I’m not sure how to start my letter but I suppose a little background might help. My parents are Pentecostals and they tried to raise me as such. I’m one of three siblings and all three of us ended up in the Baptist church by the time we were in high school. You see, I live in Florida and the Baptist church is VERY prevalent here. We were all extremely devout (read brainwashed). I ended up in the Plymouth Brethren Church (a small sect which Dawkins described as particularly odious in his book The God Delusion). About three years ago I started having doubts which led me to leave the faith altogether. I’ve always had a love of science and logic, and it was only a matter of time before I educated myself through books by Carl Sagan and realized that there was no evidence for god’s existence and became an atheist.
Well now I’ll get to the point. The first Christmas after my deconversion I was still closeted. It was always my job to lead a prayer before the meal at big family events (I have a knack for speaking and people always enjoyed my prayers). That year I got away with not praying (I don’t remember how). That Easter, however, I wasn’t so lucky. After my family realized that I left all the god and Jesus stuff out of my prayer I was busted, so I came clean with them. Last year on Christmas I didn’t lead the prayer (now that I am an atheist that is, thankfully, no longer my job. However my mom still asked me to set up the nativity and decorate the tree). However, my brother reached over to take my hand. They had all assumed that I would still hold hands and quietly bow my head. I told my brother that I don’t pray any more, and his response was “Its just a hand, it won’t kill you.” Not wanting to cause a problem in the middle of Christmas I just took his hand. However, I feel as though I compromised my principles.
Now that Christmas is coming up again I want to tell everyone ahead of time that I’m not participating in the prayer. I’m not sure how I should do this. My family reacts with extreme negativity anytime I even mention the A word. I just want them to realize that I’m not just trying to be difficult or disrespectful. I simply have no interest in participating in the practices of a religion I don’t practice.
For several years I have been faced with a similar situation at holiday family feasts. If my brother, who is a Christian, is present, he leads the family in a short prayer at the dining table. We all hold hands, but when everyone bows their heads, my daughter and I do not. She and I quietly look straight ahead until the brief ritual is over.
This is because gestures and rituals have different meanings and significance for different people. For my daughter and me, holding hands only signifies being part of and supporting the family, but bowing our heads would mean that we’re participating in the prayer. So we participate in the part of the custom with which we agree, family togetherness, and we refrain from the part with which we do not agree, the invocation of a deity. For us, our principles have not been compromised. No one else seems to pay any attention. Besides, the rest of them are all bowing their heads so they can’t see. In my family no one, including my brother, is very strongly religious, so the situation is pretty easy for us.
However for other people who have arrived at their emancipation through a painful struggle, and who have suffered conflicts with loved ones, customs such as holding hands, bowing heads, setting up nativity scenes or decorating a tree might hold much more emotional power, and so they don’t want to do anything that others might think is giving in or returning to the religion they escaped.
But worrying about what others might think is another thing that is wonderful to escape. What is important in matters like this is what you think.
For instance, when your brother urged you to hold hands at the table, in his mind that might have meant that you would be capitulating to the religious ritual, or it might have only meant that you still have a place in the family. Whatever he thinks does not make reality for you. If it’s not capitulation to you, then it’s not capitulation at all. You’re not sure what’s in his mind, and it could take quite a lot of effort to find out. Being overly concerned about what is in other people’s minds can drive you out of your own mind.
You can decide for yourself what any part of a family custom means, and participate or refrain accordingly. I think what you should do is to sort out what each gesture in your family rituals means to you, regardless of what others might assume it means to you, or what they might assume it means in general. You can by your own volition change your mind about the meaning of each of those things, because you are looking at them from your new point of view.
So if to you, holding hands while others pray only signifies being part of the family, and you’re comfortable expressing that, then hold hands. If to you it means that you’re participating in the prayer, then don’t hold hands. You can tell them ahead of time that you’re just not comfortable doing that. Further explanation is not necessary. The same thing goes for bowing your head, or any other gesture, ritual or task.
Once in a while at Christmas, my mother asks me to help set up a little nativity scene she has more for traditional reasons than religious reasons. I do it because her hands are arthritic, and it’s difficult for her. They’re just little figurines with no significance to me, and so I’m unconcerned about what others might think if they see me doing that.
Religious places and ceremonies no longer hold any magic for you, so in time they can lose their emotional charge if you let it go. Then you can choose to do or not do them with ease. Your principles are not compromised by such trifles. Your principles are about treating people with compassion, respect, truthfulness, fairness, generosity, and love.
Despite the tension and negativity that your family has experienced around your atheism, you are still gathering as a family. That is precious, and sadly not as common as it should be. Cherish that, and nurture that. Make your boundaries clear where you must, and avoid discussing some topics if you must, but the main thing is to continue to focus on the love that is there.
I hope that you enjoy your family during the coming holidays. Remember that to “enjoy” something means to put joy into it, rather than to get joy out of it.