I got this letter the other day from a 19- year- old atheist, asking for advice on how to deal with their family: a family who refuses to accept this person’s atheism, to the point where they have fights about it on a daily basis.
It’s a heartbreaking story, and since my counsel was asked for, I want very much to give it. But on this one, I really can’t speak from experience. I was lucky enough to have been brought up in a family of non-believers: exactly how lucky I’m just beginning to realize, as I hear more and more stories like this one. So while I do have a few thoughts, I also want to throw this one out to my readers, and see if any of you have any better advice to offer than I do. (Yes, the letter writer okayed me doing this: I’ve stripped out identifying information, including gender.)
Here’s the letter:
I am an atheist in a very Catholic family. My family prides itself on its faith, and they are quick to demonstrate it at any opportunity. I am a nineteen year old student, who ironically, attends a Catholic school (the basis behind that one was athletics, not beliefs) and I have been constantly fighting my family over the last five or six years on my beliefs. My mother is a very devout Catholic, and when every Sunday comes around, we have screaming matches and I’m getting very upset over this. Throughout the years, she has attacked me on a daily basis over what I believe, and it is impossible to argue or reason with her because she will simply will not listen. Her biggest argument is that there is, “so much evidence! What about all the miracles that have taken place over the last century” and so on and so forth. Another popular “discussion” point is the creation of the universe, to which she writes down God as creating the Big Bang (she’s not a Creationist, she believes in evolution but believes that God has a big hand in it) and citing that life could only be possible because of a Higher Deity as it’s “too complex”.
I really don’t know what to do anymore. If she cannot respect my beliefs, then how can she respect me as a person? My family has tried to shove religion down my throat, and they are relentless in their “Crusade”. I’m tired of all the fights that I have to endure on a consistent basis and I’m tired of all the “You know that deep down you
really believe in God” comments. I could go on and on about it, but in the end, I am just left with frustration.
Do you have any advice on how to approach the matter?
There were a couple of big questions I needed the answers to before I could even begin to tackle this. I wrote the letter- writer back, asking if they still lived with their family, or were financially dependent on them. And I asked if they’d tried the technique Ingrid used with her fundamentalist relatives. If her relatives pressed the subject of religion, Ingrid would say, in a firm but calm voice, “I really don’t agree with you” — and then she would change the subject, and just wouldn’t continue any conversations they tried to have with her about it. Here’s what the letter- writer said:
I have tried Ingrid’s approach many times, although it has never worked. My family gets too enraged and won’t let it drop not matter what you say or argue despite how much logical reasoning you use. Once the subject is raised in any context, it can take ages for the dispute to settle down. It’s impossible to win because my family just won’t stop.
Currently I do not live with my parents; I am usually at school (I am a freshman in college). However, I have a long winter break so I am back with them. I forgot how bad it was arguing and dealing with them until I got back. I actually am somewhat financially independent due to my past work experiences and academic/ athletic scholarships — while my family certainly contributes financially to me I believe I can sustain on my own. I will soon be leaving permanently though to go back to school and to live in (name of city deleted) where I will work. I don’t want to burn bridges with my family; I just want them to understand what I believe and I don’t want our relationship to potentially end on a bad note.
There are just a couple of things I can think of to say before I open up the floor. First: I am so sorry about this. You have all my sympathy. My heart breaks for you. This totally sucks.
Now to actual practical advice. One: When you talk with your family about this, be sure that you aren’t making it about how their beliefs are wrong and your atheism is right. Don’t try to de-convert them. Try to make the conversations be about who you are: countering the common myths about atheists, explaining that you’re a moral person who wants to do good in the world, that you have meaning and happiness in your life, etc. Don’t let them say untrue or bigoted things about atheists without contradiction… but don’t get sucked into arguments about theology or evolution. That’s not going to get you anywhere. And anyway, it’s not the point. This isn’t about “winning” an argument. It’s about trying to have a relationship with your family.
The only other advice I can think of is this:
I’m guessing that the advice you’d give them might be a clue as to the advice you should try to take yourself.
And based on what you’ve told me, I’m guessing you might well tell them, “If you’ve tried to explain who you are and why that’s okay, and if you’ve tried to live and let live and to just change or drop the subject when it comes up, and none of that has worked and they’re still making your life a misery… then you might have to take a big step back from your family, or even cut them out of your life entirely for a while.”
Hopefully not forever, but for a while. You can close a door without burning a bridge. You sound really anguished and frustrated, and it seems like you could use a break from this. (A break doesn’t have to be an either/or thing, btw: you can, for instance, still see your family, but only for a day or two at a time instead of for weeks, and/or less often than you currently do.)
It’s what a lot of LGBT people have had to do when their families belligerently refused to accept them. It’s extremely hard. But it’s less hard than tolerating abuse.
If you decide to take this step — and I hope you don’t have to — then do it carefully. Don’t storm out of the house in the middle of a screaming match. You might even do it in a letter (and have a friend read that letter and do a venom check on it before you send it). Make it clear that it’s a step you don’t want to take, that you hope it’s a temporary one and don’t intend to cut them out of your life forever, that you’ll keep the door open as much as possible. But until they can treat their adult child with basic respect, they won’t get to have that child in their life. (Again, don’t make it about the content of the argument: make it about your relationship with them and how they treat you, not about atheism versus theism.)
And make sure your financial and other practical ducks are lined up first. Make sure you really can put yourself through school, that you have someplace else to stay during vacations, etc. Also: Make sure you have a good support system, especially from other non-believers. See if you can find an atheist/ secular/ humanist organization in your city. (And, of course, keep visiting atheist blogs and online forums.)
Now, if you’d said that you were financially dependent on your family, I’d probably be answering somewhat differently. I’d probably be suggesting that you temporarily disengage from your family without confronting them about why. Instead of saying directly, “I can’t talk with you when you’re screaming at me, and I can’t have a relationship with you when you’re constantly pushing me to change,” I’d suggest you simply back away from spending time with them without an explanation. But that’s just postponing the inevitable. And it’s not really fair either to you or to them: it’s not giving either of you much of a chance to reconcile down the road. If you can be independent from them, I think letting them know why you’re (temporarily) disengaging is a better option.
Finally, I’d add this: Try to see it from their point of view. Yes, I agree that their point of view is wrong. And nothing excuses the way they’re treating you. But remember: They’re probably very worried about you. They may think you’re headed for a life of immorality and despair; even that you’re endangering your immortal soul and condemning yourself to an eternity in hell. And that has got to suck for them. If they really don’t have any sense of how life could be meaningful and valuable without religion, the fact that their child has left it must scare the crap out of them.
I don’t know if that will help in any practical sense. But it may help you feel less rancorous towards them, and more sympathetic and able to forgive. Regardless of what happens in your relationship with your family, it may help you come to terms with this situation and find some peace.
But again — none of this is spoken from experience. So I’m asking my readers: Have you had a similar experience with your family when you came out as an atheist? Or if not you, has anyone you’ve known had this kind of experience? If so, what did and didn’t work? How has it changed over time? What worked in terms of improving your relationship with your family… and if the answer to that was “Nothing,” what worked in terms of helping you come to terms with a bad situation?