Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My sister is aware that I am an atheist and has said on more than one occasion that she doesn’t think I’m a good influence for her kids as far as religious questions are concerned. Despite this attitude she takes every opportunity to invite me to her children’s religious milestones. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, but I disagree with the apparent duality of treatment. Her daughter is about to be 9 and be baptized into their church, and I have been invited to participate. I want to be there for my niece in the important events of her life, but I don’t want my sister to think it’s okay to have an attitude about me and my views while constantly inviting me to religious milestones for her kids. Should I go, or take this opportunity to make a point?
All that I suggest here could pertain to your relationships with any of your sister’s children, but for brevity I will focus on her nine-year old, your niece.
You want to continue to be a part of your niece’s life, and you want your sister to have a different attitude toward you. You can probably have both, but you need to go about it in a different way than by boycotting your niece’s baptism. To use an analogy with a bit of a pun in it, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I think that you do need to “make a point,” but a point made civilly and cordially in a respectful talk with your sister over coffee. She has the right to stipulate that you not actively and purposely try to influence her daughter’s thoughts and beliefs away from religion, just as you would have the right to insist that she refrain from trying to convert a child of yours. It isn’t really a “duality of treatment,” it’s a reasonable condition of the relationship. Relationships are complicated, and they work better when guided by clear, open agreements based on accurate mutual understanding.
You can agree that you won’t seek to “deconvert” the girl, but you should not be expected to pretend that you’re religious. As your niece gets older, she might ask you questions about your views, and you should be able to answer her questions honestly.
During this chat with your sister, gently find out if she holds any of the common misconceptions, myths, and stereotypes about atheists. These might be feeding the “attitude” that you sense in her. There are too many of those erroneous beliefs to list here, but the two we most often hear is that atheists are not reliably moral, or they are nihilistic or cynical about life. As you uncover whatever incorrect assumptions she might have about you as an atheist, patiently and respectfully reassure her by citing your actual behaviors in all the years that you have known each other. Stay calm, patient, free of condescension, and genial.
Hopefully the two of you can work out a live-and-let-live agreement that accommodates both of your needs for respect, love, and boundaries.
Being your niece’s “secular uncle” who has always been there for her in both her religious and secular milestones as well as daily life in between could some day be a very valuable resource for her. Society is steadily becoming less religious. When she becomes a teenager and a young adult, she will be statistically more likely to become an atheist than teenagers and young adults are right now. If at that very common age she begins to have serious doubts about her religion, you can be a safe first person to talk to about her thoughts and feelings. Just be sure that she is the one who initiates that conversation. This will be in keeping with your agreement with your sister, but there is also a more important purpose.
If your niece approaches you about her doubts, I strongly suggest that you adopt a position of supporting her as an independently thinking person, and be genuinely neutral about whatever decision she might finally make regarding religion. Tell her this overtly. Listen to her thoughts and feelings, and reflect them back so that she knows you accurately understand her, but without approval or disapproval. You can do this while still obviously caring for her. You can make it clear that the outcome of this crossroad is not a condition of your love for her.
Empathize with her fear if she has any. It’s a very common experience in the early stages of losing faith. Empathize with her grief if she has any. It’s a very common experience in the late stages of losing faith. Answer her questions honestly, accurately, and neutrally, with the only goal being to help her make her own well-informed, well-thought-out decisions.
I think if you give her this rare, conscientious, high-level respect, she will love you and value your counsel for her whole life, regardless of what direction she takes with her religious beliefs.
Please write to me to update us as things develop. We can all learn from your experiences.
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