Ask Richard: My Christian Family Feels Threatened by my Atheism


Apr. 21, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I am 17 years old. I have been professing atheism for about three to four years now, but have only recently "come out of the closet" to my family, who are Protestant Christians. When I formally announced my position to my family, it was a particular shock. My brother made the comment "you are lost," and yet could not substantiate his claims when I questioned his reasoning. My mother is most disturbed, making the claim that I will "see the light" again someday. My father appears to be the most accepting (which I find extremely surprising), and yet still feels that I am doing this out of rebellion and for attention.

My question is, how do I convince my family of my legitimacy? When they raise questions about atheism and question my thinking, I answer them in a rational manner. But I am constantly interrupted during my speech and bullied afterwards by both parents and brother. Both my brother and mother have raised claims that I am forcing my opinion upon them by merely talking about atheism. They feel persecuted and threatened, and any mention of a religion other than their flavor of Protestant Christianity sets their alarms off.

I'm going to college this year, and I'm seriously considering cutting contact with them while I'm there and "disappearing" when finished. Is this necessary? How do I tell my family about myself, adequately defend myself from ridicule, convince them that I am not assaulting them, and tell them that I am most certainly not forcing my beliefs upon them? Are they being this way out of malice, intending to provoke a reaction, or am I misinterpreting their actions?

–Rational and Frustrated

Dear Rational and Frustrated,

You make rational arguments to them, and they make emotional arguments back. You attack their view rationally, and they attack your view emotionally. You defend your rationality with rationality, and they defend their emotionality with emotionality.

It is important for rational people to look for any repetitive mistakes that they might be making, and I think you're continuing to make the same one. After so many frustrated attempts, you keep expecting rationality from them.

As an old Chinese proverb says, "It is a mistake to go to Buddhist monastery to borrow a comb."

Most people are capable of both rational and emotional responses to life, but some are far more inclined towards one over the other. It looks like there is a strong mismatch between you and your family in these two ways of responding. It's as if you and they are speaking completely different languages: no matter how well you speak your own language, communication is just not happening.

You can bridge this gap between your language and your family's language by developing your empathy. With empathy, you can accurately imagine the emotions of another person even though you are not caught up in those emotions yourself. I think you can increase your empathy with practice.

But be aware that the point of improving your empathy skills is not to argue more effectively. The point is to be able to live peacefully and respectfully with them, and to not have to entirely cut off contact with them, as you are considering. That would be a very hurtful, spiteful and unnecessary action. Only in extreme circumstances should that ever be considered.

Shift your emphasis away from making sure they understand you, to making sure that they know you understand them. Understanding does not imply or require agreement, but it can greatly improve the relationship between people who disagree.

Talk with your ears much more than with your mouth: listen for how your words will be heard by them. As you gradually gain more awareness of their feelings during a conversation, imagine how your particular words or statements would affect a person who is feeling that way. Then you can soften your tone, simplify your vocabulary, or even change the entire direction of your remarks for a more positive outcome.

When you defend your point of view, I think the feeling of threat they express comes from within them, not from you. It could be that their faith is not very strong, and so when anyone expresses skepticism, they feel how fragile and threadbare their faith is. Very often what looks like anger is actually fear or hurt; they're not doing this out of malice, but fear. If you see that, you won't react with your own anger, fear or hurt. You can respond with compassion.

You don't actually need to defend your point of view, anyway. It will still be there, just as unchanged as theirs, after the talking is over. Instead, listen to them with the intention of wanting to understand their feelings. Show your sincere interest and caring for their feelings by asking about them rather than arguing about them. Respond to them without any condescension or contempt in your tone:

Brother: You're lost.
You: Sounds like you're worried about me. I appreciate that, brother, but I have to find my own way.

Mother: You'll see the light again someday.
You: You always hope for the best for me, Mom. I love you too.

Father: Well you're entitled to your opinion, but I still feel like you're doing this for rebellion and attention.
You: Thank you for accepting that I can have my own opinion, Dad. If it's just for rebellion, then I guess time will tell. We can wait and see. As for attention, I'd much rather have you pay attention to the things that you like, such as my good grades, my going into college and the things I do to help our family.

When any of them interrupt, bully or ridicule you, say: "I don't think that interrupting, bullying or ridiculing is going to help us understand each other. So let's stop now, and maybe we can talk later when things cool down." Then walk away. You don't have to passively take their abuse, but you also don't have continue futile quarrelling. This is like a rock fight with only one rock. Stop throwing it back to them and the fight will be over.

Responses like these are rational, but they address the needs, desires and fears of the real person in front of you, rather than the rarified intellectual points of a dispute. You don't have to choose between winning a debate and losing your family, and you don't have to lose a debate in order to keep your family. Those two things should not be in the same arena. The college debating hall is for debates, and the family home is for love.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.