7 Tips for Dealing with Religious Relatives

I’m lucky to have a supportive family. Even my religious family members respect and accept me for who I am. But that’s not always the case.

Some of us are facing relatives who are heartbroken about our lack of faith — incredulous, fearful, maybe even angry. For parents, this is an area that weighs especially heavily. We want so much to encourage our children to have open, meaningful relationships with our loved ones, but we worry our kids will be pressured to believe things that aren’t true, or may even be harmful. No one wants to expose kids to the “family tension,” or say something that will make the the tension even worse. So what can be done? How can nonreligious types deal with religious relatives?

As always, there is a balance to be struck. And, as always, love and levity go along way.

1. See that big chip on your shoulder? Knock it off.

Okay, so you’ve been disrespected, condescended to, verbally attacked or even threatened. That shit will get under anyone’s skin. But if religion is ever going to become a non-subject in your house, you’re going to have to own your part in it. Approaching religious loved ones adversarially is that part. Often, we see religious exposure and treat it as religious invasion, or we hear words of faith and interpret them as acts of war. Try shedding your armor before you walk in the door. Adopt a loving posture, instead of a defensive one. Make jokes. Be self-effacing. And if all else fails, do what most families do and find a third-party to vilify. Far more dysfunctional families than your own have been saved simply by identifying a common enemy.

2. Relaaaaaaax

Do you honestly think your relatives’ religious views are going to succeed in “indoctrinating” your child. Not a chance. Children may go to church every Sunday with their grandparents, but they’ll still look to their parents for true religious guidance. So stop worrying so much. Explain to your kids that people have all sorts of religious beliefs, and encourage them to explore and ask lots of questions. Give your child a preview of what they might hear from relatives or friends at school. Tell them it’s okay to believe in God or not believe in God, and that people have lots of different ideas about how the universe was made and what happens after we die. Some people have such strong beliefs that they try very hard to convince others that their way is the right and only way. Encourage your children to listen and be respectful and that they have plenty of time to make up their own minds.

3. Encourage religious talk.

People love to talk about themselves. It makes them feel good. And if a person’s interests center on his or her religion, then allowing them to talk about his or her religion is a really nice thing. Think about how touched your mom would be if you invited her to tell your children about her faith. She’d no longer have to sneak around you (as much), or feel (as) resentful, or worry (as intensely) that you’re dragging your child to hell. Let your mother know that, as long as she doesn’t say anything hurtful, hateful or scary, she is welcome to expose your children to religion as much or as little as she likes. Be sure to encourage your children to engage in these discussions, too.

4. Lower your expectations.

If you have an especially vocal family, and find yourself getting stressed out easily, you may need to lower your expectations a bit. Try promising yourself you won’t get annoyed until you hear X number of religious remarks or stories. Then set the X number kind of high. I used to do this when I travelled long distances with my toddler. If I resolved not to get stressed until she had three meltdowns, for instance, I didn’t exhaust myself trying so damn hard to prevent just one. My relaxed attitude made all the difference, and the trips always exceeded by expectations.

5. Understand that ‘rational’ has nothing to do with it.

Why are we non-theists so outraged, indignant and disgusted when we learn new things about religion? When we pick up the Bible or the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon, for example, and actually read some of what’s in there? “People can’t possible believe this stuff,” we nonreligious types say. “This book doesn’t make any sense, and it contradicts itself all over the place!” Right, sure. But religious people aren’t concerned about that. If God works in mysterious ways, every single supernatural and incongruous event in religious history can be justified. Can they be justified through rational thought? Of course not. That’s why it’s called faith. Let’s move on.

6. Avoid debate (especially when liquor is involved).

Because religion is often irrational, arguing about religion is usually pretty pointless. When was the last time you changed someone’s religion by arguing a point really well? I rest my case. If you find it fun to discuss or debate religious beliefs, and can do so respectfully, then have at it. But if you’re going to end up feeling frustrated or angry or thinking less of the person you’re debating, then leave it. This is one area where keeping your trap shut will reward you in spades.

7. Tell them to go suck a bag of dicks — but, you know, more nicely.

The sad fact is that some relationships are not strong enough  — and never were — to withstand the divide caused by religious differences. Either the dogma and rhetoric is too thick to see through, or the religious belief has  becomes intertwined with out-and-out bigotry. If you no longer feel you get anything good or positive from a certain relationship, then you are within your right to limit visits or stop them altogether. Just be sure you think it through first, and that you’ve tried your best to make things work. Giving family members a chance to right their wrongs and correct their offensive behavior is a must if you are to feel good about your decision down the road.

This post originally appeared in February 2012.

About Wendy Thomas Russell

Wendy Thomas Russell is a journalist, author and blogger. Her book, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is due out this winter.

  • Melissa

    I have a feeling that this tip list will definitely help me in the future! Husband and I aren’t parents yet, but have discussed openly how we want to handle the topic with our future children. Neither of us are very religious – me being a little more open-minded to various religions – but our parents all have their believes, and our grandparents even more so. Thanks for all of your insight and educated ideas on non-religious parenting!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      So welcome, Melissa! And good for you for thinking about this before the kids come.

  • Rich Wilson

    I suspect, only with gut feeling and anecdotal evidence, that this affects us more when it’s protecting our kids from our proselytizing parents (or other relatives).

    We don’t want to cut our kids off from them, but we do want those relatives to respect our kids’ rights, probably even more than our own. If my mom starts dropping not-so-subtle hints about the Glory of God, I can shrug it off. But I’ll be damned if I’ll have her trying to guilt trip my son.

    I think if other measures don’t work, then tough love is in order. If they want a relationship with you, and your kids, then they have to adhere to some ground rules. If not, then no relationship. And that can be tough on you and the kids as well as them. Especially if free babysitting is involved.

    But don’t child education professionals say to set clear boundaries, and consequences, and follow through? “If you start talking to my kids about religion, we won’t be back to visit or one month.”. And it may take a few times to get through their religious privilege regarding what is ‘religious’. That is, they may not consider the story of Noah’s Ark to be religious. It’s just natural history. Most important is to follow through.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      “Free babysitting” being a highly operative word, right? How much would most parents put with just to not have to pay a stranger $10-$20 an hour every time they needed help with the kids? Especially in this economy… Really like your advice about setting boundaries and following through, too, Rich. Very wise.

  • katie

    great tips – i should read and reread them. my problem is we are not AS religious as my fundamentalist bro-and sis in-law. they won’t attend any family religious events in our lutheran church. and i am catholic which the fundamentalists really hate. the issue is boundries. they take our children aside and ask them questions and preach to them. we ask them to stop, they accuse us of poisoning the well . . . i think i will try the ‘lower my expectations’ tip and the ‘relax’ tip – but damn if it doesn’t make me want to carry my flask of tequila whenever i see them

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Tip #8: Carry a flask of tequila at all times.

      Thanks, Katie. I absolutely think these tips apply to interfaith relationships. I had to laugh when I read that you’re Catholicism is poisoning the religious well. Wowzer! I do think you and Rich are right, though. There’s something to be said for drawing the line for your family and insisting they stay on the other side of it. I think the question may be: Where exactly do you draw the line?

  • Danny Ray

    Last “tip” got my attention and caused me to have a severe case of genu valgus with co-morbidity of emasculation phobia!

    Seriously, those who have faith in very little can have great faith in their children. It seems in religion and worldviews, there is a desire to monopolize the minds of children. This is one major driving force behind the home schooling movement. We can indoctrinate our children to not be gullible by raising them with questioning minds. To sequester the one who has learned to question and doubt is not necessary.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      You did not just put tip in quotations. Ha! Great points all around, Danny. (As usual.)

  • http://taytayhser.blogspot.com/ Karen Loe

    Seriously good list. Never debate. It’s completely pointless.

    Also, just to add a bit more to the indoctrination fear, Kids are PRETTY SMART. I found, through the years, that the things that people would say to them would become fodder for our future conversations.

  • http://www.super-daddy.net Kevin

    Thanks for the list.

    Both of my wife’s parents are preachers and I have a great relationship with them. However, I am concerned about them trying to indoctrinate my kids when they are visiting without my wife and I present.

    I recently told my wife a list of things I don’t want her parents doing or saying around our kids…I knew then, when I said it, that it was irrational. Your list has given me a little perspective. Thanks.

  • Elaine

    Thank you Wendy. Lots of food for thought. I have started trying to recognize my own part in rapidly degrading familial relationships. These sure help.

  • Heather

    I love this article. My husband, daughter, and I recently relocated across country and since then my husband’s father has been getting more and more forceful about his religion. He knows we are not religious and we have quietly listened to his condemnations and accusations about what we are doing so wrong in our lives. But it is coming to a head. He is getting more and more judgmental in his behavior and it is actually causing us a lot of stress. So we are reaching a point where we are going to have to cut off all communication with him. It’s a very sad state of things, but what else can you do when forced to deal with intolerance and anger?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      So glad it helped, Heather, and I’m so sorry to hear about this. That is just beyond frustrating and sad. Even dads don’t get a free pass to be mean and bitter, though, right? I’ll be crossing my fingers that he’s eventually able to see the error of his ways! Thanks so much for writing.

  • Tracy

    Thanks so much for this article. I am agnostic, used to be Catholic, and engaged to be married to an atheist. I did get a lot of questions from my mom. Somehow, I was able to calm her down. My only worries are my relatives, who are likely to preach. Most of all, more preaching and questions that are about to come once we decide to have a child. I’ll keep these in mind and hopefully will get through.

  • Melissa

    wow, this is just what I needed to hear!! Very level-headed advice. family gatherings with my husband’s family stress me out something aweful(and have caused panic attacks in the past) The funny thing is, when religious convo is avoided I really like hanging out with them and think they are (for the most part) fantastic people! so, I don’t want to cut off ties. I used to be Christian (or am kind of…no labels I guess??) and so I don’t think they are aware of my differences in opinion/woldview. My husband also gets really irritated with the out of the blue religion talk, as he is a very liberal Christian (which his folks don’t really know either). I think I just need to take a deep breath and not get all bent out of shape at every little remark. I shouldn’t be allowing them to affect me in that way. And, to be fair, it is really mostly “step mom in law” that is the offender. And I don’t particularly get along with her, regardelss of religious differences . So should I let her rampant fundamentalism come between our family time? no way! I’m not going to pay any more attention to her “I’m a poor persecuted Christian” hysteria.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      So happy to help, Melissa!

  • Sean

    I like this advice. I have been very patient thus far with my father-in-law who follows a strict faith. I almost cracked tonight by explaining my disinterest in religious beliefs, but luckily I kept tight lipped because I realized he will never accept my opinion. He insists that I study and learn more about his religion, which I am accepting as a learning experience that I will take a positive lesson from, even though I cannot whole heatedly put my faith into these beliefs.

  • Jackie

    Hello, I think these strategies are wonderful. I appreciate how peaceful they are (and will make me seem when I use them). My issue is with my husband’s parents. I won’t even call them my in-laws because they don’t see our marriage as valid because we are not married through the Catholic Church, but anyway: my husband is pretty Catholic, just not as pushy as them. Last trip over there, a new form of criticism was born… As a public school teacher, I should now be ashamed of myself and feel tremendously guilty for “filling kids’ heads with lies like evolution and the big bang theory.” First it was that we “aren’t married”, then it was that we had a baby “without being married”. After that came telling my husband’s young brother that we weren’t actually married, which has led him to ask us over and over again when we ARE going to get married. There was a series of hissy fits about my and husband’s tattoos. Now they are actively campaigning for us to attend religious seminars with them. Oh, and I should feel horrible and repent at how evil my career is… I’m getting to the end of my rope here, I mean I don’t invite them to my home to tell them what I think is wrong with how THEY are living, for the sake of PEACE I keep that shit to myself. This article bought me a few more feet of rope, so thank you!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Jackie, thanks so much for writing! It’s a good reminder to me to hear how extremely pushy and demanding some family members can be. I think this well may be a “that which does not kill you makes you stronger” sort of an experience. If you can deal with your husband’s family without losing your shit, you can deal with anything! Stay strong, and try like hell to laugh it off.

  • Stephen D.

    This really gives me the positive help I’ve been dying to hear. Love my family and don’t want to be a total dick in how I view/accept religion. This advice is likely the first source out of my family that van be considered helpful while trying to be understanding of them. This gave me some peace at mind. Thank you. ^_^

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      I’m so happy to hear that, Stephen! Thanks so much for the feedback.

  • Ann

    I feel that most of these tips except the last one are lessons in how to be a doormat. There is no way I would let my family members take my kids to church because it’s the same church that gave me “hell and brimstone” nightmares as a child. I feel that my parents’/family’s religious beliefs are harmful and I will protect my kids from it rather than expose them to it. Part of our jobs as parents is to set boundaries and let others know what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to our children. I really think this post overlooks that in favor of “keeping the peace” or not wanting to cause discord. For those of us who were raised in religious families and taught not to have spines or brains of our own, this sort of advice is more of the same old same old and is the last thing we need to hear.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Wow, it sounds like you had a rough childhood, Anita. I’m really sorry to hear that. And I’m sorry to hear my advice didn’t help you more. Good luck to you and your family.