Did Your Atheism and Your Family’s Religion Clash Over the Weekend? December 1, 2009

Did Your Atheism and Your Family’s Religion Clash Over the Weekend?

Thanksgiving is a perfect time for relatives who don’t see each other very often to get together.

That also means there’s a lot of potential for discussions about religion — more specifically, your atheism versus the faith of your family.

Reader Paul experienced it firsthand. He mentioned to his aunt that he disagreed with some of President Obama’s policies, and she took that to mean he didn’t like the President at all. She assumed Paul shared her dislike of the President.

It wasn’t true, but Paul’s aunt didn’t know that and said the following:

“I believe he is trying to destroy the country, but at least his presidency will hasten the return of Christ.” She actually said that, ‘hasten the return of Christ’, Obama’s presidency.

I knew the religious right despised the man but this was startling. Here was a woman in her 60s suggesting that he is the antichrist or some such boogieman. I had to bite my tongue not to laugh in her face.

Yikes.

Did any of you have a clash of religious views over Thanksgiving weekend?

How did you handle the encounters?


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  • Trace

    Way to go Paul’s aunt! (shaking head sadly)

  • Every president in recent memory has been called the anti-Christ.

    Personally, I think it will be the next president. 😉

  • I didn’t have any particular encounters along those lines, but in the past I’ve had similar ones like these.

    Generally I laugh in their face and make damned sure to never take anything they say seriously ever again.

    Currently this means I’m ignoring the gibberish spewed by about 80% of my relatives, but on the whole, it works. 😉

  • Brit

    There was a little bit, but it was more divisions in Christianity instead of religion and non-religion.

    My sister is a Baptist who works at a Catholic school, and my great aunt is a non-denominational Christian.

    My aunt made a few small jokes about Catholics and Baptists (could have been a passive aggressive joke, though, since she really doesn’t like them), but other than that- it was fine.

    As an atheist, I mainly just kept quiet.

  • Chad Brown

    Sort of. I couldn’t make it to my family dinner because my Fiance had to work. I stayed home.

    My brother told me that she whispered to him “I think he’s just staying home because he didn’t want to hold hands and pray”.

  • Ade

    Well being from a muslim family my clash didn’t happen until Friday when family and friends came to our house for the muslim holiday, of course they all had to ask me why I don’t come to mosque and how the islam is going to save me, my aunt even assumed I converted to Christianity and how that’s wrong and Allah is going to punish me for it. As always my mom told me not to tell them I was an atheist, which I so wanted to tell them so they can shut the hell up about preaching something I don’t give a damn about, but I respect my mom too much and I’m still young so I just stayed in my room whilst they celebrated and came down only when I needed to say Hello to guest coming in.

  • Not really a clash at the holiday, but in an e-mail post-holiday about something my boyfriend said that his mother found offensive (along the lines of “being older doesn’t necessarily make you wise” – she took it personally). The e-mail ended with a declaration that if we were “offended by Jesus” she would not include us in their Christmas gift exchange because she “gives gifts in honor of Jesus.”
    Also, my boyfriend’s not an atheist…just me. 🙂

  • Polly

    No clash. I sat quietly with my eyes open during the pre-meal prayer and that was the end of anything religious.

    My mother also believes that:
    a)Obama is a Muslim out to destroy or convert America

    b)he is possibly the anti-christ.

    c)The rapture is any day now – as is evident by the decline in morality and Christianity

  • Randy

    I last had this type of situation about a year and a half ago when I was driving through Arizona on my way back home to LA. My fianceé and I stopped at my mother’s house and went out to lunch with a huge family/friends group. During the lunch, the conversation turned to religion and to my surprise my family had become focused on their “relationship with God”. My mother is a fairly intelligent and rational person, so this shocked me. The conversation didn’t go very well and we left feeling a bit put off.

    I was invited to Thanksgiving this year, and I began to think of the situation playing out as being a couple of guests that would have to endure hours of overt condescension.

    I’ve never missed a family gathering on Thanksgiving. This year, my fianceé and I stayed home, made our own small turkey, and enjoyed being separate from any fundie headaches.

    It was fantastic!

  • In the course of conversation, I told my 83-year-old, Missouri-born grandmother that I didn’t believe in any kind of god. She pointed out that the Bible is the word of God, and I said I didn’t think it was. She pointed out that the Bible also talks about Jesus, and I said that I not only didn’t believe in Jesus either, but that the Bible is a useless source of information from a rational point of view. She, now quite frustrated, accused me of being cynical and argumentative, I said that I was indeed, and proudly so, and asked if she thought God had made me an atheist to test her faith. Awkward pauses constituted most of the next 36 hours until I flew out.

  • jadwy916

    My Mother forwarded an email about how the “meaning” of Christmas is being taken away by retailers and politicians. And something about the very definition of Christmas was at risk… something about saying Happy Holidays as opposed to Merry Christmas.
    I informed her that she need no worry as it wouldn’t be the first time in history that the meaning and name of the holiday had changed and that actually it wasn’t untill 350a.d. that (I believe Pope Julius the first declared) the birth of Christ would be celebrated on December 25th, and I gave her a whole list of pegan holidays celebrated near or on the winter solstice.
    Perhaps it was a bad idea, but in the end I tried very hard to drive home the point that no matter how you look at it, a celebration of family, friends, and life is good no matter the name. We finally agreed on that and moved on.

  • adr

    oh yeah. my mother is a fundamentalist minister. and knows i’m an atheist. we clash often on these topics, but seem to be finding a way to mutually coexist.

    she made us all gather in the living room before dinner for the prayer. My wife, daughter and I just sat in our places and let her finish. Though, I wasn’t please that she specifically made sure to say that WE are thanking GOD at this time of year.

    after dinner, the conversation turned to religion and I had to physically get up and walk out of the room on several occasions to avoid making a comment that I knew for sure would cause a fight. at this point, I find it better to just take the high road, because listen to reason is out of the question for most of my family.

    on the drive home, my wife and I talked about the insane delusions they all have and I felt emotionally drained, but was proud of myself for just ‘letting it slide’ and not causing a scene for thanksgiving.

  • TheBlakKat

    Naw, we moved across the country and get every other year off. I spent a wonderful day in pajamas.

  • twirlgrl

    As soon as the last dish was set on the table, my mother, who has never before required prayer at the table, said, “Let’s pray” and grabbed my hand, insisting quickly that “everyone else come in and hold hands, bow your heads” and then prayed aloud. This “everyone” included my atheist husband and our 5-year-old. It was EXTREMELY uncomfortable but I didn’t know what to say. Later had to endure her explaining to the 4 children present (incuding mine) that her cat had died and had “gone to heaven”. Apparently, after 20 years of atheism, my mother still hasn’t caught on (you would think, “no, we don’t want a Lutheran school because we don’t want him brainwashed with their dogma” would have been a good hint). I would love to just “come out” but it’s complicated. Not looking forward to Christmas at all.

  • unique.smile.within

    My father thinks the same thing about Obama, that he’s the anti-Christ. I had an argument with him – and my mother, who is a devoted Catholic, was on my side for once! Both of us were shocked.

  • Michelle Nicole

    My dad was leading a conversation that centered on stockpiling weapons to prepare for an upcoming American Civil War that would be necessary to remove Obama from office, (my family is batshit crazy). I bit my tongue and didn’t say a word because my grandparents are very devout and are the only family members who don’t know I’m an atheist. My grandfather handed me tracts and told me I needed to distribute them because “the only way out of the mess we’re (America) in is for the country to turn back to Jesus”. *Groan*

  • Lykeros

    No clash here, as I chose to bite my tongue for this particular event. I really just felt like relaxing and enjoying my food than starting an argument with my conservative uncle.

    Over the course of the evening, I heard about how Obama is destroying America, liberals are stupid socialists, and Sarah Palin is the best hope for this country.

    He is the only one though. The rest of my family pretty liberal. Thankfully.

  • Phaz

    I had a creationism debate with my Brother. I learned the following:

    * They have found human fossils that were HUGE such as femurs 4 feet long from a time when humans lived 900 years old
    * The Earth used to be surrounded with a giant sphere of ice, which provided the water for the great flood
    * Carbon dating is inaccurate because it doesn’t work on live penguins
    * Dinosaurs and other animals are found in the layers they are always found in because of their density
    * After the flood Noah’s family spread all the species of the world to their perspective locations
    * The Earth is slowing down and the Moon is moving away from it which somehow are used to conclude that the Earth can’t be as old as it is

    It was an interesting discussion…

  • Vas

    Wow what a trip. We just ate some turkey and ham and stuff, at one point the girlfriend’s brother pulled the old “let’s go around the table and have everyone say some things they are thankful for” routine. Pretty harmless non religious stuff there. Awkward? yes. Annoying? a bit. Insulting or drama producing? Not at all, just harmless banter and not a single person was thankful for Jesus or Gods blessings or anything like that, and for that I am truly thankful.

  • David D.G.

    Phaz:

    I’m so sorry. Your brother seems to have fallen for the silliest possible version of creationism. How old is he? Is there any chance of getting him introduced to enough basic science that he can at least learn to see the impossibility of the more egregious details? TalkOrigins.org probably would be a great place to get some source information for him.

    ~David D.G.

  • No real conflict – but I did take note of the fact that all the heathens somehow wound up in the kitchen during the prayer.

    Pity though. Apparently my Grandfather got confused and prayed to George rather than Jesus.

  • 271Ds

    Same here — a quick, not-too-Jesus-y prayer before the meal, followed by a tasty Thanksgiving dinner and an altogether entertaining conversation.

    Was the prayer uncomfortable? Sure, but definitely not worth upsetting everyone over. I pretty much do what many have stated here: I keep my head up, smile patiently, and make sure to demonstrate by my actions that my lack of participation doesn’t de facto make me a bad person.

    When I was 18, I thought being intransigeant was a virtue. Now I know better.

    On another note, it’s funny how a lot of people here report similar stories about family members’ outsized fears about Obama, his administration, and the country’s direction in general. My mother-in-law, who is a brilliant lady and whom I respect tremendously, surprised me by making ridiculous statements about how the country will be “bankrupt in 5 years” and how health care will be so much worse.

    Like others here, I bit my tongue. Just not worth it. But it really is uncanny just how polarizing Obama is …

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    I was in the same boat as Polly: quietly sat through the prayer (which was longer than usual do to all the God-thanking) and that was about it.

    And my mom pretty much shares those exact same beliefs about Obama.

  • DownHouse

    I didn’t have much of an issue. My girlfriend’s family is catholic so when I don’t participate in any of their rituals they just assume that I’m some kind of protestant. They did ask me to say grace, however. I covered by thanking no one in particular for family, pie, puppies and Nintendo.

  • Steve

    No clashes at all.

    I was having dinner with my girlfriend’s family who I know from her stories are mostly secular (aka C&E Christians). The “prayer” before dinner was without reference to any gods or even the word prayer. Her father simply reminded us to be thankful for what we have when many do not have.

    Then it was Turkey Time.

  • BEX

    Nope!
    My husband and I don’t celebrate any holidays. (with the exception of our birthdays) But this year we decided to cook a turkey. Because who doesn’t want to feast on turkey?! It was just the two of us, very quiet, very relaxed. He doesn’t have any family, and mine is very secular, so even during ‘The Holidays’ we don’t have debates. I feel sympathy for those who have to tiptoe around their religious family members. I can’t imagine the stress that would cause.

  • Alec

    Wow, that’s pretty crazy. I spent this year’s Thanksgiving with my close family (mom and stepdad), so there wasn’t any arguing as they are sane.

    I knew that people were very irrational and stupid on these matters, but I had only experienced it a couple times first hand (somewhat more mild). Two weeks ago, in my World History class (I’m a high school student) I was talking with a friend about our preferred system of governments. She said, “Democracy, I’m a hardcore Republican” (I don’t know why that fact was relevant). I nodded and politely said, “Oh”. I then informed her that I am fiscally centrist and culturally liberal, and explained myself. I was only half finished when a new student joined in, saying that he loves Glenn Beck and that know one else tells the truth. I was fine with that, but then he said, “Barack Obama is destroying this country. He’s the Antichrist”.

    Needless to say, I had to leave so I wouldn’t be infected with the crazy. I then chatted with a couple of rational, sane friends (One of whom is atheistic as well).

    It’s most likely not even rare, but it was the first time I’ve ever heard someone say, flat out, that Obama is the Antichrist. Wow.

  • 7foota

    It was funny. My wife made a comment to me that she had talked with my sister and how my niece would be devastated if she found out I was an atheist. None of my family members have confronted me directly but it has become a sort of unspoken rule not to ruffle the religious feathers at family gatherings. What’s even more funny is’s that I have not formerly announced my non-belief to anyone only that I’m tired of all the fairy-tales and won’t be returning to any church. I think what has gotten me in the most trouble was leaving the Friendly Atheist window up when I walk away from the computer. In the past I was always the go to guy for the thanksgiving prayer, this year I only had two words -“LETS EAT!”

  • littlejohn

    My turkey was deeply religious. And delicious. He lost the argument. I’m looking forward to next Thanksgiving.

  • tamarind

    I had to bite my tongue not to laugh in her face.

    I would have laughed in her face, and I wouldn’t have felt bad about it either. Seriously.

  • Randy

    It is true what he says about carbon dating and penguins. I worked with penguins at a zoo for a few years and the bastards won’t sit still for carbon dating.

  • My wife’s brother’s wife told us she believed in ghosts and proceeded to tell us the story of how she heard noises in the hall as a little girl… I asked her in front of everybody if she heard the noises before or after she woke up and if she also had been abducted by UFO’s. Sometimes a little ridicule is the best medicine among family members. I think everybody else was thinking the same thing I was about her story.

    Besides that, the only remotely religious or supernatural ritual over thanksgiving was the meal grace that my wife’s parents insist on saying. At least it is a boilerplate non-denominational blessing.

  • I was showering @ my dad’s house on Thanksgiving, and heard my step-mother, step-sister, and step-sister’s boyfriend (all over the age of 40) talking about singing. We had already experienced my step-mother’s old lady churchy voice goodness – she’s one of those who hears a smidge of the song, and keeps singing it until she’s done. Damn christmas song commercials. I listened in awe as she and the sister’s boyfriend sang in *ahem* harmony. Thank g-d I was in the bathroom and could laugh silently. The songs were all hymns, none of which I had ever heard, despite the fact that I was de-converted only about 6 years ago. I came out of the bathroom, and my step-sister says, “did you hear that singing?!” I said, “yeah, it’s a regular revival up in here. I’ve never heard any of those songs.” My step mother says, “well they’re all church songs.” (duh, I said it sounded like a revival) I said, “I guess they don’t sing those at atheist church.” My little step-niece had a snicker, and the revival ended abruptly. I left the house to find my dad and boyfriend hiding from the madness, drinking beer and chewing tobacco behind the pick up trucks. Smart guys.

  • My mother-in-law was talking about Islam being a cult and how she was thankful the US didn’t have any Islamic cults. I chimed in that every religion has sects that would fall into her category of a cult. She started to protest and I asked her by what characteristics she defined a cult. After she had listed off a handful of descriptions, I said “every one of the those describes Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Since her sister had escaped from that very cult, she knew full well what I was saying. After a few minutes of silence, I reiterated “every religion has their branch of extra crazy.” No one argued, and the conversation changed topics.

    I also found out from overhearing conversations that my brother-in-law has ‘hidden’ me on Facebook so that he doesn’t have to see the science and atheist stuff I post.

  • Vene

    Nope, no clash this weekend. Mostly because I refuse to see them over a pre-existing orientation and gender identity clash.

  • Alx-Nichole

    This is actually about lasy xmas, hope nobody minds…
    I’m only 17, and the holiday season always has it’s bad moments because my father and I don’t live together or get along (long story). I am never invited to my father’s house for thanksgiving, and I usually have to invite myself to a xmas celebration which is never pleasant. My dad is a hypocritical ass who doesn’t consider my feelings ever. He never shows his religious side, in fact he worked for the guy who made those green and white “JESUS” stickers and made fun of his religious beliefs quite often. Also, he used to tell me how he didn’t know about prayers or any other religious stuff that his boss did at work. Last xmas, I was casually talking with my cousin, not him, about how I’m not religious. He immediately storms over and says “I will not tolerate godlessness.” I didn’t say that I was godless, even though I am and I’m not offended to be known as that, it hurt my feelings and severely angered me. He has never gone to any church, he never prays, he has no religious paraphenalia, he never talks about god or religion, and he has never associated himself with any religion. Yet, he feels the need to smear my good name because I have no religion. Parents are supposed to be the ultimate support system, but he’s lost any ounce of respect I ever had for him. People wonder why I don’t associate with him.

  • We weren’t even allowed to call it Thanksgiving. My stepmother is a Jehovah’s Witness, and apparently even Thanksgiving is one of their ‘we don’t celebrate it’ holidays.

    We had to call it a ‘family dinner’.

    It’s the first time I’ve been too religious for someone, and I’m the atheist.

  • It was the first time in my life I did not bow my head in reflex when my dad started to say grace at the Thanksgiving table. I was proud, and no one made a scene. 🙂

  • Colin

    So if Obama is the antichrist, does that mean you vote FOR him, in order to hasten the apocalypse? My head is spinning!

  • Wow, reading all these stories is truly amazing for a Euro-atheist like me. My entire Belgian family is either atheist/agnostic/not giving a damn, so I never got to experience situations like these. I tend to think “I’d just tell it like it is” but dealing with family and their sensitivities is not so simple… Somehow I recall the ending of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots where the characters had to act out their inner self in front of their own relatives and most of them chickened out.

  • Beckster

    Wow. After reading some of your posts, my seven days in Utah with the Mormon in-laws doesn’t seem so bad! In fact, I am glad my in-laws are of the Mormon variety and not the evangelical types.

  • Siamang

    There was a holding of hands and a bowing of heads and a little bit of “in Jesus’ name” at the end. But we took it in stride. It was my parents’ house, after all.

    In my house, on Thanksgiving, we don’t have prayer, and they don’t push it. It’s a good compromise.

    However, I bet the heck they’d object if I asked them to clasp hands and bow heads while we talked about atheism!

    But, they don’t make a stink, and i’m glad for that. It means I don’t have to retaliate.

  • There was a prayer before Thanksgiving dinner. Apart from that, nothing overtly religious.

    I did get to talking about the Hubble “Deep Field” photo that I have set as my laptop background, and my mom teared up and said “Where’s my dad in that photo?”

    He died a couple years ago. I couldn’t say anything, of course. I have my opinions, but I’m not going to voice them when they’d just be cruel to my mother.

  • SG

    I only recently became atheist, and I haven’t tried to hide it from the fam. I think it’s made a difference! For the first time in my family’s history, the Thanksgiving prayer included no mention of any deity. It was just a list of things we should be thankful for. Now that’s progress. I’ve been veg for 13 years and they STILL try to put turkey on my plate.

  • Thanks everyone for their responses… made the story in my original post not seem so bad. My family gatherings are always overtly religious and it gets hard to deal with at times.
    My one uncle has declared himself perfect on the length of time he has been a Christian (nutter) and one cousin annoyed me by asking my little daughter, “Did God make you smart?” (nearly said, ‘No, a good combination of genes and a solid early childhood education did that.’ but I behaved myself).

  • Retired Service Member

    I had my fun holiday moment last year at Thanksgiving in a debate over California Prop 8. My overly religious sister was so relieved that she wouldn’t have to teach her kids about the Evil Gay People. That really pissed me off because I’m bi, but not out to my family, so I was forced to bite my tongue to spare a huge family rift. They live about an hour west of Des Moines Iowa. I laughed for an hour when the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in Iowa. I so wanted to ask her this year if she’s taught her kids about gay sex yet but managed to restrain myself.

  • Kae

    I didn’t bow my head in prayer before Thanksgiving dinner, choosing to sit quietly and wait for them to finish, and my family openly embarrassed me, called me a heathen, and asked me to leave.

    I left and went to my boyfriends house for dinner, a family of atheists who welcomed me happily, and had great food and a great time.

  • Joel Wheeler

    Well, I actually had my BestThanksgivingEver because I went with my partner to Boston and Provincetown for four days of wine-drinking and face-stuffing with his extended ‘gay family’ and did not go visit my evangelical parents. However, the last time I was home for Thanksgiving, talk turned briefly to the Iraq war. My father, after listening quietly for a minute or two, announced “well, we’re over there fighting SATAN,” then got up and left the room. Aaaawkward!

  • nani

    for the most part i managed to be absent during any political discussions, so i didn’t have to sit there biting my tongue and wanting to bash my head into a wall. and i almost, almost made it away without hearing anything about my non-religiousness.

    but i saw it coming a mile away when my mom said “some people, it just doesn’t matter what you say, they’ve made up their mind and that’s that,” and i mmhmm’ed and walked out of the room, but not quickly enough to hear “just like when i try to tell them about god and the good lord jesus.”

    and eventually i ended up back in the kitchen with my mom pressing me for the reason that i was angry at god, refusing to believe that i don’t hold any anger towards a being i don’t believe exists.

    money quote:

    “just like they try to teach evolution in schools. they do that so people grow up without placing any value in human life and have no problem killing people.”

    worse was really before thanksgiving, when my mom apparently couldn’t understand why i would want to give thanks or be with family for thanksgiving if i didn’t have a god to give thanks to. >.>

  • We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, but this last weekend I was back at home for a funeral. I study in Spain so it had been a while. The issue came up (I say it came up, I have to bring things like that up otherwise they talk about reality TV) about the Swiss banning the minarets and my brother said “oh, brilliant.”

    I asked how he could possibly think this is a good thing and he came out with such gems as:
    “Well I don’t feel comfortable with mosques, they’re in there plotting how to blow us up!”
    “Maybe not all muslims are terrorists [‘maybe’?!], but all terrorists are muslims!”
    “If they don’t like our culture then they can f*** off back to where they came from!”

  • tom coward

    My immediate family is almost entirely non-believing. My children are all athiests (as far as I can tell) and my wife is ‘almost an atheist.’ However, we celebrate most standard US holidays in the standard manner: Christmas tree and lights at Christmas (we like trees and lights!), Easter bunnies and Easter egg hunts (actually, not since the children grew up, but we will probably start this tradition again in the event of grandchildren, and so on. Nobody ever brings up a god, Jesus or other religious subjects, although we would be happy to discuss these subjects if anyone felt like it.