How To Survive Thanksgiving With Religious Family

How To Survive Thanksgiving With Religious Family November 19, 2018

The worst thing I ever had to worry about at Thanksgiving was Grandpa sitting me on his lap, opening his mouth with a wide grin and revealing he’d taken out his dentures. I never had to worry about being shamed for not attending church, or not praying before the meal or for using the “Lord’s” name in vain. I was free to be me with both sides of my family and I am forever grateful for that.

There are, of course, so many of you out there who aren’t as lucky. Here’s a note I received over the weekend:

Hey GM,

I’m headed to Kentucky for Thanksgiving this week and I am staying with my parents and my sister. Over the course of the week, there will be between 17 and 20 extended family members around. Every one of these relatives is a devout Baptist. The last time I saw them all, I was pretending to be a Baptist, too. Recently I came out on Facebook as an atheist. I admitted I have not believed in God for several years. This created so much turmoil in my family, I had to deactivate my Facebook account for a while. My parents, of course, would FaceTime me and berate me for my “choice”. I’ve never once criticized their belief. I’ve made sure to focus on what I believe and not bring up what they do. I have no interest in changing their mind about God. I have tried to be understanding and kind and patient, but they keep threatening me with Hell, telling me they are disappointed in me, telling me they hope I never have children and that I am possessed by Satan. They even threatened once to disown me so they can stay “in God’s good graces”. Since I moved to New York for school, I have always come back for Thanksgiving. It’s always just expected, so I am going again this year. I’m terrified of what my family might say and do. How would you deal with this? How would you get through Thanksgiving with a family like this? Any advice is helpful. Thank you,


First of all, I want to just say that I am so sorry that any of you have to experience this sort of treatment from family just because you don’t share their beliefs. I can’t imagine how it feels but I know it must be awful. I’m glad you’ve found other atheists online to connect with, at the very least.

Here’s the thing, though, family doesn’t always mean blood. As an atheist, you’re aware the only life we know we get for sure is this one. It’s yours and yours alone. You owe none of it to anyone else. No matter how much you may care for someone, if they insist the only way they can care for you back is if you share their beliefs, then you are in an abusive and toxic relationship. Don’t waste the one life you know you have trying to please someone you will never be able to.

Of course, when it comes to the people who gave you life and who raised you and cared for you and loved you as you grew, it’s not as easy as just cutting them out. So here’s how I would handle it, broken down into steps:

1. Explain to your parents that you no longer share their religious beliefs but that nothing else about you has changed. Tell them that you respect the fact that they have differing views from you, and that you hope they can reciprocate that. If you’ve got a reasonable family, this should be it, providing you actually hold up your end of the bargain. This should be enough. Of course, sometimes it’s just not enough to ask for and give respect. In the event this is the case, move on to step 2.

2. If your family proves that they are unwilling to treat you with respect despite the fact that you are giving it to them, you need to set a boundary. You need to tell them that they have to stop attacking you personally for your lack of belief or you will cease all contact with them. Make sure they understand the consequences clearly.

3. Follow through. Don’t make empty threats. If your family continues to beat you down for not believing in God, they are proving to you that their beliefs are more important to them than their love for you is. This is a hard pill to swallow and it’s not going to be an easy thing to do, but you’ve got to do it. The alternative is spending your life trying to win the respect of people who are never going to give it. Move on. Find a group of friends who can be your new family. One that loves and supports you for who you are.

Of course, if you’re the one who’s bringing up the topic of religion at family gatherings, or even amongst family on Facebook, you’re really provoking them and they have every right to fire back. Your best plan of action here is to simply stop. We don’t need each other to believe the precise same things to care for each other and enjoy a gut-busting feast together. If you want them to put the topic to rest and love you as you are, you absolutely must do the same. If they are willing to stop pushing their religion on you, go for Thanksgiving and just enjoy yourself. Don’t bring it up.

That’s not to say that if they want to ask questions about what you believe politely, you can’t answer them. Just be careful of where the conversation is headed and always take the high road. Be the better person. In every single one of our interactions with believers, atheists have the opportunity to prove that morality can exist without a belief in god. These are our chances to prove we can be great people. Be kind. Be respectful. Be understanding and accepting of who they are as individuals. If you feel the conversation is headed somewhere heated, just change the subject. I find the most effective way to do this is to ask a question about the other person, particularly on a topic you know they love talking about. For instance, if you have a cousin who plays hockey, ask how the season is going. Did he win his last game? In no time, you’re discussing something that he loves talking about and the warm fuzzies are back.

Under no circumstances should you get down in the mud with them. If they descend to threats and name-calling and hostility, you need to tell them that you love them but that you no longer feel safe and you have to go. Leave. Leave on the high road. Leave as the better person. Eventually, that believer is going to look back at the incident and remember he lost his cool and you, a heathen, kept yours. What does that say for religious morality over secular morality?

No matter how much you love your family, do not stay somewhere unsafe. if you are being threatened with violence or physically intimidated, it is unsafe. If you are being verbally torn down in front of your extended family, it is unsafe. If you are being forced to defend your basic humanity, if you’re being threatened with the horrific imagery of Hell and God’s wrath, it is unsafe. If you are being made out as less of a human being because you are an atheist, it is unsafe and you must get yourself out. Do not convince yourself that they mean well while they completely disregard your feelings. Tell them you love them. Tell them you’ll consider coming back when they can treat you like an equal. Then tell them you’re leaving and go. Don’t waste another minute of the only life you know you get trying to draw acceptance from someone who will never give it.

Besides, it could take something like you walking out at Thanksgiving with your head held high for them to finally hear you. Some people are just that stubborn.

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  • Jenn H

    If you can afford it, book a hotel room nearby. You can safely stash your luggage there and have somewhere to retreat to if things get too bad. Remember that just not going is a serious option, you don’t have to go somewhere you aren’t welcome.

  • Lark62

    Have an escape plan. Make sure you have a car, and keep the keys on you.

    This is extreme, but there are families that think they have a right to kidnap family members who reject their deity. 20 v 1 puts you at a severe disadvantage. If there is any chance your family could go off the rails, I recommend making sure you have a friend monitoring the situation.
    – Leave him/her with addresses of all family members.
    – Set up a schedule for checking in.
    – Set up a code phrase that if texted or said during a phone call means Call Cops Now.
    – Put a tracker on your phone and/or your person and give your friend access.

  • Kevin K

    Totally agree. Adults have choices, and if you’ve set boundaries that others refused to oblige, your next-best recourse is removing yourself from a toxic environment.

    Best Thanksgiving I ever had was a solo vacation to Cancun. Bunch of us Americans went down to the TGI Fridays, which offered the fully turkey-stuffing-mashed-taters feast. Someone even brought those cheesy crepe decorations and such. We had a blast; and nary a religious word was spoken.

  • Jim Jones

    Nil Carborundum Bastardi.

    Luke 15:11-32 NIV – The Parable of the Lost Son

    Luke 10:25-37 NIV – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

    Why Did God Create Atheists?

    There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.

    One clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”

    The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”

    “This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”

    ETA source: Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. 2: The Later Masters [Martin Buber, Olga Marx]

  • gimpi1

    What I recommend may not be possible for everyone, but my solution is twofold:
    1) Host the event. When you’re hosting, you can set ground rules such as no politics or religion at the table and no personal attacks. You can enforce boundaries more easily and firmly.

    2) Make people want you to host. Hosting requires a willingness for your family to have you host. For the second part of that equation, I recommend becoming a really good cook. I am, and my family has been willing to accept my civility rules at least in part because they want to eat at my house.

    Now, this won’t work for everyone. If your home is too small, if you’re the only person in your family who ‘moved away from home’ as in everyone but you lives in the same town, if there are very elderly or disabled family members who can’t travel, this won’t work. So, take this for what it’s worth.

  • Some guy

    I fucking love this, especially coming from a hardcore religious source.

  • a_b704

    Just start with turkey tales:
    “Dad, remember when I was thirteen, and I did not want to eat with the family? It was because I sexed-up the turkey after it thawed out. But I wore a condom.”

    Or go with: “You have convinced me, I need a god to get me through life’s struggles. We have chosen to serve Lucifer, the god of this world. As a matter of fact, the kids are burning a pentagram into the grass in your front yard now!”

  • When my hardcore fundie brother brings up religion, I either change the subject or turn it into a history discussion of some sort. He is easily distracted by discussing history. It becomes a dispassionate discussion about historical facts and removes personal emotion.

  • Illithid

    With my parents it was never a problem. My extended family and in-laws who are religious aren’t abusive toward me, and they’ve learned not to start religious discussions with me. I’m polite, but I’ve been atheisting for about 35 years now, and I’m pretty good at it.

  • MadScientist1023

    I don’t think dodging the issue is going to help. Not with a family as devout as the person describes. I agree that there is no reason to bring it up, but I doubt the family will let it rest.

    A decade or so ago, when coming out as gay was significantly harder than it is today, I heard some interesting advice on coming out to one’s family. The advice was to tell them that you were giving them a grace period in which they could ask all the questions they wanted and say all the ignorant BS they wanted. The person coming out would tell their family they would put up with questions (or in this case, conversion attempts) for a year while they all wrapped their head around the new reality. Nothing would be held against them during that period, and that was the time for them to get everything out of their systems. Once the grace period was over, however, the family was expected to be done with it. The mere act of putting a time limit on how long you need to be patient about what they are saying is likely to make it much easier to endure.

    Coming out as atheist is going to be a very hard thing in the wrong type of religious family. They may not know any atheists, and may have terrible misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist. From their perspective, you are doing something horribly dangerous that will inevitably result in you being tortured for all eternity. If they love you at all, they are going to be alarmed at this. When they try to dissuade you from atheism, some if not all of them are doing it because they love you. Within the confines of their own warped view of the world, they are likely trying to talk you out of this out of love. I would start the conversation by acknowledging this, telling your family that you know they are making these comments because they love you. Tell them you will answer any questions they have and sit through any speeches they feel they need to give to know they did everything they could, but in X number of months, they will have a choice to make. They can either respect your “God-given” free will to make your own decisions, agree to leave the topic alone, and continue to have a relationship with you, or they can be cut out of your life.

  • Larry

    There are two groups that have to be dealt with.

    First your parents. Let them know your boundaries. If they berate or demean you then you will leave. Stick to it. Go home early, or find a hotel and stay in KY doing that which interests you until your flight leaves. Be sure they know your boundaries before you arrive.

    It may be harder to deal with the extended family. Do you want to break with your parents over what the extended family will say to you? As each brings up the issue, let them do it, not you, tell them you are no longer a christian and leave it there. Answer their questions, but the draw a line if they cross the boundaries you set with your parents. Simply tell them that religion is a forbidden topic due to their attitude. Change the topic, or go off to talk with other relatives.

    If the other relatives refuse to abide by your rules then tell your parents that as long as they respect you, you will continue your visits, but you will not be part of a gathering of the problem relatives. That will likely mean you will visit your parents sometime during the year other than at the usual holidays.In fact, the the other relatives as a group are a problem, I would just tell your parents that in the future you are willing to come for visits, just not at holidays. That way you have taken the high ground of no preventing them from having their usual holiday family gatherings. You just won’t be there. If asked why you don’t come to those gatherings simply tell that you did not feel respected as a person. You felt demeaned for your beliefs and would be fine with coming if religion was off the table as an item for discussion.

  • James B

    I hate the holiday season, TG and Xmas ! Bahhumbug ! It’s all bullshit !

  • Sandra

    I like how you invented a verb… ‘Atheisting’, lol.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    Do what we do, skip the family dinners with religious nuts, go to a restaurant and enjoy your dinner with friends and relatives who think as you do.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    You must have had a great time

  • Rich

    First of all you have two issues against you. The Bible Belt and The Baptist Church
    My recommendation would be:
    1. When religious questions come to you from family members, state firmly:
    I do not discuss religion —-Period
    Be very firm and repeat if necessary. I do not discuss religion!
    If this doesn’t work try
    2. Okay lets have a family discussion with the Baptist Minister –worth a try (maybe)
    and ask him how to deal with the relatives – short of course of becoming a member.
    3. Perhaps a strong statement indicating that for the next holiday; if you want me to come you need
    to agree not to discuss religion with me or I will not come.
    I would like to see the term “Atheist” not used in writeups as this because it is a condescending statement
    used by the Evangelical Christians – They themselves are Atheists unless they believe in all Gods like
    Shiva of Hinduism.
    I refer to others that I am a Humanist. Humanism is about common sense, 21 Century thinking, Science and
    of course not about the supernatural.
    Any thoughts ?
    Thank you

  • Mythblaster

    GM nailed it when she said “family doesn’t always mean blood.” I have blood-family members I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. At the same time, I have friends for whom I would do almost anything. Nurture the relationships that bring you joy – avoid the rest. Life is too short and precious to waste it on assholes.

    My wife’s family hates one another, but insist on spending holidays together because “they’re the only family we have left.” Rubbish, I say. I’d spend holidays with loved friends or alone before I’d spend a minute with a blood-relative who won’t accept me for who/what I am.

  • ChickenFairie

    Find a new “family”, one made up of friends that care about you and who you truly enjoy being with. When your birth family asks why you’d rather spend time with friends than with blood, remind them of prior occasions when they crossed the line into abusive territory.

  • ChickenFairie

    ^^^^^BEST ANSWER!!!^^^

  • ChickenFairie

    Absolutely, tell them why you aren’t around. They will see that you mean it when you say you aren’t going to be targeted, as you’ll already have refused to be around the troublemakers. They need to know why. They ALL need to know why.

  • Mustafa Curtess

    You are already having negative feelings based upon consistent negative experience. Just don’t go this time. Call them, instead and place your best wishes. If you’ve always been there before (and if they genuinely care) whoever you’re speaking with (hopefully a parent) you may be asked: “Well – aren’t you coming? Won’t you be here?” etc. That is your opening to say that you just can’t handle the negativity on such a should-be happy occasion, but you feel better to just give your love and hope they will have a nice Thanksgiving and say goodbye. Keep it as polite, simple, and determined as possible – to leave no doubt as to why you won’t be there. I had to politely end my relationship with my family long ago under the exact same circumstance. It was stressful at the moment – but once I took that step a heavy burden (that I hadn’t been fully aware of) disappeared – and a very negative part of my life was ended. They will have the option to think it over and understand how important it is to you. (And mend the fence THEY’VE damaged.). In any event – Thanksgiving morning you couldn’t possibly get there, anyway from wherever you are.

  • Tell them that atheism is just a silly phase you were going through in your search for the truth. But now you have found the way. You have become a snake handling Pentecostal. Berate them for not having enough faith to handle rattlesnakes and scorpions. Tell them that there’s a church group meeting today and you’d like them to come with you. If they have Real Faith and Real Love for the Jesus they’ll come and join in on the festivities. But you’ve got to act sincere to put this across.

  • Jan Westbury

    Don’t you see? Her family is stark raving terrified! They love her and think she is now going to go to hell for all eternity. They really really believe that. She has plunged them into a kind of hell on earth by her admission of atheism. Can someone think of some way she can alleviate their fears?

  • John Purssey

    In mixed belief meals you could offer to do the grace. I use the Japanese Itadakimasu and it explain that it means that we give thanks:

    To those who hosted the meal
    To those who prepared the meal
    To those who grew the food
    To the animals that gave their lives for the meal

    and if they believe in God
    To God who provided the occasion for the meal.

    From Wikipedia (Meals in Japan traditionally begin with the word itadakimasu (いただきます, literally, “I humbly receive”). Similar to “bon appétit” or saying grace, it expresses gratitude for all who played a role in providing the food and acknowledges that living organisms have given their life to human beings as Dāna.)

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