Strangers vs. Family

In a recent article about Minnesota Atheist’s new Air America radio show (iTunes link), our buddy Bjorn is quoted:

A backup host will be Bjorn Watland, a 25-year-old computer-systems analyst from Minneapolis.

He said he joined the organization last year as a form of support when his mother “flipped out” upon learning he was an atheist.

Mom has recovered, he said, but atheism still carries a stigma — even among those in his generation.

“The biggest thing I want to get out of the show is tolerance of the atheist perspective,” he said.

Actually, mom hasn’t recovered.

That’s not surprising. A lot of parents have a difficult time dealing with their children’s atheism.

But it can make you rethink what you do.

Bjorn is now asking himself this question:

If I can’t convince my own parents to be tolerant of my thoughts, what hope do I have of convincing strangers?

It’s much easier when you’re trying to talk sense into someone you don’t see on a regular basis. If they reject you, it’s not the end of the world. You move on. When your parents say something ridiculous, it’s much harder to criticize them (at least, if you want to maintain a positive relationship).

Personally, I’ll make a few half-hearted attempts at a response when my family or close friends say something irrational. Unless they persist on talking about it, I usually don’t let my inner voice (“You believe what?!”) come out. I wouldn’t gain much by pointing out why they’re wrong, anyway.

Maybe that’s not the best way to go… (if I don’t call them out on it, who will?)

What are the differences between how you deal with your atheism around family compared to people you don’t know as well? Or do you act the same around both groups of people?


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://cashumn.org Aaron

    I’ve been lucky in my relationship with my parents. I am at a point where I can call them out and speak my mind relatively freely. I love them and make sure they know it, but if they say something irrational, they hear about it. I disagee with my parents a lot and we have red faced fights, but no one yells and we all hug when we are done. I’m pretty lucky.

    Extended family is different. I don’t want to be cut out of the lives of my nieces and nephews so I try to keep the godlessness on the DL with them, but it always ends up coming up. I’ve lucked out recently in that respect as well. When your step mother is a woman-hating, gun loving, capital punisher, it is very easy to be seen as the good humanist.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    It’s not an issue with my family, because my family are all godless heathens, too. But with friends, colleagues, etc., I’m more likely to let the subject drop or change the subject than I am with strangers. If only because I’m motivated to maintain the relationship and keep things peaceful and friendly. With strangers, I don’t care as much if I alienate them.

    In person, anyway.

    Because the big difference that I’ve really noticed isn’t “friends” versus “strangers.” It’s the difference between “in person” and “on the Internet.” On the Internet, I’m a lot more likely to get into debates and press my point, even with friends and colleagues.

    And I’m not sure how much this is a good thing or a bad thing. I like the fact that the Net lets me feel free to speak my truth and not just politely nod and smile. Which I think is especially important when it comes to religion and atheism, since religion thrives on people not speaking up against it.

    But I have had friendships seriously strained because of arguments in my blog. I’ve said things, and they’ve said things, that we probably wouldn’t have said if we’d been talking face to face. Not mean things or insults — just more outspoken, more direct, more confrontational. Less diplomatic, less golden-mean-ish, less likely to act more agreeable than we’re really feeling. In person, the “don’t make waves” instinct is very strong — for better and for worse.

    I wish friendships didn’t depend on that. But it seems like sometimes they do.

  • http://enklabloggen.blogspot.com simple z

    I am a christian with believing parents as well, but i think i understand your point:
    My grandmother (dad’s mom) can only talk about two things with people: 1. Hollywood stars 2. Astrology and horoscopes.
    (mostly abot no 2)
    I’ve come to terms with this, although i feel as awkward about astrology, as many atheist folks around christianity. She’s 84 i think, and probably doesn’t feel like debating her worldview by this time. So when i hear the obligatory and tiresome [in every conversation i have with granny]:

    “You know us capricorns, we’re like this and this, but your dad, the aquarius, doesn’t quite understand us because……”
    i just nod or answer: “I know…” or sometimes even:
    “Well, different signs are good att different things”
    although i believe in zero astrology
    I give up on this.

  • anon

    My parents are kind of on the fence on this one. They’ve pretty much both rejected the principal tenets of religion while clinging to the traditions. I try to avoid launching into a tirade about that subject just to keep things peaceful. It’s easier knowing that they’ve basically acknowledged their nonbelief even if they still derive some comfort out of the holidays and rituals. I come from a Jewish heritage. I look at Christianity as starting with the already preposterous claims of Judaism and adding to them stories that are many times more preposterous. Is preposterous like infinity in that when you multiply it, it’s still just preposterous, or is it meaningful to say “more preposterous”?

  • Vincent

    Around people I don’t know well or have gotten to know recently, if it comes up I’m totally open about it – I even wear the friendly atheist wrist band I won almost all the time.
    But my family (except my sister) doesn’t know I’m an atheist and I don’t ever have any intention of telling my 80-yr-old mother.
    Living in different states makes it easier.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    I sort of have a truce with my family… they don’t try to re-convert me to Christianity and I don’t try to destroy their faith. Sometimes when specific topics come up, we will have discussions but not frequently. I find the best way to “talk” to family members is to give them things to read by Christian authors. My husband sent his mother a DVD of John Shelby Spong and I gave my mother a political book by evangelical author Randall Balmer. Both spurred some very interesting discussions that were not so far out of their subculture. And they initiated the discussions after reading/viewing the materials.

    Also, everyone in my family reads my personal blog. I’m not as vocal or snarky there about religion as I am on skepchick, but I do openly discuss my atheism and my views on political issues from time to time. Because my audience is mostly knitters, this tempers the way I write and the amount of religious/political topics I post, which I think helps my family be able to swallow it in small doses. At any rate, they definitely all know what I think.

    The thing about most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians is they lose the ability to think about anything outside their comfort zone. It’s not that they are are dumb but they just tag uncomfortable things as being “Of the Devil” and so automatically out of bounds even for consideration or discussion. It’s quite sad.

    I have the ability to talk more sanely to strangers for the most part. I find that I just let it all hang out with family so it’s best to curtail the discussions for the most part. Especially when I know they do not have the ability to even comprehend what I’m saying because they’ve been wearing blinders and shutting down their brains for so many decades.

  • Renacier

    It’s interesting that the atheists I know (myself included) feel an extreme reluctance to raise the issue with close friends and family.

    However, those same groups seem to be target number one for the evangelical religious.

  • Jen

    I don’t discuss it with my family. My mother doesn’t want to hear it, though she knows, and no one else would probably care enough to bring it up.

    With my friends, I am pretty open about it, with a few exceptions where it is easier to let sleeping dogs lie. I don’t have very many atheist friends, and I would say the majority of my friends are Christians, who range from church every Sunday to “I never go to church, but it bothers me that you have rejected my god”. The more religious (as definied in this case by understanding doctrine) are less lickly to be annoyed, it seems.

    I have one friend in particular who refuses to engage me in any discussions because she says I just don’t get it, and I don’t. One morning we were all laying around after a night of drinking and other things Jesus probably wouldn’t like, and we started trying to decide how to celebrate our Sunday. The topic of ‘strip club’ came up, and she started saying she didn’t want to go because it was Sunday. I asked her if she would go on a Saturday night, and she said she probably would. I asked her why naked people are different on Saturday verses Sunday. “You just don’t get it, Jennifer!” she yelled as she flounced out of the room. And I didn’t get it, and I still don’t.

    At work, I usually stay mum. I have had some very religious coworkers over the years, and I avoid the topic unless someone else brings it up or asks me directly, and the person will likely have no chance of making any decisions about my career. Generally, though, we stay away from religion and politics, which is just as well, because when you work with people every day you don’t necessarily want to know what they really think about those topics.

  • http://bjornisageek.blogspot.com Bjorn Watland

    I think we can make too big of a deal about being open about atheism. People freely talk about going to church or youth group, but won’t talk about going to an atheist group meeting, or conference. I still have that fear, and I think it’s irrational. I’m happier that I’m honest with my mother about being an atheist, but I’m upset because she feels like she’s the victim. I’m a good person, but that isn’t enough, I also have to think the same way, which, for now, isn’t happening.

    This is what I hope atheists getting together accomplishes, that we don’t feel so alone, that others have the same doubts about religion, and feel more comfortable with the view that there is nothing supernatural. And, that by being more vocal, not hiding form coworkers, and family, that our voice is one of many on different issues, and that where our different philosophies lay does not discredit our opinion.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    As an emerging Christian I actually have had some very similar experiences with family. Having rejected many of their conservative evangelical beliefs, it can be awkward to talk about issues of faith or politics at family gatherings. This is a problem since as an activist pastor, my main activities usually involve faith or politics. If I avoid those subjects there’s not much left to talk about (and as an introvert I don’t do good with meaningless small talk to begin with.)

    This has been less of a problem with my family than with my wife’s family. My dad and I have a long history of enjoying in-depth debates on controversial topics, and while it’s taken my mom a little longer to accept, these days they’re pretty much okay with my more “liberal” views. With my wife’s parents however, we just don’t even go there. It’s not my place to shake things up with them, and my wife is too non-confrontational to do it. Makes our conversations with them pretty shallow most of the time.

  • http://limadean.wordpress.com limadean

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually said it point-blank to anyone in my family, but I send my sister links to this site and similar ones, so I think she’s got it figured out. I also make vague references to my dad, but he gave me “The Blind Watchmaker” when I was 12. My other sister and mom, however, would still consider themselves Catholic, so I’m a little wary of “coming out” to them. It’s more that it’s not a huge issue within our family than that I think they’d disown me, and I’m not the uncomfortable-silence-starting type. If they asked, I’d tell them.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Bjorn, I agree with you about coming out and being more vocal about our atheism being important. But I think there’s a difference between just letting people know the basic fact of your atheism, and engaging in debate with them. I think you can do the former, and still decide in any given situation that it’s not worth doing the latter.

    Also, while I think that as a general principle it’s important for us to come out, I wouldn’t presume to tell somebody else how to make that decision in their lives. I have to recognize that I’m extremely lucky to have a family and a job and a city of residence where my atheism is no big deal. If someone thinks coming out will lose them their job or permanently alienate them from their family… well, they probably know their situation better than I do.

  • atheos

    My mom is 84 so I would have not discussed it with her. I have had religious discussions where we disagreed and she became extremely angry. And really, what would she do differently at 84 years old if I did convince her atheism was true? Too late to do anything different with her life now. I think it would just be depressing to find out there’s no future life at 80 something.

    My brother is very conservative…fox news, rush limbaugh conservative. No upside trying to discuss religion with him either.

    I have told one sister who was shocked. Another sister I think figured it out from our discussions about religion. I don’t know if they have thought about their beliefs as a result or not. We all live so far from one another that this rarely comes up anyhow.

    My spouse has been a lifelong atheist so family is used to it. We did get a religious Xmas card from my sister-in-law this year, though. Yech. Maybe she figures it’s not too late to save us. :)

  • Karen

    Bjorn, I’m sorry to hear your mom is upset with you about your atheism. That must be so difficult for both of you.

    My mother was already in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease by the time I began to realize I no longer believed in god, so I was never faced with the dilemma you had. My dad died long before I ever questioned Christianity – which is really, really bad, because he was a lifelong agnostic and we could have had some great conversations instead of my wasting so much of our relationship trying to convert him. :-(

    I told my brother, who was shocked but not appalled, and my sister at least knows I’m no longer an evangelical (I think) but she moved across the country a couple years ago and we are not in close contact.

    All my current friends know I’m an atheist and living in Southern California it’s not difficult to tell people that at all. However, I do have a bunch of old friends from my fundy days and they present a dilemma. If I were to tell them I’ve “lost my faith” they would be absolutely horrified. And there’s no way to tell them without answering a bunch of questions and getting into a huge debate. So I’ve refrained from “going there” with them. Because we only see each other a couple times a year (if that) it’s not so difficult.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Mike C. said,

    Makes our conversations with them pretty shallow most of the time.

    I think you nailed it right there. That’s why I feel the need to be here, so I can really be open about my views, whether they are right or wrong. I just throw them out there to see how they look from all sides. Then I can grow from there. When everyone speaks openly and honestly, then there’s hope for a better understanding.

    I agree with Greta Christina about the difference between ‘in person’ and ‘on-line.’ In real life, for the sake of keeping peace, we end up talking about superficial or “safe” issues.

    I find that’s what happens in church. Most of the time, no one wants to make any waves by speaking up. I gave up on trying to have debates during Bible studies. It seems that only mutual admiration is allowed openly. The disagreements are only voiced behind the scene in hushed whispers.

    My family tries to stay away from religious issues all together. Very vew people in my circle likes to debate or think deeply. Most people that I encounter are generally very uncomfortable with debates or in-depth discussions about religion. Either that or they simply do not have a strong opinion one way or another, nor do they desire to learn more.

  • http://www.ineedtothink.com Seavee

    One morning we were all laying around after a night of drinking and other things Jesus probably wouldn’t like, and we started trying to decide how to celebrate our Sunday. The topic of ’strip club’ came up, and she started saying she didn’t want to go because it was Sunday. I asked her if she would go on a Saturday night, and she said she probably would. I asked her why naked people are different on Saturday verses Sunday.

    I almost spit orange juice out my nose when I read that. Luckily, I managed to choke it down. That made my whole afternoon.

  • http://www.ineedtothink.com Seavee

    I am “out” with my mother. She is agnostic herself so she is fine. In fact, she was really pleased when I told her many years ago. The rest of my family is distant so it isn’t much of an issue.

    Atheism is more of an issue at work. I teach high school in a small town in Florida. It is pretty conservative. I have been very careful about mentioning atheism in the past. Lately that is getting harder. I know that common wisdom says to keep religion and politics out of the work place, but almost all of my friends are other teachers. If I keep my atheism a secret I have to keep it a secret all the time. I just don’t feel like I can keep doing that. I tend to agree with what others have said, keeping my beliefs secret makes for superficial, shallow conversations. I have been slowly “coming out.” I don’t discuss it with students but I do occasionally discuss it with my peers.

    Most have been surprised but they haven’t been hostile. They always ask me why. I try and answer them but it seems to quickly devolve into an attempted conversion.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Linda said:
    I think you nailed it right there. That’s why I feel the need to be here, so I can really be open about my views, whether they are right or wrong.

    You can be sure that no atheists will ever say you are going to hell for your beliefs. Personally, I’m very happy that both you and Mike and other emerging (or post modern) Christians are active here. You have a very positive message. We may disagree about whether “emerging Christianity” is an end-point or a waypoint towards atheism, but I would LOVE IT if “emerging Christianity” caught on in a big way. The world would definitely be better for it. Keep up the good work and “live long and prosper”. (Mriana will like that one. ;) )

    Mike has some of the same problems I do with my in-laws. Its interesting hearing that from a pastor…

    Now if only there were “emerging Muslims”.
    Although, there is this site

  • Karen

    I find that’s what happens in church. Most of the time, no one wants to make any waves by speaking up. I gave up on trying to have debates during Bible studies. It seems that only mutual admiration is allowed openly. The disagreements are only voiced behind the scene in hushed whispers.

    Linda, this is what Helen so aptly coined the “range of acceptable answers (ROAA).” In bible studies I attended, fairly deep, difficult questions would be posed, but there was an unspoken rule that only certain answers could be brought up. Suggesting an answer outside of the ROAA (like, for instance, “maybe god’s man-made”) was never done, in all my decades of weekly bible study. Had someone responded outside the ROAA, there would have been much discomfort, or maybe some condescending chuckles (“poor girl just doesn’t get it yet!”) but it wouldn’t have been taken seriously for an instant.

    Now if only there were “emerging Muslims”.
    Although, there is this site

    Wow – cool! Here’s a blog for former Muslims

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Linda said:
    I find that’s what happens in church. Most of the time, no one wants to make any waves by speaking up. I gave up on trying to have debates during Bible studies. It seems that only mutual admiration is allowed openly. The disagreements are only voiced behind the scene in hushed whispers.

    That has mainly been my experience in my bible study small group meetings at my church. Everybody usually just skims the surface and plays it safe. Play acting that they are good Christians… But every now and then, some really good stuff is said. Tragedy recently struck our small group, though. One of the most devout people just found out he has level 4 lung cancer (already spread to bones, etc). This may be an example of one benefit religion has… Assuming he really believes in an afterlife, perhaps it will give him something to concentrate on instead of his predicament. He is going to start chemo therapy. I’m relieved about that. He isn’t leaving everything just to prayer.

    I don’t bring my atheism up in small group. I’m mainly just interested in what they believe. I’m content to just let them deal with these loss issues in their own terms. Its my way of being a “friendly atheist”. Although, I take no prisoners on my blog site….

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Karen said:
    Wow – cool! Here’s a blog for former Muslims

    Thanks,
    It inspirational to see sites like that. I liked the Jan 18th comic and the Jan 15th you-tube video on that site!!!

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Jeff,

    Thank you for your “friendly” words. And I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I hope the chemo helps him towards recovery.

    Karen,

    ROAA… That’s good. I’ll have to remember that. Yeah, I’m usually that “poor girl who just doesn’t get it yet.” I think… It’s hard to tell, because no one ever comes right out and says anything to challenge each other. But I did once write a poem called “I’m Allergic to Ties,” when the pastor of my previous church suddenly orderd the elders to start wearing ties. When I gave it to him, I pretty much got escorted out the door. :-)

  • Mriana

    WriterDD said:

    My husband sent his mother a DVD of John Shelby Spong

    I’ve done the same thing. Him, Cupitt, Freeman, Price, etc and all Anglicans. So far, given those views, there has not been an explosion yet. Basically we avoid talking about religion, because that is when things explode- on their end. While Spong et al profess to be non-theists, with the exception of Price who claims to be an atheist, it’s enough for my relatives to call them atheists. Eh, I don’t let it bother me. I figure with Price in the mix and a Humanist to boot, I’m in good company. :lol: They know I’m a Humanist, but they don’t know exactly what that means- if my views are of Spong, Cupitt, or Price. I haven’t exactly made that clear to them. When my aunt said she was willing to read their views, I just said, “Here, these are some of the views of those who attend the Episcopal/Anglican Church. I didn’t say Price was an atheist and Humanist, I didn’t say Cupitt was a Sea of Faith Christian Humanist, or that Spong calls himself a non-theist, I just said these are views from those who attend and are Humanist/humanistic. I figure it would soften the blow a bit and so far I have not gotten the phone call I fear most. They are still calling me and there’s been no real explosion yet, but of course my aunt isn’t finished reading all of the views yet and as far as I know, she’s not shared them with her sister/my mother yet.

    They don’t have internet or want internet- has to do with their religious views. :roll: What I haven’t told them is that I do not attend any church now.

    Jeff said:

    Keep up the good work and “live long and prosper”. (Mriana will like that one. ;) )

    Yep! :D

    Where I sometimes have problems is in various religion classes. Christians will make a big deal out of a non-theist/Humanist taking a religion class- even an Eastern Religion class. I often wonder if they really believe that those who don’t profess theistic beliefs can’t learn about various religious philosophies? Just because I’m a Humanist doesn’t mean I can’t study what religions are about. My older son professes to be a Buddhist, I don’t see why I can’t learn about it or any other religion for that matter. I hear this and that about Krishna being similar to Christ. OK, well, let’s go see what people are talking about so I can make a fair judgement. It’s all a matter of learning for myself and forming my own opinion and my lifestance has nothing to do with Free Inquiry and critical analysis of religion. Isn’t that what going to a university is all about? Learning something new esp if you have questions about it? Being a Humanist doesn’t mean one has abandon the inquiry of religion. Some people seem to have that weird idea though, esp if they have not taken the time to explore just exactly what Humanism is. One maybe free of supernatural beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they are closed to studying it. It makes no sense.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Mriana said:
    One maybe free of supernatural beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they are closed to studying it.

    I agree.
    I personally find religion (particularly Christianity) totally and utterly fascinating. One can easily be both fascinated by something and want to learn all they can about something and still not believe the supernatural claims.

    Just like some people can study the ancient beliefs of the Greeks and Romans, one can study the beliefs of contemporary religions. The only difference is that contemporary religions are being practiced right now and the ancient religions are practiced no more. I encourage everyone to learn more about religion (particularly Christianity). You don’t have to read religious apologetic literature. You can read authors like
    Bob Price
    , John Shelby Spong , Karen Armstrong, Victor Matthew, Tom Harpur, Earl Doherty, and the scholars (some already mentioned) at the Jesus Seminar among others.

    These people are not peddling beliefs, they are peddling understanding. Some of the theories may prove to be wrong in some details, but as in any rational theory, they can be improved upon (as opposed to “inerrant” faith-based theology).

  • Mriana

    Thanks Jeff. I’m glad I’m not the only non-theist who feels that way. :)

    Yes, my library is loaded with authors like Spong, Price, Armstrong, Matthews (BTW, I took one of his classes, as well as went to the Episcopal Church with him, and it has an “S” at the end), and all those you mentioned. I can even tell you the other authors who are Episcopalians/Anglican in that list too. :) Oh wait, I already did in my last post. :lol: Gee, if I’m not careful, I’m going to sound like I’m bragging. :( I don’t know all of them though, but I can tell you, those that I do know, met, and have communicated with are wonderful people.

  • http://mnatheists.org Bjorn Watland

    I was a Bob Price groupie the last time he came to Minnesota. I almost went out a bought a pair of suspenders and black button up shirt. He wallows and swims in Christianity without being a believer because he is so fascinated by it. I admire his attempt to study it so closely, even so far as to retranslate 54 early Christian texts into pre Marcionanite meaning. Oh, here’s a plug: Listen to Atheists Talk at mnatheists.org in about a week if you want to hear an interview with him, barring any Devine Intervention, that is.

  • Karen

    But I did once write a poem called “I’m Allergic to Ties,” when the pastor of my previous church suddenly orderd the elders to start wearing ties. When I gave it to him, I pretty much got escorted out the door. :-)

    Wow, that’s a tad harsh. I was involved in BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) for several years and my husband was involved even longer than I. The female leaders have to wear dresses and pantyhose and the men have to wear coats and ties. I don’t think anyone ever challenges that.

    The rule that I really objected to, though, was that you couldn’t be a leader if you’d been divorced – even if you were a perfectly good, faithful Christian spouse and your mate left YOU for another person or whatever! I thought that was really cruel and silly because a lot of potentially good leaders who could relate to the problems of divorce were excluded from serving.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Karen,

    Yep. I don’t like rules, period, if they don’t make sense. Your former church sounds extremely strict. Good thing you left. :) I mean, you REALY left, didn’t you?

    Thinking back on that incident make me laugh (although I was crushed at the time), and I decided to share it in a post.


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