Ask Richard: Family Censors Atheist When Sister Becomes Catholic Schoolteacher

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

At the beginning of last year, my husband and I “came out” to my family as Atheists. Since none of them (besides my mother) are particularly religious and are, in fact, only Catholic by birth-title only, they all kind of just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Okay.” Most of them even welcomed philosophical discussions about religion, and I started to get the impression that a lot of them were questioning the existing of God in their own minds – in a good way – and paying respect to us on our new, refreshing outlook on life.

My sister and I have always been close. When I came out, she said that she was proud of me, and even admitted to having similar views, except that she “believed in belief”. Now that I was finally respected by my family and able to be my true self, she and I grew closer than we already were. That is, until she made the decision to pursue a career as a teacher, working for the Catholic School Board. Her reasons were not personal, rather they were economical. Canada, unfortunately, supports separate (faith) schools and because these schools are free to deny non-Catholic students and teachers into their schools, she wanted to make sure that her choices were not limited to public school boards only. Although I do not support faith-based schools, I understood the basis for her decision and supported her as much as possible.

I think she assumed that she could “fake” her belief in much the same way that she faked her commitment to the church just so that she could get married and have her kids baptized. Much like her choice of school boards, she only wanted to have her children baptized so they were not limited in their selection of elementary schools.

Recently, the process of her becoming a teacher reached the stage of “placement”, where she would have to act as an assistant to a teacher in a real classroom environment. At this point, she started to tell me stories about their religion class. I believe that she found it difficult and hypocritical to teach children about God and the Bible when she was actually more of a non-believer. Her solution to this dilemma was to alter her own thought-process and embrace her Catholicism. During this time, I noticed that she suddenly became very dismissive of my opinions. Moreover, when I created a blog meant to educate the public about irrational ideas and beliefs, she refused to support me. And instead of discussing the issue with me, she simply told me that she’s “too busy” to look at it. Suddenly, the rest of my family became “offended” by my non-belief as well, or at least by the fact that I talk about it openly.

I’m so hurt by this because I supported her, but she won’t support me. What’s worse is that my husband and I feel forced into silence now, because my family can talk about religion all they want (pray at the table and talk about my sister’s religion class), but they don’t want us to discuss our secular ideas because they are suddenly too offended. I’m so angry at all of them now because this was the first time I’ve ever been proud of myself, what I believe, and what I hope to accomplish. This is the first time that I’ve ever asked them to support me.

I feel like the only way to settle this is to retreat into silence and censorship, while still allowing them to go on about whatever they please. If I do this, I’ll feel like I’m not being true to myself.

What would you do?

Thanks,
Elena

Dear Elena,

I think your assessment of your sister’s thought process is accurate. She is “playing the part” as deeply as she can to protect herself from the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. Avoiding seeing one’s own hypocrisy becomes more important when one is part of an institution that is constantly embarrassed by its broader hypocrisy.

I wonder if her increased religiosity might gradually return to roughly its previous level if she ever gets a job in a secular school, but that is speculation at this point.

In the meantime, there’s your relationship with the rest of your family to consider. They seem to be taking their cues from your sister. When she’s okay with your atheism, they’re okay with it. When she turns against you, they follow suit. I suspect that they think they’re protecting her, and are trying to “keep the peace” in the family, but doing so by squelching two of its members is not a healthy way.

I do not think that you and your husband should passively retreat into silence. I don’t see how you have much to lose by trying to assert yourselves. This kind of family suppression tends to get worse, because everyone becomes familiar with roles that they repeatedly play. If the rest of them continue to play the pious protectors of the peace, they’ll get better at it. If you continue to play the repressed, resentful rejects, you’ll get better at that.

I suggest that with your sister and the rest of them present, you and your husband should assertively, but without anger, point out the change in their attitudes that happened after your sister got the job. Remind them that they were originally comfortable with your views, and most of them even welcomed philosophical discussions about religion. State that while you feel hurt by your sister’s rejection of you, that is her choice, but you do not intend to treat her in the same way.

Do not characterize your sister as a hypocrite. That will only firm up the family’s protectiveness of her. Say that you have always been supportive of the decisions she’s made, and you simply think it is unnecessary for her to have suddenly become so unsupportive of you. Emphasize that sisters can have different views and beliefs while still being close and loving. You miss having that with her, and you hope she will be willing to reconcile with you.

Say that while you understand people’s desire for peace at family gatherings, they don’t have to muffle you and your husband in order to be supportive your sister, and they don’t have to reject her in order to be accepting of you. Everyone in this family should have an equal right to politely express themselves, and as adults you’re all capable of minding your manners while you do so.

There is one variation to this that you might consider. If you anticipate that this all-family discussion might collapse into angry quarreling, you could carefully write all of this down in a letter to the whole family. That way, you get to have your entire say before you’re shut down by interruptions or protective objections. See to it that everyone gets their own copy all at exactly the same time. This prevents one person from mischaracterizing to the others what you have said.

Elena, even if my suggestion is too daunting or is somehow not workable, I hope that you and your husband can somehow find a way to regain your place of equality in your family, or at the very least not let that suppression grow inside of you.

Don’t end up participating in your own censorship outside of the family. It would be very sad for you to have struggled for so long to gain the self respect, the family acceptance and the freedom of expression that you so briefly enjoyed, only to crumble under the weight of others’ misguided efforts to maintain domestic tranquility.

For instance, I notice that the rational blog you created seems to have vanished. Have you given up and given in? Don’t deprive the rest of us of your insight and clarity about irrational ideas and beliefs. I would very much like to hear what you have to say, and I think that others would as well. Regardless of your family’s behavior, boldly speak your thoughts to the rest of the world for those who will listen and benefit.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com Eamon Knight

    That’s as good a reason as I’ve heard for abolishing the separate school system. If they want tax money, they can stop discriminating.

  • Claudia

    I wonder if your sister has embraced the whole “shame” part of Catholicism fully. I can’t help but think that unless she’s an idiot she must be aware that she is treating you badly, that she is the cause of others doing so and that this hurts you and your husband. If she has an ounce of decency she should be ashamed of herself. Her need to not feel like a hypocrite who is lying to children is causing harm in the relationship of you, who do have the courage of your convictions, with your family.

    Personally I’d favor the letter over the conversation. Especially if they’ve become more aggressive over time I think its pretty unlikely that they let you get to the end of your talk without interrupting. You already sound angry, and depending on what they say (especially our sister, who will be in full defensive crouch) you could get angrier and say things that you regret or at minimum not explain yourself fully. It has the disadvantage of not being as a group though.

    It may sound a little contrived, but maybe a hybrid approach would be good. Get them all together and then hand them each a copy of the letter, telling them that you would like them to read it to themselves now and that you wrote it all down so you’d be sure to say it right. They’re less likely to interrupt a communal reading and you make sure the conversation happens and they are all aware that everyone has the same information.

  • Ron in Houston

    I guess since I’m not that way I don’t get folks who get all wrapped up in their non-belief.

    I mean why do people feel they “must” talk about it and that they’re somehow being squelched or mistreated if they can’t?

    As usual Richard gives good advice but my first impression of this one was to ask if they wanted some cheese to go with their whine.

  • JulietEcho

    @Ron

    I mean why do people feel they “must” talk about it and that they’re somehow being squelched or mistreated if they can’t?

    I’ve noticed this theme often in your comments on Ask Richard questions. I think it’s natural for many people (perhaps not for you, personally, but for many people) to want to share their thoughts and feelings with the people they care about – family and friends. Even if a topic rarely comes up, it’s nice to know that you don’t have to self-censor.

    There are some areas where people have to make compromises. Richard and Elena used words like “respect” and “polite” and that implies that Elena wasn’t ranting or being inappropriate. It’s just a topic that’s important to her and she has a very human desire to talk about it.

    Keeping feelings, beliefs and secrets bottled up inside can lead to some very unpleasant emotional consequences. People can’t help wanting to talk about what’s important to them, and if they have to squelch that desire out of guilt or censorship or fear or whatever, it’s unhealthy.

  • Ron in Houston

    Juliet

    Yeah I don’t get all this ego involvement in one’s atheism. Why the high level of self identification with atheism? Why does it become such an “emotional” issue that people describe things like “hurt” when talking about it.

    I’m a firm believer in cognitive therapy and it’s actually those beliefs that are the true source of the problem. Change the feeling that you MUST talk about it and suddenly your outlook will change.

  • Ken

    I have to agree with Ron here. There is no need for your family to know every detail of your religious beliefs. If you find yourself constantly broadcasting your beliefs, ask yourself what purpose it serves. Is my life or the lives of my loved ones improved by me constantly discussing religion?

    Don’t get me wrong. If THEY are bringing up your faith all the time, then you should be honest and clear about your beliefs. But, it sounds to me more like you are initiating the discussion all the time. Or rather, using any catalyst you can find to start a discussion (e.g. prayers before dinner).

  • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters Godless Monster

    I feel the same as Ron in Houston. I don’t really feel a need to talk about my lack of belief to family members unless they are directly asking my opinion of things of a religious nature. It’s just a non-issue with me. But, this just highlights the fact that everyone is different and that’s what makes life so interesting.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Hopefully after your sister gets an actual job as a teacher (not just an assistant to a teacher), the pressure will be off her and a new balance can be obtained. Just make sure the family relationships don’t “go South” before this happens.

  • Siamang

    I’m also of the “get over it” camp.

    So your sister is “too busy” to read your blog. Take that as a polite version of “I’m not interested” and live with it.

    I think the problem is in this sentence:

    “I think she assumed that she could “fake” her belief in much the same way that she faked her commitment to the church just so that she could get married and have her kids baptized.”

    Woah. Lots of judgementalism going on there. Lots of psychoanalyzing of others. A whole bunch of conclusions drawn that put you and your sister on opposite sides of a fence you built.

    That fence has two sides on it, one says “she’s a hypocrite who is bottling up her feelings about religion” and the other says “I’m honest”.

    You might try this type of conversation:

    “It seems like, recently, your views of religion and mine have headed farther apart. What I really, really want is that WE don’t move farther and farther apart because of it.”

    Just my two cents. Take or leave at your will.

  • Elena

    Thank you, Richard, and the rest of you for your comments and advice.

    To clear things up, I don’t “preach” Atheism to my family or feel a need to talk about it at the dinner table, but you’d be surprised how often topics come up that warrant a skeptical opinion. If I make a comment that has an atheistic tone to it, it is considered “offensive.”

    I truly appreciate the feedback, and will take much of it into consideration when handling my family affairs.

  • http://www.givesgoodemail.com Givesgoodemail

    On the one hand, any promise (I’ll play the Good Catholic) made under duress (I really need a job) is not morally binding. Putting a (figurative) gun to my head is very coercive.

    OTOH, your sister (and seemingly your family as well) has no business dismissing your outlook. Bring your blog back, please.

  • Parse

    Ron, Godless Monster,
    The issue for me is when everybody else is bandying about religious topics and talking about their views. Should I have to bite my tongue when listening to people talking about why evolution is hokum? Or tolerate hearing about why the atheist billboards are so blasphemous, without bringing up the billboards signed ‘God’ around here? One friend frequently updates Facebook with her favorite hymns, quotes, and scriptures from that week’s services – what makes her quotes acceptable, and not mine?

    Why should I have scorn heaped on me for saying that I don’t believe in a god? Why should I be free to say I’m Jewish, or Muslim, or Protestant, or Catholic, but hold my tongue if I’m atheist?

    In other words, I sympathize with the author, because I want to be treated equally. I don’t want special treatment; I only want to be able to state my views and opinions, just like everybody else.

  • JulietEcho

    @Ron:

    In most cases I’ve experienced where people need to talk about their atheism, there’s a large religious element involved. Either they came from a very religious family or they live in a very religious area, etc. When your family or your neighbors or your co-workers are judging you and trying to get you to come to church or what-not, it all adds up.

    Some people need a place where it’s okay to vent. Others have anxiety/guilt issues from being brought up believing in a literal hell. Some would like to talk about changes they hope for, so that they won’t be marginalized for being non-religious in their towns or states. Not everyone feels connected enough online to use blogs and forums as their outlet for these needs.

    I don’t know enough about Elena to guess why talking about her atheism is important to her, but I think that it’s legitimately important to many people and that stifling the urge to talk usually isn’t getting at the underlying issues.

    Maybe in an ideal world, atheists wouldn’t feel the need to talk about their atheism – and everyone would be a feminist, so there would be no use for the term or the movement. And no racism would exist, so we wouldn’t talk about that either. But as long as people are discriminated against, vilified, abused and insulted for who they are, the categories and conversations are going to be part of life.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    So..the Catholic school gets a free pass to use tax money and discriminate, a sister fakes being catholic to get money (which I believe is a lie, which is a direct violation of the 10 Commandments) but the one who is being disrespected and dismissed is viewed as whiny? She wasn’t asking anyone to change their beliefs, but if my family went from loving and accepting to completely dismissive, you bet I’d “whine” about it. Whatever their (the rest of the family’s) problem is, they are handling it poorly.

  • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters Godless Monster

    Parse, I think the last sentence in my comment says it all. I commented on how I feel about the subject and then acknowledged that others would feel differently and that is okay with me.
    In response to your rhetorical “Why should…?” questions, I can only say that life is not fair and it seems that you are making an argument for fair treatment and equal treatment.
    I would offer that it is reasonable to expect and to fight for fair and equal treatment UNDER THE LAW, but that when it comes to interpersonal relations, there is rarely such a thing as “fair” or “equal”. Simply put, life is not fair and equality rarely comes without a struggle. In some cases, it hardly seems worth the effort to put up a fight when there is so little to gain or when nothing has been lost in the first place. Her family are jerks. Why would anyone in their right mind give a damn what people like those described in this letter think or say? Life is too short for such stupidity. She should look inward for strength and meaning, not outwards to idiots like her family.

  • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters Godless Monster

    @JulietEcho, you make your point eloquently and convincingly. I love it when I learn something.
    A few observations,however. Wouldn’t you agree that Elena is better off venting to an audience that is open to such things? It appears she wants her family to play a role that they are just not capable of playing.
    It seems that the frustration comes from trying to get support from the wrong people. Maybe the bar needs to be dropped and her expectations lowered for these people.

  • David D.G.

    Ron in Houston wrote:

    I guess since I’m not that way I don’t get folks who get all wrapped up in their non-belief.

    I mean why do people feel they “must” talk about it and that they’re somehow being squelched or mistreated if they can’t?

    Ron (and others who wrote similar opinions), please consider the implications of having to censor yourself in family gatherings to avoid acrimony, not because a specific topic is off limits, but because your position on it is off limits — while theirs is not.

    In other words, you can still talk about religion; you just can’t express your own opinions if they conflict with theirs. They can speak freely about “God’s word against abortion,” or about the “hostile press” making priests look bad; you aren’t allowed to point out biblical errors (or even cite Bible verses that undermine their views!), or abuses by the priests and the complicity of the Vatican, or even the vacuity of supernaturalism. They can talk about answered prayers and faith healing; you aren’t allowed to ask others to apply critical thinking if doing so relates to religious belief (e.g., questioning the existence of a given “miracle,” asking others what evidence they have for believing it). If you don’t keep your dissenting opinions to yourself, the family comes down on you for it.

    In other words, this is sheer blackmail. It is completely one-sided and patently unfair.

    Now, I will grant that one needn’t always reflexively argue every time any religious comment is made, because that’s just being rude and annoying, but I doubt that that’s going on here. I also don’t think that Elena’s sister owes her a look at her rationalist blog, or even an explanation for not reading it; it may hurt Elena’s feelings that her sister doesn’t read it, but the sister has every right to avoid reading something, for whatever reason.

    However, it is wrong for the sister to insist that no dissenting opinions be mentioned in her presence (especially if they happen to be given as counterpoint in response to her own comments), and the other family members are equally wrong to do the same. This is a transparent attempt to make their religious opinions appear to be comfortable truths, universally held, simply by silencing any opposition to them — thus “winning” all arguments before they can even be brought up. This is manipulative and dishonest, and I hope that Elena and her husband stand up for the right to speak their minds.

    ~David D.G.

  • David D.G.

    Godless Monster,

    You have a point, but I think that Elena and her husband should not just meekly accept censure by the sister and her family. They were supportive before; they may be at least able to reach neutral status if the right kind of appeal to fairness is made.

    ~David D.G.

  • Siamang

    “However, it is wrong for the sister to insist that no dissenting opinions be mentioned in her presence”

    I didn’t read that that has happened.

    All I read is that the family has expressed “offense”.

    So she just needs to express “offense” right back at them.

    We need to get ourselves over the idea that we have the right to speak without offending. I’m sure some people would get offended by my opinions.

    But I’m not going to claim I’m being persecuted and silenced and “censored” because people express disagreement and even offense at my opinions.

  • Neon Genesis

    What I don’t get is why does her Catholic sister also have to be a bigot to an atheist in order to be in a Catholic school? Even if she feels hypocritical if she doesn’t take her faith seriously, why does taking her faith seriously = being a bigot? There are plenty of Christians out there who are serious believers but are not bigots to atheists or insist on censoring the views of atheists. I’m pretty sure I don’t recall Jesus ever going around silencing the beliefs of the Pharisees either. Aren’t Christians supposed to follow the golden rule, the whole do unto others thing? How would the Catholic sister feel if her family decided to side with her atheist sister and she felt marginalized by her family? If the Catholic girl truly wants to take her faith in the Golden Rule seriously, she should start by treating her sister like she would want her sister to treat her and not judge others lest she be judged. Is there some rule at the Catholic school that you have to be a bigot to be accepted?

  • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters Godless Monster

    Hi David D.G…I agree 100%. They should not accept it meekly.I never meant to imply that.

  • muggle

    “I’m pretty sure I don’t recall Jesus ever going around silencing the beliefs of the Pharisees either.”

    So you don’t remember that whole famous story about his temper flaring outside the synagogue one fine Sabbath morning?

    I can’t believe how many Atheists are censoring their own speech. I don’t think all Christians are bigots and I don’t even think belief or nonbelief are a choice and I’m always crying for tolerance of Christians on-line but, that certainly doesn’t mean just keep your mouth shut if a certain topic comes up.

    I’m sorry but if it never does, you are, perhaps subconsciously, censoring your own speech. Our culture is too religiously saturated not to.

  • Ron in Houston

    David D. G.

    I’m not for double standards, and I feel it’s not less strange that someone MUST talk about their religion than someone must talk about their atheism.

    For me it’s doubly strange that someone must talk about atheism. I mean I can understand religion since it’s a belief system that people get highly personally involved with. Atheism is not a belief system.

    Honestly, someone doesn’t believe in God. What’s the big deal?

  • JulietEcho

    @Ron

    Honestly, someone doesn’t believe in God. What’s the big deal?

    I thought I gave some pretty understandable reasons in my last comment. Do you think they’re not sufficient reasons?

  • Neon Genesis

    “Honestly, someone doesn’t believe in God. What’s the big deal?” So why are you at an atheist site again?

  • Ron in Houston

    Neon Genesis

    My passions are separation of church and state and protecting our educational system from being dumbed down by the teaching of any religious doctrine as anything other than religious doctrine.

    I frequent atheist sites to keep me posted on these issues.

  • Ron in Houston

    Juliet

    I think you gave a very good and very erudite explanation.

    I have a couple of considerations regarding your explanation. First, to the extent folks have been “injured” by religion, it is a self awareness issue for them to understand this. They need to realize they’re playing out their own narcissistic injuries.

    Secondly, regardless of what ever happened in the past, they need to realize it is the past and try to “let it go.” They need to realize that they are the ones now who are causing themselves problems. They want to blame it on religion and religious people. In reality, they’re doing it to themselves.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    @Ron,

    Although I agree that “it takes two to tango”, it only takes one to shun. We are social creatures and need community. There certainly is a psychological component that we potentially have full control over, but it is also important that others change their attitude as well.

  • Neon Genesis

    “My passions are separation of church and state and protecting our educational system from being dumbed down by the teaching of any religious doctrine as anything other than religious doctrine.

    I frequent atheist sites to keep me posted on these issues.”

    But I thought you said atheists have nothing to say about religion, so why post at sites you think are pointless? It doesn’t bother me that you’re here but it frankly seems like a double standard to me that you criticize the girl in the email for talking about a subject you think is worthless while talking about a subject you think is worthless.

  • Neon Genesis

    “They want to blame it on religion and religious people. In reality, they’re doing it to themselves.”

    So you think religion is totally innocent and never harms anyone? Religion wasn’t involved in 9/11? The fundamentalist LDS church never raped underaged girls? Fundamentalist Christians aren’t trying to hurt LGBT people in Uganda? It’s all the fault of the victims and none of the fault of religion?


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