7 Ways to Talk to Your Family Atheist

These suggestions can help improve family relations, especially at holiday gatherings.

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.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Herb Silverman
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  • Ed Buckner

    My friend Herb is a nicer guy, nicer atheist, than I am. This essay shows why there are advantages to that. Thanks, Dr. S.

  • RichardSRussell

    I thot the real “reason for the season” had been settled ages ago. It’s axial tilt.

    • James Wangsness

      You’re a meteorologist? Not cosmetologist, the hair and nail people?

  • anamericanundernogods

    I totally support “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

    But I do have some problems with “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.”

    I have had neighbors who believed in God and then according to their holly book they did harm me because it was ordered by their God to clear the Earth from non-believers.

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    As a “Secular Humanist Pantheist” (god, nature, and the universe, all mean the same thing) my god has hundreds of billions of suns, but the one closest to us is about 5,000,000,000 years old; we SHPers, celebrate our sun’s re;ationsahip to us, on 12/21 every year.

    Next week, this SHPer, will celebrate another trip around our closest sun, and will begin the year 4,540,194,074.

    Because I have a god, I can prove — while none of my religious peers are able to do so — they are much more tolerant of me..

    And, they have much more tolerance for me — simply because I have a god that is provable.

    So, if you still have family members, who still reject your atheism, try pretending to be a “Secular Humanist Pantheist” — and see what a difference it makes.

    PS. Albert Einstein (if he were alive today) would probably be a SHP.

  • tristan king

    This is the most pointless bloody article I’ve ever read. If there’s an atheist in the family how do you talk to them? The same way you’d talk to anyone else!? Just because they’re atheist doesn’t mean you need to talk about it, just have a normal conversation!!?

  • James Wangsness

    I love your tongue in cheek humor Herb, especially about the ark. It is incredible to me that religious folks can even talk about it with a straight face.

  • Loretta Haskell

    I do what I can to desensitize the negativity around the word “atheist.” In so many Christian circles there is an apprehension and fear in just mentioning the word, as though saying “atheist” out loud will plunge the listeners directly into the depths of an eternal fire. If I am lucky enough to have an open and honest discussion with a theist, they will often deny that one who does not see proof of a God, or one who is without a deity, is the same thing as an atheist. Somehow, “agnostic” is so much less threatening when often a self-described “atheist” and a self-described “agnostic” hold the very same views. Herb, how about an article on How to Tell the Difference Between and Atheist and an Agnostic and Does It Really Matter?

  • bakabomb

    It’d be nice (though this may not be the optimal forum) to compile similar lists of what atheists “should and should not” say to their families. Were I to begin such a list, I’d start by noting that tolerance is A Good Thing on both sides of this question. Asserting that atheists are destined to burn in hell — or that believers delude themselves by worshiping a nonexistent deity — is always counterproductive. There are less antagonistic ways for both sides to express their beliefs and convictions, and disrespecting the other side’s position is never a good way to open a useful dialogue.

  • cecil

    Discussion of anything religious between an atheist and a traditional Christian is generally non-productive and often counter-productive because the Christian, openly or secretly, thinks the atheist is all wrong and needs to be converted (saved). Not conducive to building good will and better friendships.