Recently I gave suggestions on what religious people should not say to the atheist in the family. Here are conversations and suggestions that might improve family relations, especially at holiday gatherings.
1. Listen to the atheist.
You might have preconceived ideas on why a family member “turned his back on God.” You are probably wrong. Try to understand and respect his point of view, even if you disagree. That’s a prerequisite for most conversations, especially ones that can become touchy or emotional. Listening to the atheist will be an added incentive for the atheist to listen to you.
2. Look for common ground.
You and your atheist family member might differ on God beliefs, but you likely have a lot more in common than what sets you apart. You probably appreciate the same foods at family dinners. And since watching holiday football games has become somewhat of a national religion, you might all be cheering for the same team. Talk about those common interests and why you are grateful that you can still get along so well. If you also think behavior is more important than belief, say so.
3. Explain how your religious beliefs have changed since childhood.
Your atheist family member might assume that her religious views have matured, but yours have not. If appropriate, tell her that you accept the evidence for evolution (even if you believe God was behind it) and you no longer believe that Noah gathered pairs of all animals including polar bears in a Mideast ark and watched as the rest of humanity drowned. However, if you have the same religious beliefs you had when you were five years old, you might wish to skip this suggestion.
4. Invite the atheist to ask you questions.
Undoubtedly, he has frequently been asked why he became an atheist. He will appreciate the opportunity to ask you why you believe as you do. Both of you might come out with a better understanding of each other.
5. Ask for her favorite quotes about religion.
Most atheists are familiar with biblical quotes directed their way, either to convince them to believe or to put the “fear of God” in them. Your atheist might quote Thomas Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Or Robert Ingersoll: “The hands that help are better far than lips that pray.” Or Abraham Lincoln: “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” If she doesn’t give these quotes, you can give them yourself and offer to discuss them with her. She’ll love you for it.
6. Mention that being a minority within the family is not so bad.
Describe how you, too, are a minority in the family, or ways in which everybody in the family is a minority within the larger community. That’s why you can all appreciate the importance of treating minorities with respect.
7. Discuss the reason for the season.
The family has gathered for a reason. It might be a holiday, an anniversary, or some other special event. No matter, you can end with some aphorism that all nice people, religious or not, can appreciate. The reason for every season can be a hope for “peace on earth and goodwill toward men and women.” Better yet, even a discussion about a family plan to bring everyone closer to attaining what might be that dream.
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