I Get Email: Religious Family During the Holidays

I received an email the other day detailing a scenario I’m sure several atheists find themselves in during the holidays.


I’m a 21 year-old college student majoring in pre-veterinary medicine and biology. Because of the wonderful pre-vet program at this particular university, I went there despite it being affiliated with one particular christian denomination. As a non-religious person, I am no stranger to the kind of hypocritical persecution christians dish out to atheists. My car was vandalized last year because it had a Darwin fish on the back; it was painted all over with messages like “jesus loves you” and little jesus fish. I had to remove the paint myself, and security wasn’t too helpful either… they told me I -could- watch the security camera footage, but it would take hours and they didn’t think it was worth it.

At any rate, I have never allowed such incidents to get me down. I have recently come across a dilemma, though, that I would like an oustide opinion on. I have a cousin who recently became very religious (within the last decade or so), partially due to marrying into a very religious family and partially as a way to cope with his dad leaving his mother for a woman he’d been having an affair with for four years. Surprisingly, he has become even more zealous than the woman he married. I previously got into a debate with him over facebook about whether or not a catholic school should be allowed to have “Darwin Day,” which he disagreed with even though the catechism of the catholic church says evolution is OK (I know… 12 years of catholic education and I had to read that thing multiple times.) Things have been better between us since then, but he’s never missed an opportunity to emphasize his religion. For example, at my grandma’s funeral, I was telling him and the rest of the family about our experiences in Las Vegas, to which he responded “that’s why they call it SIN city.”

The other day, I posted a video entitled “Kristin Stewart Explains Christmas,” which I thought would be funny to all my friends and family members that enjoy mocking the twilight actress’s bland acting and general lack of brain cells. Most of the comments were about how funny it was. My cousin felt the need to say, and I quote: “call me crazy, but this is highly offensive. Here is the real meaning of christmas:” and then he sent me a link to a christian rock song. When I tried to explain to him that A) I meant no harm, and B) the video was mocking Kristin Stewart, not the Christmas story, I expected him to apologize. He did not. He went on to rant about how christianity is being persecuted and that christ should remain sacred at all times. I apologized again for having offended him (mainly to preserve some semblance of peace between us) but he did not respond.

I am now faced with the challenge of seeing him in person over the holidays. Before, when we debated evolution, the argument ended with apologies and reminders that we were still family. This time did not. I do not know what I should do if he confronts me. Do I try and explain myself to him, or do I just ignore him and try to be nice? I don’t want to ruin anyone’s holidays, but the fact that went out of his way to verbally shove his beliefs down my throat and the throat of anyone else who commented is just plain wrong.

Any advice is appreciated.

Well, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor, so any advice I give should be taken with an extreme grain of salt.  With that being said…

I travel around the country giving talks and am always encountered by religious people.  I do organized debates where the house is almost entirely religious.  What I have found is that honesty is truly the best policy and the ultimate indication of respect.  They may not like it, but as long as you’re not offending for the sake of offending, as long as their offense is due to the idea they might be wrong, I have always found that respect soon follows, even if agreement doesn’t.  You don’t expect your cousin to be anything other than himself, he should not expect any different of you.  By demanding you mask who you are in order to preserve his perceived right to not be offended, what he is saying (without realizing it) is that he loves himself more than you.  This is not how family members should behave.

Be aware that religious people don’t “win” by having good arguments, they win by motivating their followers into being ideological or emotional bullies.  This is what your cousin is doing, likely without even realizing it.  The behavior is probably picked up by emulating those around him.  In my experience, once a person like your cousinrealizes that someone doesn’t hate them but that they will not be bullied, the bravado immediately vanishes.

Give your cousin the respect of being straight with him.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • redskyonmars

    Give your brother the respect of being straight with him.

    That includes respecting him enough to tell him you aren’t brothers. He may not like it. He may even deny it. But he deserves the truth.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Gah, this is what I get for writing at 5am.


      • Kate from Iowa

        Er…being the family goat, I have to say that your advice, JT, really is only good advice if you’re not going to be targeted by everyone else for being a shit to your cousin, no matter how badly he behaves or how well you do. If you are, letter writer, the goat, your best way out may be to simply leave it be until a time when you can confront him without an audience.

  • niftyatheist

    My first reaction was that this advice was really good – patient, kind and aware of the respect necessary for preservation of peace within family dynamics. I think it is good advice still, but I think the question goes further and I hope JT you can add to this.
    Kate from Iowa makes a point which cannot be ignored.
    In a perfect world, a nonbeliever will be permitted to simply be in a family group and to converse naturally in a dialogue based upon equality and mutual respect with other members of the family group. In reality, however, the majority in any family will not only disagree with the outlier’s position, but will regard it as an affront, will close ranks around the single member with whom the nonbeliever was originally speaking, and will freeze the nonbeliever out.
    It just isn’t likely that an unbeliever will be left alone if s/he does what you recommend JT unless all parties are willing to be as respectful of others’ right to their views and to their personal integrity as you advise the vet-to-be to be toward the cousin who attacked him on FB.
    I think he is wondering what to do after the part you described, actually. And I don’t know if there is an answer to that? At least no answer that can tell any nonbeliever how not to become outcast from their theist families simply for being who they are.
    As for answering at 5Am…I think your answer was amazing! I cannot utter a single coherent thought at that hour without several caffeinated drinks! Cheers!

  • Mark

    I say treat it like you would with someone else’s kid who believes in Santa.

  • kosk11348

    My rule is, I push back against religion to the extent that it is pushed on me. I won’t bring the subject up, but if you do, be prepared to to defend your ideas or risk looking stupid. And it never takes long for the believer to make themselves look stupid.

  • Aquaria

    Surprisingly, he has become even more zealous than the woman he married.

    This isn’t surprising. Someone needs to do a study on how people who take on a spouse’s religion become bigger zealots than the spouse who grew up in the religion. It happens a hell of a lot, from what various theists have told me. I’ve known descendants of Brigham Young and Ellen White (SDA) who had spouses convert and start razzing them about not being good enough Mormons or SDA!

    I don’t want to ruin anyone’s holidays, but the fact that went out of his way to verbally shove his beliefs down my throat and the throat of anyone else who commented is just plain wrong.

    Tell him just that. And if you don’t mind burning some bridges (I haven’t spoken to one of my brothers in 11 years because he’s a psychotic piece of shit–sometimes being family doesn’t justify the bullshit anymore), then tell him that his godbotting is rude, boring and stupid.

    Because it is all of those things.

  • http://stupidwolf.blogspot.com Lucy

    Thanks, JT, for putting this up there on your blog. I really appreciate that you take the time to view all your e-mails, even if it’s just one from a frustrating college student in Ohio.

    I’m the one who e-mailed JT about this, and I can honestly say that if I were to come out as an atheist in front of my extended family (my parents/sister know and are fine with it), I’d probably not recieve much support. The majority of my extended family is religious, though not so zealous as my cousin. I would have the backing of several people for sure, but the general awkwardness and likely drama it would cause might not be worth the trouble.

    Anyway, I wrote to JT more about what to do if the religious relative confronted me than anything. He’s mysteriously not said anything to me since the Kristin Stewart incident, but his also-fundamentalist wife has been perfectly nice to me.

    I thank you all for your input on the matter! It certainly helps to have the story out there and get outside opinions on it.

    • http://stupidwolf.blogspot.com Lucy

      That was supposed to say frustrated, not frustrating xD

      • http://stupidwolf.blogspot.com Lucy

        I’d also like to clarify that it was my cousin who hasn’t said anything to me, not JT. JT e-mailed me very quickly xD

  • Loud

    This is a tricky one, Lucy, as you know, because no one wants to be responsible for causing the family gathering to descend into argument or bad feeling, but at the same time you’re well within your rights to defend your viewpoint from proselytizing.

    If I was in your position, I would firstly approach the day as if nothing is wrong; be perfectly normal towards your cousin. If you’re both expecting some animosity, then preempt it and let him know that, viewpoints aside, you’re still primarily family.

    Beyond that, I think JT and others have already given great advice. If your cousin brings up religion and is using it as a stick to beat you with, then defend yourself. I’m certainly not one to ever back down from such a situation, but only you can know how your family would respond to this. It might be better to suggest that a family gathering isn’t the best time for such a discussion, and schedule it for another time?

    Either way, good luck :)

  • treppenwitz

    My differences with my family tend to be political rather than religious (they’re mostly non-religious conservatives), so my experience isn’t exactly the same, but my approach for the past couple of years has been simple non-engagement. If I won’t be taken seriously anyway, then I refuse to be goaded into simultaneously debating four people.

  • Sastra

    Here’s another suggestion, one which tries to meld diplomacy with honesty:

    If your cousin brings religion up and ‘confronts’ you, address the gathering in general and ask him — and the rest of the family — what they’d all like you to do. Explain that you’d be perfectly happy to have a debate with him (he’s wrong, you know why he’s wrong, you’re more than capable of telling him why he’s wrong, and you’ve got no problem with proceeding here) BUT … you want to be sure that everyone is okay with this, since it’s a family holiday and all. Is the cousin ready for a debate? His wife? Are Mom and sis and Uncle Joe and Aunt Edna pleased with the possibility and eagerly looking forward to the festivities involved? If so, you’re on.

    If not, then please say so. Anyone.

    This approach seems to have 3 advantages:

    1.) It’s honest and upfront: it doesn’t make you look weak or intimidated.

    2.) The odds are pretty high that someone will say “No, please, God no” — and then both you AND your cousin are more or less obligated to opt out of the debate forum. His hands are now pretty much tied when it comes to goading you. It’s for dear Grandma’s sake (or whoever.)

    3.) If everyone is indeed fine and dandy with an all-out religious war, then at least they can’t complain that you’re the one responsible for any hurt feelings which may result. They weren’t only warned, they gave the green light. You asked their permission. You asked your cousin’s permission. Very proper.

    I said that the approach “seems” to have these 3 advantages because I’ve never done it myself, or seen it done by others. But it’s the first thing I thought of: ask for a general vote. If you’re not prepared to come out as an atheist, you can still say/imply that your religious views are not fundamentalist, and will reflect your liberal bias.

    Frankly, I’d be surprised if there isn’t a general outcry against the open conflict — and you can therefore bow out without backing down.