Ask Richard: My Born-Again Dad is Intent on Saving Me, Too


June 16, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I was baptized Catholic and my parents became born-again Christians when I was in the sixth grade. When I was young, I tried very hard to believe what they taught me. However, I'm now 26, and for the last few years until recently it's been a "don't ask, don't tell" kind of situation with my parents regarding my beliefs–which are not anything close to born-again Christianity.

This past September, I "outed" myself when my father asked about my boyfriend's beliefs because "there may be grandchildren" and he was "concerned for their eternal destiny." During this two-hour hellish discussion, everything came out–including that for years I tried and wanted to believe, but I felt like I was praying to the ceiling and it just didn't make sense to me logically. My mother was very upset, but said, "I believe you will come back to it one day." My dad wasn't so understanding. He kept arguing with me about the truth of the Bible, and eventually made me promise to read One Heartbeat Away by Mark Cahill, which is made up of three chapters of illogical "proofs" the Bible is absolute truth and seven chapters about how to live life as a newly saved Christian. I told him if I feel like he's going to bring the subject up every time I come over, I'll stop coming over. He agreed to drop it.

Since then he hasn't directly brought the subject up. However, he'll bring up topics of conversation with me as though I still do believe what he does. For example, he'll discuss the situation in Israel and how it plays into prophesies from the Book of Revelation or the Old Testament. When he does this, I'm not sure if he wants my non-Christian perspective on the issue or if he wants me to go agree with his perspective or if the whole thing is just an excuse to bring up the "great debate" again. I don't know what to say to him when he brings this stuff up, and so mostly I smile and nod or say, "Interesting."

What happens when I do have kids and he wants to "save" them and bring them to church? He's a very hard-headed "I'm-right-you're-wrong-you're-going-to-hell" kind of Christian. It's incredibly stressful to anticipate these conversations or be a part of them.

How do I handle him?


Dear Frustrated,

Handle him the only way he understands: forcefully.

Tell him that he made an agreement and that you expect him to keep it or you're going to keep your part of that agreement. He's been breaking his agreement in sneaky ways and you're letting him get away with it. Call him on it, and be prepared to follow through with your part of the agreement by temporarily stopping your visits.

Your dad is a strong, forceful, even domineering kind of guy. People like that are not always bad. They can be very useful in the right situations, such as a sergeant commanding his men in a firefight. But they generally only relate well to other strong, forceful, domineering people. They don't respond well to polite, reasoned argument or gentle persuasion. They don't really know how to do that: they don't persuade; they dominate and overwhelm by interrupting, being loud, being critical, or by repeating what they think is their strongest point over and over–even though it may not have anything to do with what the other person is asserting. If dominators do try to use argument, they often rely heavily on sources that they think are authorities, such as scripture.

So when you tried to have a reasoned conversation with him, he tried to maintain control of the debate through barrage. You were sincere and candid, and for your pains you were bullied. But when you gave him an either/or ultimatum, essentially "drop the topic or see me no more," that was something he could understand. You were speaking his language. You apparently have something he wants, your company, and he doesn't want that withdrawn. So he agreed to stop.

But people who are oriented around force usually keep testing the enforcement of the agreements they make because they don't keep agreements on principle alone, but on the strength of force behind it. So if you let him get away with little incursions and little violations, he'll keep going and escalating. I don't think he really gives a damn (if you'll excuse the expression) about your non-Christian viewpoint of an issue. Shining him on with a smile and a nod is just asking for more, and is the reason why you call yourself "Frustrated." You need to give your agreement a booster shot:

"Dad, you agreed that you would not bring up all this religious stuff when I come over. I keep my agreements. Please drop it now, or I'm out of here just as I promised. I'd really like to enjoy my time with you. Let's talk about…" (have two or three subjects previously selected.)

Just in case, be ready for him to call your bluff. That's the thing about either/or ultimatums with dominators. Never, ever bluff. If you don't follow through, you can kiss any semblance of respect or even civil treatment goodbye. If he forces your hand, tell him that you'll be staying away for an x amount of time to give him time to think about it and that you'll call him after x amount of time is over to ask him if he's willing to keep his agreement. Your either/or ultimatum never said anything about not trying again, and making the gesture toward reconciliation is not a concession. Just restate your demands and stick to them.

If and when the time comes for grandchildren and he still has "concern for their eternal destiny," remember that grandparents really want to see the little ones. Use your bargaining power, which will be considerably stronger:

"Dad, keep the religious stuff to yourself when I bring the kids over, or I won't bring them over. They're my kids, not yours, and your kid is grown up and is making her own decisions."

You might consider adding:

"If you really believe that God is almighty, then your grandchildren's ‘eternal destiny' is in his hands, not yours. So don't go pretending that he needs you to do the work for him. Be their granddad, not their savior."

Frustrated, I said in a previous post that we should not sacrifice love over these trifles of belief or disbelief in The Great Invisible. But love cannot abide without respect. I suspect that your dad respects you when you are strong and firm with him and stand your ground. You don't have to make that show of strength by playing his game and ending up in another futile and obnoxious squabble. There's no winning such a quarrel; there's just you losing time, patience, and a chance to have a pleasant and loving time with your dad, chatting about some topic the two of you share in common. Being firm with him every time is much easier than repeatedly giving in until you have to seriously fight to reclaim your territory. So make your boundaries clear and solid, and offer alternative things to enjoy together.



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.