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MisterBlueSky85's avatar

I'm an atheist and my family wants me to go to church with them on holidays. Should I?

Asked by MisterBlueSky85 (892points) May 27th, 2008

I was born into a Lutheran family and lived according to its principles for many years. I was a diligent student, a skilled alter boy, a reliable volunteer, and I even taught Sunday school. Around my junior year of high school, I realized religion could no longer provide for me what it seemed to be providing for others and I left the church. I now consider myself a strong atheist and a firm believer in evolution, materialism, and abiogenesis (linked to satisfy any curiosity you y’all might have).

Every Christmas and Easter since my desertion, my parents, namely my mother, have asked I attend a service. They say it’d mean the world to them and some of the members of the church would love to see me again. They argue that if I don’t believe in the prayers or proceedures, what does it matter if I play along?

I’ve always resisted them, but I want to make sure that this is a good decision. What do you think?

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37 Answers

PupnTaco's avatar

You could always go for the social aspect and to please your family. Just don’t participate in the service.

delirium's avatar

Yes. Go. Go for your famly, ABSOLUTELY.

It won’t hurt you. It will just help your family relations.

monsoon's avatar

Well what’s you your answer to their question?

I happen to also be an ex-lutheran, and while I used to hate the church after I left it, I now can respect it for some beautiful traditions, and the meaning that it gives a lot of lives.

DeezerQueue's avatar

Tough decision for you, but I think it’s perfectly acceptable to go with them, they already understand and accept your decision. It clearly means something to them to have you attend certain functions with them, most likely having to do with family as opposed to purely religious reasons.

Family is important and sometimes we need to look at the larger picture.

marinelife's avatar

We have this same problem. My husband’s father was a minister, and his parents wanted and expected that he would go to church with them when we returned on visits. He really did not want to go. Sometimes he would accommodate them, and other times not.

My response to the parents would be, “By attending services, it gives the appearance of supporting the faith, and I am not comfortable doing that. If there are certain people you want me to see, maybe you could have them over to the house. I am sorry my decision gives you pain.”

wildflower's avatar

You probably won’t catch fire by entering the church, so if it’s a way to part take in a family activity, why not.

Skyrail's avatar

If it means something to them then you should support their wishes as that’s just the thing to do I guess, as Deezer said (oh my, you again? hehe) family is important and we should respect what they want. On the other hand would one’s parents encourage you to go to a christian church if you were a firm muslim? It’s just different beliefs, yes you should keep on open mind and respect others but it should be the same both ways. You respect their wishes, and they should respect your’, at least they haven’t made you go every Sunday eh? ;)

MisterBlueSky85's avatar

@monsoon: Way to ask the right questions. I purposely withheld my answer because I wanted some of your opinions first. To answer you, I ask my parents how they would feel if I converted to Judaism and invited them to temple with me. I’m sure they’d feel uncomfortable and wouldn’t want to go because it meddles with their religious beliefs. This is a good analogy because for me, atheism and theism are different theories regarding some questions still unanswered. I treat atheism as a religion just like theism – they’re just sides of the same coin.

I just don’t feel like they’re respecting my religious beliefs when they ask me to go with them. It was hard to detach myself from religion, and I don’t think they’re taking my decision seriously. Also, I feel like I’d be stepping into a minefield if I go to church. Everyone would ask why I left, maybe even argue with me. I don’t want to feel that shame.

marinelife's avatar

@MisterBlueSky85 What shame? You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are entitled to your beliefs.

MisterBlueSky85's avatar

Of course I’m entitled to my beliefs, but I’d obviously be looked down upon, and my family would be as well.

monsoon's avatar

I understand that; feeling judged when going to church and not being a Christian.

But I would argue that a Christian who feels uncomfortable at a Jewish temple is not very strong in their faith, and so, without trying to offend you in any way, I ask how you are acting any differently?

delirium's avatar

Can you not explain this to your family? Say that you don’t want to feel resented and shame them in that community?

MisterBlueSky85's avatar

@monsoon: I think the premise of your new argument is false. I don’t think a Christian feeling uncomfortable at a Jewish temple would be uncomfortable because they’re weak in faith, but because they feel out of place, perhaps even infringing on the comfort of others.

@delirium: My parents think of church as a loving community, not something that’s at least in some ways discriminatory. I think that argument won’t work.

It seems, though, that the generous consensus is that I should consider going to appease my family. Clearly I haven’t given this enough thought – it was good I asked. Thanks for helping me, guys.

DeezerQueue's avatar

If I may, now that you’ve explained a bit more, which is appreciated, I think as you indicated, need to think it through some more. When the issue of why you no longer attend church arises (the minefield), as it undoubtedly will after an absence of some time, you could be prepared for those questions ahead of time, and offer a response such as, “It’s a personal choice that I’ve made and I don’t really think it’s appropriate to go into it at detail at this time, let’s just enjoy each other’s company,” or something along those lines.

If you are firm in your beliefs then a visit to church with your parents on certain occasions should not feel threatening to you. I think most belief systems, even those we may develop on our own, generally embrace cooperation, and you opening yourself up to suggestions for the situation on Fluther is in that spirit, in my opinion.

Of course it is difficult for your parents to accept your change in beliefs. If they are deep believers, then they are probably concerned for your well being, as most parents would be. Your willingness to attend church with them on certain occasions, while holding firmly to your own beliefs, may help in quelling their fears and concerns about the choice you’ve made.

It’s sometimes interesting to see the tables turn as we get older. At one time your parents would calm your fears about certain things and now you are doing the same.

monsoon's avatar

@DeezerQueue, that was my point. I disagree with you, Mister, further.

Maybe you never got to really experience what being a Christian is like, but the ultimate goal of the christian faith is to be able to feel connected with God no matter where you are, or in what situation. Christians want to be like Jesus, and I can imagine there were very few times in his life that Jesus ever was made to feel uncomfortable (not that you believe that Jesus’ life was like what any one thinks it was).

Regardless of whether you think they would feel that way, most Christian’s who are truly devout will tell you that a true, ultimate (and arguably not possible to achieve) follower of Jesus would find strength from their faith, and never fear anything, and never be made uncomfortable by traditions other than their own.

And your Jewish analogy really only works for Christians. A jew would probably not be uncomfortable at all around Christians, nor would many members of Asian traditions.

arnbev959's avatar

I’d go if I were you.
I’m also an ex-lutheren. I go to church on Easter and Christmas Eve with the family. It’s always uncomfortable talking to (and trying to avoid talking to) the members of the congregation, but when it’s over I go home and don’t worry about it.

Harp's avatar

Jumping in a bit late here, but I would agree with marina that it’s not healthy that your parents would expect you to carry out some kind of pretense. They don’t seem to have actually come to terms with who you are right now and, perhaps, want a chance to make believe that everything is like before. I’m not convinced that buying into that is a good approach.

If you were to get up in their church and begin talking about atheism and materialism and abiogenesis, your parents, and everyone else there, would be devastated. Tolerance isn’t tolerance when it means “don’t tell us what you really think and we’ll all get along”.

I made a similarly traumatic break from my family’s church as a young man. It was very difficult for my parents to digest but they never suggested that I step back into role. I have occasionally been around members of that church outside of the church setting (funerals, sick family, etc.), and have felt very ill-at ease even with that limited contact. It isn’t a matter of fear or shame or lack of conviction. It’s the understanding that just being who you are is a source of pain and regret for people you care about. Stopping caring about them isn’t the solution; neither is pretending you aren’t who you are; The awkwardness won’t go away until you’re accepted unconditionally. Your parents may eventually be capable of doing that, but chances are the congregation won’t see it that way.

MisterBlueSky85's avatar

@monsoon: You seem to be implying that a Christian feels fear only from a lack of faith, since stronger Christians would find strength in their faith instead. That’s exactly the sentiment that I’m trying to avoid. You’re making fear a matter of piety. If I were in your church, I’d feel like I could never mention if I were afraid because that would put my piousness into question – I’d therefore be afraid to talk about my fears, which then creates a positive feedback loop and suddenly I have a problem that I can’t even talk to someone about. (So much for a loving community, right?)

I’m not trying to call you out or anything, but make you understand where I’m coming from. What if my church feels the same way about fear? If I go there and say “Hey, I’m a little nervous, haven’t been here in half a decade,” they might judge me just as you judged me – my lack of faith is causing my nervousness, not their negative judgments. I don’t want to feel this coming from friends of the family and I don’t my decision to reflect poorly on my family. Am I “afraid”? Probably. Sue me, I guess.

Also, you mentioned that my analogy only works for Christians. That’s a valid point, but thankfully I only used the analogy on my Christian parents, so everything works out.

@Harp: that was a great answer. I really feel you nailed it, and just reading what you said makes me feel better about my decision to leave the church. You’ve provided much needed clarity and I really appreciate it. Thank you thank you thank you.

I think I’m going to go with them next Christmas, just test the waters. We’ll see what happens, I suppose.

buster's avatar

i was raised in a baptist church and quit going when i was 15. i dont share most of the churches beliefs and for a long time i always refused to go when my mom asked me like during easter or when a sibling was in a church play. the last couple of years though i have attended a couple of services. the reason i went wasnt to hear the sermon or to hear the choir. i went because it made my mom happy. my mom had done plenty of things for my happiness that im sure she really didnt want to do. i decided i was being selfish not to do this for my mom. all i had to do was sit there with her for an hour and try not to fall asleep. going to church doesnt change your beliefs. some people think anything related to christianity is bad but i dont think that is true. there is a lot of good things in the bible. the golden rule and some of the ideas about love are a couple of them.

Foolaholic's avatar

I agree that you should go. I mean, at least once. I’ve never been a religious person, and on Christmas several years ago my friends convinced me to sing with the choir because the needed more male voices. Having to sit through congregation was one of the most awkward things that i’ve ever done, watching everyone else going up for communion and wondering what the people who didn’t know me thought of the kids just sitting there stupidly. But I wasn’t there for the religious experience, I was there because I wanted to help my friends out.
The point being, they are your family. Unless you openly fight about religion at home, I don’t see any problem in going just to support them, and if it does get too awkward, then what’s stopping you from leaving?

wildflower's avatar

Another aspect to this: if you were raised in a Christian family ( I was), going to church for the holidays might give you a nice nostalgic feeling. The songs, the candles, the decoration….
If I was with my mum for x-mas, I’d be happy to go with her to church, even if the biblical message is lost on me.

delirium's avatar

I actually have an example experience as well, while we’re sharing them. My grandfather was a minister. Sweetest man ever. He ended up leaving the church much later because he felt like it was saying one thing and doing another. But I would (and still do sometimes) go to church with them when they ask me to. Most of the time its in an effort to show me off, which is pretty darn cute to see grandpa that proud!

edit: I noticed in the middle of that I started talking like my grandma was still a part of that equation, but sadly she died of Alzheimer’s a few years ago.

AstroChuck's avatar

I suppose, for family unity and all, I’d probably go. But I don’t think it is fair of your parents to pressure you. Being tolerant of different faiths (or lack of) is a two way street. They need to empathize with you.

susanc's avatar

You people are fabulous. All of you. I love you all so much.

Good luck dearMisterBlue. And remember, sometimes we unaccountably become stronger than our parents in some areas. If it’s too scarey for them to imagine you as
being fine without the religion that supports them, then you may be the stronger
one; and when we’re stronger, we’re called on to be kinder. It doesn’t really matter
who’s right. It really IS about love.

susanc's avatar

@deezer: “there were very few times in his life that Jesus was made to feel uncomfortable” – did you really say that? I’m kind of chewing that one over.

Maverick's avatar

It sounds like you understand the religion, were deeply involved in it at one time, and are old enough to make an informed decision. So, I don’t think you need to go, or should feel bad about not going. Explain your rationale to your family and that should be enough. If they persist, perhaps you could suggest that you all attend a church of another denomination, or a different religion, together. It is certainly useful to learn about others’ beliefs and maybe they would be supportive of you finding something that has meaning for you, even if that turns out to be athesim (which is completely valid IMO). Good luck!

Trance24's avatar

I would go purely just to be with your family, you don’t have to participate. Your just there in support of your family.

monsoon's avatar

My comments will become lost in all of this posting, but one last thing before I decide to not come back.

I am not a Christian. I am not telling you about your faith in any way. I am simply pointing out that some one who is comfortable in their own tradition will not be threatened by the judgement of others.

I am actually offended by your sarcastic comments about the Christian faith. Read the book of Acts, and you will see some of the most compassionate, loving, accepting people who have ever lived; this was meant to be the foundation of Christianity, or the new revolution of Judaism (whichever you prefer).

I keep digressing because you keep baffling me with your logic, but here is my point:

I don’t care if you go to your parent’s church, but you have stopped talking about your parent’s church, and started talking about The Church (with a capital t). I am simply nudging you, from an ontological standpoint, to take a look at why the judgement of others from a religious tradition other than your own can have so much power to make you feel “uncomfortable.” Is it for the same reason that going to a family reunion is a chore, or is it because you are afraid?

And you’ve admitted that you’re afraid.

The problem with your cycle of positive reinforcement for hiding fear is that, as I plainly stated, any Christian can tell you that, while the goal of Christian faith is to be free of fear, this is impossible. Are there churches who would make their members feel ashamed for fear and for “sin”? Of course. Is this the norm? I don’t think so.

There are Christians in the world who do terrible things, and Christians who look nothing like the men and women in the book of Acts, but there are some who do.

You offend me, when I’m not even a Christian, because I have very close Christian friends who do not care that I’m not a christian (though they knew me when I was, and knew me as I pulled away from the faith), and who don’t care that I’m gay (though they knew me when I was trying very hard not to be). Maybe you’re not lucky enough to know these kinds of Christians, but that doesn’t exempt you from trying to have a little perspective.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Psalm 27:1

MisterBlueSky85's avatar

Monsoon, your input will not be lost in my topics. :D

I am sorry that I have offended you. My sarcasm is perhaps leftover from some bad history, and I’m very sorry about it. This is a difficult issue for me, and perhaps I’m too used to talking atheism with my friends. I can see why you have interpreted what I said as insulting, and I hope that you can reread my response with the understanding that that was not my intention. Once again, I apologize.

I disagree that “someone who is comfortable in their own tradition will not be threatened by the judgment of others.” No one likes to be negatively judged, comfortable or not. I have a roommate who is Indian and very comfortable with his culture, but still sometimes feels threatened by cultural (NOT racial) discrimination. I am very comfortable with my faith, but I often feel like I have to prove it whereever I go. I’m fine with that, but I also don’t want to walk into a church and cause trouble, and trouble would start even if I don’t play along. I don’t want that. What I am afraid of is seeing some people who’ve helped guide me since I was a youngin looking down on me for things that make me who I am. That scares me.

Also, understand that I’m also afraid of looking bad and blemishing my family’s reputation there. I don’t want to make them look like they’ve raised me wrong. It is a personal fear, but it is not entirely a selfish one.

I don’t think I really stopped talking about my parents’ church. I digressed to talk about what believed was your church so I could relate it back to my parents’. I certainly hope “The Church” is not like my parents’ or what I believed was your own. Also, it seems I misunderstood your point, and I’m sorry. Sometimes I feel these discussions would work better face-to-face.

Look, I have a few religious friends who really enjoy talking about faith with me. One friend, a leader of student-lead volunteer something-or-other (and signed up to me a missionary after college) wanted nothing more than to get drunk and talk about secularism with me one night. Another friend, a three-year consoler at a Bible Camp, talked with me about religion all the time through college, and credits me when discussing why Jesus’ sacrifice was NOT the ultimate sacrifice, people make greater sacrifices all the time, and why that’s not a bad thing. I’ve even had an older couple who were so impressed with the questions I asked as they tried recruiting me for their church my freshman year of college that they sent me three letters and even called my cell phone numerous times. (I saved one of their letters if you’d like me to quote it.) My point is that my arguments against the faith are not from a lack of perspective—I’ve been told time and again that my perspective is quite interesting and informed. I’d like to think that they are from strong, tested reasoning. However, let’s remember that my problem here is NOT with faith in general—that’s been solved. My problem is with how my solution is affecting me and my family, and I believe that’s now been solved as well.

I’m sorry this post really didn’t go anywhere, but I felt like your lengthy response deserved another one. Feel free to reply again, publicly or privately. Again, I’m sorry that I offended you.

P.S. BTW, I’ve read the Bible. There exist many amazingly compassionate people within it’s pages, I agree.

DeezerQueue's avatar

@susanc No, I didn’t say that, someone else must have.

DeezerQueue's avatar

I believe it was monsoon.

monsoon's avatar

I know you weren’t trying to offend anyone, I can see that. I’m sorry, I probably got carried away, I just used to feel that way about my church, or my parent’s church, and I feel so far from that now, I guess I was trying to explain that; that once you get past comfort zones, I dunno. I don’t want to seem condescending, you’re most likely older than I am :). It just seems much freer to me to try to feel comfortable in your own skin, no matter where you are, and let every one else’s comfort with you follow.

Well good luck with whatever you choose, I can really understand it either way.

sinscriven's avatar

I don’t see why you shouldn’t go. This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with religious beliefs, as they seem to respect your decision about it; but what matters to them is the whole family aspect of it. And that you all do something together, which I think anyone might be able to understand.

If it makes your parents happy then it’s a good thing. If you are a strong atheist then being exposed to all that should bother you too much, it’s not like you will get the God cooties. A couple of hours for a substantial amount of emotional value’s a pretty good deal.

SeventhSense's avatar

I can imagine there were very few times in his life that Jesus ever was made to feel uncomfortable
The religious leaders of the day called Jesus a blasphemer, they tried to stone him, said he had a demon and eventually nailed him to a cross. Hardly a day at the spa.

w2pow2's avatar

You seem like a person that deeply loves their family. Won’t you do it for them?

pinkparaluies's avatar

Perhaps you should show up for lunch after service rather than going. Bring a nice platter or something? Something good always comes from compromise.. :)

SeventhSense's avatar

If this is a one time thing I would say sure, but in my own case there is a pattern. My mother fails to recognize that my symbols of Buddha, dragons and statues are not false idols, gods or demons despite my explanation of their significance.
I have attended her church but I no longer do. I will attend her church again, when she will attend a Zen Buddhism lecture with me.

The deeper I went into my own spirituality the more I realized that the outward representation of ritual often clouds the meaning itself and to some is simply a drug.
As an example, my brother was going to a service with his family and would not attend a later service because my brother and his family would be attending and he wasn’t talking to him because of a slight. This seems more like posturing at the bar than a place of unity. I see this as tragic, a smokescreen or placating one’s guilt but avoiding the real issue of ego.“forgive us our sins as we forgive”..

I want to cut through Spiritual Materialism, not indulge it.
P.S.- also raised Lutheran

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