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Hi Dr. Saltzman,

My husband and I are having problems with his father (his mother is deceased, and his father is married for a second time). In short, he claims to be a born-again Christian, but he doesn't practice what he preaches.

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Whenever any of his three children (all now grown in their 30s) don't do as he sees fit, or the "right" way according to him, or his way, he threatens to cut them off or does cut them off by not speaking. Our latest issue with him involved meddling. As a result of our confronting him, he's cut off our 9 month old son. (My husband's grandfathers were deceased when he was little, so it was important for him to have his son have a relationship with his grandfather.) My husband met with him (and his father tried shaking his hand at first) and told him WHY the meddling was a big deal, and he tried to leave twice, claiming he had nothing to do with it. He still won't apologize (he thinks my husband owes HIM an apology).

He says we've kept him from his grandson. He even told his pastor that. He also believed a lie that his brother heard about my husband. Knowing my husband, anyone would know it wasn't true. He didn't even ask him about it. He acted like my husband was keeping it from him. Anyway, he basically treated my husband like crap at the meeting (my husband called him four times to try to set up a time to meet with him, and got no return phone calls), and when my husband said "so you're not going to talk to any of your children"...he replied, "if that's what it takes".

I am at my wits end. The latest is we are having my son baptized Catholic. My husband invited him, and he said he'd have to "check his schedule at work". What kind of a person is this? My problem is, he goes around acting holier than thou, yet acts like this. To his own children and first grandchild. People think (as I and my family did) that he's a great guy, but he's really not. He's like a child.

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My question is, how are we supposed to handle this? Enough is enough. I've already told him he acts like a hypocrite, but he is "so far gone" in religion that he doesn't think he's wrong. He and his wife manipulate the Bible so to speak so it is solid rule concerning others but not for them. Very sickening. Especially when they constantly try to convert people.

Do we just cut him off and periodically have him see his grandson? Or cut him off totally? Please help. I'm asking everyone, but I need an unbiased opinion. Right now I can't even be civil towards him. An apology is all it would take. But he doesn't get it.

Thanks for your time.

Angel, 34, PA

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Dear Angel--

Judging from what you wrote, your father-in-law is one of the many people who use religion to avoid coming to terms with our real situation as human beings. When I say "real situation," I mean the obvious fact that the future is completely unknown and unknowable--including whether or not there is a "God" or a so-called "Heaven." Yes, God and Heaven exist culturally, but books such as the Bible and the Koran certainly should not be read as if historical or factual--should not be read, in other words, as if there really is a "God" or a "Heaven" or any kind of afterlife or susequent judgment of ones behavior while alive. Those beliefs are ancient superstitions used by our distant ancestors to calm their fears of the unknown, and they serve the same purpose today. There really is no basis at all for believing any of them except appeal to tradition. This does not mean that God, Heaven, etc. don't exist. They may, but there is no good reason, apart from traditional beliefs passed down since stone age times from parent to child, to believe that they do. Big claims should require big proof. Accepting big claims on the basis of small proof (such as "the Bible says so"), or no proof at all (so-called "faith"), is not a virtue, but a sign of intellectual sluggishness and existential fear.

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By the way, you write that you are having your son baptized. That is also a traditional superstitious action, and I wonder if you have ever questioned it at all, or if you simply live as you were taught to live without any real intelligence being brought to bear on these matters. Frankly, since you view your father-in-law's reliance upon religious rules as something "very sickening," I do wonder why you would impose such a ceremony upon a helpless child who has no choice in the matter. What would be wrong with holding off on the indoctrination, and waiting until that child is an adult so that he can make his own decisions about God, religion, and everything else instead of being propagandized by you and your church?

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No matter what you believe, you must agree that those who claim to know--not believe in, but know--the answers to questions about ultimate matters such as what "God" wants, or what happens after death, are either deluded or liars. I have met more than one psychotic individual who believed without any doubt at all that "God" spoke to him. I have written about this elsewhere, citing the excellent story of the dead zen master, so I will not belabor it here. Suffice it to say that no one is in a position to be quoting "God," or to be claiming that some book--any book at all--was written by God, is the "word of God," or was "inspired by God," whatever that means. All we really know, and all, it seems obvious, we ever can know, is what can be verified personally, carefully, and honestly--which certainly means verified without recourse to hearsay or to any faith in such hearsay as Bible stories.

Once this is seen, one quickly comes to understand that living responsibly now, and caring for other sentient beings and the Earth which is our home, in this eternal present, is the only positive gesture available to human beings. By imagining that one is "saved" and will be going to an eternal heaven with "God," one may imagine being excused from the requirement of living this moment as if it had real value and real importance, as apparently is the case with your father-in-law.

In that way an entire life can pass, never being truly and fully lived, while the religious nut spends his (her) days imagining that he knows what "God" wants, and dreaming of a final reward in "Heaven" (which will be especially rewarding if one is allowed to savor ones spiritual superiority from a comfortable perch in Heaven, as the infidels, sinners, and psychotherapists burn in "Hell").

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In my experience, this kind of religious nut often abuses others, and rarely accepts responsibility for the harm he or she does. In short, I do not imagine that you will get an apology from your father-in-law. But the real question here is not about your father-in-law, who, by your description, seems to be a sad, lost, deluded person, but about you and your immediate family. Usually, in my opinion, it is better for children to know their ancestors, even when the ancestors are unpleasant people. So I would recommend that you hold your nose and allow your child to see grandpa if you can stand it. It may help a lot if your husband would accept that relations with his father may never improve, and that he should stop trying. Then he can relax, see his father as the foolish, ignorant man he seems to be, and just let that man's silly comments roll off his back instead of taking them so much to heart.

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By the way, to those who believe that I am an enemy of religion, and like to send me mail with Biblical quotations or lines from the Koran: Before you write, please take a look at my answer to an earlier email on this subject. It is not religion per se that I oppose, but indoctrination of children into superstition in the name of family or tradition.

Be well.

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