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I know this isn't exactly appropriate for this site--I'm not a parent, I'm a son--but I think it's still applicable to the community here. I would prefer feedback from actual parents concerned about other parents, not people who theorize about child-parent relationships, but if there's a better q/a site for me to migrate this question to, please let me know.

I am 20 years old, third year in college. I went to church about every sunday for the first 18 years of my life, with my parents. When I moved out to go to college, I stopped going to church all together. My mom still tells me every time I see her (whenever I go home, about twice a semester) that she's praying for me. I go with my parents to church every time I'm home, sing the songs, pray the prayers at dinner, the whole deal. Both my parents ask me if I've found a church yet, how often I go looking, etc. but I always manage to give them the excuse that I've been really busy with school (which is true, but of course irrelevant).

The truth is, I haven't self-identified as a christian since I was 16. I've avoided telling my parents this because... well, it would be very difficult. My mom would probably get really upset and my dad would probably just try to get in a huge theological argument with me, but it wouldn't change my mind, it would distress them further, and lead to a large divide between us. At the same time, it feels wrong to outright deceive them all the time. I'm definitely willing to continue whatever traditional religious stuff I would otherwise do to please them, even though it all means nothing (other than family tradition) to me.

As a parent, can you give me some advice on what to do? Should I have the talk and break it to them? If so, what's the best way to do that? How can I avoid religion causing a divide between us?

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You say you don't self-identify as Christian. Could you please let us know if you still self-identify as a believer? I think it would make a world of a difference to your parents whether you believe in something but don't agree with the formal Christian aspects of expressing your belief, or you do not believe at all... And it would give people here a better idea how to answer you. Finding some common ground with your parents is important. –  Ana Mar 29 '12 at 8:51
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To nip off-topic'ness in the bud: I was wondering whether Christianity.SE would be better equipped to answer it, but their FAQ states that how to handle certain situations is off-topic there. I think there's currently no better SE site than Parenting to ask this. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 29 '12 at 10:00
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A serious suggestion: If you are financially dependent on your parents, while you are studying, do not follow any advice about "coming out" to them as a non-Christian! Wait, until you are financially stable and can handle them trying to pull out the rug from under you. I don't know your parents but worse things have been done, by loving parents, in the name of God. Go with the flow for now and then follow some of the great suggestions below after you can no longer be coerced financially. –  Alex In Paris Apr 3 '12 at 11:40
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6 Answers 6

I can almost agree with Torben's answer, but I think his conclusion is a little too gentle to the point of placing an additional burden on you. DVK's comments have the right attitude, but are a bit too passive for what you're describing.

When the topic comes up, I recommend calmly explaining exactly what you believe and don't believe. I don't think dancing around the issue is going to help you at all. Use common sense, be polite and respectful, and don't feel the need to get into a theological debate, but don't censor your beliefs, lie by omission, or hide your thoughts to preserve the relationship.

As disturbing and sad as it may be, if your parents would reject you for this, you already don't have a good relationship, just the illusion of one based on an arbitrary condition.

Be strong enough to face the fact that this may not end well and bring up the topic. Others have indicated that merely expressing your disbelief is somehow disrespectful and I encourage you to reject that notion completely.

One last tip on implementation: Be positive! Instead of saying you reject Christianity, why not explain to your parents what you actually believe now? For example, if asked about a church, explain that you've become a humanist (e.g.) and have begun exploring that through meetings/books/study/etc..

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you already don't have a good relationship... +1 for pointing out a potential illusion. It takes courage to face this possibility. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 5 '12 at 19:14
    
I don't think it takes courage; just the desire to really be happy. Deluding oneself into thinking one is happy is worse than being unhappy. In neither case do you have true happiness and in one, you have to ignore rational thought, evade, and lie to yourself. –  William Grobman Sep 5 '12 at 20:31
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It would be fair of you to let your parents know. They care about you, and it would be unkind to deliberately continue deceiving them. However, what and how you tell them is probably very important for a good outcome.

Before you do anything, you need to decide what outcome you want. What's most important to you? That your parents respect you afterwards? That they still respect you as part of the family?

My first thought was that your parents might accept your situation more easily if you don't drop the bomb but bring it to them gently instead. Don't be all "religion sucks and god is an illusion" on them; that might be the worst possible thing to do. Remember that it took you a few years to make up your mind, so you should expect them to take a while to accept it too.

Think back four years: What made you doubt your belief in the very beginning? It might have been just a tiny seed in your mind, but it eventually grew into where you are now. That seed might be a good opening act for gently bringing the topic up with your parents. Later, you can progress along different paths:

  1. Pretend to believe. This is also called lying and is bound to backfire sooner or later, so I'm not recommending it. Honesty always pays off, even though it might hurt up front.
  2. Believe but doubt. This is the seed that got you here. Perhaps pretend for a moment that you're not "here" yet but still sitting with that seed in your mind. This will allow your parents to see your journey away from belief - much better than dropping a bomb.
  3. Participate for their sake. This might be the best outcome? They might accept that you don't believe as strongly as they do but they still want you to participate in events. It's up to you to decide if you can go along with the events if you no longer believe.
  4. Don't participate, but don't reject. If you can't stand the events, at least don't burn your bridges: Accept and respect their choice of faith, and accept that they might not reciprocate. Act as a smart and responsible adult.
  5. Openly reject - also not recommended. I think few people would deliberately spit in their parents' faces, but it certainly gets the point across and they are likely to leave you alone afterwards. Very alone.

When you talk to your parents, use the "me" approach: I feel that... I think that... This removes the facts or beliefs from the discussion and leaves only how you feel about the topic, and that's precisely the point. You would want to discuss your situation and not the religion itself.

Also: You might want to browse through Dale's blog here: The Meming of Life - it deals with wise but everyday insights by a parent who wants to raise his children with a thorough understanding of religion, but with the emphasis that religion is not "true". There's lots of wise stuff in there, but the most impressive thing is that Dale knows a lot about religion -- when you've got your facts and references straight, you can argue much better, but remember that you don't really want to discuss the religion itself but only your thoughts about it.

Disclaimer: I am not religious at all.

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I agree with Morah - don't tell them that you reject Christianity.

It is OK to not be convinced that the faith is not for you - and if you phrase it correctly, your parents will not argue with you, rather succumb to just praying (more) for you. You have to be comfortable with the fact that your parents genuinely want you to be a Christian. So you must identify yourself as either a Christian, or tell them that you are not sure if Christianity is the answer.

Don't:

  • Don't tell them that you are rejecting Christianity.
  • Don't tell them what you find wrong with Christianity.
  • Don't belittle their belief.
  • Don't tell them that you will never believe in Christianity.

Do:

  • Try to understand their faith.
  • Do let them pray for you.
  • Convince them that you are merely a seeker for truth.
  • Convince them that you need to find Christianity (Christ) on your own.
  • Thank them for the education and tools they have given you.

It is important that under no circumstances you discuss the specifics of what you find wrong with Christianity, especially if you have no intentions of changing your belief. There are generally two viewpoints: (a) people who want to believe, but can't over some facts; (b) people who don't want to believe, and will reject every argument. If you are in the latter group, don't open up a debate. Just tell them that this is between you and God.

Note that if you've turned atheist, that complicates the matter further. Religious parents are usually disturbed when they've discovered that their child has all together stopped believing in God. I'd recommend skipping that bit and continuing on the "seeking the truth" trail. If a Christian genuinely believes that Christianity is the answer, they should respond with "I will pray that you find the truth which is Christianity."

Disclaimer: I am a Christian. (I wasn't raised as such, my parents aren't Christians; they are of a different faith entirely.)

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If a religious person is disturbed by their child being atheist, then that's just plain bad parenting. The child should have no obligation to accommodate whatever it is their parents believe that they disagree with. Everyone is an adult in this conversation. Either commit to explaining one's viewpoint, or don't bother, but being wishy-washy or on the fence isn't really helping either party. –  DA01 Mar 29 '12 at 16:14
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I don't understand how that's bad parenting. Of course a religious parent finds out that their child no longer believes in God - it is going to hurt. It is going to be disturbing. It can be difficult to deal with. If the parents have never questioned their faith themselves, it'll be difficult to cope with something like that. On the other hand, if they have been through the same thing - it can be a rewarding conversation. However, based on how his parents have been pushing him on his religion, it is unlikely. –  Swati Mar 29 '12 at 19:18
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IMHO, not accepting your children for who they are--barring any sort of bad behavior, of course--is not good parenting. A big part of being a good parent is unconditional love. No one wants to hurt their parents, of course, but if it is the parents who are pushing the issue, then the onus is really on them to come to terms with the issue. –  DA01 Mar 29 '12 at 19:25
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@Beofett I'm not condemning any parent for having strong feelings. I'm saying parents with said strong feelings have to come to terms with that themselves. That's not their child's issue--it's their own issue. (So I'm in complete agreement...it's HOW they deal with them that is the key.) –  DA01 Mar 29 '12 at 19:47
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Sure, it is their own issue. However, the OP specifically wanted advice that would avoid "divide" between him and his parents, so keeping the relationship intact is important to him. The OP can go ahead and tell his parents, and then leave it to them to deal with their own issues - but that may come at the cost of a divide. I tried to provide advice that would hopefully avoid this divide but at the same time let the OP live a sane life without parents constantly bugging him. It can be very uncomfortable if all your parents want to talk about is the lack of his belief each time he calls/visits. –  Swati Mar 29 '12 at 19:56
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I've rejected religion but never had a compelling reason to overtly bring it up with my parents. I'm sure they've sort of figured it out by now in passing conversations, but religion, or a lack thereof, I believe, is a personal thing and unless other people ASK for your viewpoint on it, I see no reason to share it.

So if you don't mind the traditional part of the act, then feel free to continue doing it. No need to bring it up unless they ask, in my opinion.

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It seems that the asker's parents are repeatedly bringing it up, when they ask what local church he's chosen. Just pretending to go along doesn't seem to be enough in his case. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 29 '12 at 17:13
    
I agree that pretending to go along is a bad idea in any case. If the parents are bringing it up, definitely simply state the situation. If the parents have a bad reaction to it, well, that's really on them then. –  DA01 Mar 29 '12 at 17:26
    
(To clarify, I'm an atheist, but am fine with any socially entrenched traditions with religious ties...others may not be fine with that so that'd be another personal decision) –  DA01 Mar 29 '12 at 17:27
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The key thing to think about as you prepare for your discussion is respect. You respect your parents and the way you were raised. You respect and honor their decisions in faith. You respect that they will disagree with your decision to step away from their religion. I imagine your goal here is to agree to disagree.

One thing I would consider here: every person, from the lowliest slave to Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed has questioned their faith and their place in it. The way you feel today may not reflect how you feel in 50 years. It would be unfortunate if you burned the bridges to your past.

It may be that your rejection (I agree with Morah, this is a strong word and should be avoided) will cause your parents to reject you. I know of many people that claim to place religious adherence over family ties. You may no longer be welcome in those family traditions. I don't want to advocate deception or anything like that, but many people attend church for reasons that have little to do with faith. Some attend because it's important to their spouse, others attend for the community - not everyone feels that church is only for worship. You may find it's enough to attend and celebrate your family rather than your parents' religion.

One undercurrent in your question is the discomfort with being asked about searching for a church. If your goal in this endeavor is to avoid that discussion, I would caution you that taking this step is likely to result in more uncomfortable situations, not less.

It is hard as a parent to watch your child make decisions you would not make. Your natural instinct is to protect them, regardless of how much danger it would put you in, or how badly you might hurt their feelings. You will have to steer this conversation carefully to keep it as rational as possible. The first attempt may go very badly. If you want your parents to understand your decision, this is something you will have to put a lot of effort into. Make sure you reiterate how much you care and love them and how much you appreciate how they've raised you. Even parents need positive reinforcement.

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+1 for "The way you feel today may not reflect how you feel in 50 years." I attended college with many, many people who rejected Christianity throughout college who have since returned to Christianity (including myself), though few of us returned to the denominations that we left. Damaging a relationship with something that may turn out to be more or less a "phase" for lack of a better term is never a good idea. –  Meg Coates Apr 2 '12 at 1:14
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Parents have a hard time when there adult children have a different way of life then they have. Often parents feel it a rejection of their parenting. This being said, you asked about how to discuss it with them.

Using the word 'rejection' worries me. I assume you still respect Christianity as a way of life, you just don't choose to embrace it for your own life. It sounds like you were brought up in a religious home which held very strong beliefs. If you say you are 'rejecting' Christianity your are essentially saying, from your parents' point of view, that you are rejecting your upbringing so my fist piece of advice is to stay away from that word.

In terms of actually sitting down and 'breaking it to them' you need to tread lightly and be sure to stay on topic. Explain to them that you have chosen to steer away from Christianity as a way of life. You wanted to let them know because... (I don't know why, but you feel like you must so you will have to fill that in yourself, it may be as simple as it doesn't fit into your life right now, you are having trouble with the Christian belief system, etc.) Also include that right now a theological discussion would not be productive and you are not interested in getting into an argument as belief is belief and by its very nature can not be proven. If you remain calm even in the face of non-calm parents (which I recognize is very difficult) you should be fine.

If you feel that they need to be told, that you need to come out so to speak, trust your gut, but tread lightly, stay calm, say it straight, and keep the conversation short.

I wish you luck, and as a parent, it would be hard for me, but in the end my kids love me and I love them and that will prevail (it may take time so be prepared for that).

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good points, all. However I'm not so sure that "steer away" is the accurate phrase. I didn't get the feeling that he's "done" with it, but chooses not to have it permeate his life to the level that his parents do. It's a subtle point in the grander scheme, but important. But to a more main point that you make "I'm not as into it as you guys are" (which is what seems to be the case) is a lot more palatable than "I reject it." Going to services on visiting w'ends and for major holidays doesn't seem to be a problem. Plenty of ppl that aren't "into it" do that and he'd be no different. –  monsto Mar 30 '12 at 0:49
    
+1 You have a very good way of looking at things. It's nice to hear a theist's perspective. As an atheist who values independence greatly, I can't image what it must be like for the parents. If my son grows up to be religious, I'd think it's unfortunate for him, but it's his business and I wouldn't care in the least. So it's very nice to hear how you would handle this challenge positively. Your kids are lucky to have such good support. –  William Grobman Sep 5 '12 at 19:39
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