How do you be honest about your atheism, and still maintain close relationships with people who are likely to be upset about it?
I got an email from Heather the other day, asking me this:
I know you’re not generally in the advice column business, but you have such a great way of evaluating situations and coming up with good ideas, I want to ask for your help with something.
Good way to start, btw. Flattery will get you everywhere. 🙂
I have an older half-brother, J. We didn’t grow up in the same house for most of my life, but we were still very close. For as long as I can remember, he’s been into woo in a big way. He introduced me to paganism when I was 12 or 13 (and at the time I thought it was awesome). Later in my teens I was leaning toward the more vaguely spiritual, but avidly listened to his ramblings about alternate universes, spirit selves and Carlos Castaneda. He’s my big brother, y’know?
Then a bunch of stuff happened. Within the course of a year, our mom died, he lost his first child and got divorced, and I moved across the country and went to college. We traded a few emails, but didn’t see each other or have a real conversation for years. Only recently have we reconnected and started talking again. And it’s great; we have all kinds of weird stuff in common I wouldn’t have expected. Except that we’ve moved in opposite directions spiritually. He’s living with a channeler, talking about soul unions with extradimensional beings and whatnot. I’m, well, a regular reader of your blog.
So here’s the point of conflict. I want to be honest with my brother, but I’m afraid that if I go about it wrong he will think I’m attacking him. I really don’t want him to shut down and stop talking to me, but it doesn’t seem right to just nod and smile every time he says something completely nuts. He’s so far off the deep end (and so convinced that I’m at least partially in agreement with him) I don’t even know how to start a conversation explaining how I now see the world. I would be very grateful if you had any suggestions.
In a follow-up clarifying the situation, she added:
1. Right now he doesn’t know I’m an atheist. He’s so excited to tell me about his beliefs, he hasn’t asked anything about mine. I think he assumes that since I’m not jumping to tell him he’s nuts that I either agree with him or am considering it. But it seems disingenuous to let him go on thinking that. So do you think there’s more tactful way to say “btw, you know I’m an atheist, right?”
2. At what point am I reasonably justified in worrying about the potential harm he is causing himself with his beliefs, and is there any benefit in confronting him about that? To make a long story short (too late), J. believes he has a debilitating terminal illness (one that runs in our family, but usually not until much later in life), but he won’t see a doctor about it. He says he is using magic to fight off the symptoms, but that he still isn’t well enough to work. So to me, that leaves two frightening possibilities: either he is terminally ill and not receiving any treatment, or he is so detached from reality he believes he is terminally ill, is using his spiritual views to bolster that false belief, and is allowing that belief to keep him from living a normal life. But he’s an adult, living across the country, and basically subsisting off people who are enabling those beliefs. Does it seem likely expressing my concern would have any potential benefit, or be more likely to drive him away?
I do have some thoughts on all this. But mostly, I’m throwing this one out to my readers. Most of my thoughts on this are about (a) how I’ve messed this up in the past; (b) how this has gotten messed up in the past even when I sincerely don’t think I was the one who messed it up; and (c) how difficult it is to get this right. I’m going to offer what answers I can give; but I’m also asking for help here myself, as I really don’t know how to handle this one.
See, I’m really not the best person to answer this. My track record for discussing my non-belief with friends who are believers has been pretty bad. And while I know I made mistakes, especially rookie mistakes early in my atheism career, I don’t know that I did anything terribly wrong. I think this is a difficult subject to discuss with people, and a lot of believers who think of themselves as open minded and interested in talking with non-believers soon find that they get more agitated than they’d expected to. And they often deal with that agitation by getting angry at the non-believer they’re talking with.
But regardless of whose fault it is, or even if it’s anyone’s fault, the bottom line is that almost every religious friend I’ve seriously engaged with in lengthy discussion about religion is now mad at me. In some cases to the point of not speaking to me. It’s really sad; it’s probably the hardest thing about being an atheist activist. And I honestly don’t know whether I’m doing something wrong, or whether this is something that’s just going to be hard for almost anyone trying to do what I’m doing.
The way I’m currently dealing with it — a lesson learned from harsh experience — is to be honest about my own lack of religious belief, but not to talk about it in detail, or try to persuade anyone out of their beliefs, unless I’m specifically asked to do so. At least, not if it’s someone I’m unwilling to lose. There’s a difference between honestly letting someone know what you do and don’t think, and trying to persuade them to change their mind.
Of course, that’s often a fine and blurry line. Many believers will take offense and see it as an attack when atheists simply declare our atheism and our right to be atheists. And many believers, when they find out that you’re an atheist, will try to persuade you to change your mind… and it’s often hard to distinguish between defending your atheism, and trying to persuade someone that atheism is right. If pressed to explain your non-belief, you can try to frame it as “This is what I think and why” rather than “This is why I think you’re mistaken”… but many believers won’t hear that distinction. Which is understandable. It’s kind of a fuzzy distinction to make. Especially when what you think is, “You’re wrong.” (You can also try to frame your perspective as “This is why I think I’m right” rather than “This is why I think you’re stupid and crazy. But again, many believers will hear the latter even if you’re clearly saying the former.)
Now, readers here may be going, “What on earth is she talking about? What does she mean, she doesn’t talk about her atheism in detail or try to persuade people out of their belief? That’s exactly what she does, several times a week, right here in this blog that I’m reading right now!” True. Which brings me to my second point:
I draw a distinction between engaging in debate in public forums (such as my blog or Facebook – btw, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!), and doing it in personal conversation with friends. In public forums, I will happily explain my position at length and do all I can to persuade people of it. I draw a distinction between that… and talking about my atheism at parties or at the dinner table. Which I don’t do unless I’m specifically asked to, and where I tend to go easier, and back off much sooner, and change the subject much more readily, than I would in public debate.
But while I draw that distinction, not all believers I’ve engaged with do. They often take the public debates very personally, even when I consider them part of the public marketplace of ideas and not directed at them personally. (Again, part of that is just part of religion’s defense mechanisms… but part of it is probably just personal differences in how people deal with conflict.) I draw a clear distinction between “who you are” and “what you believe,” but many believers have their beliefs deeply woven into their identity, and they take criticisms and questions about their beliefs as a personal attack. It’s not fair, and in a public debate with strangers I won’t give it any quarter… but with a friend or family member, if you care about the relationship, sometimes you have to let things not be fair in order to keep the relationship. If there’s anything I’d do differently now, I think it would be this: recognizing that this is really personal and really difficult stuff to talk about… and being willing to drop a public-forum argument with a friend when it seems like it’s starting to get upsetting.
Also, proactive atheist activism is a big part of who I am. That may not be true for you. This is my career, a big part of the purpose I’m creating for myself in life, and I’ve made the hard, often sad choice that I’m willing to lose some people I’d rather not lose in order to pursue this path. It’s a little like the difference between just coming out as gay, and being a public gay activist. So again, the balance point that’s right for me isn’t necessarily the balance point that’s going to be right for you.
If you decide that you don’t want to discuss it at all for the sake of keeping the peace, you may just have to stick to a mantra of, “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to argue about it. Let’s change the subject.” Something I’ve never been very good at.
As to how to come out in the first place… again, I’m not the best one to answer that. I came out largely by writing this blog, which all my friends and family members know about. (I’ve been lucky enough that this hasn’t been an issue for family — my family are all big heathens, the most heated family discussion I’ve had about religion was with my agnostic uncle — so for me, this has been more about friendships than family. Another reason some of you might be better at answering this question than I am.)
You might try easing into it. Instead of just blurting out, “I’m an atheist,” you could try, “Actually, I’m not sure I agree with you about that. I know I used to share a lot of these beliefs with you, but I’ve been spending a lot of time doing some hard thinking and soul-searching, and I just don’t believe in (X) anymore.” And when you’ve made that disclosure, it’s probably really important at first to focus entirely on explaining what atheism is and educating them about myths and misconceptions they might have about it… rather than arguing for why you’re right. And you may have to give it time, too. Often when people come out as gay, it takes time for their family and friends to be okay with it. Ditto with atheism.
As to the harm they’re doing themselves… that’s a tough one. So let’s take it out of the religious context. If your brother were in a bad relationship that was making him miserable, if he had a bad job that was aging him prematurely, if he were participating in dangerous extreme sports that were ruining his health… what would you do? One of the hardest things about adult relationships is recognizing that adults have the right to make bad decisions for themselves… and knowing when (and how) to intervene, and when to just leave them be.
You might come at the health issue by doing what harm reduction advocates call “meeting people where they are.” Don’t go on about how his religious beliefs are nuts and are endangering his health. Instead, maybe say something like, “You know, a lot of people with spiritual beliefs like yours still pursue conventional medicine, especially when something is serious. They see conventional medicine and spiritual healing as interconnected, as working together.” You and I know that’s a load of dingo’s kidneys… but the goal isn’t to prove that you’re right. The goal is to get him to see a doctor.
And I guess that’s mostly what I’m getting at in general. What is your goal here? I’m guessing that your goal isn’t to de-convert your brother to atheism. I’m guessing that your goal is to have a good relationship with him. And sometimes, having a good relationship means striking a delicate balance between being honest about who you are, and not bringing things up that you know will be upsetting. It means deciding which parts of yourself are so important that you can’t have a relationship worth having if you can’t be honest about them — like coming out as gay is for most people — and which parts are not worth the fight. And it’s not a simple all or nothing question. It’s a question of nuance: how much to say, how far to pursue it, what exactly to say and what not to, when to pursue it and when to drop it.
I don’t always know how to do this.
I get it wrong a lot.
What do the rest of you think?