Ask Richard: I


June 09, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I have a problem that is similar to the nephew who is being brainwashed by his Christian mother. I'm 68 years old and have recently returned to the atheist beliefs I held as a teenager. I spent two decades of my life as a conservative Christian and went to seminary for three years in my late 30's. I also served for about as long as a pastor in a conservative Lutheran synod. Having studied the Bible intensely, I realized I could not believe in it, and after a difficult struggle I acknowledged that I was an agnostic and left the church.

The older of my two sons was a very wild, rebellious kid in his teenage years while I was in the ministry, and he was in his early 20's after I first got out. He was a heavy user of alcohol and hard drugs like cocaine. Then in his mid-20's, he turned around completely and he became a devout fundamentalist Christian. I've never asked him about it, but I suspect that he found religion through a 12-step program. His then-girlfriend, whom he married soon after, may also have been an influence. They have given me three beautiful grandchildren: two boys aged 15 and 12 and a little girl now four.

My son and his wife changed their church because the first (very conservative) church was not fundamentalist enough for them. I don't know what religious ideas our grandchildren are being taught because my wife and I see so little of them. We live a little more than 100 miles away and my son and his family have not come to visit us once in the past 13 years–although they sometimes get more than half the distance to see my daughter-in-law's brother or a baseball game. My son's mother, my ex-wife, lives fairly near to them and does not get many more visits than I do, but it is much easier for her to drop in on them.

Thus we only see the kids about four times a year. I have often dropped broad hints about having them visit us, and my son always responds, "Maybe we will someday," but it never happens. I sometimes feel like making a tart comment about the commandment to honor your mother and father, but I always bite my tongue.

They are always pleasant and genial when we do visit. They seem to be excellent parents. There is no sign of corporal punishment. They spend a lot of time with the kids. The two older boys do well in school and are involved in sports, and all three are well-behaved without being little plaster saints.

My son and his wife do not thrust their religion on us beyond saying grace at meals, and I bow my head as I would to show respect for anyone's beliefs. Equally, I do not say how I now feel about religion, although they must suspect that my wife and I don't attend church. I'm a little uncomfortable about having to avoid these topics. However, I feel that it may not be safe to simply tell them I don't believe in God anymore because it might result in our being unwelcome to visit the children at all. It's the kind of thing you can't unsay once it's out in the open.

Then there is the question of how to offer a counterpoise to the kids' religious upbringing. The best I can do is to bring science-oriented presents. When the boys were younger they got a number of dinosaur models and books on dinosaurs. And I'm happy to see that the two boys are presently interested in scientifically-oriented careers: math teacher and engineer.

Maybe there is no good advice for this situation. I'm just slightly uncomfortable with it, and the world doesn't always offer you an escape from your discomforts. However, I would be interested in hearing other opinions.

–Freethinking Grandpa

Dear Grandpa,

You're helping your grandchildren about as well as you can, and I'll talk more about that later. But I think the main source of your discontent is that you and your son are strangers.

It seems very likely to me that your son figured out long ago that you are no longer a believer. You left the ministry when he was a young man and a painful struggle like that cannot be easily kept hidden. Questions, even if unspoken, remain hanging in the air. What happened? Your son may have put the clues together himself or he may have candidly asked someone who knows you.

So your atheism may not really be a secret, just something neither of you discuss. Since his religious taste runs in the very fundamentalist range, he possibly feels a bit personally threatened by it, and more so regarding his kids. But if he already knows, that means he can tolerate you visiting on his turf, where your time is limited by the long commute and where he feels more in control. If you want him to visit on your turf, you need to help him feel safer. To do that, you need to talk.

I agree with you that a wry remark about honoring thy mother and father would be counterproductive. Instead, tell him a truth about yourself. Something like this (in your own words):

Son, you haven't visited us in 13 years, and it hurts. You and your family are welcome here, but we are welcome in your home only for a few hours after a long drive, four times a year. Is there anything I do or have done that keeps you away? If I have hurt or offended you, I cannot mend it if I don't know what it is.

Even though he could easily reply, "No, there's nothing wrong," you have still put it out there. You have stated that his unresponsive neglect hurts and you are willing to make amends if it is possible.

The emotional distance between the two of you might have nothing to do with religion. The divorce from your first wife, his mother, or the tension during his wild and rebellious adolescence could still be loaded with hurt and anger. If you were caught up in your struggle with your loss of faith just when he was at the worst of his struggle with his addictions, he might have felt that you weren't there for him. The timing of such things are neither person's fault, but blame is often given–and often not forgiven.

You're mostly afraid of losing the right to see your grandchildren, but that is not likely if you handle it well. Don't attack him or his beliefs, just share your own feelings about your relationship. If he broaches the subject of your atheism, then acknowledge it and reassure him that you have no intention of discussing your views with his kids and so there's no need to keep them away for that reason.

Grandpa, the tension that you feel tiptoeing around religious issues is fed by the importance that you give them. Your son believes what he believes. So what? Let the weight of it fall from your relaxed fingers. Such things should not perturb a man such as you, who has walked all the way through the belief gauntlet. Theism, atheism: these are insignificant trifles over which to sacrifice something so precious as love.

People regret losing opportunities because they waited too long, and the saddest lost opportunity is the unsaid "I love you." You're 68 and, by my figuring, your son is in his mid-40's. Both of you could live a long time, but neither of you can justify wasting time when love and closeness could have been shared and enjoyed. With each passing day, his odds of sudden death get closer to your odds, not further. Paradoxically, having less time can give us more freedom to get past the fears that hold back our hearts.

In the meantime, I think your science-oriented gifts to the boys and the little girl are right on target. Binoculars, microscopes or just a hand held two lens loupe–one of my own favorite childhood toys–steer young minds toward a life of looking rather than just listening. Nothing too elaborate, just whatever you can afford and whatever they will enjoy. Nourishing their curiosity is the treasure inside the gifts. Where that curiosity leads them religiously is up to them.

Some day when they're teens or young adults they may have their own doubts, just as you did. At least one and maybe all three are likely to have inherited some of your personality traits. But you should leave it up to them. If they come to you needing some understanding about these issues, you can be Freethinking Grandpa for them. Otherwise you can still be just plain Grandpa for them.



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.