‘We’ll Miss You When We’re in Heaven and You’re Not’

By Wendy Thomas Russell | September 27, 2012 | 6 comments

Religious breaks in any family structure can be painful. People who find out beloved relatives have “left the faith” can feel heartbroken, even angry. In a survey earlier this year, I asked nonreligious parents whether they had “come out” to their own families, and, if so, whether they’d received support. About 28 percent of the respondents answered yes and yes: They were open about their beliefs, and most of their family members had been supportive. About 18 percent answered yes and no: They were open about their beliefs, but most relatives had been unsupportive. The highest percentage — 37 percent — said they were open about their beliefs to some, but not all, thereby gaining support from those who were able to offer it, and minimizing tension with those who were not.

It’s not a bad strategy, really, considering that parents and grandparents scorned in matters of religion can be such a vocal sort. Consider these common refrains:

We just don’t understand.

What did we do wrong?

How can you be a moral person and not believe in God? 

Aren’t you afraid of what will happen after you die?

Why do you hate God?

We’re disappointed in you.

You don’t know what you’re talking about.

You’re confused.

You’re rebelling.

You’re extreme.

You’re unhappy.

You’re wrong.

This is a crisis of faith.

This is a phase.

This must be part of God’s plan.

You’ll snap out of it. 

You’re a great person, except for this one thing.

We blame ourselves.

How can you do this to us?

It’s not fair.

Even if you don’t believe in God, God believes in you.

You should believe in God “just in case.”

You shouldn’t tell people.

You’ve been possessed by Satan.

We’ll miss you when we’re in heaven and you’re not. 

And the old stand-by:

We’ll pray for you.

Yep, sort of covers it all, doesn’t it? You’ve got guilt, anger, insults, incredulity, resentment, fear, disrespect and denial. Good times! The problem is that in so many families, there is no wiggle room: God means moral. God means good. God means happy. God means truth. God means heaven. And the lack of God means, well, exactly the opposite: evil, sadness, pain, ignorance and hell. With that lineup of adjectives, it’s no wonder parents are so desperate to stop the backslide.

If you’ve heard one (or more) of the above refrains, it probably means you’ve bitten the bullet and shared your beliefs. And that’s so very commendable, if not always pleasant. With exceptions, being honest about our lack of faith simplifies our lives and really does benefit those around us — particularly, as it turns out, our children.


  1. Reannon says:

    I would add, “I feel sorry for you” and “you would feel God if you were just more open” to the list. I’ve been able to sort of hide my atheism behind my Unitarian Universalism for a number of years — if she’s going to church then she must believe in God! I wasn’t intentionally trying to hide, but I know it just sort of made things easier for me, and I didn’t make a real effort to correct anyone. Now that we have kids, it’s a little different. Nope, not getting them baptized. Nope, not worried they won’t figure out how to be decent people. Something about having kids makes people think that your business is their business. Thanks for your site. :)

  2. Danny Ray says:

    Remember the quote-“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” In dealing with friends and relatives who in fighting the good fight of existential anxiety use religious beliefs as the main battle implement, I have found it best to share the basis for my hope instead of debunking their belief system. Be positive and don’t offer anymore of your opinions than asked for. A frontal attack will only cause them to become more entrenched. Best to change the topic if any animosity is detected since “anger is the wind that blows out the candle of reason.” To show them the joyful spring in your step and a cheerful smile on your face will do more than bitter debate. I’ve found the hard way that in being honest and referring to the legendary accretions of theological guano in religious belief systems as “batshit” gets you nowhere fast.

  3. Melissa says:

    My cousin, a pastor, would not perform my marriage ceremony because my now-husband and I were not practicing any religion in particular. Talk about guilt! Almost three years later, we’re happily married and my cousin and I have lost touch. His wife occassionally throws out the “we’re praying for you” tho.

    I love how your topics are helpful to those of us without children. It helps in handling various events in general!

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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