Should I go to religious services just to make people happy?

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I was raised in a religious (Christian) household. My parents are still very much religious, but I am very much not.

Lately it’s been becoming a bigger deal to them — there’s been a lot of conversations/comments about how much it “hurts them” that I’m rejecting something that’s so important to them, how sad they are that I have something missing in my life, etc. I’ve tried to explain that my choice not to be Christian is not a rejection of THEM and that I’m happy and fulfilled, but no soap.

(Perhaps unwisely) I’ve been trying to make it clear where I stand on this issue rather than being pretty passive about it like I was before. So when I was given my father’s draft of the annual Christmas letter to review, I asked (politely) that either the language be changed to be more inclusive of varying religious beliefs, or that they not sign my name to it. This didn’t go over well, to say the least.

At this point, though, I’m facing a dilemma…

I’ve been going to religious services, like Christmas Eve, with my parents in order to make them happy. But at this point I feel as if there is a lack of mutual respect for my beliefs, so I have no desire to go. (I do not live with my parents and am not financially dependent on them in any way, so that wouldn’t be a factor here in what I would choose to do.)

The question is then: Do I stick to my guns, or do I go to religious services with my family on holidays? -Q

Comments on Should I go to religious services just to make people happy?

  1. I actually see these as two separate issues:
    1. The need for your parents’ general acceptance that you’ve chosen a different spiritual path than the one they taught you.
    2. Changes in participation in family tradition and rituals.

    Tied up with the first is their grief that you’re leaving behind something important to them. Complicate this with the possibility that they might be coming from the perspective that your choice to be an atheist rejects an opportunity for eternal salvation of your soul, they might genuinely be grieving their loss as though you’ve chosen death over life. (It depends on their own acceptance of doctrine, of course, but it is a possibility that is something they’re struggling with.) So, they’ve got a lot to work through if they’re genuinely dealing with the concern of having lost of child for all eternity.

    The second is the natural change that comes with independence as an adult. Especially when a person marries and has children the question of “whose family holiday traditions win out?” becomes very emotional for all involved.

    My spouse and I alternate celebrating Thanksgiving & Christmas with each side of the family. I work as a Christian minister so that means Christmas Eve is always and forever a day I will work. My mother-in-law has a hard time understanding this so when she plans Christmas festivities I’m always having to reinforce, “Yes, you do get Christmas this year – that means Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve. I have to work Christmas Eve so I can’t attend your big family dinner that day.” Some families has distinct traditions about what they’re going to eat, who goes where to visit, and all of the other various family holidays traditions. When traditions change for whatever reason it is hard and brings up grief and anxiety at the change.

    Hopefully throughout this year you can continue the conversation with your parents and make some headway on the first question of them needing to support your choice about your own spiritual journey so that the second conversation about changing tradition can be a little less stressful for everyone.

  2. I would go with ‘no’. If you want them to take your beliefs seriously, they could be taking your attendance as mixed messages. I will also say that although we all do, you shouldn’t do anything “just to keep others happy”, and should carefully consider your reasons for doing anything that go against your own beliefs. I’ll just quietly leave this here for consideration:

  3. I made the choice to stop attending Christmas Eve services and pretending to participate in family prayers because I knew that the only reason my parents wanted me to do those things was because they thought I could be converted back into Christianity. It wasn’t really about family tradition or spending time with me, though they tried to argue that to guilt trip me at first. Eventually they simply stopped discussing religion with me and we get along much better now.

    I don’t know your family and whether or not they’ll eventually come to accept your beliefs, but if you’re unhappy attending religious services then perhaps it’s worth a try. You’re an adult and under no obligation to do anything just to make your parents happy. But if it ends up creating too much of a rift between you and you decide that’s even worse than putting up with going to church once a year, you can always change your mind and start going again.

  4. This is a tough question. I was not raised in a religious household, and am an atheistic pagan these days, but I still often ended up being dragged to church services on Christmas Eve, despite that day also being my birthday. Mainly, this was because we were visiting relatives over the holidays who liked to go to church services, so my family would go. There was never really any hostility any direction though. I don’t go to services anymore, and at least for Christmas Eve, I simply pull the “it’s my birthday and I’m gonna do what I want on my birthday,” but of course most people don’t have that option.

    I think the biggest point of concern here is that you feel that your parents are not respecting your personal beliefs and values. I think that, more than anything, is the main issue here. Instead of making church services the particular sticking point, I think a more productive discussion would be one about respecting one another’s beliefs. Make it abundantly clear that you respect their beliefs, and ask that they respect yours also. Then, you may be able to bring up church services as a bargaining chip: tell them that because you respect their beliefs and value your relationship with them (this is where you also tell them how much you love them), you will go to services with them on Christmas and Easter. Then suggest something that they can physically do to show respect for your beliefs (perhaps there is an Ethical Society or other humanist organization near you that holds meetings?). That way, you both have concrete ways to express your respect for each other, and the actual going to services takes on specific meaning for everyone, and you’re not doing it “just to make them happy;” you’re doing it to show that you respect them, and they can do whatever it is you ask of them to show that they respect you.

  5. Like some above, I am in an interfaith marriage. My husband was raised Catholic and is sort-of practicing but his parents are very religious, I’m Jewish. We live far from our families so when we visit them for holidays, we are there on their agenda for a few days.
    Of course when we visit his parents, there’s mass. Obviously I don’t believe in it, and sometimes the subject matter kind of makes me uncomfortable. (Like one time the priest went on about how you should preach to the nonbelievers in your own family to save their souls. Awesome. And no thanks.) But it’s really important to his mom that it be a *family* thing. Early on they told me I didn’t have to go, and probably when we have children, I will not go but rather stay home with the kids. But for now I go and she seems pretty happy to have all the “kids” together.

    However, others did make a good point about your parents not treating you as an adult. It sucks that they don’t listen and respect your choices and you should keep trying to assert your independence. But I’m not sure I would personally choose a major holiday as the time to try to make that stand. If you think you’ve tried everything else, I would consider this the “going nuclear” option.

  6. I can sort of relate of this article because I am currently going through something similar. The only difference is that I joined another Christian denomination (my husband’s church) and I actually love going to church as long as the congregation I’m attending makes me feel at home. Plus, I love the sense of community that makes up such a huge part of church. However, I identify as being more spiritual than religious.

    Anyway, I grew up in a religious household and being raised by a parent who believes that you ought to stay with the denomination you were born into, so I often wasn’t allowed to even visit other churches as a kid unless they were of the same denomination we were. I was often forced to attend a church that made me very unhappy, though my attendance satisfied my family. As a result, I didn’t become an official member of my current church until after I married my husband.

    The main reasons why I left my childhood church was because of the limited roles women could have there, their insistence that their worship style was the “right” way to honor God (and other churches were wrong), and blatant bias towards people who still weren’t married by the time they reached their mid-20s (women in particular). I especially disliked all of the constant homophobia and fire-and-brimstone messages that were preached in the sermons – not something I want to be hearing every freakin Sunday morning! In contrast, I love the emphasis my current church puts on being a part of the community and helping others in need.

    I still haven’t discussed where I now go to church with my family in fear of getting into another religious debate, which has happened many times in the past. If the subject ever does come up though, I may say something like: “Yes, I go to that church now, and it was all my decision” and probably just leave it at that.

  7. It is appropriate to go to church with you parents out of respect for them. After all they did wipe your butt and feed you, and care for you all those years. While it would be awesome if they would offer to reciprocate in some way, I do not think that should be a condition of you going to church with them. They are your parents, that will never change. And they likely will not either. However, the same question as applied to a spouse or partner I think would have a very different answer. In that case, it would be appropriate to either “stick to your guns” and not go, or insist that your partner reciprocated in some way by attending a religious (or non-religious) service of your choice.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your input.

    I ended up not going– I told them this and they accepted it (mostly). The larger issues for them was that (a) issues letting go of a the idea of family holidays being the same as they were when their kids were young (less with seeing me as an adult, which they’re generally pretty good at, and more to do with the fact that neither of my siblings have managed that yet so for their children as a unit they have difficulty making the change, less so for me individually) and (b) they felt I was trying to force my beliefs on them (I’m still trying to find a way to explain their logic here politely and without sarcasm or references to a certain news network). We talked about it some and they didn’t really get anywhere but they said they’d try which is something.

    A lot of the advice above was helpful– some of it wasn’t the most relevant (but only because there were details about my situation that weren’t given for brevity).

    I also found this post really helpful (the author is talking about her marriage and the unequal expectations placed on her as a woman in a fundamentalist Christian denomination, so it is by no means equivalent, but was still helpful):

    • Honestly I’m more curious about why you felt the need to make the Christmas letter more inclusive of carrying religious beliefs if they aren’t YOUR religious beliefs.

  9. I’ve run into this problem myself. I was raised in a really strict religious denomination that damaged me to the point where I just have to walk away (hymns still give me flashbacks and leave me involuntarily in tears). It took getting divorced for my family to realize that I was going to stand up for myself, not go to church if I didn’t want to, etc. My parents eventually got to the point where they could accept that I am an adult and can make my own decisions, though I still get the occasional comment from my mother wishing I could “find a way to worship God in (my) own way.” They’re actually quite reasonable.

    My biggest problem is a sibling who views my rejection of our childhood religion as a personal rejection. This sibling bought into the religion and all the exclusion it stands for completely. No matter how many times I explain that, while the religion damaged me irreconcilably, I understand and respect that it works for that sibling, and that we can disagree and still care about each other, it’s not good enough. My lack of faith, and therefore my very presence in my parents’ home, is “triggering” (sibling still lives at home). Has anyone else dealt with this?

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