I always read your advice letters and they always seem to make sense, so I felt you would be the best person to seek advice from.
A month ago, I went out of town to visit the university I will be attending in the fall. When I came home, my family began acting very hostile towards me and I didn’t understand why. I endured about three days of constant insults, including being called idiotic when I didn’t even say anything. Finally, one family member explained that one of my books on Atheism was found while I was gone. Of course, I soon realized that this had to have been found by going through my things while I was out of town. I felt betrayed and that I couldn’t even trust my own family. I didn’t even know what possessed them to go through my things. I am now being treated like a stranger amongst my own family just because I am Atheist. They are acting like I am the most untrustworthy and horrible person they know. I have tried to reason with them, but I keep getting interrupted and being told “I don’t want to hear any stupid things out of your mouth.” I don’t get any respect anymore and I’m not even given the opportunity to explain myself. All of my friends respect my beliefs, but I can’t get the same respect from my family. I don’t want to stop talking to the only family I have left.
high school senior
Dear high school senior,
I have received many letters describing the fear, hate, bigotry and cruelty that explodes out of some Christian families toward one family member who is revealed as an atheist, but none of them have so concisely listed the worst of these families’ mistakes as does this short, poignant letter.
This is why I emphasize careful forethought before “coming out” to one’s family. When it is done on your terms and on your time, it might go better, but sometimes it can get very ugly anyway. Even families that never showed much interest in practicing their faith can suddenly become reactionary and hostile.
Your letter is a nearly complete list of the things a Christian family should definitely not do when they learn of a member’s lack of belief. Not all, but enough families react this way to be giving me an extensive collection of wretched stories with these same features. Every one of these reactions pushes the non-believing member farther away, and reduces any chance to bring them back into the fold:
- The family criminalizes the atheist, treating them like a dangerous intruder, even though he or she has always been a loyal and loving part of the family.
- They insult and attack the unbeliever, making bizarre accusations that have no basis in reality and have nothing to do with a simple lack of belief.
- They betray the person’s trust, prying and intruding into their private, personal business.
- These families punish and threaten the atheist member, in the idiotic assumption that they can intimidate or coerce someone back into a sincere and abiding faith.
- Finally and the most destructive of all, they refuse to permit open, respectful and reasonable communication, shutting it all down when he or she tries to talk to them, not to convince them to disbelieve, but just wanting to be understood.
Some of these pious Christian families seem determined to behave in ways that have no resemblance whatsoever to the best teachings of Jesus. It is as if they have never heard of him. A good measure of how well Christians follow their prophet’s loving wisdom could be how they treat atheists, but even with their own flesh and blood, many utterly fail.
In past remarks to other beleaguered atheists, I have explained that very often the root of such anger is fear, and the root of such fear is ignorance. But these are offered as an explanation for a family’s deplorable abuse, not an excuse. There is no excuse.
High school senior, I fully understand that you “don’t want to stop talking to the only family you have left,” but other than insults, they are not talking to you, and they are prohibiting you from talking to them. Communication has to be mutually permitted. It only takes one side to shut it down. They have made a decision to emotionally kick you out. My heart aches to say it, but until they change that decision, your options for a relationship with them are limited.
Your self esteem must now be based on your own behavior rather than the approval of your loved ones, so behave well. Since they are currently incapable of behaving with simple decency and courtesy, it is up to you to supply that. Carry yourself with dignity, good manners and poise. Ironically, you may be the one whose treatment of others resembles the best teachings of Jesus.
I suggest that until you leave in the Fall, you avoid as much as you can any interaction with them that will provoke their abuse of you. Be as patient and respectful as you can to your family, as long as you protect your own safety. Do not stoop to returning insult for insult. That does not help you in your situation. It will only be used against you to further justify your family’s contempt for you, and it will escalate.
Protect what little privacy you have left by having a friend store anything you’d rather keep safe from your family’s snooping. Be sure that your internet activities are secure and anonymous. Young people often end up regretting revealing things online that they thought were confidential. Facebook is the bane of many a closeted atheist.
This kind of mistreatment and rejection is painful. Find a trustworthy person with whom you can release your hurt; a counselor, a friend, someone who knows how to just listen. Keep your morale up by increasing your contact with your respectful friends. See if there is a secular student club at the university, and make some contacts ahead of time. It will be nice to have some allies waiting for you when you get there. Some may be reading this right now. You are not alone, but you need to start finding your comrades.
As you continue to prepare to leave for the university, set things up to be as independent from your family as you possibly can. This will probably be a gradual process. By increasing your financial, physical and emotional self-reliance, your goal would not be to totally sever contact with them, but to have more choice in exactly how much and what kind of contact you have.
Time, distance and absence may permit some calming down. At some point you may be able to start an actual dialogue with them. Sometimes a well-crafted letter, full of genuine love, patience and willingness to talk and listen can reopen channels that were closed down. One family member may be more receptive to you, and he or she might play the role of diplomat to approach the others. This could take weeks, months or years.
High school senior, you will soon change your moniker to University Freshman. Your adult life is just beginning. This painful episode will hopefully be but a brief chapter in your autobiography. Avoid filling it with bitterness of your own to add to your family’s foolishness. Keep your heart open, ready for a reconciliation, keep your mind open, ready to learn new things, and keep your hands open, ready to help another young freethinking person who is enduring a similar hardship. One of the best ways to heal your hurt is to use it to help heal the hurt of someone else.
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