When faith divides

When Judy’s* daughter came home from university, Judy expected that there would be some conflicts. “When your kids grow up and leave home for a while, even a few months, they haven’t been living under your rules. So I knew that we would probably have to work on things like chores and checking-in.”

What Judy, a devout Catholic, didn’t expect was that her daughter would sit down and explain that she no longer considered herself a Christian and that she would no longer be attending Mass. What was more, her daughter told her that she was exploring different “pagan stuff.”

“I didn’t know what to think…. I want her to make her own decisions as an adult, but it feels like she’s rejecting something that’s so basic and important to our family…. My husband won’t even talk about it. He just pretends it’s not happening.”

Crystal had a similar experience. “My son had a very powerful conversion experience to Christianity. I think it can be a beautiful religion, but it’s not for me…. It’s become a real distance between us, because he wants to convert me. I worry that when he and his wife have children, they won’t let them see us as often because we don’t follow their regious views.”

It’s a painful experience when a child or other family member rejects values that you hold as central to your life and family. It can be even worse when those values are a part of family traditions and activities. There are often no easy answers to resolving such a conflict. But you can work to keep it from becoming a source of bitterness or a long-standing feud. Here are some ways to talk about the differences.

Assume that it’s a thoughtful decision
Brushing off someone’s religious beliefs as “a fad” or the result of peer pressure – even if you believe that’s the case – is not respectful, and is likely to make your child or relative feel unheard and shut down – and make them less likely to reconsider. Nor is calling another religion a delusion or a crackpot organization. What your child or relative probably wants you to hear the most is that he or she has made a decision about something important to them. Part of what you may have hoped to pass on to them Taking it seriously will support the connection between you.

What’s the appeal?
One of the best questions to ask your child or relative is what appeals to them in their new religion. You may find that many of the things he or she values – a sense of spirituality, tradition, or direction – are the same values that you see in your own faith. Although you may not agree that your child is making the right choice, take heart in the idea that she or he may be expressing the ideals you’ve encouraged – just in a different way.

One caution: sometimes your child or relative may start by speaking to what was missing in your faith, for him or her. If so, it might help to say something like “just a minute – it really makes it hard for me to hear you when you are saying negative things about what’s important to me. But I really want to understand. So can you just tell me what you like about your new faith?”

Learn what you can
Learning about your child or relative’s new faith can help you to understand his or her choice, and helps to keep you from being an outsider. If you feel comfortable enough to go to a service or ceremony your child may really appreciate your goodwill in attending. It may also make it easier to understand any differences that come up.

Don’t assume the worst
Some of the hardest issues around faith come down to family traditions – for example, what about Christmas dinner? Before you assume that those traditions won’t ever be the same, be sure to ask. “My daughter said she couldn’t imagine not celebrating Christmas as a family affair, even if she didn’t believe in Christ. It was a mixed blessing,” says Judy. “I was relieved she would still be there at the table. Even though it felt like something was missing, she wasn’t, and that was good enough.”

Find – or rediscover – common ground
Although religion is often very important, it’s not the only thing that you share. Concentrate on building the common ground that you have between you. Some families have found it helpful to volunteer together in a secular organization, or to start new traditions that aren’t a part of either religion. And even if things are tense, take opportunities like birthdays to remind your child or relative that you love them. That’s the basis for family that goes beyond religious differences.

More interfaith resources:
North American Interfaith Network

* names have been changed