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Under Seige: What To Do When Your Fundy Family Attacks You

You’re at a family event. “Pass the mashed potatoes please,” you ask with a smile on your face. They pass the mashed potatoes, but you sense something is wrong. You can see them deep in thought, getting ready to ask you a question. You suspect it has to do with atheism, since you recently announced your rejection of religion to the family. Ever since then, relationships with your family have been strained. You can sense that people just aren’t comfortable around you anymore.

Suddenly, the question comes out of Aunt Lizzie’s mouth. She says to you, “I just don’t get it. How can anyone believe that people came from nothing? Why do atheists believe that?” Before you can think to attack the significance of the question, another question comes out of left field: “And why can’t Adam be an ape? Maybe Adam was an ape? Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water by not believing in God! Maybe God AND evolution are both right? Could that be?” Then a discussion erupts among three other relatives. You can’t hear the specifics of it, but you know it contains derogatory remarks about you or atheists in general. The questions keep coming. Just when you answer one, five others hit you, leaving you unable to convince anyone of anything. Too late to back out of an argument now! The heat is on, and the occasion is ruined by hours of argument. They just won’t let it go.

I know how it feels to beat people over the head with the Bible. I spent years doing it, but I also know how it feels to be on the receiving end of things. I’ve taken my share of harassment from fundamentalists who’ve tried to win me back after my de-conversion. No matter how sharp one is, being interrogated by hostile friends and relatives can feel every bit like being interrogated by the police! It is isolating and wearisome. Some of us were lucky enough to get less judgmental families. If you are one of these, this is no big deal for you. You can handle yourself just fine with the occasional judgmental family member. The rest of us, however, were not so lucky!

After getting sufficiently tired of yelling myself hoarse at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I learned a few things. Below are some valuable tips on how to avoid becoming the center of attention and the object of pity anytime family get-togethers take place. If you find your nerves wearing thin, hang on every word below. You’ll need them!

Two Simple Steps

The solution to successfully parrying unwanted arguments is to follow two simple steps; the first is to dominate those who contend against you; the second is the isolation of debate partners. The following of these two steps in order is absolutely crucial!

First, set the stage and take control. This is the domination stage of the game. The reason the arguments keep

spinning out of control is because you let them get started on someone else’s terms. You agreed to an argument without establishing your role as the “alpha dog.” If I were a World War II veteran, and you came to me to inquire about what it was like to be a fighter pilot, since you are the inquirer, that puts me in control of the conversation.

In this case, family members or close friends are wanting to know about your atheist convictions, which means you set the stage for when an argument takes place. The only way to stop the madness of unwanted arguments is to let your adversaries know that if an argument is to be had, it will be when you are good and ready for it (if at all). When you will be good and ready for it is entirely up to you, but that shouldn’t be at the dinner table or an important family outing.

No matter how piercing the questions, no matter the probing and provocation to just “answer a couple of questions,” don’t do it! Don’t get sucked in to an argument! “I’d rather not talk about that right now,” is a fine response. If insistence continues, “Didn’t I just say that I don’t want to talk about it right now?” is a good response. Don’t bend on this rule! And beware of hook questions: “Atheists worship the devil, I heard. Why is that, huh?” Just laugh and go on. And don’t worry about seeming rude by not answering a family member. A tense situation is better than a big family occasion made bitter by debate.

So, we have established the first phase of domination—arguing on your terms. The final stage of domination is to think like the rabbis. Unless you are familiar with a rabbi’s methods of teaching Judaism, you probably won’t know this, but a rabbi will turn away a conversion candidate seeking to learn of Judaism, not once, but three separate times. The purpose in so doing is to eliminate the less sincere, less devoted candidates to make way for those who truly want to know and learn. Now that you have decided when to argue, we must ask, with whom? Think like the rabbis. Those who wanted to discuss atheism with you at the dinner table can come to you later, but you shouldn’t go to them. When they do come to you, try and find an excuse not to talk about. Only those who are most determined should you agree to discuss with. But how? Now we are at step two.

Second, isolate your opponents. When you do decide to explain your position to someone, don’t debate more than one person at a time or even two friends. It too quickly becomes impossible to effectively respond to the questions you are being asked. You want to eliminate unfair and gang-up arguments. By doing so, you are eliminating chaos and setting the stage for getting peace back in the family again.

Mind you, this is the time to win an ally for any more close calls around other family members. Explain to your loved one whom you have agreed to discuss the matter with why you’d rather not talk about it in public and ask for his/her help in putting off further attempts by other family members to argue when it is not appropriate to do so. You’ll be surprised how well this can work and how quickly they’ll agree to help! Your advocate can say something like “You guys, he doesn’t want to talk about it now, so respect that. It’s his business anyway.” just before the next big argument sprouts up. Just one advocate can work wonders!

Now that you have control of the situation, success is in your hands. When arguments happen, they will happen on your terms and on your own time. From there, it’s up to you to articulately and convincingly argue your case to the right listener…and to cease to argue if the situation calls for it. There may yet be times to get up and leave when you are provoked. There may be times to employ sarcasm and mockery in a constructive way to beat back nagging provocateurs. But if you’ve taken the right steps and adequately expressed yourself, you’ll have a much easier time than you otherwise would have. There are no easy solutions in dealing with family arguments. The important thing is to stay in control! That will bring you more comfort than you realize!



  1. Joe, I like what experience has taught you. As a solid theist, I tend to follow a similar pattern as you described, but obviously from the OTHER perspective. I will not argue but if a conversation is necessary, do it in private.


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