop harping on it, since every time he does, you're suddenly gone.

In our society, early adulthood can be a difficult time because young adults usually have fully developed intellectual independence, but often not financial independence. Parents teach their children how to grow up to be adults, but often those grown-up children then have to teach their parents how to stop being parents and shift to adult-to-adult relating. It can sometimes take as much love and patience for a young adult to guide a middle-aged parent as it does for a young parent to guide a small child.


Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.