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