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Here's my situation :

I'm 16, I live with my parents. My parents are somewhat religious. That's completely fine with me, despite the fact that I am an agnostic atheist.

My mother however, is somewhat of a weird case. Generally speaking, she tends to be quite open minded. However, in situations of distress, its like a switch flips on in her head that puts her in religious overdrive. That means she all of a sudden believes in everything her religion tells her to, prays thrice a day, follows every small superstition in the books. That's fine with me too, she's allowed to believe in whatever she wants to. The problem is that she starts enforcing her beliefs onto me. Did I mention I'm supposed to be a Hindu? That means she thinks the direction my head is facing when I sleep has an adverse affect on my long term health and other, quite frankly, absurd beliefs.

On numerous occasions, I have tried to tell her that I do not believe in this stuff, but somehow she always ends up guilt tripping me into doing it. I've even asked my dad for help, to which he said "Just do it for your mother", which I have been doing for so long. Every time I give in though, I feel like I'm living for others, and I can never assert myself to my parents without them always finding a way to convince me I'm wrong, even though I've been right on multiple occasions.

How do I tell her my side of the story without hurting her feelings?

  • Country tag might be useful here @Rumble down. In writing my answer I am assuming that your family is Indian -- if not, please clarify here. – English Student Nov 2 '17 at 19:26
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Disclaimer, I'm coming from a US perspective. I'm also agnostic with religious parents, although mine sound a lot more religious than yours and I don't live with them (I also have about 10 years on you ;))

So, I believe the purpose of religion is to make sense of the world. Scary and confusing things happen out there, and beliefs help us understand it. Rituals and superstitions can be a big part of this, and can make you feel like you have some control of an otherwise helpless situation: "I can heal my friend's sickness if I recite these words three times a day". It can seem silly from the outside, but it's very meaningful to someone who does believe. (I don't say this to belittle faith - just to help put it into perspective for someone who does not have faith.)

You need to understand this before you talk to your mother. You say she acts like this in situations of distress - she's turning to religion for comfort and hope during hard times (which explains why she isn't as concerned with doing certain things the rest of the time).

Getting on to the question, your options when she asks you to do something are:

  1. Say no
  2. Convince her you don't need to
  3. Do it (even though you don't believe it matters)

Option 1 carries a risk of confrontation, regardless of how respectfully you phrase it. It's easier to recommend this if you were independent, but in your situation your parents have the power to tell you "our house, our rules". It sounds like you've already tried this, but your parents won't accept it and keep guilt-tripping you into doing the things anyways.

If you really cannot stomach doing the thing she is asking, stand your ground (calmly). Offer a compromise, if you can. Ask if there something non-religious you could do to help the situation. Worst-case, maybe you could stay elsewhere during this time so you are out of the way and she can do whatever she wants.

Option 2 almost certainly isn't going to work. It's very unlikely that pure logic will change someone's religious beliefs, that's just the nature of such beliefs. Doubly so while she's stressed. You aren't going to get anywhere until she is calmer.

Option 3 is what you say you've ended up doing. For a minor living at home, this is often the best option. You do something a bit inconvenient but that makes her feel better.

However, you say this really bothers you because of two reasons:

I feel like I'm living for others and I can never assert myself to my parents without them always finding a way to convince me I'm wrong, even though I've been right on multiple occasions.

For the first reason, try reframing the situation. Instead of telling yourself "Ugh, I've given in again by doing this silly thing for my mother", say "I am choosing to do this silly thing for my mother, to show that I care about her and respect her beliefs." We all do things we aren't keen on for people we love. If what she asks is not offensive to you, I encourage you to find a way to compromise. It is not a sign of weakness - it is a sign of compassion and selflessness.

For the second, and to explain your side, find a quiet moment when your mother isn't distressed. Start out positive! Tell your parents how you care for them and appreciate the freedom of religion they have given you. Then you can segue into discussing specific things.

I really appreciate how cool you are about me not believing the same things as you. I've noticed that sometimes you still ask me to do religious things, though.

Don't minimize your mother's beliefs! Just stick to explaining how you feel.

I know the religious rituals are important to you, but I feel uncomfortable participating in them myself. I've tried to express this, but I still feel pressured to do the things. This makes me feel [unhappy, trapped, insignificant, whatever].

Finally, propose a solution.

Next time, if I say I don't want to do something because I don't believe in such things, can we please leave it at that?

Obviously, say all this in your own words. Try to be specific with your request: "I want you to respect me more" is very subjective. "I want you to not argue with me when I say I don't want to do [religious ritual]" is something that everyone can agree was honored or not.

If you have this conversation and she tries to guilt-trip you again later, you may need to remind her.

Mom, we talked about this earlier. I'm not comfortable doing that. I respect your beliefs, and I'm asking you to respect my beliefs too.

Most importantly, stay calm and non-confrontational. Remember that she's distressed for whatever reason, so try to de-escalate and find ways to help that you are okay with, and save the tough discussions for later when you're both less upset.

  • I love this answer. I'm sorry mine sounds so similar; I actually started to write it as soon as I saw the question but got interrupted. – anongoodnurse Nov 2 '17 at 0:46
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    Thank you so much for this. Upon reading this, I've come to realise that I'm partially at fault too. Maybe I should be the one compromising for someone who has done so much for me and been there since day one. I cannot fully express my gratitude through this medium, but just know that you really helped out someone :) – Rumble down Nov 2 '17 at 12:23
  • @Rumbledown glad to help! It doesn't have to be all compromise, of course, hopefully you can work out a good balance. Religion is tricky enough to navigate when you're not also a teenager, but it sounds like your family has a pretty good foundation :) – Em C Nov 2 '17 at 14:19
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TL;DR: This is going to be tricky because of your age and perceived lack of life experience. Her anxiety is her problem, and she's forcing you to pretend so she will feel less anxious. As an adult, that's not appropriate. I apologize for knowing nothing about Hinduism, so be forewarned I may be wrong about a lot of what I say.

However, in situations of distress, its like a switch flips on in her head that puts her in religious overdrive. That means... she starts enforcing her beliefs onto me. (emphasis mine)

I don't know how much 'analysis' you've done about your mother's problem. I know you've expressed yours:

I feel like I'm living for others and I can never assert myself to my parents without them always finding a way to convince me I'm wrong...

Your mom, when anxious, retreats into her religious beliefs because, for her, it is a way to exert some control over seemingly uncontrollable situations. That's very common, and there are many non-religious counterparts, e.g. any superstition (stepping onto a plane with one's left foot first will prevent the plane from crashing.) So it's not necessary to address her or your religious beliefs with her; what's more important is that you need to help her see that her anxieties - where you're not the cause - are hers to handle, not yours.

You'll encounter some problems with this, first because in the eyes of your parents, you're still a child and you should be obedient/respectful, and second, because the idea that one should take care of one's own anxieties oneself is foreign to many people.

To really do this (if you must), first be prepared. Read about anxiety, the causes, and the proven methods used to cope with it (for example, meditating and journaling.) Second, anticipate her counterarguments and don't go down rabbit holes about religion, respect, etc. Third, practice your spiel, because it will require all your restraint to avoid having the conversation devolve into an argument over opinions (like if you should believe as she does.)

Approach this all very, very respectfully. Request a time to have a serious conversation, tell her it's about something that's been troubling you lately, let her pick the time, make sure you're both relatively relaxed and the time is quiet and of adequate duration.

Then tell your mom what you've been reading about (anxiety) and how some people handle it (turning to God/gods, meditation, journaling.) Tell her in the most respectful way possible that you've noticed she turns to religion in times of anxiety/distress. Let her know that you respect this. Let her know that you love her, and you care about how she feels. Make sure you repeat that last sentence a few times, and that she hears it. Then comes the 'confession' (which she already knows, so it needs only mentioning once: that as you don't share her religious beliefs. Then politely tell her that you believe her asking you to observe certain rituals to take care of her anxiety is like asking you to journal to take away her anxiety.

You meditating for her anxiety to get better won't work.

You journaling for her anxiety to get better won't work.

You acting religious for her anxiety is not appropriate, because it's a demand to do something that is a pretense for you, for her anxiety.

This is a fact. It's not a feeling, it's not an issue of respect, it's not about obedience. It's just a fact.

Repeat the sentence she needs to hear, that you love her and care how she feels, but, since you're not a believer, you would rather do something to help her lessen her anxiety, like listen to her talk about it, or taking a walk with her someplace nice where she can feel some peace, or something like that - something that will help her to manage her anxiety (keep repeating those words politely.

I don't know how she will react, but don't argue about anything: accusations, her distress that you're not religious, why you should be religious, etc. Just deal with what is: you do not believe. This is her anxiety. She needs to find a way to deal with it effectively (with your help if need be) herself, because someday soon, you will be out of the house and she will still have to deal with it.

I believe this discussion will need to occur several times before it sinks in. But this is what setting a boundary is all about. To be honest, it's unusual for a youth of 16 to set a boundary with their parent that is this subtle. They might have no problem with you staying out later with friends or asking for privacy (also a boundary). But this is more delicate, not because of religion, but because you're in essence asking an adult - your mom - to act like an adult.

You can also read about setting boundaries with parents and how difficult that can be.

If you try this, I hope it works for you.

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You need to find a middle ground with your mother in terms of accepting and respecting her religious beliefs while working to convince her that there is no use being superstitious. Through a years-long, repeated and constructive dialogue on this subject and especially through your overall attitudes and behavior, you will also manage to convince your parents that despite lacking conventional religious belief you already are, and will always be a good, reliable and conscientious human being.


As an Indian living in India I am intimately familiar with the family situation in your question. I admire your having the strength of your convictions on this complex subject so early in life, but many people have 'found religion' in the most unexpected ways later.

In September I actually asked a question on this site about how to handle a religious uncle who assumes that I am similarly religious:

How to deal with a religious relative who keeps assuming that I am similarly religious?

I have recollected what I posted in a comment on that page:

It's easy, especially in India, to pretend belief and 'go with the flow', which is what I usually do for unavoidable religious occasions.

Because we will eventually learn that honoring the generic religious life of the land and respecting other people's religious beliefs (including your mother's) is socially expected and culturally more important than our own personal faith or lack of faith.

India has many religions and is a predominantly religious society; and I come from a generically and conventionally religious family. Indian women belonging to any faith are likely to be especially religious because men are expected to be the pillars of the wider social community but women are expected to be the real pillars of the religion and its rituals, and also to teach their children to have strong and unquestioning religious faith.

However my belief in religion was lukewarm to begin with and faded out completely by the age of 24, mainly because I had seen the harsh realities of human existence all around me and had no experience of the 'divine grace' to give depth and strength to socially acquired religious beliefs.

I then passed through a one-year-long phase very similar to what you have described here, when I resented having to take part in religious activities that I did not believe in, as directed my mother who is a very religious person. That phase was 12 years back and my parents eventually discovered my lack of religious belief. Luckily my father is not too religious himself and believes more in human goodness than rituals; and my mother was gracious enough not to make it a big issue of constant friction between us.

In turn I had the good sense not to rebel overtly myself, and eventually settled into a pattern of doing my 'religious duties' in a mindlessly token manner with my parents tacitly accepting my lack of belief. However I managed to find a middle ground with my mother by stressing the value of religion's ethical and moral teachings while explicitly discouraging superstition. I also learned to appreciate the social and psychological value of religious messages without taking extreme exception to what I still consider intrinsically meaningless rituals that however serve many social purposes.

It was for me and it is for you a good opportunity to learn the art of compromise. Superstitions and rituals are deeply embedded in certain religious cultures and it will not be easy to convince your mother because a superstitious person sees it as reality and not as superstition. It can also take years to get your parents' genuine acceptance of your being an unbeliever because Indian society heavily emphasises a religious life and your parents being orthodox will face a cultural challenge to accept your lack of belief.

The first 'heart to heart talk' on the topic with your mother, as advised in an earlier answer, will only serve to establish the foundation for a years-long running conversation on the issue. However it will eventually be a rewarding dialogue because we can influence our parents in positive ways and I can report that my mother has eventually become not at all superstitious and she is now a quietly, sensibly religious and spiritually very strong person.

Our morals and values are acquired not from religion as such but from excellent and ethical role models who are mainly our parents. Since Indian parents typically worry how their children will manage in life if they don't have the support of religious belief, it is your job to keep working constructively to convince your mother that despite lacking religious faith you are already being and will always be a good, reliable and conscientious human being.

You might also have to learn not to overly proclaim your atheism to the local community at large, now and in future, wherever you live now and wherever you may go later. Keep your unbelief in your own mind and do not challenge orthodoxy. Religion is taken very seriously in many parts of India and by Indians living in many parts of the world. So too by many other nations and cultures. Your unbelief is your own business, but you will soon learn to tolerate some token display of religiosity in order to purchase peace and keep a low profile, so that you can concentrate on achieving what you really want in your life!

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