Atheism through the holidays, part 4: How to deal with religious relatives

I know this is late – the holidays are now over – but I don’t really have all that much experience with this one, having only been an atheist for a few years, and I wanted to let another holiday season go by before addressing it.

When it comes to dealing with religious relatives during the holidays, my biggest strategy is simply keeping my mouth shut. First of all, some of my relatives know I’m an atheist while others don’t, which makes things complicated and makes keeping my own counsel easier. Secondly, the fact that I don’t believe the stories doesn’t mean that they don’t mean something important for Christians, and I don’t see the point of trying to mess that up through scoffing or mockery. Finally, the reality is that saying something will often result in huge arguments or confrontations, something I prefer to avoid over the holidays. And so, I keep my mouth shut.

The thing is, having a child makes this whole thing more complicated.

What do you do when you walk into a room and see a religious relative reading your child a children’s book about the crucifixion of Jesus? (My only consolation is that my daughter had the most skeptical look on her face I have ever seen).

What do you do when you see a religious relative playing with a toy nativity set with your child, explaining the Christmas story and what each figure was and did?

What do you do about the fact that your child doesn’t know what prayer is, but is suddenly expected to fold her hands and be quiet during prayer before meals?

So far, I don’t have any real answers. This is something I’m still figuring out. This holiday season, I didn’t make a big deal of things, even when they involved my child. Sally may have heard some funny stories, and she now knows that the baby in the manger of a nativity scene is “baby Jesus,” but I don’t think she sees these stories any differently from stories about Thomas the Tank Engine or Elmo or the myriad books we read to her. So far she’s young enough to easily pick up on things like prayer before meals, dutifully holding hands with those sitting by her and remaining silent.

The difficulty will be the future. As she grows older, I will make sure to prepare her for spending time with religious relatives over the holidays by explaining what her grandparents, aunts, and uncles believe and that we need to be tactful and understanding of others beliefs regardless of what we ourselves believe. Beyond that, I don’t know.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anonymous

    You're exactly right – they are just stories like the millions of other stories they hear. What matters is what you tell her about the stories…"Some people believe that they're true. Mom doesn't believe that, but Gran does…." etc. Keep talking. From the talking comes the love and the understanding that they need to figure it out for themselves.

  • Suzanne Seed

    Many Unitarian churches do Sunday-School outings to visit other religions churches & temples, thus respectfully but clearly demonstrating that religions are man-made cultures that come in many makes & models. The core prayer of Unitarianism is "Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, service is its prayer…" Thus kids can measure Faiths by how well they exemplify this obviously solid value system: "by their fruits shall you know them."

  • Anonymous

    I made a new years resolution to avoid, insofar as is possible, talking to my family about politics or religion. It just brings a whole lot of discomfort and heartache on both sides. I can only imagine how much more complicated having kids would make things. I sort of have it the other way, since I have a young niece being raised by my religious sister. I worry about whether at some point, I'll be asked not to talk about certain things around her (she's still less than a year old). I respect my sister's faith, though it is different from my own, and I acknowledge the importance of symbols, both within and outside of a religious context, but it seems like people who are religious aren't so much into respecting the views of people on the outside.Skjaere

  • Exrelayman

    Isn't that sweet how believers can express their thinking, but for you to express yours is unacceptable? Sorry, don't have any good input about dealing with that, each situation is unique.However, as to the indoctrination of your daughter, I have an idea that I will throw out there. It is of course perfectly OK for you to toss aside if it is not to your liking.Educate her in a playful way. Have a map game and play with guessing which areas are mostly Christian, Muslim, and Hindu. In the process some explanation of what these terms mean will come out. Emphasize that some people believe this idea and some people believe another idea. Do not be reluctant to say what you believe also, but in doing so make it very clear that you will love her very much no matter what she comes to believe. Use questions like 'what do you think about this' to encourage her to think for herself.More emphasis will be on Christianity because that's what she will be mostly exposed to. Then, next year when those situations arise, she will know that this is just one of the different ways people believe. But have her know also that most people do not like to have their beliefs criticized, especially by little girls.I know you will be thinking longer and harder on this than I have, you being the parent. I hope others also have thinking to share that you may find useful.

  • shadowspring

    What about looking at it as an intercultural exchange? Even though your family are Americans, there do have very different cultural beliefs. It seems useful to me to be fact based in that way. I have many neighbors of many different religions. I try to put a good spin on all of them. For example, the celebration of Dewali (sp?) is a classic story of good triumphing over evil. The Shiite celebration of Ashura is a lament over injustice triumphing over good and the need for humanity to take a stand against oppression. Granted, these are very simplistic explanations, but those are often all children want. Can you explain the manger story as a cultural myth that there is a benevolent power identifying with humanity, and many people find that comforting? This way, your daughter can be tactfully tolerant without needing to buy into the story.That's this believers take on it, anyway.

  • Angelia

    My kids are much older (19-12) and none of them are Christian, but we went to 2 different Christian services this year. They understood it as "We do this to make our Grandparents happy." There was some inner conflict among the kids about communion. I told them to treat it as cakes and ale, a grounding moment after the main ritual.My position is that in Western culture you cannot be culturally literate without knowing the basic Bible stories, because Christianity shaped Western civilization, art, music and literature for two millennia. So, let the grandparents read her the stories. Read her your own. She will come to understand Jesus is just like Thor and Hermes, King Arthur and Robin Hood, a being some people believe in, and about whom many things are said and stories are told.Being silent and respectful while others are praying is the same sort of good manners as being silent when others are talking to people. It's called being the perfect stranger. You are not a part of their faith, but neither are you disturbing the practices of it that you happen to be present for.

  • Rosa

    We have talked about myths of the world with our son, and we talk about the Christian stuff (including the Nativity) in terms of stories – "the Christian story about Christmas says…"And now that he's six and he's saying that to other people it's been a TREMENDOUS problem. Religious people don't want to have their story compared to another story, or be told that is IS a story.I kind of feel like with the family, eh, they can be offended if they want. Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll get so offended they'll stop trying to Christianize him. But he's having problems with friends in school, too (we took a friend of his on an outing this week, and his friend was telling him about the origin of the world and how the first people were prophets and there are djinns that can steal your body unless you pray, etc.) I don't really know if there IS a way to approach it that won't injure feelings on the religious side – obviously the Christian and Muslim kids know their religion isn't the only one, but if they're still in the "this is the true history of the world" mindset, there's no talking about that fact.

  • boomSLANG

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • boomSLANG

    "Religious people don't want to have their story compared to another story, or be told that is IS a story."~ RosaPrecisely. So, IMO, letting one's deeply religious parents read the biblical stories to their grand kids is only giving them indirect permission to lay the ground work for further indoctrination in the future. And let's face it, we know it's coming if we're talking fundamentalism. Further down the road it will be the doctrine of "hell", or as some less strict believers like to water it down, "separation from God", yadda, yadda. If, for the holidays, one has already made the decision to keep one's mouth shut to avoid confrontation and/or to keep from hurting the feelings of those who believe the Christmas-related stories are literal, then that's one thing—I really don't have much advice. But once kids enter the equation, I have a strong opinion on that. For religious relatives to ask my kid to bow his or her head and "thank the Lord" for the food they're about to eat, that would be nothing less than indoctrination taking place right under my nose. I know every situation is different, but personally, I simply could not/would not sit silently on that.

  • Meggie

    Libby, it sounds like you are doing a great job. Sally is going to encounter a lot of religion in her life and you might as well start teaching her young. Prayers occur at weddings, funerals, maybe even school, and she needs to know to sit quietly without interupting, even if she isn't participating in the prayer. Let her hear the bible stories but let her hear other religions stories too. She will be in a much better position to make her own decisions later if she has all the information. Remember that Old Testament stories are actually the Jewish stories. It might horrify some Christians but it makes it an interesting way to teach kids. (I was in my early teens before I worked out that, as a Christian, I actually came from the 'gentiles' of the New Testament and that the Old Testament was someone elses story.)

  • Meggie

    Love the new site look! Happy New Year <3

  • livingthesimpletruths

    Just came across your blog & I have loved what I've read so far.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Libby Anne, I'm Aurora, I've been lurking for a bit but I'm not very good at commenting; I'm a little compulsive about editing, and it ends up taking a very long time. I've been really enjoying the blog though, and I keep having things to say, so I'm going to give it a try. Sally probably is young enough to see these stories as "just another set of stories," but if she’s old enough to talk about the stories and the praying, it’s probably a good idea to do it. Christians so often act as if their worldview is the only worldview and it doesn't necessarily take much to make a skeptical kid feel bad about their skepticism. The message that everyone is a Christian or that you have to be a Christian to be a good person seems like one to address directly and early.My parents were agnostic-leaning-atheist and I didn’t have any particularly religious relatives but one of my earliest memories is of a conversation I started with me mother about hell. I told her the whole god thing seemed really unlikely to me, but if it was true and not believing it meant going to hell, then it seemed like I ought to *try* to believe just in case but… and at that point I trailed off because I didn't disbelieve quite enough to make saying it feel safe. My mother doesn't remember that conversation, but her guess from my description of the context was that I was just barely two years old. I don't know where I picked those ideas up, but they were kinda scary. Sort of a moral test, because the story felt wrong to me, and it felt wrong to say that I believed something that I didn't, but if the morality of the story was right, then declaring my disbelief, even to myself, would make me a bad person. It was really unsettling, so unsettling that I can easily imagine having been too scared to start the conversation. What that little out-of-context snippet of Christianity said to me was that I couldn't trust my own perceptions and beliefs. Even though I knew my mother was a reasonable person, it told me not to rely on that; I think part of me was afraid that she would tell me that if I didn't believe, there was something wrong with me. Of course nothing in my experience of her made that seem likely, but talking to her and knowing for sure really helped.Aurora

  • Alison

    Like Skjaere, I have a sister raising Christian kids. My wonderful sister would never ask me not to say things, but they simply assume that I am a Christian, leaving me in the awkward situation of either colluding with this, or starting a discussion in an overly pointed way.I think understanding people have different beliefs is a great thing. Understanding how to respect those and be assertive about your right to your own is a pretty vital life skill. Good luck!

  • Anonymous

    While in your parents home growing up did your family ever iinvite non Christain people into your home?Beverly

  • Mommy McD

    This is similar to how we do it. We haven't been with family for the past 2 years because we are overseas, and that has certainly made it easier. I know it is important for the family to share these stories, but I don't want my kids to be scared into believing something. I hope you had a good break, aside from any religious awkwardness with your family.

  • Libby Anne

    Beverly – "While in your parents home growing up did your family ever invite non Christian people into your home?"Yes – to evangelize them. I can't ever remember having non-Christian people over without talk of being "a witness" or "sharing Christ" with them. They used to invite international students from a local university over in order to introduce them to Christ, or people from our church that they felt could use some good Christian discipleship, etc. I honestly, truly, cannot remember having a non-Christian over WITHOUT that being the goal! Of course, that makes sense – my parents believe that the most important thing Christians can and should be doing is making converts, saving non-believers from hell, etc. They see every interaction through that lens. Meggie – Glad you like the new look! I just felt like a change, and I had fun playing around with it!

  • shadowspring

    Yes, fundamentalists are only friends with non-believers in order to "be a witness" to them as a rule. I have never understood that, because of my own personal beliefs about God and spirituality (which don't belong on this blog, so 'nuff said). As a Christian who thinks that is a crazy way to "love your neighbor as yourself", I have never lived that way. But I have faced a lot of gossip and criticism because of that. I am fascinated by people, and I love learning about other cultures. I have been a foreign exchange student mom five times, and not one of them has ever converted, nor have I pressured them to convert. That would be such an ugly thing to do to someone, in my opinion. But because I don't think like so many other American Christians, I suppose my comments aren't that helpful. Of course Libby's relatives will try to convert her daughter at some point. That didn't occur to me until now. So, even while Libby might be open to treating her family's religion like a personal cultural quirk to be understood but not personally embraced, I doubt if her relatives will treat her with the same good grace.I feel like apologizing even though I am not responsible in any way. Sorry Christians are like that, though. :(

  • boomSLANG

    "I feel like apologizing even though I am not responsible in any way. Sorry Christians are like that, though."You're correct when you realize that we cannot apologize on the behalf of other adults. But better to attempt that, than to attempt to divorce people's crappy behavior from one's own beliefs. IOW, you could have easily tried the ol', Those people aren't True Christians! soundbite, but you didn't. So, kudos.

  • Aemi

    To Mrs. Libby Anne: You are the nicest atheist I have come across so far. Thank you for being nice.

  • Helen

    Libby Anne, don't forget that kids are quite used that they don't always understand everything that happens around them, and that other people sometimes act in a "weird" way. This type of "culture shock" (a commenter had the very good idea of considering such encounters as meeting a aforeign culture) probably is not a problem for your kid at this point :-)The idea of treating the Jesus stories just as any fairy tale is a very good one. When you're reading to her, do read a Jesus story once in a while. She has to get to know them anyway, and your relatives will have to look for something else if they want to tell her something exciting and new :-).

  • Helen

    Rosa: What about explaining your son that some people believe these tales to be true and feel bad if you tell them the opposite? I see it's hard, but he'll have to cope with this situation anyway… Sometimes a disinterested 'uhum' and changing the topic is the best answer if someone wants to convert you, and maybe this communication strategy could help your son to avoid superfluous conflicts.

  • Rosa

    Helen – when he's older he'll probably be better at that. But he's 6. He still thinks if people act like they're having a genuine, open-minded conversation, they're interested in hearing your viewpoint as well. Not to mention that he expects if he asks "is that really true?" about a scary story (like demons/djinn taking over your body unless you pray – it's an astonishingly similar story, between the different kinds of fundamentalists) the person he's talking to will say "no, that can't really happen." Because usually he's dealing with peopel who don't actually believe that demons/djinn snatch the bodies of little children.Also, there's no politely getting away from the people you're related to (or for the friend you're belted in next to in the back seat, for that matter.) The relatives who feel like they need to tell us about Jesus certainly aren't the kind of people who think kids have the right to choose what topics to talk about. Trust me, these are folks who haven't yet noticed that we don't agree with them, after more than a decade of politely going "hmn" and changing the topic. Or at least they haven't noticed that it's not polite to air your thoughts on prophetic dreams or abortion at the dinner table.

  • quietpanther