In a lot of ways, I am very fortunate for the situation I’ve found myself in since my deconversion from Christianity. Despite having very religious and conservative parents, one of whom (my father) was a Baptist minister for most of my childhood, I have had relatively few overt problems with them in terms of being an “out” atheist. For the most part, religion has become a subject that we don’t fight about – and that’s no accident.
This is the situation that many of us find ourselves in when we come out to loved ones. In the best cases, the ensuing religious differences don’t result in shunning, but they do often result in our loved ones shifting their understanding of us or else shifting their behavior toward us. Sometimes that change is relatively innocuous: For instance, my dad has started prefacing religious statements with caveats like “I know you don’t believe this, but…” (This is a bit patronizing, but it’s not really a great annoyance, in my opinion.)
Sometimes that change is significant. When that happens, the burden of dealing with it falls almost entirely on us.
This leaves the non-believer with very limited options. One is to do nothing to modify their behavior: If a religious family member brings up something religious or tries to single out the non-believer or engages in proselytizing, the non-believer can just state their opinion openly as though the field were an equal one (never mind that it rarely is because we tend to be outnumbered and often still have a power imbalance with the people involved, such as our parents or grandparents). Even if you do this nicely, it is bound to cause tension.
The other major option is to make the adjustments yourself rather than try to push others to accommodate your position. In other words, you become the peacemaker.
There really wasn’t any question for me what I would do. One of the great paradoxes of my personality is that I’m simultaneously a very opinionated and argumentative person but also quite averse to most confrontations. (For just one example: If I go to a restaurant and someone at my table makes a big deal to wait staff about an error with the meal, I find that incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, to the point where I hardly ever voice such complaints myself.)
So in the beginning, I voiced my opinions (although generally not to my wife, who was and still is a Christian). And there were some very uncomfortable – and unresolved – arguments, especially with my mother. Neither of us budged on our positions, but we did both learn that these arguments were a waste of time. As a result, we stopped even bringing them up.
This burden wasn’t shared equally, though. Over the course of three years, I became more involved in atheist and secular causes, taking a leadership position in a local freethought group and pursuing certification as a secular celebrant. These were things that I was – and still am – proud of. But even attempting to mention them, without getting into arguments for positions, met with resistance.Case in point: When I came back from the workshop with the Center for Inquiry where I received training on becoming a secular celebrant, my mother asked me if I was going to do funerals. I told her that yes, funerals are a part of the role, and she said to me words I haven’t forgotten to this day: “What would you tell someone at a funeral? What kind of hope could you give them?” And then she reminded me that it would just kill my father if he found out. (To this day, I’m fairly certain he doesn’t know.)
This is the kind of response I get. But when my parents talk about religious stuff or about what’s happening in the churches they attend, do I roll my eyes or act disdainful about the things they bring up, which I often find silly or absurd?
Of course not, because I’m not an asshole.
This is the price of being a peacemaker: You end up sacrificing part of your life, while others can go on acting like they always have. In the words of my friend Neil Carter, you make a gesture that cannot be returned.
And what’s worse, the people who benefit the most from your peacekeeping efforts will never recognize you for those efforts – and they may even suggest that you’re still not doing enough to make things okay. Even the demand for recognition as an individual with your own identity, beliefs, and autonomy can be an affront to this fragile peace.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus supposedly says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But keeping the peace isn’t a blessing – it is more often self-abnegation. Who then gives peace to the peacemakers? When do we get our own sense of calm and belonging?
Those are largely rhetorical questions; I don’t pretend that there’s an easy answer. But maybe it’s worth considering that an oppressive peace is no better than an open conflict – and it may prevent a real peace from ever being pursued.
Blessed are those who do not suffer in silence, for they will force others to make room for them.
Galen Broaddus is a web developer currently living in the flatlands of central Illinois. He is also the president of Springfield Area Freethinkers (IL) and a certified Secular Celebrant with the Center for Inquiry. He is formerly a contributor to the Ex-Communications blog on the Patheos network, and you can also find him writing occasionally on his celebrant blog and tweeting slightly more occasionally @ILSecCelebrant. He can be reached by E-mail at email@example.com.