Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dealing With the Confrontational Family Member

 Atheists Dealing with Religious Family and friends, secular parenting
Atheists Dealing with Religious Family 
(or Religious Friends)

Before going in to my brilliant answer to this problem, I have one question for you:

Can you appreciate where they are coming from?   

We know that the churches talk about atheists as though we are devil worshipers and all manner of evil things. The pulpit scares churchgoers. These beloved family members and dear friends of ours live with a very deeply-rooted fear of sin and evil and demons and all manner of dark things that humans have created...  Generally, these people do not understand that atheists neither believe in such things, nor do we have an agenda in alignment with any such invented force as dark side; but that is what they are taught about atheism.  
Their fear is genuine and bone deep. 

Believers can have some very real and profound emotional trauma when they think about their loved ones spending eternity in an everlasting punishment of hell. I have the utmost compassion for them.

I’m a non-snark kind of person and I sincerely discourage attacking the believer for their belief even if they are attacking you for your atheism. Their deep-seated fear may be unmovable. It’s possible that they will never accept your atheism. Remember, their church and their friends are advising them about their responsibilities to confront you about your atheism...what to say, what to do, and how to address you. They are very confused and they may be getting some terrible advice about how to handle it.

If only the advice was Live and let live we could all simply move forward and love one another, but it is unlikely that our beloved family members are hearing this healing and peaceful tenet from their spiritual support staff; it is more likely that they are hearing advice in how to entrap you, lure you, shame you, put fear in to you, or some other unscrupulous means of ensnaring new believers.

Make no mistake, they are scared to death.

Sadly, churches are so very good at creating fear rather than at alleviating it. But I do have a few ideas that I hope may help in keeping the conflict to a minimum. Keep in mind that everyone is different, every situation is unique, and we can’t really control anyone except for ourselves. Furthermore, remember that recovery from shock, disappointment, and pain requires time to heal the grief.

I offer these tips. 

Beforehand: Plan the conversation. Schedule the time so that everyone is rested, prepared, and has adequate time to discuss. Remember, you may be changing your relationship with beloved family members during this conversation and they may need time to regroup. 

1. Keep calm.  When talking with these beloved people (now possibly appearing as out-of-control angry people) we must acknowledge that the news is new and alarming to them. Most clergy people and public messages paint atheists as actual demon-worshipers. Let these people have the time to vent their fears and anger. Fight all urge to respond with anger.

 This does NOT mean that you stay in the room
 if any person becomes abusive. 

2. Avoid religion-bashing. Believers take their beliefs very personally and a person being attacked will always respond in attack mode. Besides, we are big enough to accept that their beliefs are important to them and we can respect that. We also can recognize that they are the fearful ones here, not us.
Be sympathetic to their fears and concerns.

3. Be factual about where you stand. Present your reasons if you must, keeping in mind that no explanation will be enough. This is not the time to disparage their beliefs but to explain where you are and how you got there. 

4. I strongly discourage debating believers. Debating and arguing has never changed a person’s point of view when they are in crisis and self-protection mode. Assume that the process will take time. It is not always possible to fully avoid debating. Maybe leave them with a great website or a letter to read and explore, then make plans to talk about it again at a later time. 

5. Know that they are “taking you to church", Women’s group, friends, clergy, or other members of their church for advice. Recognize that their words may not be their own. These so-called supportive friends are whipping up the fervor to a fevered pitch and your beloved friends and family are not getting any honest messages of love, healing, or acceptance. They may feel intense pressure to put forth their church's byline.

In other words, you are, first, facing the religious community by-line more than the real issues of your loves ones.

6. Reassure the people that you love, family and friends, that your atheism does not change how you feel about them, nor does it change the person that you are. Listen again and again to their fears. Model calmness and courtesy.
Respect their need for time to grieve.

7. Assure them that you have no desire to confront their beliefs, recruit them in any way, become a different person than they know you to be (except for being and feeling more honest), or have anything secret or unknowable about your life. Your atheism is simple and open and completely knowable. You are very comfortable answering any and all questions that they may have.
They truly don't know what you mean by atheist. 

8. Identify areas of agreement. We all love each other and we love the kids. We are all doing what we sincerely believe to be the right thing. We are talking over this issue because we are honest and because we respect one another. We want to remain a close, loving family.

9. Make it clear and firm, whenever the need arises that you expect them to respect your parenting toward the kids and that there is to be no secrecy about talking about religion with the kids. Our parents had us to parent and we have our children. It is truly within our rights as the parent to protect our children from secrecy and other situations that put our children in uncomfortable situations. I don't know a single child who is at ease keeping secrets from their parents.

10. And finally, Love them through it. Even though the disagreement remains between you, do all you can to keep the relationship intact, healthy, and affectionate. Give them time to grieve the idea that you will share their faith with them for their mythical eternity. You may have to ignore some of the conflict and focus on the good. Life is about connection after all. 

Bonus 11.  Be the one to create the dialogue and keep that dialogue open, honest, and peaceful to the best of your ability. And isn't it nice that we, as atheists, can decide our response to things rather than look to some false authority figure instead?

Bottom Line

You can't change anybody else except for yourself. History proves that some religious thought is incredibly resistant to logic, reason, compromise, openness, acceptance, or secular thought. As always in this freethought journey, know that the only thing you can control for certain is your own behavior in a situation.

Some people may be entirely unable to square things with you.
Some churches and belief systems are very divisive and, sadly, encourage people to split with loved ones over issues such as this one. It is sad for our beloveds...

My wish for you people who try to understand:

If you have some time you can check out the show this week
on the SecularTV channel on Youtube.
Click here for the 50 minute show.
And PLEASE ignore the weird faces I make when I talk.
The Secular Parents

  Have you dealt with this????
  Do you have any words of wisdom?  

You might also like these posts:
Raising Atheist Children
That Hideous Dance Between Faith and Critical Thinking


  1. I really appreciate this post. I wish very much these guidelines worked with my parents. I've never had good communication with them, even as a child, and so when talking to them about my atheism, it triggered anger and hatred toward me and an even greater "mission" toward "saving" my children. I am at an utter loss as to how to communicate with them because they are completely irrational and hateful. They went too far early this month and we are now estranged. I don't know what to do. It seems like no matter how hard I try to be understanding and compassionate for their stance, they just aim more hatred and more anger at me. Which I find to the the complete antithesis of the core tenants of what they believe. But growing up with that belief forced on me, it's one of love and acceptance IF you follow the rules. Sigh.

    1. Dear Friend, I'm sad for these struggles.
      I sincerely SINCERELY believe that you don't owe anybody your time and energy and efforts and love. I hope you find some distance with them...and, therefore, more peace.

      I know of a blog site that MIGHT be interesting to you. Let me know if you want a reference...

      Peace, Karen

  2. Great and thoughtful post, and great thoughts on a tough subject, Karen! Thank you for sharing this.

  3. I have been following your blog for a while and this latest post has triggered many unpleasant and hostile confrontations I had with family members when it was revealed years ago that I was leaving the religion I was raised in for a life without spiritual belief. I was careful to be sensitive to their fears and concerns, but my efforts for calm conversation would devolve into hysterical rants and threats of shunning if I did not return to the fold. Behavior like this confirms to me that deep-seated, fear-based belief systems are a type of mental disorder. How could otherwise caring and loving people turn on another loved one with such disdain and accusations of being possessed by evil? Thankfully, I have a loving husband who shares the raising of our two wonderful children, free from religious belief.

    Would you please share that blog site you mentioned to the poster above? If it has anything to do with dealing with abuse from religious family members I think it would be relevant to my situation. Thank you, Karen.

    1. I"m happy to offer this blog:

      Moving Into the Light is for abuse of all kinds, including the type you are describing.

      I'm so grateful for your comment. It is a truly sad reality that very good people can be so hurtful in the name of their religious beliefs. I know if their minds weren't so full of horror and fear they would never treat their most beloved people in such a way.

      Let me know what you think of the blog, if I should recommend it to people.
      Thank you again, Karen

    2. Hi again, Karen. I read several entries of the blog and found it to be a thoughtful resource for those dealing with toxic people in their lives. I think many of the examples and characteristics she describes in her posts clearly define narcissistic behavior, which unfortunately I have been well acquainted with since the "breakup" with my extended family.

      Reeling from the hostility and rejection from my family led me to attempt to understand their extreme reaction to me leaving the church. I think some type of narcissism - or toxicity - plays into this. Renouncing their strongly-held belief system caused them an injury, and their backlash is their way of rejecting it. They don't want to consider why I left as that would naturally cause them to examine their own faith, and to do so would question their own devotion to God, and their "special-ness". They point to me as being weak and sinful rather than consider my reasons. Isn't the hallmark of narcissism the lack of empathy?

      I think religion can foster narcissism in believers, and in my situation damage relationships beyond repair. I have been told that I am an embarrassment, and that I am no longer welcome in their lives until I come back to their faith. If that isn't toxic thinking and behavior I don't know what is.

    3. I'm glad knowing that it was a good blog to recommend.
      Lack of empathy is, indeed, a hallmark of narcissism. But it isn't the only thing...
      If it helps to think of a person as narcissistic, then, by all means, learn more about the term.
      It definitely seems to clear some things up for you.
      I can relate to the use of the term too, but I don't care for the term, mostly because it is an actual diagnostic term. I guess I prefer to use the term 'toxic' because it is a bit more generic. I guess...That's just my issue. ;)

      Thank you VERY much for your story, your feedback, and your trust.

      It's a tough row to hoe, dealing with an entire toxic system as you are doing. I admire your honesty, strength, and courage!


Leave a comment!