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Making it work: nonreligious in a religious home for the holidays

Various symbols representing world religions.
Wikimedia Commons
Various symbols representing world religions.

Experts advise patience, boundaries, and authenticity

As we approach the holidays many worry about conflict around the dinner table. A growing number may face challenges working through religious differences.

That’s according to a recent Associated Press survey, which found 30% of the population identified with no religion. Almost half of that group identified as atheist or agnostic, and half identified as “nothing in particular," which the AP defined as suggesting a range of beliefs but no church affiliation. The survey found that for the 18 to 29 age group, the number of unaffiliated grew to 43%.

Many in those groups will be spending extended time with religious family in the weeks ahead. Atheist author and host of the website and podcast The Thinking Atheist, Seth Andrews, says wherever you fall you have a right to be yourself.

Andrews says, “some people who have left religion haven’t even told their families.” He says they may not want to disappoint mom and dad or hope to avoid conflict and consequences. They may both dread the thought of having the conversation, and not having the conversation. He says, "They don’t feel like they get to be their authentic selves. They’re surrounded by people that maybe they don’t relate to, and they might feel judged by.”

Andrews says, "if you are around people of a certain faith, you’ll find people who are authentic. They talk about what they think, and what they believe, and what their values are." He says that people at odds with their religious household, have a right to authenticity, and should give themselves the “Christmas gift of an authentic life.”

Dr. Erin Wehrman, associate professor in Missouri State University’s department of Communicaton Media Journalism and Film has studied communication conflict and resolution. Dr. Wehrman says, “any topic that is ingrained in our values,” is difficult to talk about. Dr. Wehrman says things like politics and religion define our whole personalities and identities. They are inherently difficult to talk about.

When it comes to advice, she says she always reminds people that conflict in families is normal, and if your anticipating conflict about religion, or any intractable difference, you should be prepared to not change anyone’s mind, but you should be prepared to draw the line for yourself.

Dr. Wehrman says she doesn’t encourage avoidance on many topics, as that means avoiding talking about something important, but in a situation like this, she says, “avoidance is often the best way because you’re not going to change anyone’s mind.” She says, as an alternative, “being able to prepare yourself with some ways of redirecting the conversation can be really good.”

Andrews understands that every situation is different.

He says, “sometimes people have to play a longer game, that college student might have to wait a little bit to be able to get through school before he can be more open.” He says you can think of it as playing chess not checkers, but the goal is to try to be yourself. He adds, “sometimes the families that we spend the holidays with are the families that we choose.”

Dr. Wehrman says when playing that long game, you can look for safe moments to gently correct a comment with an anecdote or share a unique point of view, while avoiding affirming anything you do not believe.

Ultimately, Andrews says rituals are important and there is no reason atheists can’t and shouldn't celebrate the holidays.

Andrews explains, “If you look at the holidays, really the best part of the holidays is being with the people that you love, it’s singing together and making memories, and enjoying good food, and connecting, and taking stock and giving thanks for the good stuff, and the rituals and traditions may change from home to home, but the holidays are what you make it.”

He adds that yes, non-believes and those questioning can even say merry Christmas.

“When I go out and see people in the month of December, as an atheist, I wish them a merry Christmas, and if they wish me a Merry Christmas, I wave and wish it right back, and if somebody says happy holidays because they want to be more inclusive, I’m like great, happy holidays to you.” He says, “there’s no reason to be threatened by it.”

For further reading:
Visit Seth Andrew’s site:
And Dr. Wehrman recommends the book “Difficult Conversations,” the website, and the Harvard Conflict Resolution blog.