How Far Would You Go To Maintain Ties with Religious Family Members? November 1, 2009

How Far Would You Go To Maintain Ties with Religious Family Members?

Tina, an atheist, recently tried to friend her cousin on Facebook. This sounds like an automatic “accept” to me, but it got complicated for her. Her cousin said she would only accept the request on one condition: Tina must promise never to discuss religion or politics.

This stems partly from the fact that when another relative was in the hospital and got better, her extended family praised God for his recovery (and for putting his care in the hands of good doctors and hospital staffers). Tina suggested they give thanks solely to the medical folks who actually had something to do with his getting better.

They weren’t very happy about that.

Now her cousin won’t friend her on Facebook. It’s not the first time her relatives have distanced themselves from her because she questions religion. And this bothers Tina because she does want to maintain ties to her extended family.

So she’s trying a little experiment:

… After much thought I decided to make another FB page and label myself a Republican and a Christian and use my maiden name instead of the name most of my friends know me by. This is really just an experiment to see what kind of reaction I get from the family and also to stay in touch with the people who normally wouldn’t give me the time of day.

I thought that I would feel creepy about this but I’ve managed to rationalize it in this way: I don’t have much to do with this people but still want to maintain some contact with them…

It’s sad she would have to resort to this and it’s sad that it may be the only way her relatives will communicate with her. It’s mighty Christian of them, don’t you think?

There are a bunch of you who have relatives who want little to do with you because of your atheism.

Have you done anything to strengthen your relationships with them? How far have you gone to make that happen?

(via The Summer Squirrel)


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  • Carlie

    A separate account seems to be going pretty far. I could see it if she left all the other information blank, I guess (NOT saying Republican and Christian if she’s not). Another route is to friend them, but put them on a list that blocks them from her status updates and/or other areas that she wants to feel free to express.
    A third option is to friend religious family and friends, but not get too vehement on one’s facebook page. That’s the route I chose. I don’t want to be a zealot evangelical atheist there any more than I’m happy with the fact that I used to be a zealot evangelical Christian; it’s annoying to be proselytized to in a social networking area regardless of the message.
    I don’t entirely shy away from posting things that reflect my own values, but I put up vague things like “I like people” for my religious view etc. People can read between the lines if they want and notice that my posts tend towards the marriage equality/pro-science/rationality end of things, but it’s not “in your face”. I had one friend who spent some time in the hospital with a very serious illness who then spent the next month praising God for his recovery, and just once I added a comment that “I would like to offer thanks to the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff who helped you out”, trying to remind them of that input without being confrontational.
    I don’t think that makes me an accommodationist; it’s just that to me, Facebook is social, not political activism. When it is relevant I express my opinion as a rationalist, but I’m not pushy. I have it easy with regard to my family in general:religion hardly ever comes up in conversation because I live far away from them and our talks are always catch-up about our lives rather than general talk about everything. If it were more of a daily issue, I have to admit I’m not sure how I’d handle it.

  • I think I see things differently. I have found that if I am myself, my more immediate family, who wants to have a relationship with me, pointedly avoids any mention of religion or politics, even though I’m quite vocal about my atheism and atheist activism on Facebook and my blog.
    For other family, they have fallen by the wayside, more because we only have a bit of DNA in common and nothing else.
    My true family are the friends that I’ve made over the years. They all happen to be atheists. They are all wonderful people and we truly care for each other. They are the more important people in my life.
    Sometimes family is what you make yourself.

  • Shannon

    I definitely wouldn’t go that far. I would be uncomfortable with lying about myself like that. I’m also really uncomfortable with the idea of “experimenting” on family or friends. It always ends badly when they find out (I was on the test subject end of that one once and I find it extremely distasteful).

    What I would do in this situation is tell her I can’t promise it and just leave it at that. If the cousin chooses not to friend then oh well. There *are* other ways to keep in touch than Facebook 😉 I mean, if you really want to keep in touch with someone who “normally wouldn’t give me the time of day” in the first place.

  • I recently suspended my facebook account for reasons much like this. Every time I expressed my atheist and liberal views I got shouted down by people who were supposed to be my friends (we’re talking people I see in person). Only a few, but enough to drive me away for now. Facebook should be where I go to virtually hang out with people who understand and support me, not to argue. I may go back, but I will be whittling my friend list down.

    Even if you like your family and want to stay in touch with them, I don’ think you’re obligated to be their facebook friend. But I have never been close to my extended family anyway.

  • Jay

    I don’t see how setting up a fake account and lying about yourself brings you closer to your family. If they can’t accept you for who you are then that’s sad but accept it move on.

  • My family and I had a huge schism when I was outed to them as an atheist. Over time we’ve healed that to a great extent.

    We remain family by focusing on those things which we have in common. We can always find something to do or talk about that isn’t political/religious.

    If our differences come up, it’s usually because my father says something asserting his beliefs. I usually just glance around, communicating that I see no one wants to hear an argument. Then I change the subject. Everyone appreciates my not rising to the bait.

    This makes my atheism less of a threat, it seems. It also, I think, helps clear the way for any other family who might be thinking of coming out as agnostic or atheist. It definitely helps us all to get along.

    They are all friends of mine on Facebook, btw. And they tend to ignore what politico/religious stuff I post. Which works pretty well.

    To Tina: Friend the rest of your family and be patient with your cousin. Only time will tell if she/he comes around our not.

  • My cousin deleted me from Facebook, another ignores me when he sees me, and another lives 30 minutes away and we never talk (the last time we talked was at a family reunion more than 500 miles away from where we both live). It’s kind of hurtful initially, but really, I have decided I don’t need the kind of people in my life that don’t accept me for who I am. And now I don’t have to worry about buying a wedding gift for one of them!

    I have found new family in some good friends. It’s better because I got to choose them and they are more like family to me than my own ever bothered to try. I agree with previous posters: don’t change who you are to please people who obviously don’t care enough about you to love you despite political and religious differences.

  • ErinM

    I lost a whole branch of my mother’s family when I responded to the old “Majority rules; the 14% who aren’t Christian should sit down and shut up” e-mail with “This member of the 14% respectfully declines.” They haven’t communicated with me since.

    My reaction? Screw ’em. Life’s too short to endure delicate diplomatic negotiations with people I wouldn’t choose to associate with if they weren’t related to me. I have real friends who are far more worthy of that time and energy.

  • Ron in Houston

    Now I admit to being a serious wise ass.

    However, if a relative gets better and the family starts saying “praise jesus” or something like that, I’m not that big of a wise ass to say, “well you should be praising the doctors.”

    Relationships are a two way street. The person is being disingenuous by faking an account. I’d say there are valid reasons why the family doesn’t want to have a relationship with this person.

    Hmmm, where’s Richard?

  • David D.G.

    How Far Would You Go To Maintain Ties with Religious Family Members?

    Well, it depends. Is there a Klondike Bar or a Sierra Mist on the line here? :^p

    Seriously, I would echo the sentiments of ErinM. Life is too short for such needless drama. (And, frankly, I think that misrepresenting oneself in such a fashion as Tina did is unethical — and bound to blow up in her face eventually anyway.)

    ~David D.G.

  • JD

    If a Christian treats you like an enemy because of your beliefs, then that’s their sin, not yours. Why? That violates a very important tenet of Christianity. Love your neighbor as yourself doesn’t make exceptions in cases where politics and religion differ. Not only that, Jesus made friends of people hated by his community. I don’t think they would accept such a criticism though.

    I don’t think it is worth lying about who you are to stay friendly with such a person. However, I don’t have a problem with keeping certain topics off the table if the topics are if they’re a cause of unnecessary tension.

  • Chas

    Seems a lot work for people who really don’t want to accept for who you are.

    I inadvertently came out as an atheist to my evangelical brother (I’d forgotten he was on Facebook) via a status. Since then, we’ve had some wonderful conversation about church/state, evolution, etc. Fortunately for me he has a curious mind is open to evidence so the conversations are productive for both of us.

    We wouldn’t be able to have these conversations without Facebook. Most of the other times we see each other is family get together which are devoid of pointed discussions. And it us to carefully think about what we’re saying and how we say it.

    I’d like to know how your experiment works out.

  • Anonymouse

    Creating a new FB page is dishonest. I have to admit I haven’t added close family members because I don’t want to censor myself. I certainly wouldn’t make a whole other FB page and lie in it, though.

  • Tina here and I’ve really enjoyed reading the reactions from my blog.

    I get what some people are saying, that if my family can’t accept me for who I am then screw ’em. I still feel that way. The new FB page is more for me to keep up with the family then for the family to keep up with me. I won’t be posting any political views (they are against gay rights for example) or religious opinions. This is the only way I could pull this off and still be plugged in.

    I still have the FB page where I can be the real me and interact with friends and some family who are open to new ideas. I spend most of my time there and am actually more comfortable posting knowing that I’m not alienating a family member who cannot handle differing views.

    So far, after just a few days, I have 17 friends. Most are family or friends of family. I do have a small fear of it backfiring on me but, with all things considered, they really aren’t that interested in me so I think I’ll be safe.

  • I know of several people who have two Facebook pages one personal, one professional one family fundy friendly, one atheist. I probably wouldn’t go as far as labeling myself a Republican Christian, but I can understand Tina’s motivations, while I usually don’t worry about people who write me off based on my beliefs, I could see the benefit in keeping up conservative Christian appearances for the sake of a loved one.

  • It’s sad she would have to resort to this and it’s sad that it may be the only way her relatives will communicate with her. It’s mighty Christian of them, don’t you think?

    Sadly typical.

  • Shamar

    I say that if anyone doesn’t want to stay in touch with me because I’m an atheist, then fuck them!

    If my family doesn’t want to talk to me because I’m an atheist, then I don’t need those types of superficial people in my life anyway. My family and friends are the people that act like my family and friends, and support me, if they don’t act like my family then I don’t consider them family.

  • Hannah

    I come from a very Southern family, and almost all of my relatives (outside of my immediate family – thankfully) are conservative Christians. Yet I love them very much. As hard as it is to hide such an essential part of myself from them – and I consider my atheism and liberal outlook to be very important to who I am as a person – I know that my relationship with them is more important. So I have a lot of sympathy for Tina, but I handle the situation in this way: I never lie or pretend to believe in god or express opinions I don’t actually have. I just refrain from talking about what I believe in the presence of those relatives. It’s worked for me so far, but then again, they have not been confrontational or asked me directly about my religious or political views. I find it’s best to gently challenge the people I care about on issues that they might reconsider, but pointless to challenge them on their deeply held beliefs, because those are not ever going to change. I would think that Tina could deal with this by not discussing her views around her relatives but at the same time not pretending to believe things she does not.

  • Betsy

    I feel sorry for Tina that she feels the need to resort to such a dishonest practice to retain ties with family members. I don’t lie about who I am but I try to understand the pov’s of those who might not agree. This fall, the “9/12’ers” and Glenn Beck worshippers were really bugging me. I posted that they scared me, with a video I had found of the demonstration. My aunt, a strong Glenn Beck supporter, asked why. I had every intention of answering, but held back to think on my response for a few days and then realized it was the 15th anniversary of the death of her son. She had more important things to think about and I did not want to upset her at such a time. We both forgot about the incident entirely, and so we can make casual friendly comments to one another without an argument between us.
    I don’t censor myself entirely, but I do give myself time to think about what I’m posting. Will it offend someone? Can I get the same point across without offending someone if I change the way I’m saying it? I try never to use a violent tone or swear when I do mention religion or politics. (I don’t always succed, by the way.) Then, if people can’t handle a calm, rational discussion between equals, it isn’t worth trying to maintain the relationship. Sometimes you have to allow people to drift away, much as it hurts. I try very hard not to be the one who chooses to end the relationship. This only closes me off from people who might, some day, challenge my thinking and make me a better person in some way. And I hope that those who close me off will one day come back wanting to repair the relationship.

    I think Dale McGowan’s latest series on “silos” at http://www.parentingbeyondbelief.com could help a lot of us with this same issue.

  • Tizzle

    So far only my mother, out of the religious part of my family, is on facebook. I don’t speak to my siblings very often, and I wish they were on fb, so I could see some updates with their lives. I don’t know how else to communicate with them. I’m not very good at picking up the phone to talk to mostly-estranged people, you know? I can see why someone, Tina, would want to keep up with what’s going on.

    I have been considering using fb’s privacy settings to keep out certain people from most of my info, rather than set up another account. I hate re-logging in. I see 2 benefits to this: I could put certain information (that might look good to employers) in public, and certain information only my friends would see. I could put work associates in the group that doesn’t have access to certain facts.

  • Do you want to be friends with people like this? I know that family is often a different matter but would you want to associate someone who is so petty and fickle as to reject you because you don’t share the same belief in a god?

  • I’ve had some high school friends defriend me because they thought I was bashing something integral to their happiness even thought I’m not a “basher” type, more of a “C’mon Christians! Stand up and speak out against your own for being bad Christians!” and have found many religious people will not tolerate any kind of criticism at all. Blood-ties or not they can be toxic to our lives. I think it’s incredibly rude of your cousin to try and censure and manipulate you with T&Cs for their friendship and acceptance.

    I have family that I don’t talk with and family who understand that I have views different from theirs and it’s good to have dialogs – not fights – about issues. The others, well if they can’t accept you for who you are, then who says you have to pander to them on Facebook?

  • Being from a mostly non-religious family this hasn’t been a problem as far as family goes. They’ve all known for a long time that I’m an atheist, liberal, and skeptic because I’m not exactly quiet about it in person. Nothing I put on facebook should be a surprise to anyone who knows me.

    What has been a problem are people who are more tangential than my family and close friends. My best friend took some flak over stuff I’d posted on facebook from her mother-in-law who is an ultra-conservative christian (not that it affected our friendship but was frustrating for her). Also had issues with former classmates I wasn’t close to and people I used to work with because I never discussed atheism or my political views at work.

  • JJR

    As my FB friends list has increased, I noticed I started to tone down/mute my atheism and political postings. As a general rule, I have not friended any blood relatives on Facebook. There’s old fashioned email or letter-writing or phoning if they or I want to keep in touch. I depend on my mom to keep me in the loop on family news.

    I have lots of atheist friends on FB, but lots of old school mates, university classmates, etc. don’t share my views…but they mostly keep quiet and avoid commenting on my posts, too, which I appreciate. And mostly I do the same for them, though with some of the more fundie ones I sometimes can’t help but shoot my mouth off a little, though I try to comment in a way that is humorous, gently poking fun rather than rabid/aggressive; not because THEY will see a difference but because others will.

    I’ve retreated back to MySpace and LiveJournal (which none of my family or circle of friends or current or former co-workers belong to) when I really want to let loose and vent in print. That and comment on atheist blogs, of course 😉

    I am having an uncomfortable conversation with a former High School schoolmate (he was a Freshman when I was a senior); someone who was very religious back then and still is today. He noticed that I was an “out” atheist after I made a comment on one of his status updates that hinted at my non-belief. He messaged me and stated “I assume you came to your views after prolonged study.”, to which I replied “I’ve been an atheist for as long as you’ve known me, I just never talked about it at school.”; I tend to take a long time between replies, though. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t expect to change his mind, but something in me can’t resist correcting his misconceptions about atheism, either. In the meantime we communicate through other channels about football and other “safe” topics.

  • Buffy

    Why should anybody sublimate who they are to appease the ridiculous bigotries of others? If anybody told me they’d only “friend” me on FB if I pretended I was straight or said they’d only associate with me if I refused to mention that I was an atheist I’d show them the door. They are the problem, and they need to realize their personal bigotries cannot continue to control the lives of others.

  • I find it hard to put myself in Tina’s place because, coming from England, I grew up in a milieu where everyone was either atheist, agnostic or, if religious, they had the good taste to keep quiet about it. In Britain, probably most of northern Europe, if anyone starts talking about God, their audience starts to look at their watches and suddenly remembers a previous engagement. In my British family, only my mother believes, in an understated, Sunday mornings only way. So I don’t understand what it would be like to have to find one’s family becoming distant or even unapproachable due to such a preposterous subject. I wish Tina the best of luck with her strategy. One thing I do know – if it doesn’t work, the real losers will be Tina’s family. I have the honour to be a friend of hers, and I can tell you, she is a delight!

  • Heidi

    Pretty sure I would have responded to the Cousin with Conditions with, “ok, never mind, then.”

    Most of my overly religious relatives don’t use computers anyway. Some of the Adventists think they’re from Satan.

    I do have atheist in my FB profile under my religious beliefs, though. So if anybody wants to look, it’s right there.

  • I have christan and non christian relatives and friends on facebook, some enjoy my ramblings on there, others tend to stay silent. Most of the time when I meet up with school freinds, there’s discussion… not so much with the family. But I tend not to cmment on their jesus loving, they don’t on my human rights stuff

  • Maria

    I have two: one where I’m out about my sexuality and one where I’m not. Sometimes it’s necessary.

  • Jen

    I read the posting, thought about what I was going to type, and then changed my mind about six times while reading the comments, because everyone had pretty good points. Still, in the end, I think I am going to say that for some people, the family you are born to is more important than for others, so I can understand why Tina wants to keep in touch with her bigoted family members- one is never going to agree fully on politics, anyway, and surely there are benefits to loving people. That said, I probably wouldn’t create a fake facebook page, but my life is not hers and visa versa. I am out as an atheist on fb, though I am sure many people haven’t noticed since I haven’t gotten that forehead tattoo yet. I have a (very small) number of incredibly conservative friends who might get along well with Tina’s family and I can’t expect them to temper their religious status updates anymore than they have expected me thus far to pretend to be conservative. For the record, I rarely friend family members, though.

    As for the original facebook debate- well, I can’t blame her for that. I have a hard time not arguing logical fallacies, and as long as the uncle was out of the woods, so to speak, I would have gone for it.

  • I bend a little bit for the sake of religious family members that I wish to maintain some sort of civil relationship with.

    All of my family is Mormon (I left the church almost 13 years ago) and I do my best to avoid most conversations about religion with family. For a few years, it was all about “you are breaking up our eternal family” In the last few years, it’s been very civil because we’ve all learned how to converse about other subjects in life.

    From a social networking point of view, I’m labeled as “Agnostic” on my Facebook page and I have many friends (and a few family members) that haven’t said anything about my religious preference. I’m sure they would if I changed it to say “Atheist”, which would send out a notify.

    I prefer to find ways to not discuss religion as it makes it easy to avoid any points of contention.

    I choose to never resort to creating another account just to appease certain people. If they don’t like my religious view, then so be it.

  • JulietEcho

    The dishonesty seems unnecessary (and unethical), and carries a risk of backfiring. I think leaving it blank makes much more sense.

    I also wouldn’t have spoken up about family prayers for healing, unless my family was clearly and directly insulting the doctors somehow (which I can’t imagine). If I was asked to pray aloud, as part of the group, I might say something acknowledging the doctors’ work and not address it to anyone in particular, or I might simply bow out and say nothing.

  • Most of my friends are atheist or ‘other’ – but there are a few fairly religious ones, more constant ‘Praise Jesus/God is Good/Glurge types than fundies. There’s a small branch (more a twig by now) of my family made up mpstly of Jehova’s Witnesses, and one of them de-friended me after I said something mildly critical of one of his ignorant statuses.

    The other day one of my less-than-skeptical, praise-Jebus, born-again friends posted that annoying UL Einstein absence of God video and I pointed out that it was, in fact, not true. Almost immediately my friend’s friend started “yelling” at me (lots of !!!’s) that I was intolerant and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t true (o_O). My friend didn’t seem to mind, we’ve never agreed about religion and are fine with that, but this girl just snapped. She then claimed to be an atheist too, but that she’d never be as rude (?) as me.

  • If someone, regardless of whether they’re a family members, can’t handle the fact that I’m my own person and have the right to my own beliefs and life, then they don’t deserve anything from me. I don’t think that someone deserves more forbearance form me just because they’re related to me. I’m very open about my atheism with my family, and it has had the unfortunate consequence of many family members cutting of contact, or trying to re-convert me, and then getting offended when I rebuff them, or when I dare to criticise religion on my profile/blogs.

    In the end, I don’t think it’s worth it to have to hide your beliefs or who you are to have a relationship with someone – because it’s inevitably going to be an unhealthy relationship.

  • Grimalkin

    The “you’re being offensive!” issue is a biggy in my family – particularly with my sister-in-law. When I changed my “religious beliefs” on facebook to “Atheist,” I received a long letter from her about how offensive I was being and how I was deliberately trying to destroy our friendship by attacking her beliefs.

    Yes, that’s all it took. Nevermind that she’s had “Islam – the way of the One True God as told by his Prophet (pbuh)” as her “religious beliefs” status for years. But no, simply saying “Atheism” with no reference to it being the “One True” worldview is just too much.

    I see it as a kind of hostage situation because the tables are so uneven. She sends me chain letters talking about the glory of Allah and his miracles fairly frequently. When I one day wrote back to her asking that she stop sending me these things, there was a big fight about how she’s just sharing her beliefs and she’s totally not trying to convert me or change my mind so why am I being so unreasonable and sensitive?

    Now the question is, how far will we go to maintain a relationship with a family member in this sort of situation. Well, in the examples I’ve already given, I went as far as just not talking about anything even close to religion with her – which, unfortunately, is a very broad subject that touches on pretty much every one of our combined interests. So for a while, we could talk only about clothes, husbands, and the potential babies we might have. The amount of time we spent talking to each other drastically decreased.

    It decreased even further when she decided that my husband (her brother) and I don’t really love each other because I don’t serve him, cook for him, and treat him like an emotionally fragile imbecile and because we don’t feel a need to spend 100% of our time together. This was bearable but annoying. Then the kids topic was soiled when she developed the nasty tendency to believe that she knows everything there is to know about parenting and that any deviation from her ideal is abuse (keeping in mind that she is not a parent). When I told her that her many lectures on what constituted abuse would label my mother – someone I love and who has been very kind and generous to my sister-in-law in the past – as abusive and that this offended me. Again, I was being overly sensitive and attacking her for her beliefs. So then that was out.

    And clothes… well, I like sewing them and she likes buying and wearing them. She likes these tight little things with weird ruffles and oversized plastic jewellery while I like more “conservative” fare. The overlap is very small.

    So I gave up and we’ve stopped talking. The problem is that we’re still in the same family and that means seeing each other at family events. This means that I am now restricted in being able to talk with family members I get along with better. For example, my father-in-law and I share an interest in evolution. Two weeks ago, as I was telling him about Dawkins’ new book (which I’d recently read and thought was awesome), my sister-in-law (who was at the other end of the room and talking to someone else) burst into tears and ran upstairs. She later told my mother-in-law that I was attacking her beliefs and bullying her and would she please talk to me about my offensive behaviour.

    This has all been a very long and frustrated rant and I am sorry for subjecting everyone to it. It’s something I am still trying to work out because I’m very much of the mind that family is of central importance. Ordinarily, I would say that you ought to try just about anything to keep at least a casual friendship with all family members, but I am now wondering if it is truly worthwhile in some cases – particularly those uneven cases where the family member in question is not interested in reciprocating.

    I’m not sure that the person in the post is quite there yet. It seems that this cousin is being overly sensitive, but as long as she just doesn’t want religious discussions between them and doesn’t mind the poster having religious discussions with others, I think it would be worth just keeping the one account and agreeing to make the topic off-limits. But if it’s a case where, like mine, this family member has decided that everything is offensive and a direct/personal attack, it may be best to just go for the “once a year birthday/christmas card” sort of family relationship. Why bother working so hard to keep a friendship with someone who is not interested in returning it?

  • Diane

    I, for one, am curious about the results of such an experiment.