Religious aggression will assault you as soon as you start mourning. Here’s how I learned to set boundaries in proportion to the offense.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

After my son’s suicide, I was unprepared for the religious toxicity spewed my way. At first, I dodged it as uselessly as Newman with the frilly dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. But I learned quickly, and unlike Newman, I made it out alive. By setting boundaries in proportion to the offense, my mind could focus on the essentials of mourning.

Let’s start with the worst of it, which arrived courtesy of Josh’s estranged mother and her hubby. We’ll call them Irene and Gary (not their real names). For the past several years, Irene and I had learned to communicate amicably if awkwardly. Time, new partnerships, and adult children with less needs made this possible.

Irene was the first person I phoned after identifying Josh’s body. Alienated or not, she was Josh’s mom. In the immediate aftermath of his death, a weeklong flurry of phone calls and text messages permitted the joint arrangement of a family memorial service in Washington, set for three weeks later. These plans included reserving an outdoor venue with adequate space for social distancing, because Gary is an anti-vaxx, MAGA kind of guy.

Early the following week, Irene texted me that she, her fundamentalist parents, and her church had scheduled a religious memorial in Tennessee for the following Monday. No “can you attend,” no “do you want to participate.” No “do you think my atheist, anti-religious son who hasn’t attended this church since junior high would approve of this.”

At the time, I was too buried in exhausted shock to formulate a coherent reply. But when she told me two weeks later that she wanted to incorporate God-talk into our memorial in Washington, I had enough wherewithal to put my foot down. No, she’d had her chance for a religious service in Tennessee. Josh would not have approved of this.

If you know any Bible Belt fundamentalists, you can predict what happened next. Out came the persecution card. She forwarded private emails to a churchy friend, to enlist moral support. She attempted to rope our two surviving children into taking her side. When I wouldn’t budge on my stance, she and Gary chose not to attend the memorial. Despite accepting an urn containing a portion of Josh’s ashes, they refused to pay their share of expenses around Josh’s cremation as promised. When my wife Jessica and I provided them with an itemized list of charges, Gary responded with misogynistic statements and threats of physical harm.

I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. If anything, I’m downplaying for the sake of brevity and clarity.

Sometimes forgiveness lowers our guard and enables hurt to continue. In these cases, it must be rejected for our own wellbeing.

With reflection, I can place Irene and Gary’s conduct into a broader social context. As we’ve seen with recent Supreme Court decisions, and in American evangelicalism since the Reagan years, anything that doesn’t privilege Christian fundamentalism is perceived as hate and persecution. In psychological terms, we call this narcissistic entitlement.

For people with narcissistic tendencies, or who are driven by beliefs fostering narcissism, the same rules don’t apply. Unreasonable demands are acceptable, even divinely sanctioned. Private emails don’t have to stay private. Promises to share expenses don’t need to be honored.

As the 5th Century monk Shenoute wrote, “There is no crime for those who have Christ.” Like those six Supreme Court justices who said under oath that Roe v. Wade is established precedent. 

Just as the current political moment calls for secular humanists to push back ruthlessly, personal religious macroaggressions require assertion. I didn’t descend to Gary’s nadir of threatening harm, but Jessica and I called out his nasty conduct, before cutting off further contact with the two of them.

Unlike Irene, I avoid placing my children in the middle of our conflicts. This is consistent with our behavior since divorcing. While Irene indoctrinated my kids into fundamentalism and mandated church attendance, swiping gratuitously at my atheism, I took the high road by encouraging critical thinking and remaining silent about their mother’s belief system.

In speaking with my adult children about this current dispute, I acknowledged its reality, saying to them, “I will tell you as much or as little as you want to know.” Unsurprisingly, they wanted to stay out of it, and I’ve respected their neutrality.

The lone exception involved planning for my daughter’s upcoming wedding. When Liz pressed for small gatherings requiring proximity to Irene and Gary, I felt it necessary to tell her why this was a bad idea, stating without elaboration that Gary had threatened me.

In hindsight, I wish I’d been more assertive at the outset. As we are seeing with current American politics, however, fundamentalists possess little capacity for compromise. Middle ground implies a tolerance of other worldviews, which is a sin. This holds true whether we’re talking LGBT rights, abortion, or a non-religious memorial. If you find yourself in a situation like mine, I would encourage limit-setting from the start, saying it nicely but standing your ground. And don’t be surprised when it turns ugly.

Other religious aggression has been tame by comparison, but a thousand papercuts can still bleed you dry. I’ve written previously about my ex-mother-in-law’s tasteless attempt to evangelize via sympathy card. I gave her no response then, and I will steer clear of her and my ex-father-in-law at my kids’ weddings. I have a firm, affectless “I don’t wish to speak with you” prepared for Irene’s side of the family at these gatherings. I’ll repeat as often as necessary, as I turn and walk in the opposite direction.

Beyond that, the endless parade of “I’ll pray for you” is so fucking tiresome. A part of me understands: it’s an unimaginative means to say they’re thinking about me and my family. But I’m open about my atheism and anti-theism, so it’s extremely insensitive. Again, it’s that narcissistic presumption, this time in lowercase. But imagine how they’d react, if I said I’d be chanting to Krishna or donating to Planned Parenthood on their behalf.

No doubt, some of these pray-ers make these comments as a form of oh-so-subtle witnessing. But many are so saturated in Bible Belt culture, that uttering “I’ll pray for you” becomes Pavlovian. More charitably, I’m sure the concept of mortality without an afterlife terrifies them. Hearing of the traumatic death of a youngster like Josh, they retreat to the cover of religion.

For these well-intentioned souls, bless their hearts, I’ve taken a few additional steps. When religious family members email these sentiments, I apply negative reinforcement and don’t respond to the spiritual content of their missives. On social media, I’ve educated friends and family that “I pray for you” statements are hurtful. When that didn’t work for some, I removed their comments from my Facebook page. I don’t think I went so far as to say “I’ll pray for you” is as useful as telling a constipated person, “I’ll shit for you,” but I probably came close.

I’ve also suggested how people can constructively help me, much like the recommendations in this column. I urged family and friends to give to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, later setting up a memorial/donation page for Josh on their website. Much to my gratification, several contributed.

As I’ve written previously, I don’t like to dwell in anger or bitterness. Though I don’t forget the “I’ll pray for you” repeat offenders, I elect to divert my mind to gratitude: for my good and wise children, the welcoming acceptance of my suicide support group, and dear friends who have remained present with me in my overwhelming grief.

However, I will not forgive the vileness perpetrated by Irene and Gary. They harmed Josh in life, and they disrespected him in death. I now comprehend in my marrow why he severed ties with them in the year before he died.

Sometimes forgiveness lowers our guard and enables hurt to continue. In these cases, it must be rejected for our own wellbeing. Defensive hate is not only for plate- and coup-throwing presidents, Christofascist judges, the NRA, and Bible Belt governors. Sometimes those deserving of hate are persistently, unrepentantly toxic people we need to jettison from our orbit.

When Irene or Gary kick the bucket, I will light a candle to Baphomet in their memory. I will do unto others as they did to my son.

This column is Part 21 of the Secular Suicide Survivor series. Here’s how it began.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.

Religious toxicity and grief: When to ignore, when to retaliate | Preschool Josh, mugging for the camera
Josh was a glacially slow dinner eater, but he knew how to be cute about it. Photo by author.

Life seemed as good as it gets in early 2021, with a happy family, a job I loved, and a long-desired move out of the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest. My world split open on September 12th, when...

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments