Dealing with the Religious

Are you an agnostic divorced man whose Evangelical daughter (two weekends a month) is worried that you’ll go to hell? You’re in luck, because in the past week, two different columnists have offered you their advice.

Prudence at Slate suggested a kind of peaceful coexistence:

You should be able to freely express your beliefs to your daughter, but your larger goal right now has to be to maintain a healthy relationship with her. At 13, she’s old enough to understand the concept of “agreeing to disagree.” There are many things a father and teenage girl can discuss besides religion. Certainly you don’t have to hide your views about science and homosexuality, but you’re only alienating her if you use your time together to give her a crash course in the Enlightenment . . . Explain that since you know it’s important to her, you respect her right to her beliefs, even if you don’t share them.

Meanwhile, Cary Tennis at Salon suggested faux (or maybe actual!) conversion:

The way to help your daughter grow is not to debate the existence of God. It is to go to church with your daughter and experience what she is experiencing. . . . Her problem is not that she believes in God. It’s that she believes you are going to burn in hell when you die. It’s her concern for you, and her fear for you, that are the problem. She wants to believe otherwise but has no solid grounds on which to place any hope. If you go to church with her, you will make it possible for her to believe that there is at least a chance that you will not burn in hell. . . .

Once you have [discussed the religion’s theology of salvation] with an official, you might be able to confidently tell your daughter, without going into specifics, that you think everything is going to be OK, eternal-life-wise. She would probably appreciate that.

Let’s turn this one over to the T&S commenters, who are always more than happy to offer suggestions. Take a look at the dad’s letter, at Slate or Salon. Pretend that you’re the advice columnist. What would you say? What should the dad do, here? Is there a right answer? (What do you think of Prudence and/or Cary’s replies?)


Would your answer be any different if the daughter were Mormon rather than Evangelical? What if the father was Mormon and the daughter agnostic (or Evangelical)? Would that change your answer?

20 comments for “Dealing with the Religious

  1. queuno
    October 11, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    Can we compare all of this to the “Ann Coulter — Donny Deutsch” feud?

    (Donny says he was personally offended. If that’s true, then I have to begrudgingly give Ms. Coulter props.)

    To me, at the heart of all three instances is the disconnect between “my religion believes X, so should I water down that message to people who don’t believe it?” Why can’t the religiously devout express opinions?

  2. queuno
    October 12, 2007 at 12:00 am

    (Of Kaimi’s two examples, I prefer Prudie’s answer. If you can’t agree, just drop it. Cary’s answer smacks of the “learn enough about thy enemy to use his own words to further your own agenda.”)

  3. October 12, 2007 at 12:29 am

    Dear Rationalist Father of a 13-year-old Girl,

    It sounds like you’d be better off with a pet than a daughter. Not only will a pet go in any direction you pull the leash, it also won’t cry when you share your lack of belief in God or any higher power. In fact, your pet also lacks any conception of God or a higher power, so the two of you should get along just famously. If you do ever come around to the idea of living life on a higher moral plane higher than that of your future pet, then you ought to go to church with your daughter on those two Sundays a month when you muddle through what’s left of fatherhood. I don’t normally recommend Evangelical congregations, but from where you’re starting, it’s an improvement.

    Good luck. You’ll need it.

  4. Curtis DeGraw
    October 12, 2007 at 12:31 am

    Treat her how you would want her to treat you – after consciously thinking about and deciding how you would want her to treat you. If that means you would want her to leave you alone, so be it. If that means you would want her to try to convert you, so be it. If that means you would want to continue to talk about everything but religion, so be it.

    I don’t have one answer for all situations.

  5. Ray
    October 12, 2007 at 12:32 am

    I agree with Curtis. *grin*

  6. October 12, 2007 at 12:52 am

    In my father’s side of the family Religion and Politics aren’t discussed because sometime between the day I heard my uncle’s opinion about Rush Limbaugh and the day I heard my father’s opinion about LDS missionaries (I was around 13 at the time,) I resolved to Always Change The Subject. And it works, for the most part — over time, non-participation on the part of one party apparently reduces the desire for participation in all parties. No one’s brought either topic up (in my company, anyway) in years, unless you count the day I joined my stepmother in her commiserations about how many times a week the Democratic Party was asking her for money.

    But none of us believe the others are going to Hell, and we’re all used to canceling one another’s votes out, which I think simplifies matters greatly.

    Incidentally, the Daddy Won’t Take Me To Church thing was one of the most painful parts of my teenage-era relationship with my father. Admittedly, it was for three months at a time, but I’ll never forget the feeling from having to walk to church on my own every Sunday (and what the other Mia Maids thought about it.) I’d recommend some kind of gesture of goodwill in respect to that issue, such as: Dad goes to church with the kid in exchange for the kid reading a book on a topic of the dad’s choice, and then talking about both experiences together.

    (note: this is the kind of thing that makes me want to scream at people something like “if you know how different you are from one another and can’t agree on the most basic stuff, like whether your kids will go to church or not, what on EARTH are you doing sleeping with one another??!??” I’m inclined to side with the kid on the grounds of the father reaping what he sewed fourteen years ago.)

  7. October 12, 2007 at 9:49 am

    I’d advise the father to go with the daughter (regardless of the specific church, even if dad is Mormon and daughter is evangelical), just as he ought to accompany her anywhere else she wants his company, for whatever reason, whether her interests are religious, dietary, political, musical, sports, or anything else. She isn’t going to welcome his company much longer, and as long as she *does* allow his company it’s an activity where she’ll be safe. He should do it because it matters to her — and she should know that — not because there’s any real potential for his conversion, and certainly not to gather ammunition to use to convert her to *his* point of view.

    I mean, if her concerns were animal rights, no one would think twice about his going to meetings with her, even standing by at a protest to be sure she was safe, with both of them understanding that he didn’t share her political/social beliefs, and he should go on eating his steak dinners without dangling bloody bits before her at the dinner table and making remarks about how good it is to be a carnivore. He ought to behave analogously with her religious concerns.

    She’ll get older and her religious ideas will inevitably mature, and they can adjust their activities and conversations accordingly. What she’ll always remember is that her father did (or didn’t) love her enough to take her concerns, fears and beliefs seriously, no matter how alien they were to his own.

  8. Janet
    October 12, 2007 at 11:12 am

    “She isn’t going to welcome his company much longer, and as long as she *does* allow his company it’s an activity where she’ll be safe.” I really like this insight, Ardis. Whether the guy is agnostic or not, hell is right around the corner in the form of a child who suddenly doesn’t want to be seen with you. Religious takes a second to spending time with her while she’ll happily consent.

    My mom went to protests with me and my Dad even though she wasn’t an American citizen AND she disagreed with our politics. She also went to the state debate tournie with me (I was a scared freshman and it was the last “I want my mommy” panic attack I recall having) even though she would’ve preferred I choose an extra-curricular activity that wouldn’t make me even more argumentative. I thought my mom was wrong about almost everything when I was that age, but when she did stuff like that? It really impressed me. It impresses me still.

  9. October 12, 2007 at 11:20 am

    I like Dave’s idea.

  10. Eric Boysen
    October 12, 2007 at 11:26 am

    What if the Dad were LDS and the daughter an Evalgelical? She would probably just as concerned about his soul. Should that change our answer?

  11. Nick Literski
    October 12, 2007 at 11:30 am

    This thread reminds me of the story of Isaac Hale, who upon hearing his daughter, Emma, praying for his soul, suddenly decided to become a christian. Of course, this conversion likely had much to do with his later disgust toward his son-in-law, Joseph Smith.

    I’m honestly appalled at Cary Tennis’ apparent suggestion that the father consider conversion to his daughter’s evangelical delusion. I imagine it’s based on the author’s concept of “what’s best for the child,” but I wonder if Tennis’ reply isn’t influenced by a religious bent similar to the daughter’s. In this blog, I found post #3 to be in the same vein—I read it last night, and frankly didn’t dare try to reply at the time. I may doubt that the daughter was born in the best of family circumstances, but I simply can’t find that as reason enough to believe the father lives on a low “moral plane” 13 years later. Interestingly, the father does not state that he is an atheist, but rather that he is distrustful of organized religion. The fact that he does not wish to participate in his daughter’s faith is not an indication that he doesn’t love his daughter, let alone that he treats her like a “pet.”

    Suppose for a moment that one of you were unfortunate enough to experience divorce in your life, and your former spouse chose to raise your children in an evangelical faith. Suppose that every time your children visited with you, they cried about how you were going straight to Hell, because you were LDS (which is, of course, the position of many evangelicals). Would any of you think the proper answer was to leave the LDS church in order to “respect” your child’s beliefs, or “because it mattered” to the child? I highly doubt that. In fact, I suspect many of you would find that suggestion offensive.

    I agree with “Prudence,” that a 13 year old child is old enough to understand that two people can “agree to disagree.” Just as the father should respect his daughter’s right to believe as she does, the daughter needs to learn to respect her father’s right to believe otherwise. Both should learn to talk about their viewpoints respectfully, without histrionics about who’s going to the fiery pits. The father’s message should not be “I love you enough to go through the motions of your faith,” but rather “I love you enough to respect your freedom to believe as you choose.”

    I also can’t help but read my own situation into this issue. I am a divorced father of five girls/women. As some know, I came out as a gay man and chose to have my name removed from the records of the LDS church. While I continue to have many LDS friends, and retain an academic interest in Mormonism, I am no longer a believer. This creates some difficulty for my daughters, who I happened to raise with a very strong Mormon belief system. Yes, daddy pretty much turned the world upside down. As such, I made a conscious decision not to criticize their faith when I interact with them. On one occasion, an expression of concern on my part was interpreted by one daughter as a criticism of the LDS faith, and I quickly learned that her loyalty toward the LDS church was far stronger than her loyalty toward her father.

    I’ve no doubt that one or more of my daughters have prayed that daddy would “repent.” Unlike Isaac Hale, I’m not inclined to make that prayer come true. Even so, some here evidently believe that when I visit with my daughters, I should attend the LDS church with them. I can’t imagine myself doing so. In fact, it would create considerable discomfort for all concerned. The bishop there sent an e-mail to my ex-wife, making it clear that he considered me an agent of the devil sent to “target” her and the children (I know this because he was a little mixed up, and it went to me instead of her). I am a parriah in that ward—not only for being gay and “denying the faith,” but for leaving a woman who’s public persona is the very essence of warmth and charity. My presence would make others uncomfortable, and I would feel distinctly unwelcome. My daughters are perceptive enough that they would observe this clearly. I don’t see how creating that situation would be an expression of love or respect.

  12. Matt W.
    October 12, 2007 at 11:30 am

    It’s hard to flip the religious child, agnostic parent to be the opposite. If the agnostic child wanted me to stay home with them, what would be their motivation? That I’m wasting my time with others when I should be there for them? In this scenario, wouldn’t there be 167 other hours every week to spend time together?

    If I were the christian parent and worried my agnostic child would go to hell, would the advice of the columnist be for the child to go to church with me to appease me and ease my concerns?

  13. Proud Daughter of Eve
    October 12, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Matt W. I think you’re misunderstanding something. The father only has the child two weekends a month. They don’t have 167 hours together every week; the time they have together is very concentrated.

    “If I were the christian parent and worried my agnostic child would go to hell, would the advice of the columnist be for the child to go to church with me to appease me and ease my concerns?”

    Your emotional well-being is not the child’s job. Your child’s emotional well being is your job.

  14. October 12, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    “What if the Dad were LDS and the daughter an Evalgelical? She would probably just as concerned about his soul. Should that change our answer?”

    I’d tell him to disinherit her. It would help her feel more righteous about herself.

  15. Nick Literski
    October 12, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    #9 I like Dave’s idea.

    #14 I’d tell him to disinherit her. It would help her feel more righteous about herself.

    How do you reconcile these two positions, Seth R.? In the first, you support condemnation of the irreligious father, and think he should plant his posterior in an evangelical pew. In the second, you condemn the daughter, evidently because the father is LDS. Are you suggesting this question all comes down to one of who belongs to the “right” church?

  16. Jacob M
    October 12, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    Nick – I think Seth R. is making a joke about the Evangelical’s self-righteousness in 14. You can decide for yourself if you find it funny or not.

    I personally agree with the “agree-to-disagree” crowd. People, and families in particular, could stand to have less judgmentalism and more agreeableness. However, I don’t think either side should give up on their principles.

    Looking at the actual letter again, I must conclude, however, that there is no way for the dad not to make his daughter cry. Since he apparently believes in things that are a stark contrast to what his daughter believes, there is no way to avoid hurt feelings. So, the dad needs to be as supportive of his daughter as much as he can, and hope that eventually his daughter will forgive him. The key is to be as loving as a father as possible, so that there can be a basis for the daughter to see that you can be a good person without being part of her faith. I would also advise him not to critique her faith.

  17. October 12, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Sorry Nick, I’m a bit miffed at the born-agains at the moment.

    And yes, I was joking. On both counts.

  18. Nick Literski
    October 12, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Sorry I misunderstood, Seth. :-)

  19. James
    October 12, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    I have a neighbor, his oldest daughter is a not only a member of an evangelical church but has worked in Asia for one of her church’s foreign missions. He joined the church after the marriage to her mother ended. When she visits her father, she comes to church and sits with him, his wife, and her younger siblings. She listens to the Sunday School lessons respectfully and keeps her own counsel on the content. I have to admit that I don’t know anything about their private talks but, I think that they show the example that this father and daughter in the slate column should strive for.

  20. October 13, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    As a teen in 1975, in Ohio, I volunteered with a group that supported the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Cesar Chavez group that tried to unionize migrant farm workers and help them from being exploited by growers in California. We did things like picket and hand out leaflets at grocery stores when UFW was urging a boycot of California lettuce or grapes.

    That spring, California governor Ronald Reagan came to town to speak at something taking place at a hotel/conference center. I helped out this group picketing against him, because he supported the “evil” growers and not the farm workers.

    My mother drove me there, and waited patiently doing her knitting in the lobby while I was out picketing.

    My picket sign said “Reagan is a grapist”. And his car drove right past me as it went into the parking garage.

    Cool memories.

    Five years later, after having joined the work-force and started paying my own bills, I voted for Reagan.

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