A few tips on how to deal with those awkward, religious relative moments

In my experience, politely telling a religious family member that you reject their most fundamental assumptions about the universe is not dissimilar to trying to politely punch someone in the face. It’s not easy.

I’m one of the vast number of atheists who lives among a predominately religious family. The disgraceful state of my godless soul became a matter of common family knowledge at about the age of 13 when I was caught sneaking a copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into Church. I’m now in my forties and every family occasion from puberty to middle-age has, to some extent, involved a delightful chat about whether I’m going to hell.

Over the years, (usually while swigging antacid at 2am) I’ve read about how to deal with this situation. The good news is, there’s a vast repository of insights and advice online from atheists who’ve experienced everything from pity and concern through to downright hostility and contempt from religious family members. The bad news: there’s not a lot of consensus on a winning strategy.

This is hardly surprising. The tricky thing about finding good advice on this topic is that religious belief systems and families, to understate the bleeding obvious, vary quite a bit. Religious belief can range from “hey man, God prefers it if you’re nice” to various colorful versions of “hellfire and brimstone awaits thee, Devil Spawn”. And of course, finding a one size fits all solution for how to wrangle difficult family members is the equivalent of herding greased cats out of a laser pointer showroom.

So, fellow disbeliever, this article does not presume to offer you advice. I don’t know you and I don’t know your family. What I am offering are some of the most useful nuggets I’ve found along the way. They have kind of, sort of worked for me. I hope they work for you too.

Scenario 1: When your cool, “Christian-but-not-too-serious-about-it” brother-in-law says he is sorry that you can’t see the true wonder of the universe

This scenario goes down something like this. It’s 3pm on Christmas afternoon and you are all watching a nature documentary about polar bears. Your quasi-bro sighs and turns to you with a tinge of regret in his eyes and says, “I just think it’s sad that you can’t see God’s work in the grandeur of nature. That’s all.” Then his lip wobbles.

You get the general idea. The statement is dressed up as a simple, non-judgmental expression of sadness. He just wishes for your sake that you weren’t a dried up, emotionless robot on an express treadmill to damnation.

These kind of comments sting. They hit gently at first, but if you’re anything like me, five minutes after cool quasi-bro has left the room to vape, you’ll find yourself sitting there churning, resisting the urge to scream, “but I do have feelings, damn it! I’m a real boy!”

What worked for me: Find common ground

Rather than taking offense, I found it helped me to respond with positive statements about how I actually do feel awe on a regular basis, thank you so very much. I might share an experience of how it felt to see a spectacular sunrise. Or I might share, in excruciating detail, how it makes me feel when I look up at the night sky. I lay it on thick and I make it very clear that I too get butterflies when I experience that moment of feeling impossibly tiny in a vast, unknowable universe.

After waxing lyrical about my passion for science and nature for a solid few minutes, one of two things tend to happen. Either my family members are stunned into awkward silence after such a naked display of emotion, or it sparks off a more edifying and substantially less soul-destroying conversation about the awesomeness of polar bears. As far as I’m concerned either scenario is preferable to sitting in sullen silence trying to figure out how to prove I’m not a robot.

For bonus points, dazzle Mr. Chocolate Scented Vape with statistics. If he’s a book-readin’ kind of chap, you may even wish to refer to a recent study that proved that atheists are statistically no more cynical and joyless than those who follow a faith. Put that in your vape and smoke it.

Scenario 2: When your annoying cousin just wants to get a rise out of you

Picture this. It’s Easter. You’re halfway through the obligatory family barbecue when your cousin (who for some mysterious reason always seems to wear bike pants) casually remarks that atheists have no moral compass while passing you the mashed potatoes.

How you react to these obvious little jabs may depend quite a bit on your personality. In my case I’m not hurt so much as overwhelmed with a visceral desire to seize the waistband of my cousin’s bike pants and pull them up over his head. It gets me angry, which of course is precisely what my trollish, latex-loined cousin is going for.

My theory is that these kinds of attacks are motivated less by a concern for my eternal soul and more by a state of sheer, existential boredom. I suspect cuz is hoping that a good theological “debate” with the resident hell-bound family member might make the hours pass by a little more quickly.

What worked for me: Reject the confrontation

What worked for me is one simple mantra: arguing is pointless. I’m going to write that again because it’s as true as onions and as timeless as the hills. Arguing is pointless. I finally realized that I have one significant advantage when confronted with an irascible cousin, hell-bent on a theological debate: I have absolutely no interest in converting him, or anyone in fact, to atheism. It’s perfectly acceptable, and a more efficient course of action in fact, to simply shrug it off and eat my mashed potatoes.

The research is compelling on the sublime pointlessness of arguing to change someone’s mind. Thanks to our evolutionary predisposition toward confirmation bias, it turns out that logic is an incredibly inefficient tool to sway deeply held opinions. People have an annoying tendency to embrace information that supports their beliefs and to reject the rest. There’s a fun read in the New Yorker about how deep that tendency goes.

For bonus points, talk about how you FEEL. Feelings and wibbly wobbly emotions are great because they can’t readily be debated or questioned. It could go something along the lines of, “when you continually question my morality and ethics because I’m an atheist, it makes me feel excluded from this family and unwelcome here. Would it be possible if we could talk about something else?” I won’t lie and say it’s easy to say words like this, especially when you’re angry. I’ll confess that I needed to practice those words in my head quite a few times before I could unleash them in a live, cousin-rich environment. But it did help.

If you’d like to read more about others’ experiences of the futility of religious debate with family members, there’s an excellent article at alternet which is well worth a look over.

Scenario 3: (AKA The Doozy) When your concerned, loving mum tries to bring you back into the fold

I’ve saved the best for last. This scenario was, and continues to be, The Doozy for me. If you thought your brother-in-law had a good lip wobble just wait until your mum shows up out of the blue with a tearful plea that you “try Church just one more time”. Or perhaps it takes the form of, “can you please just pray for your sister’s gammy leg? Surely that isn’t too much to ask?”

Surely that isn’t too much to ask? Ugh. Those seven words. That’s the devil sauce liberally slathered over this particular serving of deep-fried guilt. The reason I found this one so damnably hard to deal with is that, on the surface of things, it feels so deeply unreasonable NOT to relent for such a small request from your dear old mum … just this once.

The problem is, it’s not just this once at all. My sister’s gammy leg is just the tip of a giant iceberg of religiosity. Agreeing just once sets a precedent. Next, it’ll be a request that I pray for my cousin’s rash. Then I’ll be asked to join a prayer group.

I know full well that if I say to my beloved progenitor, “sure, I’ll go to Church” just one teensy time, it won’t stop. Ever. That right there is what blacksmiths and mums the world over refer to as a chink in the armor. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not even next week. But soon, when I least expect it, the phone’s going to ring and oh so casually I’ll be asked how that Church visit went. You know, the church you promised to attend? For your dear old mother? Cough.

What worked for me: Be kind but ruthlessly consistent

Unfortunately, I haven’t found an answer here that sidesteps causing some hurt. If you have a better approach, please drop them in the comments.

What worked for me is “no”. It’s as simple as that.

The only consolation I get from repeatedly having to reject that strategy is that a little hurt now might save lots of hurt later. Gradually, I find myself at the receiving end of these kinds of requests less and less. It’s a slow process and I have to remind myself that my mum believes my soul is at stake. Even though her methods resemble those of the very Horned Devil Beast she purports to spurn, I have to remind myself that she is coming from a good place.

Be consistent. A lie will not help you. It will only create more hurt down the line. Oh and remind her that you love her. Lame I know, but it’s all I got.

Don’t panic

I hope these approaches might help you and I’d love to read what works for you if you care to drop them in the comments below.

Oh, and my final suggestion is to re-read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It doesn’t have a whole lot to say about how to wrangle religious families, but it does offer some indispensable life lessons about keeping things in perspective.

Being an atheist in a family filled with caring, loving, petty, manipulative, wonderful, religious freaks is hard. There’s just no avoiding that. But don’t panic. And consider carrying a towel.

About the author

Mark LambertMark Lambert worked for over 15 years in international development, during which he traveled the world and became slightly odd. Today he writes about technology, public health and society.

Follow Mark on twitter @Trebmalkram

Find more articles by Mark here

Share this article:
Email Print Facebook Twitter Google LinkedIn Pinterest Reddit StumbleUpon VK

Browse more articles