While I am fairly open about my atheism around my friends and my apparently deist father, much of the older generation is devoutly Catholic. My grandparents know that I do not need church to be a good person, and have left the issue alone, but my great-aunt pressures me to come back to the church every time she sees me.
I am probably the most vocally philosophical in my family, and my grandmother and I share a fascination with science and history, so there is never a lack of interesting discussion when I visit, but it has gotten to the point with my aunt… that I feel uncomfortable around her. She recently grabbed me at a family party and pleaded with me to come back to the church, and all I could manage to stammer out was “I don’t go to church anymore.”
She also sends me Catholic pamphlets and religious cards whenever she remembers; basically all the junk mail she gets from the various charities she has donated over her many years gets forwarded to the godless nieces and nephews.
My question is: what can I do if she corners me again, or if other relatives do? I feel uncomfortable because I love my family dearly, but I don’t want to be harassed about my godless ways. I know they’ll never hate me, they’re all wonderful people, but the pity is unbearable, and I can’t stand to see my poor old aunt spending time worrying about me. She is a wonderful person and I adore her, but I don’t want to feel afraid to talk to her. What do I do?
Cornered, Rhode Island
It seems like almost every family has its “crazy uncle” or “crazy aunt.” They’re just part of the familial landscape. Sometimes it’s not about religion, but some other thing about which they are too, too passionate for the comfort of other family members. We love them, but we can’t take very much when they go into “that thing.” How “crazy” your great aunt is (and I mean this figuratively more than psychologically) will determine the best way to handle this, and I can’t be certain from your letter. Let’s simplify it to three possible levels, with some suggested responses:
1. The most likely case is she’s not crazy in any real sense, but simply enthusiastic about church. If this is the case, then even if you felt flustered and awkward, your reply of “I don’t go to church anymore,” was exactly the right response. It was honest and to the point, needing no addition of inflammatory details like “I’m an atheist.” One strategy would be to simply repeat that response verbatim, exactly the same, every time she tries to churchify you. Say it with an adult-to-adult tone that is loving but final, that tells her you are now done on that subject. Then immediately start talking about some other subject that she is interested in, something you have thought of ahead of time, just in case. It should be something about her, rather than you. Ask about her gardening, her hobby, her pet, her travels, an interesting part of her past, any non-church topic. Think about how she is a wonderful person whom you adore, and that will warm your speech as you show your interest in her. Results may not be immediate, but hopefully in time she will stop the behavior that you are not rewarding, and she will increase the behavior that you are rewarding.
2. Perhaps her religiosity is at a level where she will have some difficulty responding appropriately to your polite request to leave you alone on the subject. In this case, you may have to be more directive, and play a more parental role. Take her aside, where the two of you can talk privately. Tell her that you think she is a wonderful person and that you adore her. Tell her warmly and firmly that church is just not for you, and that even though you know that it is not her intention, her repeated efforts are hurting your feelings because she is not taking you seriously or respecting you. Tell her that she can have the faith that God knows better than her what is best for you, so she can leave your spiritual needs up to him. Listen briefly to her response, but if she starts it all up again, tell her that she is again hurting your feelings, and that you will not talk with her if she continues. Then as in #1 above, immediately change the subject to something pleasant about her. Another tack would be to enlist the help of your science-loving grandmother. She is on the same generational level as your great aunt, and may have some credibility and influence with her. A gentle suggestion from her to not worry about your religious practice might be enough.
3. The least likely case is that she is seriously disturbed and obsessed, where she has a tangle of irrational fears and hopes that are more about her own insecurities than her concern about you. If so, you will need the assistance of other family members, allies like your grandmother and your father. There may not be much hope for improving her behavior. Your alliances with others would be more about devising strategies for minimizing the most annoying interactions with her. It is a sad reality that disorders which include problematic religiosity often tend to be chronic. But I don’t think it is likely that she’s at this level, because if she were, you’d probably not describe her as a wonderful person whom you adore.
You mentioned the possibility of other relatives doing similar things. If they make religious overtures to you individually, respond to them individually. Avoid reacting to them all at once as a group, or you might inadvertently create an alliance between them against your “godless ways” that wasn’t there before.
Cornered, lastly and most importantly, reduce your own discomfort, your own hypersensitivity. Look into your own thoughts and feelings, and disabuse yourself of the idea that you must take the responsibility for doing something about the thoughts and feelings that others generate solely inside their own heads. Your great aunt may worry about you, but you can’t help that. You must be true to your own convictions, and as you continue to do so assertively, your older relatives will begin to treat you more as a full-fledged adult, more as an equal. You do not need to be rude or cold or uncaring, but you also do not need to spend time and effort trying prevent someone else from having unhappy thoughts and feelings about you. That is their business and their problem. Trying to fix the crazy ideas of others can drive you crazier than them. Enjoy this loving, intelligent and interesting family you have, including all their quirks, and you’ll learn to shrug off the stuff that will eventually not bother you at all.