Ask Richard: New Atheist Feels Insecure Discussing Beliefs With Family

Dear Richard,

I’ve been an Atheist for only a year or so now. Before, I claimed myself an Agnostic, in fear of completely doubting the existence of God, and before that being a devoted Christian. My mother passed away when I was only 16 from a terminal illness, which sort of set forth my disbelief and doubt. I am only 20 now, and this is my first solid year, being an Atheist.

Now that I acknowledge, and feel fervently in my mind, that there is no God what so ever, I have found it more difficult to enjoy the holidays with my semi-religious family. (I say semi-religious because they are more so “part time Christians”. They only take notice to God during the holidays, or during my doubt.)

A few months back, my sister in law and I got into an argument. Without getting into great detail, I had revealed that I was an Atheist. Not only has some of my family made a mockery out of my irreligious-preference, but I’ve also felt the sudden need to lie to my father, uncles, and aunts, about it. Only to avoid confrontation. In light of the holidays, being a ‘closet-atheist to my family’ has appeared to be more difficult than I had originally imagined, and I’m pretty sick of covering up my beliefs and seeming ashamed of my irreligious standpoint.

I was wanting to know, do you have any suggestions on how I should go about telling my family I don’t believe in God? I don’t initiate any conversations on religion, however in recent months, I’ve been asked a dozen times if I believe in God. Which I’ve felt the sudden impulse to claim that I do, when in fact I do not.

This is really eating me up inside, because not only can I not stomach lying to my family, and the fear of not being accepted if I told the truth, but also because I do feel uncomfortable with certain situations, particularly during the holidays. When asked to say Grace, or even being in the same area while people are praying over their dinner, I feel the need to excuse myself, or instead, thank everyone for coming, rather than thanking ‘God’ for the food which has been presented.

Any advice you may be able to give will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,
The Closet Atheist

Dear Closet,

You might not be as closeted as you imagine.

It sounds like your sister-in-law and perhaps others have been spreading the news. Other family members have been mocking you for your irreligious views, and those who are asking you out of the blue if you believe in God have probably heard. So either they’re trying to confirm it for themselves, or they’re just pestering you. Unless there’s an elaborate and well organized family effort to keep them out of the loop, I’d hazard a guess that your father, uncles and aunts know too. So all this asking you if you believe is a cruel charade. It’s nothing but harassment.

I’m glad to hear that you’re sick of covering it all up and acting as if you’re ashamed. It’s time for some healthy righteous indignation. Enough of these ridiculous attempts to badger and bully you into believing something that you don’t. What an idiotic farce. It’s time that you take an assertive stand to be who you are, without apologies. It’s time to stop being mocked and grilled by these family members who should be loving and accepting of you because you’re family. You’ve already said that you don’t believe in God. Now it’s time to show that you do believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid of losing their highly conditional approval. Screw their approval! The only approval you need is your own. Do you approve of yourself? Say YES!

But you’re young and very new to your atheism, so can I understand how you might not yet feel confident about handling nose-to-nose confrontations. Well, you don’t have to. You don’t have to have excellent debating skills yet. Those take seasoning and practice. In the meantime, if you’d rather be true to yourself without having to either lie or to take everybody on, it’s perfectly okay to just shut the confrontations down, turn ‘em off like a light, and I’m going to describe how to do that:

Rather than a big, dramatic “coming out” announcement to the whole family as I have proposed for other letter writers, I suggest that you respond to each person only if they come to you, and take each incident only as it comes up. The thing to avoid is getting into another pointless heated argument like the one you had with your sister-in-law, because that’s a no-win situation for you. Some day you may have Ingersoll’s eloquence and Hitchen’s razor wit, but at this point in time, what you want to accomplish is to get them to stop treating you disrespectfully, and do do it while remaining respectful to them.

You don’t have to argue with them about their beliefs. You don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to get their approval. You don’t have to get into any discussion that leads to you being pointedly questioned and having to justify your views. Instead, all you have to do is meet each of their challenges with a cool, calm, honest and brief statement that shuts it down.

Practice ahead of time taking a deep, slow breath, having a cool, calm look on your face, and using a cool, calm tone of voice. It’s not a cold or hostile look and tone, just completely cool and calm. You’re going to be frank, honest, brief, and final.

When someone asks if you believe in God, look them right in the eye, take your time, take a deep, slow breath, and with your cool, calm look, say in your cool, calm tone,

“No, I don’t. If you are uncomfortable with that, there’s nothing I can do about it. If you’re okay with it, fine. But I’m not interested in discussing it further.”

Say no more. If they persist, then still looking them in the eye, take another deep, slow breath and calmly say:

“As I said, if you are uncomfortable with that, there’s nothing I can do about it. Let’s talk about something else, or not talk at all.”

If they still persist, take another deep, slow breath, and silently walk away.

If someone begins to mock you for your irreligious views, do not defend your views. Instead, attack their conduct. Keeping eye contact, take a deep, slow breath and say in your cool, calm tone:

“That kind of mockery is childish and not worthy of a response. You’re not behaving in a loving way, so we’re done talking.”
Then walk away without another word.

If someone wants you to say grace at the table, take a deep, slow breath and calmly say, “I think that (name another person) should do it.” Do not say why, say nothing else. While they’re saying grace, sit there calmly, and look around at everyone bowing their heads. You don’t have to bow your head. This is a brief ritual they like. You’re not participating, and you’re not interfering either.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to say something like grace, then have a brief prepared remark about how nice it is to have a loving and accepting family together to share a meal and enjoy each other’s company. Keep any sarcastic tone out of it. The effect will be stronger if you say it straight.

In all of the above responses, taking the deep, slow breath is essential because it will help to keep you calm. Being very brief is also essential. Do not get suckered into a debate. Do not indulge in anger or insults. Remain respectful in word and tone. The strength of your commitment will show in your calmness. Being imperturbable can be much more intimidating to an opponent than bluster.

This shutting-it-down technique is just one way of responding to your family’s intolerant reactions to your atheism. Of course, there are many others including skillful debate, withering sarcasm, and screaming matches. To each, their own. This method simply allows you to be truthful without having to work hard at defending yourself, and it doesn’t give anyone reason for hurt feelings. A few years from now you may feel more confident, and you might want to mix it up with them, but you never have to if you don’t want to.

Your family’s behavior toward you has been unworthy of family, so you don’t owe them any response beyond these. They owe you respectful treatment, because you’re family and you have done nothing disrespectful to them. You will be demonstrating to them that whether they accept you or not, you’re not going to beg for it, and you’re not going to take their abuse. If you consistently remain calmly assertive, rather than passive or aggressive, I think they may gradually treat you more respectfully. Even if they don’t, you will be developing a quiet strength and self confidence that will be of great value to you as you go through life.

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.


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