I've been thinking lately about moving back home. I will be there soon after eight years and thousands of miles of being away. My father the other day on the phone said that we needed to have a “long talk” when I get back. He never referred to what it was that he needed to talk about, but it's got me thinking about what it could be. At this point, it could be a lot of things, so I've tried to keep myself from speculating. My father, for those of you who don't know, has become a very strident Catholic since my sister died two years ago. His faith was always important to him, but he really immersed himself in it after that day. This has caused some slight tension between us as I told him I was an atheist just slightly less than a year later, but no serious disagreements or arguments have ever occurred between us. He has surprisingly been more understanding than I expected.

As I prepare to move back home where I will be in contact with him far more often, I don't know what our relationship will be like. When I left home, I was just a kid trying to be a man. Now, I'm an adult, and I haven't spent more than two weeks around my family every six months since I moved. It's going to be strange trying to reconnect. Because of all of this going on, I've been thinking about my relationship with my father, and I've been reflecting on my past and future quite a bit mostly in the form of how I was raised, how I've had to raise myself in many respects, and how I hope to raise my own children.

My father was a good father, but looking back, I've realized that he (and my mother) did a poor job of preparing me for adult-hood. There are a lot of reasons for that. Namely there was a divorce, both remarried separately, both had to work full time, both had to deal with new step-children and ex spouses, and both had financial difficulties. Essentially, we had a lot going on from the time I was 10 to 20 and some important lessons about being an adult fell by the wayside or were substantially delayed. That's not to say that they didn't try to instill these lessons at all. My father was able to take the time to teach those lessons every once in a while, which I am still thankful for, even if I wasn't always the best student.

In one of the last, long talks I had with my father, he told me that he was more of an agnostic when he was my age, but returned to the church when he wanted a family because he felt he could not raise children, “without the fear of Hell,” which is kind of ironic, because I never grew up fearing I would burn for eternity if I did the wrong thing. They had taught us well as children to do the right thing because it was right, which led to part of my doubts about faith later down the road. After all, what's the point of needing to be saved if I wasn't doing anything wrong? But that's a different story for another time.

By the time we kids started to be teenagers, church became a huge part of our life. It wasn't really an option not to be a huge part of our lives. My father tried to say that it was... but it wasn't an option. We were going to go to church. We were going to be a part of the youth group and that was that. You see, my father thought that everything we needed to know about how to live a happy, fulfilling, successful life could be taught through church. His religion could be said to hold some of the most important lessons he wanted us kids to learn. God had all the answers and he was everything we would ever need.

I realized that in a sense when I accepted myself as an atheist, I rejected those lessons he wanted me to learn that he thought were vital for living a good life. I'm left wondering if he took it one step farther and feels like I've rejected everything he has tried to do for me as a parent? I can only imagine that it would feel like a betrayal. And for myself to be proud of shaking off what I felt were the chains of religion where he feels that his religion is liberating, a liberation he wanted for my life? It must be painful for him.

It's common for us to make the distinction between a person and their beliefs. We feel like we can criticize the beliefs without it saying something negative about the person, but what if those beliefs were the equivalent of the greatest gift a person could give you? To criticize those beliefs, to ridicule, to mock them, would be a most devastating rejection. I don't want my father to feel like that. And if part of his parenting was inextricably wrapped up in his religion, a religion I have publicly rejected, wouldn't he feel rejected as a parent? I don't know, but I suppose it's something we'll discuss soon.

I'm worried to tell him the truth. As much as I want to explain to him how my religious faith was detrimental to my development as a person so that way he can better understand why I am an atheist, I don't think there is any way to keep from inferring that his parenting inadvertently caused me harm. The only thing I can think of is to try to separate the good from the bad and focus on the more positive aspects that didn't have to do with my religious upbringing. Don't get me wrong. My father may not have been the best dad ever, but he was usually pretty good, sometimes he was downright great. Not always of course. Sometimes he was kind of lousy, but for the most part I was really lucky to have him.

It's ironic. When I was a Christian growing up, I was not a big fan of my dad. When you are told that God is your spiritual father and we are all brothers and sisters of Christ, your earthly one pales in comparison, and all his flaws are magnified. I'm somewhat ashamed that I did not appreciate my father growing up as I should have. I saw him as a temporary surrogate that was the equivalent of a placeholder until I got to heaven where I'd spend eternity with my Heavenly Father. My dad was good enough, but he wasn't perfect. Now that I've become an atheist and especially now that I'm contemplating having children of my own, I have grown a deep respect for my father and the life he gave to us kids. I'm truly appreciative of all that he did for us. He did what he thought was best for us. Always. He did the best he could with what he had, and it usually turned out well. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty damn good, and it was often better than other people get.

I hope I can get him to understand that.

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Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on July 3, 2013 at 7:00pm

First off sorry for the loss of your sister. That’s a tough one. We all deal with such tragedies with the coping mechanisms we have our trust in. For some that is their faith and they can get solace and comfort for it. It also allows a door to be kept open to discuss ones feelings about such a loss with other people of faith. I think that is something that Atheists who are not “out” or who are isolated from like-minded people can miss out on. The upside (imo) is that the Atheist learns to move on from it by being realistic and therefore ends up stronger. Even Carl Sagan (I think it was him) said that we all use a little superstition to get us through our darkest night.

I think many parents are well intentioned in allowing for the Christian ethos to be a foundation for child rearing, even if they don’t quite believe it themselves. It is seen as harmless and if the essence of its value system was presented rather than its superstitions preached I would not be so critical of it. My own parents were Irish Catholics. My father was a very clever man (medical consultant in charge of a large hospital) but I don’t think he saw through the god delusion. Maybe he did but he never “shared”. He was just of that generation which had “traditional” gender roles for parents.

I went abroad for five or so years and in that time he passed away. So when I returned home as a more mature adult rather than the teenager I left as I found I missed him not as a father but a man I could have gotten to know. Our relationship could have taken on a new dynamic .We could have met as two men and the father/son relationship would have been in the background to some extent.

So I think when you go home you should not be too worried about the Faith issue. Give it time and you will both get to know each other again and form your on new dynamic based on the respect that two men can have for each other. Once you get there you can then tackle the “meaning of life” questions better. Remember to that it is not always easy for some men with “traditional” family values to discuss their feeling openly. That goes for some of us younger men too :-). A person’s faith is usually wrapped up with their emotional side. I am sure he will be proud to have raised a freethinker.  If you can get to that place then it is as close to perfect as it ever needs to be. Good luck man.

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on July 4, 2013 at 5:42am

SH, your dad and mine (now deceased, which makes my verb choices difficult) are alike in some ways and different in some ways. However, I will be brief here.

Regarding your, "I saw him as a temporary surrogate ... the equivalent of a placeholder...."

I saw in your OP that he started you in Catholicism. In that case, he knew you would be taught to see him as a placeholder. Why would you choose to feel shame?

My dad sent five kids to Catholic schools, and before he died he knew we had all quit Catholicism.

An irony:

  • Catholicism, with the original sin concept and more, did what it could to block the normal growth of self-esteem.
  • My dad subverted Catholicism's efforts by delegating home chores to his kids and insisting on high quality work.

Comment by Sagacious Hawk on July 4, 2013 at 5:58am

"Why would you choose to feel shame?"

It's not that I choose to feel it. It's more of an involuntary emotion that occurs when I recognize the discrepancy between how I view my father now, how I did 10 years ago, and how it affected how I treated him. You do make an interesting point though. I wonder if he realized what was being taught and the effect it would have on me.

Comment by M.M. on July 4, 2013 at 4:27pm

I have noticed that the fear of death especially for older people, is an incredible incentive to embrace religion. The people I have known had very little conscious grasp or skill in sound reasoning and critical thinking, so when they encounter death and begin to seriously consider their own mortality for the first time, it overwhelmed their ability to reason and they run to whatever will salve that anxiety inducing fear, god. If it turns out your father wants to save you from eternal damnation, just remember he is more than likely just scared of dying and also worried for you. I recommend some empathy and patience. Good luck.

Comment by Kamela Johnston on July 4, 2013 at 5:58pm
I tried once to share with my mother my doubts about the Christian faith. It was...not successful. So I understand the tension you feel when you're around your Dad & being somewhat nervous about this big, mysterious talk you guys are building up to. This would be the part where, in the not-so-distant past, I would have said, "I'll pray for you." Haha. But your situation DID strike a chord with me & I hope that you will keep us updated on how you are & how this develops. Even when we're all grown up, there's still a small part of many people (myself included) that would do anything for the approval of our parents--our first heroes. I get it, & I know others get it too.


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