Some thoughts on conflict and discussion…

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about (and struggling a bit with) my online identity. This is something which first crossed my mind when setting up Myspace and Facebook accounts, but being part of Skepchick is something new entirely. I no longer have any control over who reads my words, and, more importantly, whether or not they interpret my words in the way that they are intended to be read.

Like many people here, my beliefs differ from those of most of the people in my life. This has been true for some time now; I left the Catholic church about ten years ago. As a non-Catholic Christian, then a neopagan, and eventually an agnostic, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was the flawed one, and that I should have to account for my nonconformity to the belief system of my family. Some of this came from them, directly or indirectly (hurtful/judgmental things said to me or about me outside of my presence), and some of it came from my own social insecurities. It didn’t matter what I believed or how strongly I believed it, in their eyes, I would just always be wrong. And that stung. It still stings.

Now, I feel that this journey has come to a sort of culmination. I had spent years trying to maintain some kind of religious faith, and to finally allow myself to let that go felt amazing. I think I stopped believing in god years ago, but it took a long time for me to finally admit it to myself. Acknowledging my unbelief felt like coming home. I finally feel as though I’ve found my answer to the ultimate question (and no, it isn’t “42”, but it may as well be), and I’m tired of being treated by my family as though I am in the wrong. So I’m trying to stand up for myself, and not to be intimidated, and basically to let them know when their ostensibly well-meaning behavior is coming off as condescending or vindictive.

My dilemma comes in my desire not to make a hypocrite of myself. While I may harbor some emotional bitterness toward my family, on a rational level, I understand where they’re coming from, and aspire to afford them the same level of respect that I wish to be afforded myself. I am already incredibly critical of myself, editing and re-editing every word I utter or type to ensure that what I say is meaningful and not susceptible to misunderstanding, so this just adds another layer of self analysis to an already rigorous regime. I am very aware of the fact that my writings are public, and it is entirely possible that my family could read them. One thing I’m struggling over is whether or not to tell them about this blog.

I wonder if I’m being too careful not to offend. Do religious people agonize over whether or not something they write or say will offend atheists? I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure my family gives a second thought to whether they’re being insensitive: they are simply right. As much as I wonder to myself why I can’t play by these rules as well, I realize that I won’t allow it. It’s not in my nature to consciously do something that could cause hurt to someone I love. I’ve been on the wrong side of that for long enough to know how much it sucks.

So where does this leave me? As in many other aspects of my life, I guess I’m in a grey area. I aspire to be able to fully express my views in a thoughtful and non-threatening way, but I also realize that it is impossible for me to control how my words are understood. I don’t want to water down my opinions, or be overly p.c. Maybe I really just need to stop caring so much, I don’t know. I clearly have more thinking to do on this topic.

By no means am I suggesting that everyone should try to play nice. I think people who speak the truth as they see it without regard for framing or public relations value are as right as I am, and I admire them greatly. Ultimately, I think we need to be true to ourselves, and express our views in a way that is well-suited to each of us individually. With all the hoopla around framing and whatnot lately I think it’s important to continue this discussion.

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  1. I understand completely how you feel. My family is also very religious (my grandfather was a minister and my sister is currently studying to be one) and I find myself self-censoring all the time. I try to introduce elements of my evolution (pun intended) slowly so as not to be overly shocking but I feel as if I am being disingenuous and unfair by witholding a part of myself. I wish I could offer some answers to your problem but all I’ve got is empathy.

  2. I understand, too. I think the key is to speak with respect, as in, “I still love and respect you, but you and I do not agree on this issue.”

    It still hurts the theists’ feelings that you don’t believe as they do, but it’s the best compromise I’ve been able to come up with and still be true to myself.

  3. My friends, one of my sisters, and a couple of my cousins know my religious opinions quite well, and they’re cool with it. But I dread the day my parents sign up for Facebook, and see what I have in the “religious views” field. I’m apprehensive about the day my wife and I have a child, and have to answer the question “so when’s the baptism?”

    It really hasn’t come up in recent years, and I think it’s because they’re happy to think that I’m just another lapsed Catholic, and would rather live in blissful ignorance than to know what I really think. But I know all too well what they really think, and when that day comes, I have reason to believe it’ll be a chilly day indeed.

    And yes, I am very careful not to say certain things in places that they might see, like my own Web page. Sometimes I wonder if I go to forums, or comment on blogs like this, because it’s not likely a place that they would go. It’s a place where I can say what I really think, because I know my parents won’t likely see it. I hide behind a pseudonym, but they know what my online handle is, so that’s one place where anonymity won’t help.

    It sounds like you’re a bit further along than I am, so I guess I’m the guy waiting to see what land mines get stepped on by those who go before me. But still, I know pretty much how you feel.

  4. Great post thanks for sharing. I don’t have any advice because all families are different and we all have to find our own way of dealing with these things. I posted only as writerdd on Skepchick for a long time and it wasn’t until Rebecca added our bios that I put my real name on the site. But I’ve never been one to hold my tongue so everyone in my life knows what I think. I was more concerned about my knitting book readers, but I’ve mentioned skepticsm and atheism on my knitting blog and gotten overwhelmingly positive responses. I try not to let it overwhelm, since I have an outlet for those topics here.

    Now my problem is, I’m going to visit my in-laws in a couple of months and I don’t want to hold hands and say grace at dinner. They all hold hands around the table. Normally I’d just sit quietly while they pray (in their home) or just start eating (in a restaurant), but the hand holding thing makes it all that much more complicated.

  5. Yeah, I had a similar path. I was active in the Methodist church and later the Church of the Brethren. But I just drifted away from churches. Even though I still thought of myself as a Christian, many of my friends had long thought of me as an atheist. Its only fairly recently that I have started to label myself as an atheist I still have friends in the COB, and they don’t really know the current state of my belief.

    I’m not sure I will ever really tell some of them. I’ll just continue to look at my plate when we do a prayer before dinner when they invite me over. They are good people and they embody everything good in the word Christian. Telling them that their life in service to god has been a waste of their time would serve no good purpose. I enjoy their friendship and its just part of who they are. Some of my friends are gamers, some are obsessive Buffy fans, and some pray to their invisible friend. It’s not my place to tell any of them to stop doing something that gives them joy.

    But someday, they may come across something I have written someplace on the intertubes and I will have to fess up on what I don’t believe. I guess that is when I will find out if they are as understanding of their friends as I am with mine

  6. WriterDD said, “…the hand holding thing makes it all that much more complicated.”

    Have you considered a joy buzzer?

  7. It’s not in my nature to consciously do something that could cause hurt to someone I love.

    If your parents hurt over your lack of belief (I know my parents hurt over mine), it’s not you that has done the hurting. They’ve been hurt by those who have indoctrinated them.

    Maybe I really just need to stop caring so much, I don’t know.

    In my case, it wasn’t a matter of caring less. I just had to realize that they have everything they need to pull themselves out, so I stopped pitying them.

  8. I think you seem to be striking exactly the right note of honesty and compassion – I would hope that if your relatives read this blog they will realise that it is hurtful to you that they think you are wrong in your fundamental beliefs in much the same way that it hurts them to think of how you have “strayed”. Of course sometimes it is not easy for people to empathise.

    Agreeing to disagree seems to be the best way forward with loved ones in these situations. All I can really offer is my sympathy since I am lucky enough to come from atheist/agnostic parents.

    But good luck – and you are on the right path I think.

  9. Great post! You’ll find that many of us understand and have been through rather similar experiences.

    I personally did the whole “letting go of religion” thing in a similar way. I was raised Catholic, then thought of myself as a more non-denominational, “just respect others” pseudo-Christian after I broke off with my confirmation process literally a month from being confirmed. Then I went through a “spiritual but not religious” phase which lasted quite a while, during which I sort of took my philosophy from Taoism and my spirtuality from a sort of new-agey yet (presumably) semi-realistic take on things. As I got older, though, most of that fell away as pseudoscience and misunderstandings of reality.

    From there, I did the agnostic dance for a while until a while back when I decided that I was only calling myself that to placate others and that I really didn’t believe in any gods at all.

    In terms of self-censorship, well, I really only do that around my elderly grandparents who are very religious. My parents, sister, cousins, friends, etc. don’t really care that I’m an atheist. But my grandmother was raised in Fascist southern Italy, which makes her about as Catholic as it gets, and my grandfather (when he was well) was in church or chapel more than the priests of his parish. For them, it’s just a non-topic. They don’t ask if I go to church, or what I believe, and I don’t argue or condescend when they ask me to pray for them or whatever.

    But with my writing, presence in social networks, or whatever, I do not hide what I think or feel about these topics. Could this come back and bite me in the ass later if a prospective employer looks me up and is deterred, or if I run for some sort of public office and have to smooth over my image? Maybe. But my spiritual life (or lack thereof) is an open book and I don’t give a damn if someone doesn’t like it. There are infinity+1 other web pages out there if they don’t like what I’ve got to say about my experience of life and religion :-P

  10. Great popst and as with others a topic very close to home. I only have a very few friends who I can talk with about my skeptical views with regard to religion and sometimes even things like Chiropractors!!. My wife of twenty-one years is my best friend and soul (whatever that is) mate. She is a believing Christian which I was also for many years, but have not been for about five years. I keep some of my thoughts and opinions to myself but will be outspoken about other issues. I still attend the occasional Christmas or Easter church service because I like the music and ritual and it gives me the opportunity to see lots of old friends.

    I’m attending TAM6 in June and my wife will be spending a few days with me in Vegas before the conference. She knows my interest in skeptical issues as I’ve been researching and involved in medical quackery as it relates to child abuse cases for a long time. I don’t think she knows that folk like Dawkins and Hitchings will be speaking and I don’t feel any need to discuss issues that can have no appreciable benefit to our relationship. Compromises are essential in relationships, so while I’ve made compromises I don’t feel compromised. I couldn’t have predicted where questioning and an appreciation for rational thought would have led me when I got married, but not being on the same page as my wife in some areas is not even close to being a deal breaker.

  11. Yup … this is why I have two blogs. I don’t lie in the “family-friendly” one, not lying as such, but I also don’t mention my gradual drift away from the faith. My parents and grandparents read it, and with the combined 187 years of Christian ministry experience between these four beloved people, I have no desire to a) grieve them or b) find myself aggressively pursued as a lost sheep.

    The blog linked here is no less real, but it is more honest about my heart struggles. My parents and sister know some of it, but I am OK with most of the rest of my Christian friends and family being completely unaware of it for now. I am closer to the beginning of this journey than you are, carr2d2, and my reticence reflects that. I am not sure enough where I’m going yet to be able to inform people about the journey who feel they have a vested interest in me staying a Christian. As you made reference to, I don’t think they’re thinking at ALL about the potential for offense — they just want to save my soul, which pretty much trumps the need for courtesy.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a strategy of limited honesty, though. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has a few more weird connotations now than it used to, but it’s not a bad policy when it comes to matters of faith and ex-faith. There are plenty of things that fall into this category. I know my sister’s trying to have a baby; I really don’t want to know much more than that. I know my best friend is in serious debt; I don’t need to know how much. Two other friends are on the verge of divorce, and while I’ll be there for them, there’s no need for me to know the details.

    The problem here is that my sister, my best friend, and this couple agree with me — their situations are on a need-to-know basis, and I don’t need to know. Matters of faith, if your family and friends are religious, are harder to find agreement on. They think they do need to know. Convincing them that they don’t is half the battle. I wish I had better suggestions on how to balance this, but I am just figuring it out myself.

  12. Excellent post, one that I’m sure will chime with a great deal of people – myself included. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, but gradually came to realise that I was obstensibly an atheist, it just took me over twenty years to realise it! It is so difficult to drill right down to your core beliefs, especially after childhood indoctrination into a belief system. Luckily for me, there was never any friction within my family. Religion was just not talked about, so I just never announced that I had lost my “faith” (which I never really had to start with, to be honest.)

    And that’s the rub isn’t it – is a “belief” really a belief when it is imposed on you from an outside source? Surely whatever a person believes (or doesn’t believe) should come from within to be 100% honest. I wonder how many people who say they “believe” in a god really do? I reckon most of them don’t – they just think they believe, and manage to fool themselves in the process. That was the great revelation that led to me becoming a fully-fledged atheist – I finally realised that my “belief” was purely self-delusion.

    But then that always leaves the problem of how to break the news to family and friends, or whether to say anything at all for fear of hurting their feelings. My family weren’t a problem as I mentioned, but I have religious friends who I’m fairly certain don’t know I’m a full-on atheist, and every year that passes makes it harder to tell them. The subject of religion does come up occasionally, and I always manage to discuss it without expressly announcing my own non-belief (since I am quite knowledgable on religious matters), but sooner or later I’m bound to be rumbled. I have a lot of “public” stuff on the Internet nowadays too, and anyone who really wants to find out what I think can do so easily (especially with this name I have been using online for about 10 years now!)

    However, I tend to take the view that my beliefs are my own business, and providing I don’t criticise their beliefs, they really have no right to question mine. I’m certainly not going to pretend to believe (as I did for the first 25-30 years of my life, mostly without realising I was pretending), as I believe (!) that one has to be totally honest with oneself, and that means that if I am asked, I will tell the truth. But only if directly asked, for the simple reason that the truth can upset some people. But that is of course their problem, not mine.

    And that would be my advice to you, or anyone who is in a similar dilemma. First: sit down and have a good long think. Make your mind up about what your beliefs really are. (If you follow a religion simply because you believe god will punish you if you don’t, then that’s simply another way of fooling yourself. If your god really does exist then he won’t be fooled for a second by that tactic, will he?)

    Second: Having climbed right down to the bottom of your soul and taken a good long look at it, whatever answer you find there is what you should go with, and then you MUST be open and honest about it. And whatever result you come back up with, remember it may (should) be your own honest opinion, but of course that never gives you the right to force your ideas on to anybody else. Explain your reasoning, by all means, and keep yourself open to criticism, because you will get it. Yet stand up for yourself and your personal opinions because they are what make you what you are. Anything else is simply being dishonest to yourself.

    You say “I wonder if I’m being too careful not to offend. Do religious people agonize over whether or not something they write or say will offend atheists?” That’s an interesting question. A lot of them obviously don’t give a damn, but maybe others are more circumspect. As for yourself being careful not to offend, obviously it is never a good idea to deliberately offend, but I believe the line must be drawn at the point I mentioned earlier: say what you really think, if anything needs saying at all. If it causes offence, then it’s just too bad. Some people actively seek out things to be offended by; don’t let them get to you. If you can get by without saying anything, then do so. But if you must speak; speak from your heart and mind, and get it out in the open. Yes, the truth can hurt, but that’s not the fault of the truth itself.

    Apologies for the long post, but I felt I had to respond to this in as forthright manner as I could. The whole religion/atheism debate is of great interest to me, and if I can offer any advice at any time to anybody who really wants it, I am quite willing to do so.

  13. wow…thanks for all the great comments. it’s good to hear about all of your experiences.

    lol @ ekimbrough.

    i think my most of my family know i’m atheist (i’m friends with most of my cousins on facebook and list myself as such). i didn’t see much point in hiding it. my problem is that i don’t think they really understand what that means. i want to be understood without coming off as trashing their beliefs. it’s tough. i was having a seemingly productive email exchange about this with my sister, but then she just stopped responding. i don’t think she’s mad at me or anything, we’ve talked since and it hasn’t been weird…i don’t know…maybe i pushed too far for that particular conversation.

    it’s kind of funny. i have this innate drive to be true to myself at all costs (which ironically comes from my parents). like you elwood, if i’m asked a direct question, i answer truthfully. i default to the truth. most times it does not occur to me to do anything else. i’ve just never seen the purpose of lying. my problem is balancing this tendency with my equally strong need to be accepted and understood.

    ok…that’s enough psychotherapy for tonight ;)

  14. writerdd wrote: “Now my problem is, I’m going to visit my in-laws in a couple of months and I don’t want to hold hands and say grace at dinner. They all hold hands around the table. Normally I’d just sit quietly while they pray (in their home) or just start eating (in a restaurant), but the hand holding thing makes it all that much more complicated.”

    Richard Dawkins once said (I think it was in the Four Horsemen-video), regarding the fact that he said grace during some dinner, that to him those statements were meaningless and something to be uttered mechanically as a form of courtesy. And then he added, which hit home for me, that he objected to uttering falsehoods but he had no problem at all with uttering nonsense!

    I’d say that if you are comfortable with “coming out” as an atheist then just refuse the hand holding. If you’re not (which I gather from your post) then just go through the motions. Not wanting to do that because you are an atheist would in some way be to regard those words (and actions) as really having power or that they are sacred in some form. They are not, they’re just words and can be uttered by anyone.

    It’s not dishonesty, it’s courtesy. I say “How do you do?” when I’m introduced to someone even though I could care less about that persons well-being because it is expected of me. Is that dishonest?

  15. Regarding Paul Reinerfelt’s comments about hand-holding, I’ve never been in that sort of situation, but I think if it did occur then I would go along with everybody else and join in with their rituals. It wouldn’t mean anything to me, and if I were to refuse, that would be a clear statement to the others that I was rejecting their beliefs, and could be seen as an insult. It’s a difficult choice, but it comes down to the old “When in Rome” adage. Holding hands and muttering a few words doesn’t hurt anybody and helps keep the peace. Of course if the words were along the lines of “Death to the Infidel” then I might have a problem!

    carr2d2: Yes, everybody wants to be accepted and understood. I too have had friends break contact with me after discussions over religious beliefs, but what can you do about it? If you’ve been challenged and spoken the truth, then you can hardly be blamed if the if other person decides that they don’t want to talk to you any more. I’d rather someone fell out with me because of who I really am, than to live a lie just to hold on to friends. I’ve done that before too, and ended up having to wear a different “mask” for everyone I come into contact with. Eventually I realised that it just doesn’t work, and can even lead to schizophrenia. Always be yourself – it’s up to others to come to terms with the real you, and those that do will probably stick around much longer. Those are the friends that you can be open and honest with at all times, without fear of “saying the wrong thing” and ending up being rejected. And those are the ones who will always accept and understand you.

  16. Paul Reinerfelt , oh, they already know me and mr writerdd are atheists. No secret there.

    The last time we saw them was at our house where we told them, “No, we will not be saying grace, no not even at Thanksgiving dinner.”

    I try to respect their traditions in their home, as I expect them to respect mine. But that doesn’t mean I have to participate. I might not make a stink in their house, to respect their turf; but I’m not going to participate in a frakking restaurant.

  17. it’s kind of funny. i have this innate drive to be true to myself at all costs (which ironically comes from my parents). like you elwood, if i’m asked a direct question, i answer truthfully. i default to the truth. most times it does not occur to me to do anything else. i’ve just never seen the purpose of lying. my problem is balancing this tendency with my equally strong need to be accepted and understood.

    ok…that’s enough psychotherapy for tonight

    I think your concern about your relationships with your friends and family is a smoke screen for your real problem. . . . You’ve run out of capital letters.

  18. I was lucky in coming from, effectively, an effectively agnostic immediate family (if asked, they’d probably identify as Christian, but life was effectively very secular growing up). So they’re more or less aware of my lack of belief, but there’s also not much occasion to talk about it. The rest of the family is pretty strongly Southern Baptist, though, so I find myself walking on egg shells sometimes. Thankfully, the most direct question I generally get is “What church are you going to?” which is easy enough to blow off, and I just don’t see the usefulness of ‘outing’ myself, as it were.

    But I think that’s true for family in general. There’s a lot of foibles you have to be willing to put up with in the family, and I think the easier you can make it on everyone, the better.

    I’m actually more concerned with potential or current employers finding out about my lack of beliefs. Just because it shouldn’t matter, does mean that it wouldn’t matter.

  19. You know, I think it’s incredibly important that we out ourselves.

    How else are we going to stop people from having the impression that unbelievers have no morals, worship Satan, and so forth? I think it’s unethical to be in the closet about our unbelief, thus allowing people to think that they don’t know any atheists or agnostics, so they can continue to demonize us.

    We’re all normal people and the more we let the believers in our lives know what we do not believe in God (and that includes agnostics and skeptics, too, not just atheists), the less they will be able to justify their unrealistic depiction of unbelievers.

  20. I’m not sure I agree that ‘being in the closet’ is particularly unethical, in and of itself. Belief and the lack of it is always going to be a personal thing, and I don’t think it’s any more fair for us to push folks who aren’t willing to be open about their godlessness than it is for other folks to push their gods on them.

    I think activism is important, and I think it’s important for those of us who can to stand and speak up, because it’ll encourage others to join in. Hell, it took me years to decide for sure where I stood in my lack of belief, and I’m still working on being comfortable enough to be more active than I am.

  21. Do religious people agonize over whether or not something they write or say will offend atheists?

    Not from what I’ve seen. Most of the time, they seem to just ignore their very existence as well as their (potential) presence; even the ones I know who know my atheistic views carry on as if I agreed with them. The ones I know are generally so caught up in their enthusiasm for what, to them, is absolute fact that the consideration of whether it might be offensive to someone else would be thought ludicrous, just as we would think it ludicrous to have to censor ourselves from mentioning gravity in case there were people around who might find that objectionable.

    To be honest, I am so well indoctrinated into this culture that this rarely does offend me (though it frequently depresses me); it’s just part of the scenery around here. It typically offends me only when I see children being taught the religious tropes as fact, or when someone bluntly condemns science/scientists or atheism/atheists (which I see often in the media but almost never in real life). Most of my fundie acquaintances are actually nice people, and I tend to see this aspect of them more than their religious beliefs.

    Several people have mentioned the practice of simply avoiding discussing religion and related topics with their family members, or avoiding mentioning such things on blogs that they might read. Some seem to fear that this makes them hypocrites. I see it as just choosing to avoid needless and pointless confrontation. Nobody needs that stress, and it’s not necessarily their business what your beliefs are anyway. I don’t advocate lying to avoid confrontations, and I certainly have no problem with anyone confronting their family on such issues if they feel like doing so, but I see no reason to stir them up if you don’t want to. Keeping peace with the relatives requires diplomacy, and diplomacy often has more to do with what is not said than with what is.


  22. To be fair, when one “comes out” as an atheist, the need to be sensitive to religious people is often the case.

    Give it time and you may well become militant to a certain extent about it. Trust me, they will piss you off to the point that you will detest them. How you react, whether its argumentatively like myself, or with more couth, as others, is up to your personality.

    But the need to be respectful will get ground out of you real soon.

  23. [picks up a handful of the slushy snow currently falling outside and chucks it at sam’s head]

    i don’t capitalize in my comments. call it an affectation.

    wordplayer, the hypocrisy i fear is not so much that of hiding my full identity from my family. it is more about possessing the knowledge and experience to know how it will feel to them for me to dismiss their beliefs in the same way they dismiss mine.

    cdmphy, i don’t know if i’ll ever be there. parts of me have been severely pissed off at my family for years, but other parts understand where that anger comes from and desires to find a better way. i think what i’m trying to suss out is exactly where the line between being respectful and being fully truthful should be drawn in my case.

  24. For what it is worth, I don’t think I’ve encountered a religious person who is capable of interacting with an atheist without being condescending or vindictive. There seems to be an almost autistic-like breakdown of empathy. It is very disturbing and is one of the thing that turned me strongly off about religion.

  25. For what it is worth, I don’t think I’ve encountered a religious person who is capable of interacting with an atheist without being condescending or vindictive.

    I know quite a few.

    My born-again mother even jokes about it, and when it snows she proudly drives our 4WD with a “Smile: God is Make Believe” bumper sticker on it.

  26. “For what it is worth, I don’t think I’ve encountered a religious person who is capable of interacting with an atheist without being condescending or vindictive.”

    Like Donna, I know plenty of them as well.

  27. One little point to ponder: Whenever anyone asks me directly, “Do you believe in god”, my answer nowadays is (after a thoughtful pause), “Well, I don’t believe in YOURS, for a start! Because that’s what you’re really asking me, isn’t it?”

    Everybody – and I mean everybody, regardless of their faith, has a different idea of who or what god is. As far as I’m concerned, that little 3 letter word is the most overworked, overloaded, over-used, over-emotive word in the English language. No two people can ever come to a concensus on exactly what it means. So the question really boils down to “Do you believe in MY god?” to which the answer always has to be no.

    Logic chopping? Perhaps. But that’s how I see it.
    Even Isaac Asimov, when asked that first question, would answer, “Whose?”

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