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This guest column by Robyn Parnell is one of three winners in the first annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition.


Grandmas Gone God-Wild

by Robyn Parnell

What defines good or evil? Can moral authority exist without divine dictate? If there’s no god, who pops up the next Kleenex? These questions are pieces of existential cake for secular parents compared to dealing with Grandmas Gone God-Wild.

Our family recently attended my husband’s (H) family reunion. As is her custom after such visits, H’s mother (MIL) wrote to our children. As is their custom upon receiving snailmail, my daughter (D) and son (S) handed their respective notecards to me, requesting translation (“I can’t read Grandma’s handwriting.”)

The notes seemed innocuous, if gushier than usual. Grandma thanked them for coming to the reunion, praised their characters, and effused about the pictures she’d taken: “D, You are a beautiful person, inside & out; it’s fun to see your smile!”

D, who loathes family photo sessions, lasered me an I-know-what-she’s-doing-and-it-won’t-work! look. We both giggled, then gasped, as the notes’ closings caught us off guard: “We didn’t discuss it when we were with you but we are still disappointed & sad that you all have rejected God. He is really a loving God – so hope you get to know Him sometime! We love you!”

“All that stuff about the smile and being a beautiful person – ick,” D sputtered. “She was buttering me up!”

“Just when I thought this conflict was over….” S spoke as if narrating a horror movie. “It’s back from the grave with an icy hand!”

Years ago, our family realized that our naturalistic world view isn’t compatible with religion. We neither concealed nor proclaimed this fact, although our car’s accumulation of freethought-friendly bumper stickers (“What would the Flying Spaghetti Monster Do”) was a likely pointer.

During a summer visit, MIL noticed our de-churched Sundays and questioned H, who confirmed her suspicions. It brought out a side to the heretofore moderate, MYOB Lutheran lady that neither H nor I anticipated.

At first she confined her Save-An-Apostate efforts to H. Then, during a Spring Break trip to my in-laws’ home, out of the breakfast table blue MIL asked H and me why we’d “rejected God.” (“It was weird,” said S, who’d overheard the conversation. “The calmer you and Dad stayed, the more upset Grandma got.”) And after yet another family trip, MIL sent H a four-page letter on the subject. One good thing has risen from this situation, she wrote: her faith is stronger, and she prays for us daily.

“The last thing we intended by leaving religion was to create a religious fanatic,” I chuckled. H concurred, and drafted a reply. Which he didn’t send. He told me he didn’t want to encourage “that kind of relationship” with his mom.

Prior to the reunion trip, our children told me they dreaded Grandma harping on “the religion thing.” “It’s like she thinks we’re a problem she has to solve,” D moaned. MIL’s notes provoked more than indignant laughter from her grandchildren — disappointment, anger, and betrayal flashed in their eyes. So now, I told H, you have a problem to solve.

Letters, phone calls, “witnessing” books – what MIL says and sends to us is extraneous to the issue at hand, which is that she must stop sermonizing our kids. Professions of love are irrelevant. She loves them? Duh; she’s their grandmother. She needs to love them as a grandparent should: unconditionally and uncritically.

She noted their fine qualities — was that sincere? Aside from being in better moods come Sunday morning their essential natures haven’t changed since our family became religion-free. They remain the “intelligent, wonderful, helpful, kind” children she’d extolled; they haven’t started kicking blind beggars or tearing legs off flies. The only discernible change is her attitude toward them.

D & S are well aware of Grandma’s views on religion. Offering unsolicited, critical comments about their views is presumptuous; also, she’s setting herself up for not being taken at face value by her grandkids, who have experienced her not-so-hidden agenda. Praise, compliments, and (biggest ick of all) declarations of love are now seen as set-ups for the altar call. I assume MIL wants love and respect, not toleration, but she’s heading toward “Just smile and nod, you know how she is,” territory.

H rose to the occasion and sent a letter to his mother, analogizing the Serenity Prayer (nice touch, I thought) to warmly yet firmly request that, if she feels she must proselytize, she should pick on someone her own size. MIL replied with more professions of love, declaring she’d merely intended to share “the facts” with us. She did not acknowledge his request.

“We haven’t heard the last of this,” H sighed.

This calls for another bumper sticker. Perhaps I’ll append one I’ve seen elsewhere: “Lord, save us from your followers. Or just Grandma.”
ROBYN PARNELL is a writer and secular parent living in Oregon. When not working on innumerable fiction projects, she searches for worthy additions to her bumper sticker collection, which includes family favorites “God Told Me To Embarrass My Kids,” and “Jesus is My Co-Pilot, Buddha is my Navigator, And Vishnu Will Be Serving Drinks Once We Reach Cruising Altitude.” Parnell shares life with one freethinking husband, two children, and an assortment of pagan pets (cats, reptiles, spiders, dust bunnies).

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...