Ask Richard: Lone Muslim in Atheist Family Trying to Censor Their Discussions

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

Compared to the letters you normally answer, my problem is very small. The thing is, it’s progressively getting worse and I want to nip it now rather than let it grow into something more column-worthy!

The problem is my sister. Most of my family members are atheists to varying degrees, except for my sister who converted to Islam in her early twenties. Ever since then, religion has been a very sore topic in our family.

Many of us (myself included) are involved in local atheist organizations and spend a lot of our time planning events, etc. Naturally, this is a common topic for us to discuss. When this happens, my sister will often tell us that we’re being rude, or that we’re attacking her and her beliefs. It’s gotten to the point that I can’t even talk to my father, for example, while she’s in the room because she will stop her own conversation to tell us that our topic of choice is offending her.

I don’t get to spend a lot of time with my family, and even less time without her present, and the sharing of ideas and discussing what we’re up to in our lives is a huge part of what we talk about. So we’re presented with the choice between sticking to a very limited range of topics or having her get upset (which frequently involves crying and the slamming of doors). I feel like our dinner table is being held hostage!

She’s still a member of the family, and it upsets my mother a great deal when these scenes happen. We can’t just cut her out of the family or stop inviting her, but our gatherings have been getting increasingly stressful as a result of her outbursts. Not talking to my parents about what we’re up to isn’t a realistic option either.

How can I toughen her skin so that she stops making our gatherings such minefields?

Audrey

Dear Audrey,

Your sister is playing the role of an overgrown spoiled brat. Many people’s initial reaction to that might be to harshly put her in her place in a humiliating way, but perhaps there is a gentler way that will accomplish the same thing and yet allow her to continue to feel that she is an accepted part of the family. Perhaps she already feels excluded, and you could possibly even help to reverse that without compromising your own principles or rights.

It will be more effort than a brutal put-down, but I’m hoping to suggest a process that won’t further isolate or alienate her. Using some empathy, seeing that she’s already feeling outnumbered and an outsider in the family will help to guide your words so that even though you won’t be accommodating her unreasonable demands, you will also avoid causing her unnecessary hurt.

She’s taking advantage of the privileged status for religion that is found around the world. Any other idea, stance or practice can be discussed critically or challenged, but not things that are attached to religion. It can be so ingrained by custom and culture that even when people intellectually know that the “hands off” rule is unjustified, emotionally they can still feel a strong reluctance to break the rule.

You say you feel like the family is being held hostage. That is exactly what is happening, but there are no guns or shackles to keep you constrained. The only power your sister has over the family is whatever power the family is giving to her. She cries and slams doors, and your mother gets upset. It seems to me that your mother’s upset is the key. As long as the rest of the family thinks that your sister’s tantrums upsetting your mother must be avoided at all costs, this hostage situation will continue.

You’ll need to assert your right to free speech, but it will be better if you make some preparations first:

The first thing to do is to look into your own and the other family members’ behavior, just to make sure that no one is deliberately trying to provoke your sister into a conniption by talking about something she dislikes. The discussions about atheism and atheist activities should really be nothing more than the natural consequence of having several family members involved in those things. This is important because when you affirm your right to speak about whatever you please, I think she’s likely to accuse the rest of you of “doing it on purpose.” In order to help her see that not everything is about her, you must be able to honestly say that no one is purposely altering their discussion toward atheism just to have an effect on her, and so no one should have to purposely alter their discussion away from atheism either.

The second thing to do is to have more than one person talk to your mother. It’s important to help her understand that you’re going to respectfully but firmly let your sister know that everyone in the family must have the right to speak freely to each other without having to muzzle themselves in her presence. Although your sister may throw the biggest tantrum yet, for the sake of stopping this petty tyranny, it’s important for your mother to not be pulled into being used to censor the family in order to “protect” your sister.

Finally, one family member should privately speak to your sister, letting her know that he or she is speaking on behalf of the rest of the family. Choose the person who can best hold their temper. Patiently make it clear that you all respect her right to believe as she chooses, even though you don’t share her beliefs. Let her know that although she may feel alone or separated because of that, it is no one’s intention to separate her or to hurt her feelings.

Gently tell her that just like her, everyone in the family has the right to believe as they do, and to discuss their views with each other freely and openly. No one has the right to censor her, and she has no right to censor others. These outbursts of hers are not a legitimate expression of her beliefs; she’s just trying to shut people up, and that will not be acceptable.

Let her know that discussions about atheism and atheist activities are not aimed at her just because she is in the room. If she is uncomfortable overhearing people talk about something, she is free to quietly leave the room, although it might be better for her to develop the maturity and self confidence to be undisturbed by it.

Given your description of her childish reactions before, she may try a louder version of her manipulative bad temper. Do not react by shouting or quarreling. Your message has hopefully been sufficiently delivered, and her reaction is her responsibility. If it’s more of the same, ignore it. Continue to freely discuss whatever you want with whomever you want. If she interrupts you with her objections, quietly and very briefly remind her of what you said about everyone’s rights. Restate that her childish tirades will not work, and add that by trying those tactics she does not represent her faith with dignity. Tell her that if she wants to have a civil discussion with you about her beliefs and yours, you’re open to that. You would like her to be comfortable in the home, but since no one is trying to make her uncomfortable, her feelings are her responsibility.

Audrey, keep a good grip on your own dignity. By never allowing yourself to be goaded into a shouting match and door-slamming contest with her, you will not only be describing the grown-up good manners that you expect from her, you will also be modeling them.

Allow her some time to change. It’s not easy to suddenly switch from spoiled brat to mature equal family member. People get over bad habits with stumbles and stalls. Encourage everyone to stick to your usual conversations unperturbed by any of her efforts to coerce you into silence, and if necessary, patiently and briefly reiterate that this family expects mutual respect for and from everyone. Hopefully she will grow beyond her undignified efforts to control others, and hopefully she will be able to feel loved and accepted by the family regardless of differences in beliefs.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Valdyr

    I’m glad I’m not an advice columnist because my only reaction to the title was “lol”. I’ve definitely never heard of this scenario before. I think it’s interesting that when the “lone atheist in family of believers” shoe is on the other foot, this believer’s atheist family members aren’t trying to bully her or make her feel like shit for her viewpoint. The reversed (and more common) scenario unfortunately doesn’t often go that way. My atheism can make things very uncomfortable with my own parents, even though they’re quite moderate and we’ve never really fallen out over anything else. No one has to even talk about it for it to be a cloud hanging over us.

  • Jeff

    Richard, attempting to reason with her is futile. She takes offense because she wants desperately to believe and is terrified they may be right. Anyone who threatens the shaky foundation of her belief system is the enemy. No amount of gentle persuasion is going to change this.

    She will never “switch from spoiled brat to mature equal family member.” Getting her to leave the room (or sit there fuming, quietly) is the best that can be hoped for. Or just don’t invite both kids at the same time.

  • L.Long

    She is the one who converted to IsLame so her father should make her follow the rules..Tell her to obey the father as dictated in the BS religion and shut up-get back into her tent and wait to be spoken to and wait in silence for me to give you away to some male of my choosing!!!!

  • Red

    Does the sister discuss her religious activities with the family at all? If she does, presumably the family doesn’t get upset over it, and that could be pointed out to her. If she doesn’t, you might even suggest that if she were to talk about her religious group’s activities, the rest of the family would be respectful and perhaps even interested.

  • Roxane

    Excellent advice as always, Richard. Just as the best believers “witness” for their religions by being thoughtful and admirable people, so must we. As much fun as it is to fantasize about how much fun it would be for the atheist to “win” and the theist to “lose,” when it comes to families and close friends, “win-win” is the best option, and certainly the one we should try first.

  • Claudia

    You’re such a good person Richard. If I were in that family, a brutal put down would be very much in order. I don’t even want to think the rhetorical pwnage that I’d be in for if I tried to pull that kind of shit on my parents.

  • David H.

    L.Long, that is incredibly offensive.

  • Allison Palmer-Gleicher

    I had a similar situation happen. A group of friends and I get together every year for a vacation. During our last night together a friend stood up and lectured all of us (in a very loud tone, might I add) that not all christians are hypocrites, only a few christians are ‘bad apples’ and how would we like it if she said atheists are all stupid. Yes, alcohol was involved and no she never made an apology to the other ladies. Once home I called to ask what made her so upset, we wound up yelling at each other. She assumed the matter was over after that. Several weeks later I brought it up again. She refused to point out who or what upset her and wanted the whole thing to go away. Nothing and no one inparticular upset her, she was tired of the christian bashing. Asking who was bashing christians, she would not answer I believe she is taking the cowards way out. She NEVER saw my point of view and would rather this whole thing disappear. Now the group of ladies won’t be the same because of one immature so-called chirstian. It’s a very sad situation.

  • Drakk

    Joy. Another “My right to not be offended is more important that anything!!!1″. As a former muslim myself (with half my family being very devout) this is a bit of a sore topic for me.

  • JB Tait

    Sometimes a family member will behave in ways that are deliberately confrontational, in order to get some power, attention, or status. Bright blue hair, tattoos, piercings, getting pregnant at 14, hanging around with bad friends, dressing outrageously, becoming politically active with a crazy group, joining a supremest group and shaving their head, playing Bridge until they are forced to drop out of college, and yes, converting to a religion that no one else in the family supports.

    The cry for importance might well be the cause of the religious choice, rather than the religious choice making them feel excluded and needing tantrums to restore their sense of importance.

    I would want to look at the possibility that someone (or several someones) has, over a lifetime, eroded her self-esteem and this whole issue is a struggle to hang on to some semblance of self-worth.

  • JulietEcho

    I only see my family rarely, and they are all evangelical Christians very much involved in their churches and in ministries – some by occupation. It would weird if they *didn’t* discuss that stuff around me, because I’d know that they were censoring their normal conversation instead of being themselves.

    I can’t imagine acting the way this sister is acting – hopefully Richard’s advice will help.

  • Ben

    I’m also glad I’m not a counselor because I would have admiced to tell the girl to “Fuck Off! Free country and freedom of speech are valued here.” She has the right to be offended but not the right to censor.
    This is a danger is America when people are not allowed to criticize religion and especially the “Religion of Peace” (what a joke). I think it’s also a danger of this “multicultural etiquite” that everyone seems to be embracing….or at least this politically correct culture. It’s sinister and I guess the authors problem is being expressed here.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Audrey,

    From what did your sister convert from? Atheism? Christianity? Apathy? Something else?

    Knowing the history of her thought processes might help us in giving you some more specific advice.

    I would just advise to try to find some common-ground with her. I’m sure there are aspects of Islam that are more moderate than some aspects of evangelical/fundamental Christianity. Perhaps you could talk some about those aspects and let your sister know that you appreciate moderation in all its forms.

  • JustAGuy

    Richard,

    Might I suggest that your responses could be even more impactful if you kept your responses concise as well?

  • DKeane

    I love this letter – it is astounding to me that even a recent covert can quickly learn how to play the offensive card.

    I find illogical assumptions offensive.

  • Thorny

    I would prefer the brutal put down and humilating method, then again i disowned my sister and would be glad the day she dies. so heres my advice, start by provoking her on ever given occasion and if you prefer you could wait until your mother leaves.

  • RJ

    @David H.
    You sound like the offended sister with that comment. Maybe you should take Richard’s advice and leave this thread until we’re done discussing it.

    And L.Long is absolutely right. This woman has chosen her belief system and should know full well her place in society as a muslim woman. Walk behind the men, keep your body covered so as not to arouse the men and to keep her mouth shut unless she’s spoken to. It was her choice to join this cult so she should abide by its rules, regardless of how archaic and stupid they may be.

  • Silent Service

    Some times you’re a bit too diplomatic Richard. I think JB Tait is right in this case. There’s a cry for attention going on here. Since she’s using Mom to hold the family hostage I think Mom needs to be the one to talk to Audrey’s sister about her issues. Mom definitely needs to tell her daughter that the family isn’t going to tiptoe around anybody’s religious view and that nobody is attacking Islam, they are expressing thier beliefs. Then if little sister keeps throwing fits, she can be told to go someplace else if she doesn’t like the conversation.

  • Michael

    I’m convinced Richard Wade is some kind of avatar of Logic and Responsibility

  • Richard Wade

    JustAGuy,

    Richard,

    Might I suggest that your responses could be even more impactful if you kept your responses concise as well?

    Thank you sincerely for your suggestion. I know that my responses can be long-winded, and I work hard to whittle them down. But I’m not trying to be impactful, I’m trying to be helpful. In these complex situations, that requires something nuanced and circumspect, rather than something short and pithy.

  • Elena Villarreal

    Admittedly, I don’t know anything about this situation, but when little things set people off like this, there’s usually something else going on. His sister probably feels excluded from the family, maybe even that they don’t respect her. Have they spoken in a sneering or scornful way about Muslims or religious people? Maybe she’s expressing that resentment through another outlet.

    Also, even if it’s justified, calling someone, or even thinking of them as, a spoiled brat isn’t likely to promote familial harmony. You can’t just calmly explain to someone that their feelings are wrong and expect that to fix things. Do you want to be right, or get along?

    Also, I agree, Richard’s posts are too long, and tend towards repetition, not necessarily nuance.

  • Jeanette

    Great advice Richard, as usual! I love how you recognize that family dynamics are difficult and you’re sensitive to that, but your solutions still never lack integrity.

    It is a little disturbing that some of the commenters think the sister deserves horrible sexist treatment just because she follows a traditionally sexist religion. I mean, I know that was just a humorous suggestion to prove a point, and I agree with the point itself, but equality cannot ever be thought of as reserved only for those who “appreciate” it.

  • JulietEcho

    Richard, you should keep up the length you feel is necessary, even if some of it seems repetitious to those of us who’ve been reading for ages. People who have read that part before can skim/skip, and those who haven’t will benefit from reading it instead of missing out because the long-time readers wanted something more snappy and concise.

    It’s advice, not entertainment.

  • Chris

    Thank you Jeanette, a point those frightened what *those people* will do with freedom once they’ve got it (referring Egypt and Mubarak’s step down) should heed.. everyone deserves freedom and democracy and the chance to mess up for crying out loud!!
    The sister is being ridiculous, but they have allowed it, like giving in to a toddler. So it is as much their fault as hers at this point. If they want a different reaction from her they need to give her a different response. She has what she wants- she won’t change on her own. If they need something else from her- it is their responsibility to let her know that, and to tell her what the expected behavior is, and what non-compliance WILL bring.
    I personally would never stop talking just because someone whined and cried like that..

  • Bronco

    I’m with L.Long on this. Hilarious!
    I think Richard’s long answers are fine. It’s not a news soundbite.

  • lurker111

    Reminds me of the old line, “A family is a tyranny run by its weakest member.”

    Don’t recall who first said that.

  • LL

    I agree with JulietEcho that Richard’s advice is not meant to be entertainment.

    Those who are in need of advice on the topic will appreciate the detailed version. I suppose the decision is between wanting to attract more people to read it or to actually help the ones who need the advice. I think Richard finds a good balance between the two.

    Here are two words for those who want quick, easy, and entertaining solutions to all problems: Fortune cookies! :)

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    “spoiled brat” lol. i completely agree.

    if the sister had discovered the magic of meth and couldn’t stop bringing meth induced behavior to the dinner table, the family wouldn’t hesitate to take a firm hand with her and help her change her inappropriate and antisocial behavior. this isn’t any different. she’s got a right to believe any woo she likes; she has no right to hold the rest of the family hostage and make her parents uncomfortable for no good and only selfish reasons.

    this is a pet peeve of mine, because i was raised in a home with strict familial discipline. my parents never beat me or anything like that, but the idea of doing something that my mother didn’t like in front of the rest of the family, repeatedly, is beyond my understanding. i think too many parents are far too lenient with their children today, and it’s bad for our society. i see it in public all the time, kids that back-talk or act out and their parents do nothing to control them. frankly, it disgusts me. children need discipline, and this girl clearly isn’t getting enough. her father needs to lay down the law, and her mother needs to remind her that being polite and respectful of your elders is a family value that even Islam recognizes.

  • JustAGuy

    Richard:

    I sincerely apologize. “Impactful” was a poor choice of words on my part.

    Clearly, your efforts are appreciated!

  • Jon

    “We can’t just cut her out of the family or stop inviting her”

    Yes, you can.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I think you’ve given good advice, Richard, and I actually like the fact that you explain your answer, even if it’s a little lengthy. I especially think that it’s a good idea to point out that they respect her right to convert, so she should respect their rights as well.

    Personally, as someone who grew up in a Muslim family (though my family wasn’t all that observant) it always amazes me when someone wants to convert to Islam.

    @Jeanette:

    It is a little disturbing that some of the commenters think the sister deserves horrible sexist treatment just because she follows a traditionally sexist religion. I mean, I know that was just a humorous suggestion to prove a point, and I agree with the point itself, but equality cannot ever be thought of as reserved only for those who “appreciate” it.

    I agree. I think it would be good to point out problems in Islam and ways in which it treats women badly, but we shouldn’t want her to be abused so she’ll learn a lesson.


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