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Austin Cline

Forum Discussion: Dealing with Religious Friends and Family

By August 12, 2009

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Most atheists have to deal with religious friends or family at some point, including at times even excessive persistence and aggressive proselytization. Quiet pity and ostracization is bad enough, but who wants to dread family gatherings because one has become some sort of "project" of Christian relatives determined to bring one into the religious fold?

A forum member writes:

Many of my friends and family are quite religious, in fact, practically all of my friends in college are evangelical Christians, and the fact I'm an atheist still bugs them. Especially since my best friend (like a little sister) and another friend kept pressing me about it one night that I should belief in Jesus when I was pretty down, after several times where I calmly explained that it wasn't going to happen. How does everyone here deal with friends/family of this sort?

If you've had to deal with this sort of thing, what did you do in response? Do you have any advice? Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the ongoing discussion in the forum.

August 14, 2009 at 2:07 pm
(1) AL Jeremy says:

I largely pick my battles. Most of my closer friends and family know I am an atheist and if we disagree and cannot discuss it civilly then we leave the subject closed at that, agree to disagree and go on with our lives, ignoring the contention for sake of the relationship. It really isn’t important enough to me to burn those bridges over metaphysical arguments that are usually ridiculous to being with.

However, there are some family members and people I thought were friends that I either stay away from for the most part, dealing with them when I have to, or have written out of my life over the issue. In some cases it was hard but apparently the only outcome they seemed to desire as they could or would not drop the issue. In others it wasn’t that difficult since I was not that close to them at any rate.

August 18, 2009 at 4:02 pm
(2) Drew says:

The reality is that while it is great to have strong relationships with family members, there is virtually no person on the planet who has a perfect relationship with:

- both his parents
- their new spouses (if applicable)
- all his siblings
- all their spouses
- all their children
- all his own children
- all their spouses
- all his grandchildren.

It just doesn’t happen! So don’t sit around pretending that your family is any worse than anyone elses if you can’t talk to a parent, sibling, or child.

People lose family relationships over a LOT of things – religious differences are only one of them. We all know people who have fought with family over money. And parent care. And political views. And other lifestyle choices. So losing family over religious differences is not the only way this sort of thing happens. Keep that in perspective.

Your family is no different than other friends who have known you a long time. Some of them will move out of your life. Some of the relationships will change. Don’t overly romanticise your family, and make such relationships more than they are. They are only one part of your social circle.

Focus on finding people in your life with whom you share things, because that’s what relationships are all built upon. Have several circles of relationships for different things you do. What you share will differ by person. If all you share is genetics, how valuable is that relationship, really?

Religion is vitally important to many people. If it’s too important for your family to allow them to love you, deal with that, and move on. It’s their loss, not yours. I don’t mean to trivialise it, but you will have to move past it, so start the grieving and the healing asap.

Where possible, bring up the subject maturely and openly. Set out to achieve a consensus that you agree to disagree. Have an end to the discussion, and agree that it’s not something you need to talk about any more. Then get on with what you DO share.

If you are an atheist, you should already live for today. Don’t dwell on the bad things of the past or unrealised fears of the future. Seize the day! If members of your family choose not to be part of your life, that is their decision too, not just yours. Don’t put all the blame on yourself.

Now, if it’s your spouse that you are having problems with, that’s a whold other level. Personally, I couldn’t have married anyone who wasn’t an atheist too.

August 18, 2009 at 6:01 pm
(3) mIke says:

For a few years we hosted the family gathering for turkey day, nearly 30 people crowded into a small house! We were the only atheists, and out. All others were either fundamentalist or at least culturally catholic.

My wife’s cousin told her daughter to be careful talking to us as we couldn’t be trusted not to be nice to them. (strange, they accepted our invitation!)

Later, that daughter remarked to my wife that we weren’t at all nasty, as her mom had said, and in fact were nicer than some of her church-friends.

I figure as long as I’m setting a better example of clean living than most of them, and that’s an easy task, there’s not much to say or defend.

August 18, 2009 at 6:19 pm
(4) John Hanks says:

The best thing is to tell religionists that they are way off track right from the start.

August 19, 2009 at 12:48 pm
(5) Linda Turnipseed says:

Live your life in such a way that your family and friends can see that you don’t need religion to live a moral life. Tell them that when they see you doing something immoral or unkind, then and only then can they discuss it with you.

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