Humanist Network News column by Richard Wade

Dear Richard,

I've been an atheist for only a year or so now. My mother passed away when I was only 16 from a terminal illness, which sort of set forth my disbelief and doubt (I am 20 now).

Now that I acknowledge that there is no God, I have found it more difficult to enjoy the holidays with my semi-religious family. (I say semi-religious because they are more so "part-time Christians." They only take notice of God during the holidays, or during my doubt.)

When my sister-in-law and I got into an argument a few months back, I revealed that I was an atheist. Now my family makes a mockery out of my irreligious preference. I've also felt the sudden need to lie to my father, uncles and aunts about it to avoid confrontation. I don't initiate any conversations on religion, but in recent months I've been asked a dozen times if I believe in God. I've also felt the need to excuse myself when asked to say grace or even when I'm in the same area where people are praying over dinner. With Easter coming up, being a "closet atheist" has appeared to be more difficult than I had originally imagined.

Do you have any suggestions on how I should go about being honest with my family and telling them I don't believe in God?

--Closet Atheist

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Replies to This Discussion

I remember going through the same things when I shrugged off religion. A lot of what gave me confidence in my conclusions was learning about things which could be proven and disregarding things which couldn't. A lot of people will talk in philosophical arguments about what's real and what isn't, but keep it simple. When it comes to supernatural gods, it's very difficult to attack the god part. The weak point is the supernatural part. Supernatural things by definition are unexplainable by natural law or phenomena. Supernatural Gods are possible, but they're just as possible and as likely as ghosts, unicorns, hobbits,fairies and whatever else you want to believe in that doesn't have proof. When physical evidence is no longer criteria for what is real and what isn't, then reality is only limited by the imagination. This is why ideas such as the flying spaghetti monster and the invisible pink unicorn can be effective, it thwarts this mode of reasoning and says you can't disprove my ridiculous ideas either.
What I'm trying to get at is you need to take solace in the fact that you chose reason and truth before comfort. Becoming more confident about your convictions can be tricky at first, but I think you need to figure out your own sense of purpose. A lot of the comfort of being a Christian was that your purpose was already mapped out. I find that learning about the world, getting my degree and teaching to all give me a sense of purpose; like I'm doing my little part to help out the human race. By finding your own sense purpose, I think you'll be more confident conclusions about religion and it will be much easier to talk about it with your family. The more knowledge you have, the better you'll be able to hold your own if things go sour and you end up in argument.
As far as religious holidays go. I still go to my grandparents for Easter. When they say grace, I bow my head politely. It's their home and they were gracious enough to invite me for a meal so I'll respect their rules under the house. They know I'm an atheist and it is a point of controversy when brought up. It just comes down to picking your battles. When is it time to bring up questions that may disrupt harmony? When is it time to just leave things alone? My family is incredibly conservative. The sad truth is that they've been listening to the sean hannity's and the rush limbaugh's too long to really listen to reason. They would have to have some kind of intervention that goes beyond just physical evidence and rational logic placed in front of them. Sometimes it's just best to leave certain topics at the door and just enjoy their company.
I hope this helped. Sorry if I started to ramble. I would edit this a bit more but I have math test tomorrow and I need to get some sleep.
I used to feel the same way, that I had to let them (my family and friends) know that I'm an Atheist and that I wasn't going to sit by while they prayed or talked about god or whatever. But over the years, I've found it to be counterproductive if my intention is to be close to them and enjoy time (like holidays) with them.

I fought the good fight for years and all it really did was to drive a wedge between them and me. It's very unlikely that you're going to change anyone's mind about religion, although if they are interested, I think you'll find that they will seek you out in private and ask lots of questions. That's when you can share your thoughts and experiences. But in a group, it's just not going to happen. At least that's been my experience.

So now, they all know I'm an Atheist and they've decided to accept that. And I've decided to accept that they're religious. I do get the occasional smart ass comment or jab, but we do that kind of thing about everything in my family anyway. I guess you could say we have a mutual respect. Now, if someone does bring up religion and it's open for discussion, I don't hesitate to jump in with some facts (they always check my facts in the bible; it's so funny.) But it's normally good natured and rarely gets heated.

When they pray before a meal or at a wedding or funeral (whatever), I just bow my head (like Merrick said) and be respectful. They know I'm not praying, but they don't care. I assume they are praying and I don't care.

They're family (or close friends), and everybody's dysfunctional anyway! What the hell?

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