7 Tips for Dealing with Religious Relatives

I'm lucky to have a supportive family. Even my religious family members respect and accept me for who I am. But that’s not always the case. Some of us are facing relatives who are heartbroken about our lack of faith — incredulous, fearful, maybe even angry. For parents, this is an area that weighs especially heavily. We want so much to encourage our children to have open, meaningful relationships with our loved ones, but we worry our kids will be pressured to believe things that aren’t true, or may even be harmful. No one wants to expose kids to the "family tension," or say something that will make the the tension even worse. So what can be done? How can nonreligious types deal with religious relatives?

As always, there is a balance to be struck. And, as always, love and levity go along way.

1. See that big chip on your shoulder? Knock it off.

Okay, so you've been disrespected, condescended to, verbally attacked or even threatened. That shit will get under anyone's skin. But if religion is ever going to become a non-subject in your house, you're going to have to own your part in it. Approaching religious loved ones adversarially is that part. Often, we see religious exposure and treat it as religious invasion, or we hear words of faith and interpret them as acts of war. Try shedding your armor before you walk in the door. Adopt a loving posture, instead of a defensive one. Make jokes. Be self-effacing. And if all else fails, do what most families do and find a third-party to vilify. Far more dysfunctional families than your own have been saved simply by identifying a common enemy.

2. Relaaaaaaax

Do you honestly think your relatives’ religious views are going to succeed in “indoctrinating” your child. Not a chance. Children may go to church every Sunday with their grandparents, but they’ll still look to their parents for true religious guidance. So stop worrying so much. Explain to your kids that people have all sorts of religious beliefs, and encourage them to explore and ask lots of questions. Give your child a preview of what they might hear from relatives or friends at school. Tell them it’s okay to believe in God or not believe in God, and that people have lots of different ideas about how the universe was made and what happens after we die. Some people have such strong beliefs that they try very hard to convince others that their way is the right and only way. Encourage your children to listen and be respectful and that they have plenty of time to make up their own minds.

3. Encourage religious talk.

People love to talk about themselves. It makes them feel good. And if a person’s interests center on his or her religion, then allowing them to talk about his or her religion is a really nice thing. Think about how touched your mom would be if you invited her to tell your children about her faith. She’d no longer have to sneak around you (as much), or feel (as) resentful, or worry (as intensely) that you’re dragging your child to hell. Let your mother know that, as long as she doesn’t say anything hurtful, hateful or scary, she is welcome to expose your children to religion as much or as little as she likes. Be sure to encourage your children to engage in these discussions, too.

4. Lower your expectations.

If you have an especially vocal family, and find yourself getting stressed out easily, you may need to lower your expectations a bit. Try promising yourself you won’t get annoyed until you hear X number of religious remarks or stories. Then set the X number kind of high. I used to do this when I travelled long distances with my toddler. If I resolved not to get stressed until she had three meltdowns, for instance, I didn’t exhaust myself trying so damn hard to prevent just one. My relaxed attitude made all the difference, and the trips always exceeded by expectations.

5. Understand that ‘rational’ has nothing to do with it.

Why are we non-theists so outraged, indignant and disgusted when we learn new things about religion? When we pick up the Bible or the Qur'an or the Book of Mormon, for example, and actually read some of what's in there? “People can’t possible believe this stuff,” we nonreligious types say. “This book doesn’t make any sense, and it contradicts itself all over the place!” Right, sure. But religious people aren't concerned about that. If God works in mysterious ways, every single supernatural and incongruous event in religious history can be justified. Can they be justified through rational thought? Of course not. That’s why it’s called faith. Let's move on.

6. Avoid debate (especially when liquor is involved).

Because religion is often irrational, arguing about religion is usually pretty pointless. When was the last time you changed someone's religion by arguing a point really well? I rest my case. If you find it fun to discuss or debate religious beliefs, and can do so respectfully, then have at it. But if you’re going to end up feeling frustrated or angry or thinking less of the person you’re debating, then leave it. This is one area where keeping your trap shut will reward you in spades.

7. Tell them to go suck a bag of dicks — but, you know, more nicely.

The sad fact is that some relationships are not strong enough  — and never were — to withstand the divide caused by religious differences. Either the dogma and rhetoric is too thick to see through, or the religious belief has  becomes intertwined with out-and-out bigotry. If you no longer feel you get anything good or positive from a certain relationship, then you are within your right to limit visits or stop them altogether. Just be sure you think it through first, and that you've tried your best to make things work. Giving family members a chance to right their wrongs and correct their offensive behavior is a must if you are to feel good about your decision down the road.

This post originally appeared in February 2012.

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany?

OK, y'all, I have to apologize. First, I've been traveling without my laptop for the last week and haven't been able to update. Second, I've been really busy finishing up my book (!!) which has pushed the blog to the back burner lately. Case in point: My somewhat ill-thought-out previous blog post. Hopefully most of you got the gist of what I was trying to say, but if you didn't, you can be sure you weren't alone. That said, today is a new day, a new week and a new year! And there's been a new holiday, too: Epiphany! It's not a major holiday (which is why I knew almost nothing about it), but it's worth noting if only to understand this fabulous array of photographs published by the Guardian this weekend.


Holiday: Epiphany

AKA: Theophany

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Jan. 6 (And/or on the Sunday that falls between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8)

Celebrates: The manifestation of God as a human being (Jesus).

On a Scale of 1 to 10: The importance of Epiphany varies by country. I'm guessing it ranks about a 2 here in the United States, but as high as a 6 or 7 in some other regions of the world, most of them in Eastern countries. (But if anyone knows better, let me know!)

Star of the Show: Jesus (always Jesus!) but also the Magi (AKA "The Three Kings")

Background: Epiphany, which was first observed somewhere in the 4th Century, is a general celebration of Jesus as the incarnation of God. As such, it commemorates the birth of Jesus, his visit from the three Magi, all the events of his childhood, his baptism in the Jordan River, and his first miracle (turning water into wine).

Interesting Part: Despite the broad meaning behind Epiphany, most countries focus on only two narrow aspects of Jesus' life: The arrival of the three Magi (preferred by Western churches) and Jesus' baptism (preferred by Eastern churches).

Associated Literary Passages: Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:22; John 2:1-11.

How Its Celebrated: Look at these 11 Guardian photos to get a visual. Epiphany celebrants sing carols, put on nativity plays and hold parades. Many churches hold baptisms, or bless homes or entire bodies of water. In countries that focus on Jesus' baptism, water plays a central role. In Hungary, people dive into icy water. In Bulgaria, they dance and sing in it. (All these people are crazy.) Countries that focus on the visits of the Magi sometimes treat Epiphany as a mini-Christmas celebration. The Magi are said to visit in the night (ala Santa Claus) and bring presents for children. A Spanish woman I follow on Instagram photographed her daughters leaving wine for the Magi and milk for their camels, and then placing their little shoes where they wanted the Magi to leave their gifts. How cute is that?

Fun Fact: The Magi have names. They are Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Use the holiday to teach kids the lingo! Epiphany, Baptism and Magi are all great words (and culturally important words!) with decidedly Christian roots.

another-good-argument-for-infant-baptism-5Epiphany: Kids are likely to hear people talk about epiphanies a lot in their lives — I use the word all the time! — so why not take a few minutes to explain the secular meaning of epiphany (a sudden realization or insight into something) alongside the religious one (the sudden appearance of a deity)?

574 lizbeth zwergerBaptism: Let your kids know that many Christians get baptized to show their devotion to God, and Christian parents often baptize their children because they hope and expect that their children will worship the same God. People who are baptized can be standing, sitting or kneeling. They may be inside a church or out in nature. They may be completely submersed in the water, or water may be sprinkled on their heads. There are lots of ways to be baptized, but all of them carry the same basic purpose and meaning.

magiMagi: The three Magi in Christianity are also known as the three wise men and as the three kings. They were thought to be astrologers and gentiles (that is, they were not Jewish). Almost any nativity book will include the Magi, and your library is probably full of them. (books, not Magi.) Oh, and don't forget to read O Henry's The Gift of the Magi! Here's a great version for kids.

For other Holiday Cheat Sheets, click here.



75 Reasons to Share the Bible with Kids (Even if You Don't Believe Any of It)

Tower of Bible

If we want our children to be religiously literate — and who among us doesn't, honestly? — then it behooves us to talk about the Bible in respectful terms, even if we don't think much of it is true. When parents call the Bible "a book of fairy tales" (direct quote from my survey for nonreligious parents), it makes the whole thing seem silly and unimportant. And not just unimportant in a religious way, but unimportant in a universal way. I grew up with parents who talked about William Shakespeare like he was THE MAN (with Mark Twain and Louis Armstrong placed only slightly lower on the totem pole of MAN-NESS.) From a pretty early age, I just knew that culturally well-rounded human beings had devoted some serious time to William Shakespeare. As a result, it never crossed my mind not to read him or be interested in him. How different it would have been, though, had all I heard about Shakespeare was that he was really hard to read, really hard to understand, very outdated, not at all realistic and completely irrelevant to modern times.

Religious literacy comes down to 60 percent Bible literacy and 40 percent* other stuff. So talking about it like it's an annoying book that makes people do irrational things REALLY, REALLY, REALLY defeats the purpose here. Plain and simple: If you don't find the Bible interesting, your kid won't either. You are their model in this.

And it's not just the stories — The Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, David and Goliath — that are worth knowing. It's the context to all the idioms and expressions we hear and use on a daily basis. (You'd be surprised how many there are — and how many people use wrong!) In fact, each one of these expressions is a very good reason to encourage your child to get to know the Bible** in some form or another.

Here are a mere 75 of them!

1. Forbidden fruit

2. Good Samaritan

3. No room at the inn

4. Raising Cain

5. Old as the hills

6. Throw the first stone

7. Salt of the earth

8. Eye for an eye

9. Rise and shine!

10. Am I my brother's keeper?

11. Out of the mouths of babes

12. At my wit's end

13. Babble (as in baby babble)

14. Be that as it may

15. Bear with me

16. Beside myself

17. Blind leading the blind

18. Crystal clear

19. Nothing new under the sun

20. Eat drink and be merry

21. Face to face

22. Head and shoulders above the rest

23. How the mighty have fallen

24. Kiss of death

25. Lambs to the slaughter

26. Left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing

27. Man cannot live on bread alone

28. Many are called, but few are chosen

29. No rest for the wicked

30. So to speak

31. Such and such

32. The truth shall set you free

33. Two heads are better than one

34. Who do you think you are?

35. Wolf in sheep's clothing

36. Woe is me

37. Written in stone

38. You reap what you sow

39. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

40. A broken heart

41. Cross to bear

42. Drop in the bucket

43. Fly in the ointment

44. Labor of love

45. Man after his own heart

46. Peace offering

47. Sign of the times

48. Two-edged sword

49. As old as Methuselah

50. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust

51. White as snow

52. Spare the rod, spoil the child

53. Bite the dust

54. By the skin of your teeth

55. Can a leopard change its spots?

56. Cast the first stone

57. Coat of many colors

58. Fall from grace

59. Forgive them for they know not what they do

60. Get thee behind me Satan! (Not to be confused with "Get the too a nunnery!")

61. Harden your heart

62. Alpha and Omega

63. It's better to give than to receive

64. Land of Nod

65. Twinkling of an eye

66. Oh ye of little faith

67. Den of thieves

68. Patience of Job

69. Pearls before swine

70. Put your house in order

71. Wisdom of Solomon

72. Ends of the Earth

73. Powers that be

74. Straight and narrow

75. Sour grapes

* I made up those percentages. They are utterly meaningless.

** My very favorite so far is the DK Children's Illustrated Bible. Do check it out if you're in the market.