I am new to this, but would like to know what you think. I was raised in a Christian home, but since being an adult, I do not believe in what Christians call God. Whenever I questioned my family, they would tell me I had to get on my knees and beg God to forgive me. If there is a God, a forgiving God, then why would I have to beg him to forgive me? Every day, I receive e-mails from lots of my friends stating that “God loves me and is watching over me”. I love my friends and family dearly. I don’t know how they would take it if they knew my feelings on this subject. I am nothing like Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I have feelings for others. I just need a nice way to let my family and friends know how I feel without offending their beliefs.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
A fellow friendly atheist
Dear fellow friendly,
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how nice a way you find to tell them, if someone wants to feel offended by your not having the same beliefs, they will. That is because such “offence” is not from anger or hurt, since you have said nothing angering or hurtful.
It’s from fear or pretence, or both.
If their faith is thin and fragile, they will feel threatened by someone who is intelligent, sane, and decent, but who simply isn’t convinced of what they want to keep believing. They will cover their fear with a veneer of anger. If they want you and others to think that their faith is strong, they will bluster and bristle, berating you loudly in a pretence of pious indignation.
If they really had strong and genuine faith, they would respond to you with patient understanding, still treating you lovingly and respectfully, reflecting the best teaching of their religion. Sadly, that is very rare, at least in my experience.
So even though you do your best to be polite, diplomatic, gentle, sensitive, and reassuring of your love, you’ll have no guarantee of getting a similar response in return, because their response is about them, not you.
Make no mistake, that hard reality is not an excuse for someone to be rude, tactless, hurtful or cold when they come out. The family’s and friends’ initial reactions may not be the final outcome in the relationship. It will be harder to improve things if the unbeliever verifies and galvanizes their prejudices with discourteous behavior.
When it comes to telling your family, prudence, the wise consideration of your own self interest, is important, especially for younger atheists and agnostics. In general, the younger the person, the more they have to risk by coming out. In your case, you indicate that you’re an adult, so hopefully that includes having financial independence from your family as well as emotional independence.
Begin and end with “I love you.” Tell them that you have come to need more to be convinced of God than repetition and reassurance. It’s how you are different from them, not superior or inferior to them.
Emphasize that your lack of belief does not reduce your love for them, or your interest in their wellbeing. Tell them that even though you are not convinced of what they believe, you are very convinced of their goodness as persons. Then ask them to consider you in the same way.
Your delivery is probably more important than your actual statements. Be calm, warm, soft-spoken and honest. Frequently take deep, slow breaths. There’s nothing like oxygen to help keep your mind clear. Do that quietly, so it won’t sound like a rhetorical sigh, which they might interpret as exasperation or belittlement. That might bring up their resentment, and the communication will deteriorate.
Keep these conversations brief, in installments. If you don’t know how to respond to something or if the tension is rising, saying “I’ll think about that, and we’ll talk again” is a legitimate response. Coming back later with thoughtful and cool-headed replies is better for both sides.
You can anticipate from your experience with them what they are likely to try. They might try intellectual arguments or emotional manipulations. In either case, take your time, think carefully before you speak, respond instead of react, and use “I’ll get back to you on that” as often as you need. Family discussions like this do not have to be run like televised political debates, expecting instant, flawless and irrefutable rebuttals on the spot.
Since your family has a history of giving you godly guilt trips, you’ll probably get some more of that. In response to the usual threats of damnation, just keep calmly repeating something to the effect, “If God exists, then that is up to him. You cannot predict what he will do. He knows what I need, and he does not need you to change me for him.”
They may try the guilt trip about how you are shaming them in the eyes of the community. Don’t fall for it. Quietly say something like, “The community should respect you for what you do for the community. I cannot fake something just to make others approve of you when you’ve earned it yourself.”
They might even try saying that you are shaming them in the eyes of the Lord. Keep your composure, and don’t roll your eyes. Look them straight in the eyes and gently say, “I cannot spoil your relationship with God any more than you can fix my relationship with God. I’m interested in our relationship, you and me. That is entirely up to you and me being willing to lovingly accept each other as we are. I’m willing, are you?”
They may try to theorize about your private reasons for not believing, attributing it to youthful rebellion, or wanting liberty to indulge your base desires, or dozens of other ridiculous attempts to characterize your personal motives. Again, use patience, oxygen, and a leisurely pace, responding in your own words with something like, “You cannot read my mind. Please don’t tell me what my thoughts, feelings and motives are. Please have the courtesy of asking me what they are. This is the same courtesy that I am showing you.”
When it comes to your religious friends, you have more latitude to be more frank, although a calm and poised manner will still help. We can cherish our friendships as deeply as we do our families, but the contract between friends is completely voluntary, not imposed by the accident of birth or entangled with ties of clan and familial duty.
I think it is likely that regardless of how careful you are, you’re going to lose some friends. Let it be so. Those who stay will be the ones worth having, and those who leave are the ones you’re probably better off without. Be you. Be with those who like being with you, as you really are.
To your friends who send you those religious emails, try a response in your own words like “Dear (blank), thank you for your email assuring me that God loves me. I know that is important to you. What I really would rather hear is that you love me. I want to make it clear that I love you dearly. For me, love means me actually being there for you when you are in need, hurting, lonely or afraid, and that is what I intend. I won’t be hoping that a substitute will stand in my place.”
Fellow friendly, do the best that you can with your family and friends, and accept that the outcome will then depend on something you cannot control, the maturity of others. Don’t expect perfect performance from you or them. Keep your heart open, realizing that their first reaction may not be their final one, that in time they may see the value of the love that you have offered and are still offering. I wish you the very best of results. I know that I’d be proud to have so gentle and caring a person in my family or as my friend.
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