I have a cousin who is a crazy, conspiracy theory, ghost hunter, bigfoot chaser. But he is also an extremely outspoken atheist. Inevitably, the subject of his atheism comes out at every family gathering, usually ending up in the family just dismissing him and atheism altogether. I try to get a word in, but then I’m caught in a web of correcting him while at the same time trying to explain to everyone else what he’s trying to say. While I don’t necessarily disagree with some of his points, his arguments and opinions are so incredibly flawed, that I don’t want to get into the conversation for fear that the rest of my family would think that I’m as batshit crazy as he. This has still had an impact, since every time I bring up my atheism to the rest of my semi-christian family, they immediately bring up the terrible arguments that my cousin brought up over pumpkin pie. What would be your advice on handling a guy like this?
Ah yes! This is a very common situation often faced in the overlap between skepticism and atheism. And when it is encountered for the first time it can be almost shocking to a self-identified skeptic. It is very common that many people arrive to atheism not through rational or critical thought but instead via an emotional response. Perhaps a traumatic event or other emotionally charged situation or even a simple rejection of authority led your cousin to atheism but he either doesn’t know how or why he should apply critical thinking to atheism or other aspects of his life. I wrote an article a while back on how you don’t need to be a skeptic to be an atheist. You can simply reject religion and you’re a card carrying atheist but skepticism, well that takes work. And that is where you come in.
The best advice I can give is to try to take each topic one at a time and do your best to keep reminding everyone that atheism is a separate topic in itself. Then slowly pick apart the uncritical assertions made by your cousin on other topics.
I find that if you go straight at a person and tell them they are wrong about something, you will pretty much never change their mind. Instead, they will become more convinced they are correct. So directly correcting your cousin probably won’t get you anywhere (at least not right away.) Instead, try asking him questions about how he came to the conclusions he did (without sounding patronizing.) If you can ask him enough questions eventually you can get to the root of where the uncritical ideas are coming from. Then you can share a few facts here and there and you might get your cousin to reevaluate some of his claims later when he has time to absorb the information. You can ask him how he arrived at his atheism as well. Odds are there will be the basis for a good skeptical conversation there too. Example: “How did you arrive at the conclusion that there is no god?”
You can share other information in a non-confrontational way too. Maybe bring up how you just read some really interesting books that talk about conspiracy theories and other strange phenomena that he may like and offer up a copy of say, Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. Your cousin may be receptive to skepticism if it offered in a non-confronational way and he can feel as if he is arriving at the conclusions himself, not because you are telling him he is wrong.
As for your family, they just need to know that even though it seems like it sometimes, atheism is not a club or a single mindset. It is a rejection of the supernatural claims presented by religions and can be expressed by different people in different ways.
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