Nathan: As an agnostic senior in college I sat through theology classes that were originally supposed to tee me up nicely for Seminary, but now served as the last remaining vestige of my Pastoral career. A career that had gone the way of the buffalo after two years of study. I had read hundreds of theologians decry their colleagues as heretics, watched historians claw apart the doctrine of inerrancy. And on top of it all, I hadn’t heard a peep from Jesus in my prayer life for almost 2 years.
Most of the ex-Christian theology majors at my small Christian University had long since switched to philosophy, art, or literature–majors where they could largely ignore the subjects of the Lord. But I knew switching majors would have meant explaining to my father that I was no longer a Pastor in training, and that I needed him to pay for another year of college so I could study Philosophy.
And that wasn’t going to happen. My junior year I told my Mom I was reading the Communist Manifesto for my modern philosophy class. “Marx actually has some really important ideas about the need for quality public education and how workers are often exploited in modern society.” I rattled off, as her motherly supportive smile faded into thinly veiled discomforted. Thats when realized I should have told her about the report I was writing on Hamlet. “Oh, that’s interesting…” She said with Midwestern skepticism.
On Monday my professor called me into his closet-sized office and handed me a sheet of paper. “Can you tell me what this is all about?” he said, angrily rubbing his thinning white hair.
I am paying twice the price of a secular university for my son to get a Christian Education. And I am not pleased to hear that he was assigned Karl Marx as MANDATORY reading in his Philosophy course. It is common knowledge that Marx was an atheist. My son is a very impressionable young man and he doesn’t need to be studying Socialism.
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My face was a deep shade of purple by the time I looked up from the page. “I’m sorry Professor, please don’t allow this to affect my grade.”
Now, after a burning bush experience a few years later I returned to my Christian faith, and eventually did become a pastor. But many of my friends from college never had a “come to Jesus” moment. And as result of dozens of encounters like this I decided to pull in my friend, the brilliant ex-Missionary-kid-turned-Atheist-Theologian Simon Reading to help me create a list of tips for talking to your parents about your new faith (or lack there of).
Simon: When Nathan asked me to help him with this article I agreed eagerly. I have my own stories all too similar to this one. Since I was kid I’ve had an overly categorical mind that loves to define, delineate and organize. I try to be methodical and rigorous when considering issues for myself. And I expect others to adopt the same detached objectivity when discussing beliefs and values.
As a British Christian living among conservative American missionaries in Turkey, or as a theology major in a small town Baptist church, this expectation has led me to more upsets and misunderstandings than I care to admit.
Now, as an atheist with Christian parents, I am learning that despite my love of debate and concern for accuracy and “truth”, these are not really as important to me as the people I am trying to communicate them to, and in the end it’s about being a person with other people, finding ways to live together.
So we put together this list of things we have learned through our successful and (more often than not) unsuccessful attempts to talk to our parents about our faith (or lack thereof).
1. Don’t do it as a bonding exercise.
Nathan: Discussing faith isn’t like swapping fishing strategies or what SPF to wear at the beach. It is deeply personal and it is VERY likely that hurtful things will be said on both sides. So don’t expect to feel closer at the end. It’s important work but it’s hard work.
2. Acknowledge the real fears
Simon: In your parent’s mind this is a discussion about his or her abilities as a parent. And about whether or not they will be with their child in heaven or watch them burning in hell. And it’s scary for them. You were raised in their community of faith and a departure from it can feel like rejection. Word around your home church will probably get out and they might start catching judgmental glances and pamphlets from the other nosy/well-meaning church parents.
Your parents love you and concern or anger is generally born from fear that your new beliefs are leading you away from God and possibly from heaven. When I see the fear in their eyes I try and I remember that I had those same feelings years ago, as friends I grew up with lost their faith and I had to watch as, to my mind, they put their souls in jeopardy.
Nathan: And on your side, remember these are your parents, the people who raised you. Whether your willing to admit it or not, you need their approval. And if you don’t get it, it’s gonna hurt. So when you lash out at their ideas, take a second to think about whether you’re really angry at their theology or angry that they don’t support you anymore.
3. Remember that you’re not a scholar, you’re a kid who went to college.
Nathan: My father has been faithfully attending weekly Bible Studies for going on 30 years. I grew up watching him sit at the diner table turning pages, a highlighter in one hand and a pen in his mouth. And while those Bible studies were written by conservative evangelicals, that doesn’t diminish the hard work my father put in to studying his faith. When I went to college and read books by liberal scholars I came home with guns blazing, ready to blow holes in his “small” faith. And it lead to shouting matches, tears, and eventually a decade of stonewalling each-other. So when you find some new theory about who actually wrote the Pentateuch remember that your parents have probably been reading the Pentateuch since before your were born.
Simon: There is every possibility that given time you will decide you were wrong about your current beliefs and change your own mind. I did. So use the language of exploration and process, rather than laying down the law and presenting ideas as facts. Because whether you’re talking about faith or the best way to mow the lawn, parents hate when their kids try and put them in their place.
4. Don’t police their un-PC language.
Nathan: The great downfall of the liberal “tolerance” movement is the inability to be tolerant of white Christian conservatives. So when you talk about God as a woman or gay rights or women in ministry remember that you are speaking a new language. Don’t police their language. Conservatives are not typically up to date on PC language so don’t put them on the defensive by picking apart their vocabulary. If they say “gays” in a way that makes your skin crawl or call God a “He,” try to keep from exploding at them. Swallow your righteous anger and keep listening to the point they’re making. I’m guessing you wouldn’t stop a Hassidic Rabbi mid sentence to correct him for calling God a “He.” Be a respectful listener. Because when it’s your turn to talk you don’t want your parents huffing and puffing through it.
5. Experience not Arguments change Hearts and Minds
Simon: In my experience, it is not usually rhetoric or theological argumentation that changes minds. Most people are swayed by coming into contact with lives that challenge preconceived notions or provide alternative narratives. Lifestyle is far more powerful than theories and notions. Let them see how what you believe influences the way you live.
Nathan: My parents eventually left the suburbs and their Evangelical church. My mom got a new job as a social worker the inner city and they started going to a church where they were the only Republicans in their Bible Study group. And after hundreds of discussions on politics with his new church friends my father conceded that liberals did have a few good ideas about public policy.
My mom spent a year visiting women in low income neighborhoods and one day she met a Muslim woman from Mali who had a beautiful smile and an infectious laugh. And they began a friendship that brought a new perspective to my Mom’s faith.
Then the other day I was having coffee with my Mom, listening to her talk about her Muslim friend fasting during Ramadan. After a long pause she said, “I don’t think God will send her to hell for being a Muslim.” Then she looked at me, “I mean she is just praying with the language she was taught. If I was born in Mali I would have been a Muslim too.” I smiled. I had shouted this idea at her 10 years ago. But we don’t really discuss our faith anymore so I was just happy she was willing to tell me her new discovery.
“Yeah that’s what I think too,” I said, realizing that my parents’ change of heart had happened in spite of my attempts to convince them.