7 Things Not to Say to the Atheist in Your Family

These tips should help make family visits more pleasant for everyone.

I recently gave tips on how atheists can peaceably interact with religious family members at Thanksgiving. Now, here are tips for religious family members on what not to say to an atheist during holidays or any other family gathering. Next week, I’ll suggest what they should say.

I hope these tips help make family visits more pleasant for everyone. I also hope they won’t deter theists from talking about religion with atheists. Nothing here precludes having a respectful and friendly conversation with your family atheist, but more about that next time.

Here are seven things you shouldn’t say to the atheist in your family:

1. “Why are you angry with God?”

Atheists are no angrier with God than with the Tooth Fairy. Only God-believers can be angry with God. Some people might have become atheists because they are not satisfied with theodicy explanations about why a good and powerful god would allow so much evil in the world, but most have become atheists primarily because they find no evidence for the existence of any gods.

2. “You’ll be a believer when you have a big problem.”

This is an offshoot of the “no atheists in foxholes” cliché. (See, for instance, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.) Atheists tend to address problems by looking for practical solutions to resolve them, and through supportive friends, family, and medical doctors. Many believers “talk” to God only when they have a problem, so such a comment is more applicable to theists than to atheists.

3. “Why are you rejecting our family? Was it our fault?”

Would you ask this question of a family member who voted for a different political candidate? Would you rather the atheist simply lie or remain silent (as others in the family might be doing)? Families have learned to welcome rather than reject gay members, and so it should be with atheists. Families can thrive and grow stronger with diversity.

4. “I feel sorry for you.”

How would you feel if the atheist says he feels sorry for you because you are basing your life on nonsense? Would a Christian tell a Jew that he feels sorry for him? Atheists don’t feel sorry for themselves, nor do they feel deprived of something real. We don’t need to believe in God to find joy in our lives.

5. “You got into a bad crowd.”

True, the family member might have been influenced by discussions with friends or books they have read. It might be a different crowd, but it’s not likely to be a bad one. Atheists might say they no longer mindlessly believe the religious things they were taught when they were growing up, but that doesn’t mean they got in with the wrong crowd. It’s the right crowd for them.

6. “Don’t assume that your beliefs are right.”

You believe your views are correct, but your atheist family member also thinks her views are correct. Anyone who changes religious beliefs has likely thought them through carefully, perhaps a lot more than those who stay with the religion in which they were raised. If you discuss differences in your beliefs, don’t simply tell the atheist that she is wrong. If the atheist in your family can’t assume her beliefs are right, neither can you.

7. “We just want to make sure you will be with us in heaven.”

This makes an atheist think that your God is petty and arbitrary. Why would a loving God ignore good works and condemn someone to hell solely because of an incorrect belief? Also, we question why a component of your eternal bliss in heaven wouldn’t include having your loved ones there with you, rather than being tortured for eternity.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Herb Silverman
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  • Amy

    These are excellent. I’m sure most atheists have heard all of them at one point or another. One I might add is “But you’re so nice.” The implication is that only Christians can be nice or good, and that is offensive. Christians don’t have an exclusive hold on niceness and goodness.

    • Marshall

      Intolerant Christians are far from good or nice.

    • Julie K. McCarty

      I’ve had people assume I’m a Christian before. They literally have said: oh what a nice christian woman you are! And then when I correct them, their mouths hit the floor. They are speechless.

  • Ed Buckner

    We’ve come to expect common-sense, godless, practical wisdom and advice from Dr. Silverman–so this is, happily, more of the same. Thanks, Herb.

  • RichardSRussell

    Have you heard that some people are taking offense at being issued the “wrong” kind of season’s greetings? For pity’s sake, people, nothing to get all snippy about. It’s not that hard. Here’s the short course:

    • If you know somebody is a Christian, say “Merry Christmas”.

    • If you know that they’re Serbian, like my mom’s side of the family, say “Khristos se rodi” (or “Joyeux Noël” or “Felíz Navidad” or whatever the appropriate ethnicity is).

    • If you know they’re Jewish, go with “Happy Hanukkah”.

    • If you know they’re Wiccan, say “Blessed Yule”.

    • If you know they enjoy Kwanzaa, say “Joyous Kwanzaa”.

    • If you know they celebrate Festivus, say “Happy Festivus”.

    • If you’re talking to me — “Are you talkin’ to me?” — “Go, Pack!” gets a big grin all year round.

    • And in all other cases (that is, when you don’t know), go with “Happy Holidays” and you can’t miss.

    Do you detect the common theme here? It’s about spreading cheer to the other person. It’s not all about you.

    Now please pick your favorite season’s greeting and pretend it came from me. 8^D

    • Jacob Harding

      Actually “happy holidays” very well may offend the non religious since is etymology historically breaks it down to “happy holy days”.

      • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Edie-Miller-Angelo/51901513203 Curious

        Offended? Concentrate on sharing the Peace and Love of the season and save your bitterness for the voting booth.

      • Isilzha

        Mostly it’s religious people who seem to take offense at “happy holidays”. They only want their religious celebration recognized and if you’re being inclusive by using “happy holidays”, they seem to feel that you’re being disrespectful of xianity.

        As an atheist, if there were something besides “happy holidays”, I’d likely use it. Unfortunately, “season’s greetings” only seems to work on cards. So, until there’s another phrase to use, then “happy holidays” seems the most generic expression of seasonal cheer.

    • Jane Chiarello

      I’m a fervent atheist but I still say Merry Christmas to everyone around. I even said it to the lovely Muslim lady in the shop yesterday. I went to Christmas lunch a few years ago where there were Jews, Muslims, Christians and non believers all having fun together. It’s more about saying with a smile and a wish that you have time with your family and friends. Saying Merry Christmas and having it said back does not scare me.

      • Carstonio

        Richard is right that greetings are about the other person, not about you. Although the non-Christians you encounter may not take offense, it’s still disrespectful to treat them as though Christianity were the normal or default religion, despite your good intentions. Don’t assume that everyone finds the same meaning in Christmas that you do.

        • Elchupinazo

          No. That’s putting WAY too much thought into it. Whether you celebrate it or not, December 25th is Christmas and a federal holiday. I tend to go with the “merry christmas, happy holidays!” combo, but defaulting from “merry Christmas” because it somehow presupposes “Christianity is the default religion” is just plain stupid.

          • Carstonio

            It’s only a federal holiday in the sense of granting time off for civil servants. It’s not a recognition of the religious importance of the holidays. Defaulting to “Merry Christmas” doesn’t presuppose that Christianity is the default, but instead has the effect of treating Christian affiliation as the default religious affiliation. Imagine if Jewish people wished Happy Hanukkah to strangers or Muslims wished Eid Al-Fitr.

          • Mark Chiddicks

            That’s exactly what i would expect them to do. It means a lot more that they are wishing me goodwill in the name of what they care about

          • Carstonio

            I’ve never heard of members of minority religions doing that, which is part of my point. It probably doesn’t occur to them to see their specific religious practices and traditions as having that meaning for non-members. Art Spiegelman described how a Holocaust memorial in Poland was made in the shape of a cross – even with the best of intentions, the shape was still a failure to recognize that a Christian symbol has meaning only for Christians. Similarly, style guides for English usage recommend the male pronouns when the gender of the person isn’t known, and whatever the origins of the usage, the effect is to treat maleness as the default and femaleness as abnormal.

          • Jherad

            If you’re saying it on December 25th, you might have a point – but there are a whole heap of holidays that people celebrate other than christmas at around the same time. Defaulting to ‘merry christmas’ for everybody just smells a little of ‘I don’t care what *you* celebrate, here’s MY holiday’. Good intentions aside.

            I’m an atheist, but I’ve no problem wishing people a merry Christmas, happy Hannukah, or good holidays in general. A little thought goes a long way.

        • Ronnie Solbakken

          Personally, I think it’s more disrespectful of people to take offence to you saying Merry Christmas to them, because they’re completely ignoring the reasons why you said it.

          • Carstonio

            The larger point is that one’s intentions are not as important as the effects of one’s actions. Offense has nothing to do with it.

            In principle, yes, it’s petty of someone who was wished Merry Christmas by mistake to berate the person who made the mistake. In practice, only a small minority of non-Christians would take offense, and even fewer would berate the other person. They’re far, far outnumbered by the folks who take offense at NOT being wished Merry Christmas, as if they’re aristocrats not being shown proper respect. There are many stories of such folks getting huffy with store clerks who say Happy Holidays.

          • Ronnie Solbakken

            “…one’s intentions are not as important as the effects of one’s actions… ”
            I agree, but there’s a difference between saying how something is, and how it should be. In sosial interaction, both parties are equally responsible. I’m responsible for trying not to offend anyone, and they’re equally responsible for being sensible and not get offended. In our age of first-worlders and multi-culture, it’s often impossible to predict what is offensive or not for some people and sometimes it’s even better to be offensive, because it helps build a backbone. Extreme sensitivity and extreme insensitivity are both equally bad, IMO.

            Personally, I’d love to see the day when everyone are capable of letting eachother be who they are without always internalizing it and making it personal.

          • Carstonio

            “Both parties are equally responsible” is not quite accurate. A better approach is that one is responsible only for one’s actions, not the other person’s actions or reactions.

            Again, the issue isn’t about taking offense or not taking offense. It’s really about privilege based on religious affiliation, no different than privilege based on ethnicity or gender. Female physicians are frequently mistaken for nurses, even by other women, because our culture still teaches people that it’s not normal for women to be in positions of professional authority. The goal should be for physicians to be accepted regardless of gender. Mistaking “Merry Christmas” for a nonsectarian greeting similarly marginalizes other religions and treats them as abnormal. That’s unworthy of a society that professes to value individual religious freedom. Whether the members of non-Christian religions feel marginalized or not is irrelevant to the point.

            With strangers I either say Happy Holidays or give all-purpose well-wishes. Why? Because I don’t know what religions they follow and it’s none of my business. For me, that’s almost like I was mistaking a woman for pregnant and asked when she’s due.

          • Normand Bertrand

            in my short life(60) i have never heard of or knew personally anyone who took offence to someone saying merry xmas…I think people who make an issue of this are very insincere or just plain ignorant! pretty pathetic to make up a problem where none exist and just a great big exaggeration or lie…merry xmas all my agnostic atheist friends

        • Scotty Shannon

          As an Atheist if I had to label the UK a religion or course I would say we are Christian (Though I dont believe we are a religious country at all) BUT if other religions come to the UK then it is for them to learn our Culture and greetings not for us to respect theirs! I’m not saying don’t greet them with theirs if you know it, of course not but if i am in the streets or a shop in the UK at Christmas and I see a person who is either a Male, Female, Black, White, Blue, Christian, Muslim or what ever they maybe I will Greet them with “MERRY BLOODY CHRISTMAS” and if that person is offended then i’ll be offended that they are offended.

          • Carstonio

            The difference is that the UK has had a state religion for centuries, something that’s explicitly forbidden in the US constitution. Christmas has many secular traditions attached to it, and I’m one of many non-religious people who celebrate it as a secular holiday, but it still belongs to Christianity. The principle behind our First Amendment is that no religion should have a privileged position in society over other religions, and no religion should claim to be more American than the others. What you describe is utterly incompatible with religious pluralism, like non-Christians should either convert to assimilate or hide their affiliations, living almost like closeted gays.

          • Mark Chiddicks

            the constitution only applies to the government, you can say anything you want

          • Carstonio

            True. I’m talking about what the First Amendment represents. Individual religious freedom requires not only prohibitions on government endorsement of specific religions, but also the social acceptability for individuals to follow whatever religion they wish.

      • Ronnie Solbakken

        You don’t need to believe in God in order to appreciate Saint Nicolaus’ acts of kindness.

    • Rob Collins

      Or I can just say Happy Holidays, which covers every Holiday. If they have a problem with that, it’s their problem not mine.

    • Ronnie Solbakken

      I usually just say merry christmas, since I believe people should be mature enough to know the purpose of me saying so. ;)

    • Carstonio

      While I agree, the only people I ever hear taking offense are the ones who believe there’s a “War on Christmas.”

    • Wyevez

      No. I’m not tailoring my speech to the whiners. I say Merry Christmas and mean it from all my heart. I’m no longer Christian but I do believe in the saying and more importantly, the feeling behind it. Good to all.

      If YOU take offence, that’s YOUR problem.

    • Mark Chiddicks

      I know huge numbers of people who find ‘Happy Holidays’ offensive and precisely nobody who finds ‘Happy Christmas’ offensive, and I know many atheists. You wish people goodwill by referring to the holidasy YOU are celebrating, not one that means nothing to you, and certainly not a vague meaningless catch all.

      • RichardSRussell

        So in your case it is all about you. OK, then, I guess you weren’t the target audience for my original comment.

    • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou.com

      This is solving the wrong problem. It isn’t that some folks are saying the wrong things. It’s that some folks are now reading malice into those who say the wrong thing. If people insist on feeling insulted that one doesn’t wish them well in precisely the way they wish to be wished well, then, …well they are welcome to be insulted.

  • anamericanundernogods

    If I am asked (by religious people) these seven questions, my answers would be:

    Q: “Why are you angry with God?”
    A: There is no God for me to be angry with.

    Q: “You’ll be a believer when you have a big problem.”
    A: I have had problems bigger than you could ever imagine but I still believe that there is no God or gods.

    Q: “Why are you rejecting our family? Was it our fault?”
    A: This is what you think. But if you want to be educated, I am ready to help you.

    Q: “I feel sorry for you.”
    A: I feel sorry for you too.

    Q: “You got into a bad crowd.”
    A: I think you got into a swamp that the more you try the more to sink.

    Q: “Don’t assume that your beliefs are right.”
    A: The word “belief” is what you use because you believe and reject logic. I am sure that my understanding is correct.

    Q: “We just want to make sure you will be with us in heaven.”
    A: Bot of us will end up dead here on earth and none of us will go to that imaginary heaven promised in most holly books because there is none.

  • May Hemm

    8. Prayer at the table that just happens to point out the atheist member at the table. I bet it happens!

    • Don Madlung

      When that happens I generally just have a drink of wine and air cheers the others who are doing the same thing

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    “Secular Humanist Pantheists” (SHP) know there is a god — however the SHP god (unlike all the other gods) is provable..

    But the SHP god is not supernatural.

    So, if you are an atheist, and this has resulted in family turmoil, convert to SHP (so you will have a god) and make everybody happy.

    How can anyone disagree, with anyone who can prove that god, nature and the universe, are all different classifications for the same thing?

    • jjxx

      They would have to prove that a universal definition of “god” is the same as the universal definition of nature and the universe.
      Since no-one can demonstrate or even agree on what “god” is, then there is nothing really to really to prove, you would just be arguing semantics.

  • Carstonio

    No. 7 encapsulates the real problem, not necessarily the theology but how its defenders seem to regard it. In my experience, this type of believer talks as if their god had no more sentience that a mother bear protecting her cubs, like they are warning others away from the edge of a dangerous cliff. There aren’t enough words in any language to capture the immorality of the criminal justice concept being described, yet they act as it’s just a fact of life. If their loved one was unjustly imprisoned by a foreign government and scheduled for execution, they would rightly demand that our government do something about the situation. But they apparently don’t have an opinion about the morality of torturing people for eternity. For their sake and everyone else’s, I hope they don’t believe that others deserve that punishment. If they really cared about justice for others, they would plead with their god to do away with hell as unjust. No wonder that the Americans who most strongly believe in hellfire and damnation are also the most fervent defenders of our nation’s shameful use of torture.

    • jjxx

      I think you are confusing theism with mainstream American Christianity.
      Not all theists believe in hell, not all theists believe there are only two places you can end up in after you die, nor do all theists believe hell is a place of eternal torture.

      • Carstonio

        I agree. My argument wasn’t directed even at all of Christianity. Many branches of Christianity don’t believe in a literal hell.

  • Sean Davis

    I just say Merry Christmas. It avoids conversations with touchy strangers about their invisible friend. At least it does so in my neck of the woods.

  • shojobakunyu

    “Would you ask this question of a family member who voted for a different political candidate?”? Yes… I’ve seen this happen MANY TIMES and it has happened when the family is either conservative or liberal.

  • sabrinaweb

    My personal answer to the 7th question:
    Thanks, but heaven is so full of bad people, I’d rather be in hell

    • RichardSRussell

      As Mark Twain observed, heaven for the climate, hell for the company.

  • supup

    Several years ago, a theist friend looked at me with a sincere look of pity when I told her I’m an atheist. I still feel that look of pity as a great insult. No one wants to be pitied, particularly for something that doesn’t deserve pity. So, I would add to your list, don’t look at an atheist with pity! It’s incredibly insulting.

  • Alex Edmiston

    Seems to me a lot of people posting here don’t understand the difference between atheist and agnostic.

    • Mark Chiddicks

      I’m betting you don’t either.
      There are atheistic and non-athesitic agnostics
      Non-athesitic agnostic believe there is some kind of a God but that its nature is intrinsically unknowable
      Atheistic agnostics don’t know if there is a god, and as a default position assume there isn’t, while reaining open to the idea. They have no religious beliefs, and that makes them atheists, but they don’t have a solid belief in ‘no god’ either.
      So some agnostics are atheists. Some are not.

      • RichardSRussell

        Indeed! As George H. Smith breaks it down in his book Atheism: The Case against God, they are 2 separate questions, one dealing with what you believe and the other dealing with how confident you are about it, and they are orthogonal to each other. The 4 possible combinations are:
        • gnostic theists — they know there is a god
        • agnostic theists — they think there’s a god but aren’t sure
        • agnostic atheists — they think there aren’t any gods but aren’t sure
        • gnostic atheists — they know there are no gods

        • Alex Edmiston

          Richard wins the bet Mark.

      • Alex Edmiston

        Well then Mark, you lost your bet.

        • Mark Chiddicks

          How so? There is no more a difference ebtween atheists and agnostics than there is a difference ebtween women and redheads. i.e they are overlapping groups and a person can be both, either or neither

          • Alex Edmiston

            Mark, I didn’t argue with what you said in your original post except the part about you betting that I didn’t know the difference. In general, most people consider an atheist as those wacko’s that get offended by things like the cross at WTC memorial. Agnostics (like myself) believe in more scientific evidence of evolution over creationism and really don’t give a crap if they see a nativity scene anymore than they care if someone puts a statue of snow white on their lawn.

          • Mark Chiddicks

            There does appear to be a strand of militant atheism in the US which is alien to those of us who live in much less religious nations where atheism is the norm. Here in New Zealand we’ve had openly atheist prime ministers. I can’t imagine an atheist in NZ being offended by a religious display or statement of belief. Rcihard Dawkins is british, but his atheist activism is far more about changing minds than it is about directly challenging actions.

          • jjxx

            Yeah, it annoys me when people see atheism as a statement, a political movement or a way of life. It really isn’t.
            Richard Dawkins even celebrates Christmas, just for the fun of it, it makes him no less an atheist.

            Hell I’ve even got an atheist in my family who is highly superstitious and believes in ghosts. It makes her no less an atheist than Dawkins, even if it would make Dawkins sneer in disgust.

            Atheism is simply a lack in belief of God or Gods. It has nothing to do protesting, political leanings, how much scientific understanding you have or how much cream you put in your coffee.

          • jjxx

            Yeah, it annoys me when people see atheism as a statement, a political movement or a way of life. It really isn’t.
            Richard Dawkins even celebrates Christmas, just for the fun of it, it makes him no less an atheist.

            Hell I’ve even got an atheist in my family who is highly superstitious and believes in ghosts. It makes her no less an atheist than Dawkins, even if it would make Dawkins sneer in disgust.

            Atheism is simply a lack in belief of God or Gods. It has nothing to do protesting, political leanings, how much scientific understanding you have or how much cream you put in your coffee.

            Same goes for agnostics, agnosticism has nothing to do with inclinations towards theories of evolution. I’ve met agnostics who don’t even know what evolution is. Yet they are still agnostics.

            The theory of evolution has no bearing on whether someone is agnostic or theist.
            Heck, The Pope himself supports evolution and encourages catholics all over the world to do the same.

  • Max Gold

    I just don’t hang around with God Botherers. I can’t even imagine being treated the way you described in your article, imagine someone so deluded they believe in God, heaven and hell telling me they feel sorry for me because I don’t, that would be infuriating. I don’t feel sorry for them, I just think they lack some serious critical thinking skills and the requisite brain matter to accept the lack of evidence for a god, the lack of logic in their arguments or that their is no need for a GOD if you are prepared to face reality on it’s own terms. (This requires courage). In other words I see them as cowardly dickheads, so no, I don;t feel sorry for them.

  • Isilzha

    For an arrogant, selfish, petty, mean-spirited, self-righteous, nasty example of “christian goodness”, I will offer up my aunt and her hubris to sit down next to me immediately after my father’s funeral (with me still staring at my father’s closed casket not really believing I’d just attended his funeral service) to “win me over to christ” and tell me I’m going to hell. Never mind that I grew up in a very xian household and rejected it a long time ago and have been an Out Atheist for over a decade. Never mind that I arranged a perfectly respectable xian funeral for my father as he would have wanted. Never mind that the kind thing to do would be to offer condolences and not gleefully embrace the death of my father as an opportunity to scare me back to jeebus (“don’t you want to see your father again?”). Hell, even a “I’ll be praying for you during your time of grief” would have been better than the filth that poured out of her mouth. I have never loathed anyone in my life the way I did her that moment. She embodies everything I can’t stand about self-righteous, hypocritical xians.

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou.com

    Heh, so many of these just demonstrate a complete failure to take one seriously. The sheer arrogance can be quite frustrating.

  • Guest

    I’m so glad the king of atheists, who speaks for all atheists has informed everyone of this, it will make Christmas easier.

    How about just talking to your family members from the angle of how well you know them?

  • jjxx

    I’m so glad the king of atheists, who speaks for all atheists has informed everyone of this, it will make Christmas easier.

    How about just talking to your family members using your own judgement, based on how close you are?
    I don’t really see this list being useful to anyone….unless they are slightly autistic *smh*

  • dave

    Interesting. You are assuming that the person struggling with the atheist belief is religious.
    How would you reply if I, as an irritated agnostic, said number 6??