The Ethical Dilemma: Love My Religious Family, Hate the Religion

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Prodigal Son: I’m an ex-Christian fundamentalist struggling with family members who still hold my former views. In principle, they preach against people such as myself who are termed apostates and accept comfort from their fellow religionists about their “plight” of having an apostate son.

Do I, for the sake of family peace, ignore the huge ideological differences? I, too, preach against their type, not directly to them, but in other forums, and I lend active support to people leaving their group. It seems like psychological denial to me to tolerate each other in our presence together yet hold such opposing viewpoints. Part of me is revolted every time I am around them due to their ideology, which I know all too well. At the same time, I desire their approval and involvement in my life. What do I do?

—Still Love My Family But We Hate Each Other’s Views

Dear Still Love,

The first thought is empathy. You are in an uncomfortable situation from which there is no easy path to comfort. By its very nature, fundamentalism doesn’t allow for tolerance of differing views. It demands rigid opposition, even toward the closest family members, to anyone who strays from the prescribed path. Without that, the whole house of cards crumbles.

You don’t indicate how old you are, but it sounds as though you have left the family nest physically as well as ideologically and are just interested in maintaining the best possible relationship despite the mutual aversion to each other’s ideology. You are in a better position than your family to be open, understanding, and flexible, since their group condemns you and flogs them to do the same. Although I wouldn’t expect them ever to come around to being cool with your views, you never know. Just don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, continue to follow your own lights while being as warm and genuine with your relatives as possible. Maybe you can avoid the subject of religion when you’re together, “agreeing to disagree” and then moving on to something else. While you can certainly express your perspective, avoid getting defensive about your beliefs or attacking theirs—there’s little to be gained, and much potential damage that may be difficult to repair. If your family becomes more assertive, gently make it clear that if they are going to treat you as the lost son, you may have to make it true and distance yourself until they are ready to embrace you as their beloved loving son, regardless of philosophical differences.

Almost everyone has to break with their family on some level in order to become an adult, and this is part of your process to emerge as a mature, independent person who is true to himself. The fact that your family seems to be in denial when you are together demonstrates that they, like you, want to maintain a relationship. That’s a good thing, even if in its current incarnation it’s not very satisfying for anyone.

You need to recognize that you may never win your family’s approval or acceptance. But there are plenty of other people out here—as well as ones in there who want to get out—who enthusiastically support and welcome you. You’ve chosen a different world than your family’s, and there are costs involved. But hopefully you’ll find that the rewards far outweigh the price of your liberation.