Passed over due to atheism

From the IAmAnAtheist.com feedback form:

Hey there! First, I want to say I was directed here by a good friend and I love your site and your blog. I thought I’d ask you for a little feedback, or perhaps some advice. I’m an atheist, my husband is an atheist, and our toddler is, obviously, an atheist. We did a secular naming ceremony when she was 3 months old. Since then, I’ve noticed that most people I know don’t invite our family to baptisms, gatherings, weddings, or even birthday parties, because they don’t want to “offend” us in any way when they pray or what have you. It’s like we’ve been blacklisted by family and friends over our choice to raise our child atheist. How do I get it across to these people that, while my family is not religious, their religion doesn’t necessarily offend us? I’m honestly offended by them thinking we’d be offended… but that opens a whole can of crazy. Thanks!

Great question! I’m flattered that you’d ask me for assistance, and I’ll do my best to help.

First off, I assume that you invited your non-atheist friends to your daughter’s naming ceremony, so that you are not inadvertently giving the impression that you are drawing a line between your theist and atheist friends. I also assume that we’re discussing occasions on which it would not be inappropriate to have an atheist present (such as a Mormon Temple wedding in which non-Mormons are not permitted). It sounds like these are safe assumptions.

Now, before I can give you any suggestions, I have to ask a question: are you sure that the reason you are not being invited is that your friends are worried about offending you? Is it possible that some of these activities have religious content and that your friends are worried about the presence of an atheist or a non-participant being awkward or embarrassing? Or might there be people invited to these parties (e.g., cranky super-conservative relatives) who would object to the presence of atheists? Could they be worried that having people with conflicting religious viewpoints present would lead to arguments (whether or not initiated by you) or inappropriate conversation? Or something else?

Fortunately, the solution I’d recommend is essentially the same, no matter what the root of the problem is. Also fortunately, you’ve already taken the first step — having a family-ceremony-type get-together at which you demonstrated that you’re fine keeping social company with non-atheists.

I’d say that what you need to do next is go a little out of your way to make clear that you want to participate in these occasions. If a friend’s birthday is coming up, ask whomever normally throws a party for that friend if you can help plan or host. If a wedding, for example, is approaching, talk to the people involved about how much you love weddings. If possible, talk about a beautiful church wedding you attended. The point is to demonstrate that you think these are wonderful events, that you don’t look down on them because there is religion involved, and that family and friends are more important to you than religious considerations.

If you get a reaction like, “But I thought you were an atheists?” or “But it’s going to be in a synagogue,” don’t make a big deal out of it. You can act mildly surprised that they’d think it’s an issue if you like, then say something like, “That’s fine with me,” followed by a related, positive statement (e.g., “My cousin was married in the same church she was baptized in, and it was a lovely ceremony,” or “I look great in a yarmulke.”)

It may take some time, but hopefully people will get the hint.

A semi-related aside: When I was a teenager I occasionally butted heads at family gatherings with an in-law who was a young-earth fundamentalist Christian. It got to the point that you could feel the tension in the room when he said something to try and bait me on the subject of science. One Thanksgiving, while we were all seated around the big Italian dinner table, he said to me, apropos of nothing, “You know, evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.” Now, this is not only a stupid argument, but one that even as a kid I could destroy in minutes. It was like a bully walked up to me and said, “Could you please punch me in the face? Hard?” But instead of taking the bait, I said, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and let the whole thing drop. He looked a little uncomfortable for a minute, but that was it — the threat of inappropriate conversation was over and a silent sigh of relief went up around the table. I had several family members come up to me after that and tell me how well I’d handled the situation, and I felt like I’d matured ten years over the course of one dinner. Nobody who was in that room ever hesitated to invite me to religious events after that, even when I became a full-blown, not-secret-at-all, arguing-online atheist.

Getting back on track, I’d like to say a couple words about your being offended by people worrying that you might be offended: stop it. There’s nothing wrong with people making an honest mistake about a belief system they are not particularly familiar with, or with their wanting to avoid doing something that could upset you. Save your feelings of offense for when they are truly needed.

I think that’s all I’ve got on the subject for now. Let me know how it goes!

Posted on September 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Atheists' problems

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