How to Let Go of the Family August 3, 2008

How to Let Go of the Family

Question from a reader:

How do you let go of your Christian family and friends who are hateful/hurtful to you because you chose no religious belief system anymore?

I would add a couple more questions: Is there any way to not let them go? Is there a way to teach them to accept you?

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Sondra

    I may just be bitter, but if your family can’t accept you unless you think the same way they do, they’re not much of a family, and don’t really deserve your time.

    I mean, you can always ask them to support you, explain why you believe what you do, but after all that, the ball is in their court.

    Instead, I would focus on making friends who are accepting and supportive.

  • Playing, partying, flirting, acting, modeling, writing, performing, singing, sculpting, painting, drawing, programming, building, growing, protesting, organizing, helping. At any given moment millions of people around the world are doing something interesting that has nothing to do with religion… Go find them and have fun.

  • Darryl

    I would try to explain yourself to those who will listen and not argue, but you may just have to find supportive people elsewhere and wait for your family/friends to come around (if they do). I grew up in such a family that we could never ostracize one of our own–even when they deserved it, so I find it hard to understand those families that can shun their own. This may be your “cross to bear” for the truth. Be patient, forgive them for their ignorance and abuse, and go on and live your life.

  • Doreen

    I would try to hold on to them first. Try to make it a non-issue with them. You don’t have to argue with them until you’re blue in the face that you’re a good person and you don’t need religion. Go to family functions and hang out with friends. Don’t bring up beliefs. If they confront you without any provocation on your part, tell them you believe different, it’s okay that you believe differently and that it should not interfere with your relationships.

    If they’re the type to constantly bring it up (without any provocation from you) and try to convert you, thats when it gets a bit more difficult. Sometimes the loss of a friend or family member may make others reconsider how they treated that family member. Don’t go out with a bang, though. Drift away and try to find others who aren’t as judgmental and activities where beliefs are a non-issue.

  • I can apply some indirectly-related experience here, having suffered through an ugly episode that ended my relationship with my father. While it had nothing to do with religion or anything like that, it did highlight something for me: a person’s status as family should not give them a pass on being non-abusive.

    There’s no easy way to end a relationship, especially with family. It will feel like a million kicks to the stomach. It may take years to fully get over. But you can set ground rules — lay out your expectations of those people, and leave the door open. If they decide, at some future point, to respect your right to determine your own life’s course, you can welcome them back. In other words, put the ball in their court. Tell them calmly what you need from them, and make them clear that there is no more conversation, no more anything, until they can meet that minimal level.

  • Pseudonym

    Just FYI: Although I have no personal experience here, this is an extremely small part of a large problem. Hateful families can be hateful for any number of reasons, and religion or lack thereof is nothing special.

    You may recall that Madalyn Murray O’Hair disowned her son for converting to Christianity, and described him as “beyond human forgiveness”. Hate is hate.

  • Justin jm

    I doubt you could teach them to be accepting, even if you set a higher moral standard than they do during family get-togethers. Maybe you could confront them directly with their hateful statements? I’ve never had this situation happen, so this is just an idea. It would help to know exactly what they said, if you’d want to tell.

  • Gabriel

    This sucks beyond description. My family maintains their religion and still love me. I still love them. We spend a lot of time together. We can (most of the time) argue about it in a civil manner. Hell, we get fairly well drunk and keep it civil. Family is family. I still remember sitting in a basement bar with a gay man and a lesbian. They asked me what I would do if my sons or daughter were gay, would I still love them. Well of course I would I told them. They were my children how could I not love them. This made the gays cry. I think their family wasn’t so accepting. That made me cry. I mean come one your family is your family how can you not love them.

  • ubi dubius

    I have a younger brother who’s a fundamentalist baptist. We have told him we’re not a religious family, but I don’t think he understands what that means. We have strong disagreements on religion and politics. We do our best to not bring them up. When they do come up, I try jujitsu, no I don’t hit him, I move away from him rather than fighting him. For example, when he tried to take me to the creation museum, I begged off that we had made other plans. I did not tell him that wild dinosaurs couldn’t drag me there. In his house, I saw pictures his kids colored about how geologic layers were laid down by the flood. I don’t confront him or my niece and nephews, I ignore it. It’s his house. If he asks me to say the blessing, I decline. When he says the blessing, I’m respectful, but I don’t join in. We receive some religious gifts from them, such as Usher’s Complete History of the World, all 6,000 years of it. It made a good regift to a conservative colleague who loves it.

    On the occasions he says things that could be considered objectionable, but they aren’t intentional, and I ignore them. The situation would be different if he were intentionally confrontational about it.

    The closest we came to confrontation was sending them some christian jewelry given to us by others (we thought your daughter would enjoy this more than our daughters would). This initiated questions from him that we simply didn’t want to answer. We simply repeated, “we’re not a religious family.”

    BTW, this brother isn’t listed as a guardian for my kids. I don’t think he is capable of raising them with the freedom to be atheists. I doubt we’re on his list either!

  • llewelly

    Cut them off for 5 years. Then give them a second chance and see how they treat you.
    It worked wonders for me.

  • Amy Black

    Having been out of Christiaity for a year, the best advice I can give is to always always be the calm, friendly polite one in the conversation about religion. Even if the other person is being accusing, presumptous or demeaning, that doesn’t give you the right to be the same way. That may not fix the situation but it will ward off further problems.

    Secondly, don’t wear yourself out trying to convince someone to accept you. People change when they are ready to change and not a second sooner. It hurts like hell when you lose someone over your lack of beliefs, I know, but the best you can do is hang out with people who do accept you and hope that your hurt friends/family will accept you eventually.

  • What do you mean, “how do you let them go”? You just do, if that’s what you actually want to do. I suspect you’re asking the wrong question, though. Actively shunning them is probably more aggravation than it’s worth. I’d suggest working on your self-esteem, especially when in their presence. If you’re self-confident enough that you don’t let them drag you down to their level, you’ll be untouchable.

  • Justin

    Remember it’s up to you if you love them or not. Even if they don’t seem to be very loving right now.

    Some times just distancing yourself for a while will allow the rift to heal up. Meantime, find lots of friends who love you for you. It really helps.

    My parents, upon discovering I was not a Christian, went as far as to help my ex hide my daughter from me, yet now, a couple of years later, we can be civil with each other.

    They will always be uncomfortable around me. They identify themselves too strongly with the faith to allow an unbeliever to be around without it hurting their feelings. But we can talk on the phone and have dinner and all that. I take what I can get.

    All that said, though, it hurts like hell a lot of the time and I cannot imagine that’ll change without a major epiphany on their part.

  • Elizabeth

    @ ubi dubius – Your comment: “We simply repeated, “we’re not a religious family.” is exactly what my dad uses! It’s such an uncontroversial thing to say that hopefully wouldn’t “ruffle any feathers”.

    The original question’s phrase “let go” really applies to me now because soon I will be leaving my conservative hometown to go back to a more liberal town (Austin) and probably will not back for much time next summer. There are a lot of people here that don’t know I’m atheist and that I am actually vice-president of a student atheist group at college. When people ask me what I do for extracurriculars, I would out myself by merely mentioning that group. I seriously just want to tell a lot of people that I know, “Yup, I’m a strong atheist and am not ashamed of it!” but I know that I would lose a bunch of friends and acquaintances here if I did so. Then there are those atheists that tell me I should “out myself” because they’re (the potential friends I would lose) not accepting anyway.

    I really don’t know what to do with this situation. It’s really hard to find freethinking people or just liberal people for that matter here.

    And honestly, I don’t like a lot of the atheists that I meet – some are too militant, some have no morals, and some are too exclusive. Then again, there aren’t many atheists to start with.

    But I am very thankful for my immediate family – my atheist dad and brother, deist mother, and skeptic sister!

  • TXatheist

    Maybe it was the military where I developed the ability to not take it personal but I’ve had 3 arguments and 2 of the 3 are now back to the way they were relationship wise. Heck, even my grandma was cool this Easter and didn’t give my son a chocolate cross out of consideration( I was touched by her thoughtfulness) My bro-in-law can suck it until he comes off his high horse:)

  • My liberal Christian views have been enough to estrange me from my fundamentalist sister. We haven’t spoken in about 5 years. It first started with her trying to convert me and I tried to respond. But then I made the decision to not enter into such discussions but when she wasn’t in a position to convert me she refused to speak with me anymore.

    I suspect there are other things going on in the background (not being out to her and yet single at 36, being an adoptee of the family in my teenage years, etc) but it’s still something that weighs on me. I’ve always had an open door policy but I gave up trying to contact her after years of no success. Not sure if there is a way to proceed.

  • Grimalkin

    I think the more complex issue is how to let go of family members who are hateful toward your lack of belief without hurting your relationship with family members who are understanding but don’t want to deal with a rift…

  • Old Beezle

    I only have experience with my own family who is fairly open and loving in general. They still send me religious-themed gifts and I still nonchalantly dismiss their religous-based biases. What’s worked for my wife and I is this:
    1) don’t debate religion (no one’s going to be convinced on either side)
    2) be upfront with boundaries–don’t be a doormat (“no we’re not goin to church with you, but we will drop you off”–when they’re in town for a visit)
    3) do your part to maintain the relationship (I told my parents that they raised me well and I was grateful for it; I email my little brother while he serves his mormon mission–despite being appalled most times at his one-sided, cult-sounding missives “from the field.”)

    If you want a relationship with them, then let them know it and work at it. It’s your choice. Or theirs if they don’t reciprocate. Live your life–not theirs.

    And while I’m handing out trite fortune cookies: never play cards with a man who as the same first name as a city and never date a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.

    “C’est finis!”
    -French Jesus

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