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.
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