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Dear Richard,
My entire immediate family, from my parents down to my eight-year-old sister, is completely atheist. However my dad’s family are deeply Catholic, and ever since I was a child we’ve been pretending we are as well, to the point of actually attending church occasionally so we could lie convincingly and not trip ourselves up when attending family weddings/funerals/etc. We lived far enough away from my grandparents and visited them infrequently enough that we could get away with it. When I questioned the charade my dad explained that it wouldn’t be worth the arguments and attempts to “save our souls” that would ensue if we admitted the truth.
Now if this man is his forties is happy enough lying constantly about his faith so as to not provoke his mother’s wrath, that’s his business. But nearly two years ago I left home to go to university, and am now living close enough to the extended family that I see them on a more regular basis. Regular enough that I’m becoming both guilty and frustrated about having to lie to them so as to not drop my parents in hot water.
I don’t want to have to keep lying to them, but I don’t want to cause discord in the family. I don’t know what to do. Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely,
Torn

Dear Torn,
I’m not going to recommend that you continue to lie to your grandparents, but I’m also not going to recommend that you “out” another atheist to his parents against his will.
This is something that you and your dad need to work out. It’s not clear how long ago you questioned the charade to your dad, but talking about this with him now would be the first thing to do. Listen again to his reasons and concerns. Tell him your feelings, and why this is becoming increasingly difficult for you. For instance, when you visit your grandparents, what does the deception actually require of you? Is it an elaborate and demanding set of pretenses like those when you lived at home, or is it more about just saying “uh huh” in a vague way at the right times?
Some people may say that your dad ought to stop hiding and tell his parents so that you don’t have to be lying to cover for him. I can see the point of that argument, but it is also important to not assume that this should be as easy for one person as it is for another.
For example, your relationship with your parents sounds very different from your Dad’s relationship with his parents. Growing up amidst the freethinking of an atheist family versus growing up soaked in the guilt and authoritarianism of deeply religious Catholicism will produce enormously different outlooks with different psychological strengths and weaknesses. We are very much affected by our unique upbringing and are not just freestanding independent personalities.
You and I were born into atheism, but your dad had to fight an inner battle to be free of the Cult of Guilt and Fear. In some ways those who have to struggle can be left stronger than those who don’t have to, but in other ways they are left with very tender vulnerable spots.
Torn, I cannot give you a definite “do this.” I can only send you to your dad with an awareness of these issues. Talk these over with him and the rest of your immediate family. They all have a stake in this, down to your eight-year-old sister. Try to use as much empathy for their predicament as you have frustration for your own predicament. See things through each other’s eyes.
Beware of rubber stamp moral rules that are applied mechanically to a simplistic view of life. “Honesty is the best policy” is a great sounding rule until real life complicates things with all sorts of other principles such as compassion, respect, freedom, and fairness, which are all just as important. If somebody thinks these problems are simple, then they’re not looking very closely, they’re not thinking very thoroughly, and they’re not feeling very sensitively.
If the guilt about lying to your grandparents is bothering you so much, then perhaps you should start with telling them the truth about yourself. You can “out” yourself without implicating the rest of the family, and you can face whatever are the consequences. You’ll see whether or not what your father has been avoiding is as bad as he thought it would be. Then the rest of your family can decide what to do based on what you have experienced.
We are living in a time of great transition. We are finally seeing multi-generational atheist families. Each successive generation is enjoying more freedom to express themselves openly, and so they respond to challenges differently. Those differences can cause some conflict between the older and younger atheists, but they can also be a source of insight, inspiration and creative solutions.
I think that you and your dad make each other very lucky people. You give each other much of which to be proud. Build upon that, and together you’ll come up with a creative solution.
Richard
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