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.
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.