Looking For Some Advice…

A Failure?

As my regular readers will know I often talk about standing up and speaking out against religion.  This is something I do online and to a certain degree in my daily real life as well.  Yesterday, I failed in a conversation about religion.  I did not fail because I was unprepared.  I failed because I chose too.  I am still not sure how I feel about that and wanted to share.

The conversation was with my mother.  She is in her middle 60’s, still married to my father, works full time, and is the primary care giver to my 90 year old grandmother.  Her marriage to my father is quite poor.  They do not get along at all.  This has been the case for at least a decade at this point.  While I love my father and get along great with him, he is entirely to blame for this situation.  He treats her like dirt.  I suppose it comes from some of his insecurities, but cannot be sure.  Her home life is miserable.  I have counseled her to look into divorce, but being a devout that option seems to be off the table.  This of course frustrates me to no end.  However, I do recognize it is not my decision to make.

My maternal grandmother is not really any kinder to my mother.  She fully expects my mother to quit her job and care for her full time.  Anything short of this is an unacceptable situation to my grandmother.  My parents cannot afford to be a one income family.  My mother needs to work.  The result of this scenario is a relationship that has become nothing more than my grandmother screaming non-stop at my mother and telling her how awful a daughter she is.

In short, my mother gets verbally abused pretty much anywhere she goes outside of work or time with friends.  It is a non-stop abuse.  There are very few “good” days.  My brother and I have tried to intervene on several occasions to no avail.  We have each gone a period of close to a year (at separate times) not speaking with my father.  No change.  Trying to reason with a 90 year old grandmother is a colossal waste of time.  No change there either.  Both my brother and I live in in different states than our parents/grandmother.  We are not around daily, and this too upsets my mother.

Both my brother and I are atheists.  Our parents know this, but do not recognize it.  They are incredibly devout Catholics and religion has become the topic that no one talks about.  This works out most of the time.  There is zero chance that I will ever “convert” my parents to a life of freethinking and zero chance that they will bring me or my brother back “into the flock”.  The status quo is about as good as it will get.

That is the background info, now for the crux of my story.  My mother had a particularly bad day yesterday.  She called me crying about her fights with my father and grandmother.  I feel terrible for her.  Then she chose to with the following solution, “The only thing I can do is continue to pray that god will hear me and help me.  There is nothing left to do.”  I almost dropped the phone.

How could she possibly say such a stupid statement?  She has been praying for those exact things for the better part of 12 years.  The only change to her situation in that time is that it has worsened.  My father is more of an asshole and my grandmother is much nastier.  They have little money; she is working past an age that she had hoped.  She runs herself ragged for two people who treat her like shit.  Yet, through all of this she has prayed…and prayed with conviction.  Her solution to the problem, in her eyes, can only be more prayer.

Upon her completion of the above statement, I made some comment to the effect, “So how’s that working out for you?”  Her response, “Great, it is what gives me strength to get through the day”.  I responded that her prayers have done nothing to change her situation and that to resolve herself to only prayer—to not seek other solutions is to admit defeat and expect her life to continue as it is. At this point she interrupted me with the following statement:

“I know what you think.  Don’t you dare take this [prayer] away from me.  It is all I have.  Without god in my life, and god to talk to, I could not get through the day.  He hears me and he does answer my prayers.  Do not take this away from me.”

My immediate mental reaction was to tear that entire foolish statement to shreds…but I did not.  I did as she asked and dropped the discussion.

I have very mixed feelings about how I handled that situation.  On the one hand, there is little that I despise more than people turning to prayer as the final solution to a problem.  That is such a waste of time and an excuse to wallow in whatever bad situation one finds themselves in for the rest of their life.  There is little I despise more than someone assuring me that god talks to them and answers their prayers (a common theme with my mother—where unless she is praying to be miserable I see no answered prayers).  There is little that despise more than someone believing something because it is easier than to face the alternate truth or reality.  I despise the argument that we should leave religion alone because it offers some benefits to its practitioners.  All of these things apply to my mother.  All of these things applied to our conversation yesterday.  And I did nothing.

I let the conversation drop for one reason.  I could hear the desperation in her voice when she asked to “not to take prayer away from her”.  It was incredibly sad—on many levels.  I felt ashamed for purposeful ignorance and I felt sadder for the reality that is her life.  One thing was clear to me.  If I chose to fight over this with her, it would have been devastating to her.  I could not do it.  I let it go.

I do not regret my decision.  However, I would be lying if I did not write that I feel like a hypocrite.  I am constantly urging my readers to act.  I constantly act.  Yet, in this case I could not bring myself to do so.  The problem is that I am not comfortable with any of this.  I hate the idea of letting her think prayer is the solution and I equally hate the idea of being responsible for creating more pain in her life.  I am well aware that this conversation will present itself to me in the future.  Should I view my actions as a failure?  Surely from the point of an atheist activist they could be considered as such.  However, from the point of a caring son, I am not so sure that I failed at all.  What is clear and should be clear to all of us, is that being an atheist is not always easy.  There are challenges that we all face.  I find that talking with other atheists is a good way to learn from each others’ experiences.  I am going to assume that many of you may have found yourself in similar situations with family and/or friends.  How did you handle those situations?

Thanks for Reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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35 thoughts on “Looking For Some Advice…

  1. AndrewHall from Whitman, MA, United States

    Dude, don't go too hard on yourself — everyone gets caught flat-footed and when that happens you eat a punch.

    I have a few suggestions:

    1. Whenever your mom complains about your your father mother say that she (you mom) needs therapy. That's what she needs to hear.
    2. I personally have a LBS policy (limited bullshit), that is I can only deal with so much crap before I make it stop (by saying behavior X is not OK and I'm not going to tolerate it) or I leave. I grew up in a dysfunctional family and I'm an adult; I've hit my quota of crap a long time ago.
    3. You don't need to reason with your grandmother to make her stop acting like a loon. Stop trying to reason with her when she's acting crazy. Your mom shouldn't try to reason with her either when she (grandmum) is inapropriate.
    4. Your mom is in a codependent relationship with your dad, your grandmother and God — that's why she needs therapy.

    Good luck, man.

  2. fester60613 from Binghamton, NY, United States

    "Should I view my actions as a failure?" No. Absolutely and without equivocation, NO!
    You did what any kind person would do – you put aside your (lack of) religion and by doing that refused to exacerbate a bad situation. There's NOTHING about that which can connote failure.
    I feel really awful for your mother – trapped between duty and necessity. Being the youngest child of two youngest children I have witnessed this sort of situation a number of times. Your mother is depressed, she's tired, she feels unloved and used and abandoned and angry – and she has every right to feel all of those things.
    The sad thing – in the larger picture – is that your mother finds herself in the same situation as millions of other women – which means that there is hope. I strongly suggest that YOU contact social services in your area and ask questions. Ask how you can help your mother find alternatives for her terrible situation. Contact AARP, or the State or Federal Department of Aging. There ARE alternatives, there ARE answers, there ARE solutions to the situation.
    Get busy – because the longer you wait, the more damage your mother will suffer. Since you know enough to back off when you hear desperation in her voice, I ask you also to give thought to how close she is to snapping. Even the strongest and most determined have a breaking point. Help her find a solution before she gets to the point of doing something everyone will regret… and do not pass that off as a wild impossibility. Situations like your mother's are dangerous in more ways than one for everyone involved.
    Call around and find out how you and your sibling(s) can help from a distance… and let her pray her heart out. If it's the only thing that gets her through her days you're almost compelled to swallow your personal contempt and let it slide… just like you already have. There's nothing wrong with that: It's called mercy.

  3. vjack from Hattiesburg, MS, United States

    I do not see this as a failure at all. Your choice to drop it when you did was perfectly understandable. Not everyone is going to be an atheist, and I think we need to be okay with that.

    You cannot take responsibility for what your mother thinks. That is up to her. All you can do is provide support and gently encourage change when the timing is right. In the end, how she lives her life is always going to be up to her and her alone.

  4. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

    The truth is, I knew pushing the prayer argument was not the right thing to do in that situation. I just get frustrated because a) I do not know how to help her and b) I know that praying is not going to help her situation improve. My parents are 65 and both are fit—they run every day. They most likely have long lives ahead of them. Hers cannot continue in its current form. The problem, from where I sit, is that it is her religion that is preventing her from taking the next steps.

  5. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

    The problem is, you're not responsible for her beliefs or her actions. She's an adult. She's not acting like one, but she has to be held 100% accountable for her actions. What you're seeing is very much battered wife syndrome, she's acting exactly like lots of battered religious wives who think they are at fault for the abuse (which doesn't have to be physical). Blaming oneself and then acting like some imaginary friend in the sky will save them is very, very typical, but nobody can help her until she's willing to help herself.

    I think that's really the issue here, she's unwilling to do anything for herself but take the abuse. Until that changes, you can't do a thing. Given the same sort of situation, I'd say something like the following:

    "Mom, you know you're in a bad situation and you know, whether you're willing to admit it or not, that God isn't going to come to your rescue. Only you can make your life better and you know that there are people who love you who will do anything they can to help you, but you have to be the one to take the first step. Until you are willing to do that though, it's unfair to be complaining to everyone about how bad your life is. You choose to remain there, you refuse to accept any help, what do you expect us to do? So please, if you're unwilling to help yourself, all you're doing is making the people around you, the people who love you, the people who want to help you, feel miserable. Let us know when you're willing to accept help. Until then, please, be responsible for yourself and stop burdening everyone with your self-imposed troubles."

    Unfortunately, you're giving her an outlet to complain about her issues and that's just not your job. That's what she pays a therapist for. I'd talk to the therapist too and see what he suggests. Ultimately though, you can't make her do anything, she's going to have to get fed up and walk away herself.

    Best of luck to your family.

    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks for the comment Cephus. I do realize that I am not responsible for her actions/beliefs and that she is. She is acting like many other women who feel trapped in these types of scenarios. I don't mind being an outlet for her. The issue is that it is becoming harder and hard to do, as we cannot really discuss the next step. You are correct in saying that she needs to be willing to do that and that until she is, there is little I can do to help her. The only positive side to this story is that there is no physical threat to her person, while small, that needs to count for something when determining how patient I am going forward.

      I do not feel burdened by her problems. I feel burdened by the fact that she is not willing to seek help, largely due to her religious convictions. I am certainly there to listen to her…the problem is that I am rapidly running out of things to say.

      1. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

        The problem is, you're operating as a support group for her. So long as she can vent her frustrations and complain, she's prolonging the amount of time she can stay in the situation. Read up on battered wife syndrome, the battery doesn't have to be physical and honestly, the best person she can talk to, if she's willing, is someone who has been through what she's been through and gotten away from the situation. She stays because she feels "safe" there. It's good that she's in no physical danger, but emotional harm is just as dangerous as being beaten.

        There are resources to look into, some specifically for Christian women. Again, maybe talking to her therapist about these avenues might be helpful. You can try some of these. http://www.abusedwomen.org/resources.html

  6. Glen Rosenberg from East Windsor, CT, United States

    You are worrying about your principles on the one hand, and your empathy and love of your mother on the other. In this case the paramount concern is your mother's well being.
    However, if she has reached a state of despair and unrelenting sadness it makes sense for you to employ whatever strategy will effectuate change. So I would attack the efficacy of prayer. Ask her how it has helped the endless victims who prey. Make her realize that whether or not there is a deity our lives operate as if we are alone. Hit her with the chestnut that the lord helps those who help themselves. The temporary additional pain you may cause her will be more than offset by the benefit she realizes in change.

  7. Grundy from Dacula, GA, United States

    I'm facing something similar. My mom, a Christian Scientist, has cancer. While she thankfully went through with one surgery to help her, there is more to do and now she is dragging her feet citing religion as a reason. God's gonna heal her. This is too much to get into and I don't want to make this about me, sooo…

    I don't think divorce is as big an issue in Catholicism as it used to be. I don't know if there is a time limit to annulments or what, but it's my experience that if you pay the church enough, they'll do what you want. Of course, none of this will help is she doesn't WANT a divorce, but this is the only thing that will help her long term. Let her have her prayers, those aren't the issue, but show her that God "helps those that help themselves." It might be BS, but it's the truest thing you can say without embarking on the likely impossible task of converting her to atheism. Keep your brother in the loop and work together…it's a tough situation, but you know this.

    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks Grundy. I wish your mother well. I do not think that divorce is a huge issue among most Catholics, but it clearly is to my mother. I need to try the "god helps those that help themselves" line…if I can say it with a straight face…may need to practice saying a bit.

  8. Life artist from Palmyra, WI, United States

    Your actions in not pressing your mother about prayer were done out of kindness. You might suggest to your mother that she pray for the strength to make change and focus on how that change would be for her. Remind your mother that the only behavior she has control over is her own. If she changes the way she deals with your dad and grandmother they will have to alter their behavior in response. She needs to insist on some respect. If she acts like a doormat, people will treat her like one.

    Unfortunately, as a well socialized Catholic woman, she probably thinks that putting herself first is selfish. She needs to understand that doing what is necessary for her well being is OK. In those instances selfishness is good. Keep repeating those messages. Only when she is ready will she make the changes. Pressing her on the efficacy of prayer may be the right thing to do as well. Her reliance on prayer is just the hope the two abusers in her life will change. It's an unrealistic hope, but it is hard to let go of it.

    I would also check into another situation for your grandmother. See if Catholic Charities will help out. My family is Jewish and Catholic Charities helped out with my husband's grandmother. Your mom has been devout all these years so a little pay back is in order.

    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Thank you for your comment. I much appreciate it. I think you touch on some important issues. She needs to understand that she can only focus on changing her behavior and not theirs. That is very much worth pointing out to her. I believe that we did just find a service to help my grandmother out 3 days a week. That should greatly lessen the burden on my mother. Thanks for stopping by and adding so much to this discussion.

  9. Joolz from Gosport, Hampshire, United Kingdom

    I may be completely wrong here (my mum attempted to bring me up catholic but it never stuck) but, as I understand it, the catholic church frowns on divorce but separating isn't such a big issue as long as the couple stay married. Could you perhaps suggest this as an idea for her to discuss with her priest. A legal separation could give her money and property rights, but she still wouldn't be divorced, which seems to be the big no-no for the catholic church.

  10. Hausdorff from Los Angeles, CA, United States

    Most people have said the things that I wanted to say already. I just want to highlight the following

    "I hate the idea of letting her think prayer is the solution and I equally hate the idea of being responsible for creating more pain in her life"

    You aren't really letting her think prayer is a solution, she thinks it and there is nothing you can really do about it. You said she knows you are an atheist, so she knows that you don't think prayer works, that's all you can really say. If you harp on this every time she talks about it then you will just be one more cause of stress for her i think.

    You don't have to fight every possible battle that comes along. If you are in a situation where arguing about religion won't accomplish anything then it might not be worth getting into it.

  11. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    So long as your mom thinks that she doesn't deserve to be treated well, that this is her lot in life: to live for others and take nothing for herself, then this is what will result from it. Somehow or other, she has to recognize that SHE HAS VALUE and along with that that SHE DESERVES RESPECT. If (and at this point, it's a sizable "if") she can build up her own self-image and sense of self-worth, those qualities will help provide her with a defense against those who would exploit her for their own benefit. I'm not even sure atheism has to come into the discussion at all, just the matter of VALUE and RESPECT.

    My $0.02 on the subject.

    1. Hausdorff from Los Angeles, CA, United States

      This 100%. Focusing on these things when you talk to her seems like the best shot you have of helping her out. At the very least, if she leaves a conversation with you thinking that you think she has value and you think she deserves respect she might at least feel good about herself for a short time.

  12. matt greenberg from Norristown, PA, United States

    you did the right thing. being devout, you cannot change her mind and arguing about it will only dampen your relationship (possibly the only good one she has). when it comes to family, your Atheism should fall way down on the list of priorities. i know it's hard, because in this case you can see how her religion is actively hurting her, and you want so badly to help her see this. problem is, you can't. all you can do is be supportive and be the best son you can, without calling her beliefs into question.

    i'm sorry to hear about her situation, and i hope that things do get better for her.

  13. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I have found each of the to helpful and encouraging. One of the nicest things about starting this blog is the opportunity to "meet" new people. Many of you who commented regularly do so on this blog or converse with me elsewhere (twitter, other blogs). Thanks you for taking the time to care about my personal issue. It means a great deal to me to able to talk about these things with other like minded people (other than my wife, who is also an atheist and a great person to talk with). Thanks again for all of your thoughts. —RB

  14. amandatheatheist from Minneapolis, MN, United States

    I don't know if anyone has said anything like this in the comments up until now, and it's probably going to sound like an odd thing to say. I know you said your mom is in therapy, which is great. You also said your family is basically at an equilibrium in which everyone accepts they will not change the others' beliefs. I can't even believe I'm suggesting this, but has your mom talked to her religious leaders? I'm not suggesting she get counseling from them (I don't think religious leaders should counsel people because they don't have any real credentials for it). But it's possible talking to others in her church might help her out – giving her a chance to vent to someone with the same perspective/worldview as herself. It's just a thought. Similarly, there may be people from her church that would be willing to help out with your mean grandmother to take some of the stress off your mother. I don't like religion, but churches often provide very supportive communities.

    As for you, it sounds like you are being a good son. Not ripping into her at that moment was a good thing, especially given how vulnerable she probably feels (think about the people that use deaths as opportunities to preach – slimy scum). You didn't lie, which I'd say is important. I think most of us atheists have had to accept at one time or another that the cost of a battle may not be worth the effort. Good luck. I hope your mother finds a way to resolve her situation.

    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks Amanda. Not that crazy of an idea. We have talked about it believe it or not. She won't do that because both she and my father are very active at their church. She does not want this to be "a public" thing. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I very much appreciate your "out-of-the-box" thinking with that idea. I did not come up with it btw, she did and rejected it on her own.

  15. The Doubter from Opotiki, Gisborne, New Zealand

    Part 1
    The classic family triangle of power, in this instance the key power players Dad, Granny and mum, with the siblings circling on the outside. Just to make you feel better my own family has a similar triangle power struggle going on .
    Don’t what to preach…..you are a smart guy!
    For what it is worth, how about the following,
    Mum – tell her that you are her god, when she heeds a shoulder you will listen, when she needs to pray tell her to ring you instead…….tell her that unlike her prayers she will get an answer, sometimes it might not be what she wants to hear, but it is said with love and compassion.

  16. The Doubter from Opotiki, Gisborne, New Zealand

    Part 2
    Dad – maybe time to break the parent child dynamic hear!! That dear old dad is no longer the Alpha male in the group? Had my own seminal moment with my dad when I was thirty, oh yeah he still thinks he’s top dog, but when I now stare him in the eye, he’s the one that looks away first now!! So I let him strut about, but he knows deep down who’s got the power. The child has become the parent now!!
    Granny – dear old granny!! …….get your gran on her own, maybe with your sibling and say you need to talk. Then just sit there you and your sibling for stare at her……..when she starts to look confused, just say “ Gran, things, ARE going to change, no more goading mum, or putting on her……then smile get up and close the door calmly behind you”……no discussion, isn’t up for challenging , this is how it’s going to be!!!

  17. The Doubter from Opotiki, Gisborne, New Zealand

    Final bit
    Say all the above, with love and in a calm manner. When people challenge just smile and say NO…..things are going to change. This isn’t about beliefs it’s about three humans that need to get on better and respect each other and as the Alpha male I am not putting up with it anymore and I am effecting change in this family!!!
    What have you got to lose, if you and your brother can stand in unity and present a solid force, the other parties will have their power bases undermined…………….tell them that if they don’t respect each other then be it on their heads!!
    Good luck with however you choose to deal with…….to be true to yourself!!

  18. @HumanistTweeter from United Kingdom

    There's often a very fine line between being an activist of any description and being an asshole. Generally it's a good rule of thumb to assume that your loved ones – parents, other family, lovers, friends – are not at all interested in the 'activist' part. Just be there. Your mom already knows how you feel about religion. When she vocalises her intent to keep praying, she's really saying that to herself, not to you. If someone's having a bad day and tells you they will keep on praying, and you feel the little activist asshole coming to the fore… shove him in a box real fast and get on with nodding, making affirmative noises and being supportive. Persuading people that all they hold dear is wrong is something you do on any day, and I mean ANY day… that is NOT a bad day. Else we become no better than the Jehovah's witnesses that crawl out of the woodwork to visit a grieving person and sell their garbage.

    Say something like "well maybe things being this bad is the answer to your prayers, and you're supposed to take affirmative action for yourself?" or even just "that's great, and I wouldn't ever stop you from doing that, but maybe consider if there's anything affirmative you can do?" etc.

    Basic rule of thumb – activist asshole needs to stay in the box when someone you love is having a bad day. Which can be really hard, particularly in the earlier years of activism.

  19. rblevy from Philippines

    ReasonBeing, I didn't have the oppy to wade through all the other comments and the following may have already been suggested: Your grandmother sounds as though she's in the throes of Alzheimer's. I don't know whether your locale or state offers caretaker assistance for low income families, but it's worth checking out.

    As it is, your mom is unlikely to ever change her belief about prayer and god, and because your grandmother's condition will likely deteriorate , things are bound to get worse for her in her dual role as forced partial breadwinner and caretaker. She may eventually snap, sooner than later.

    Again, find out if there's some kind of social service intervention available. If there is, I hope that it's not withheld because of your dad's refusal to cooperate in this crisis.


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