Does Religion Divide Your Family?

Does Religion Divide Your Family?

This week in Restorative Empathy: How can a former atheist tell his conservative Catholic family he's Protestant?

Dear Angela,

After years of obstinate atheism and combative agnosticism, I’ve recently (and somewhat embarrassingly!) joined a church. It’s different, though, than the church I grew up in: it’s tolerant, open, inquisitive, and more socially and economically progressive than many Christian churches I’ve encountered. I truly believe it is helping me to live a good life. Although I’ve been able to share this fact with my friends who knew me in my Richard Dawkins phase (hangdog look in tow), I’m struggling to communicate what’s going on in my life with my mother, sister, and brother. It’s strange, because they’re the ones who are professed Christians.

Here’s the problem: They’re conservative Catholics and very adamant that their piety is the right piety. I’m swimming in different waters; I’m trying to embrace all different types of pieties as valid conduits to the sacred. To be blunt: I don’t know how to share what’s important to me with those who should be closest to me!

I know, as has happened throughout my life, that my family will aggressively challenge me if I do share; they don’t want an explorative conversation—or even a debate—but instead want to protect their own ideas and push on me what they see to be universal truths. Do I keep quiet around my family and risk cultivating an inauthentic self that pops up only when I’m around them? Or do I risk engagement, which I’m almost absolutely sure will lead to me being attacked and saying that their faith tradition is wrongheaded in its fundamentalism and lack of tolerance? If I value tolerance does that mean I should tolerate their intolerance? Is that even possible?

—The Closeted Christian

Dear Closeted Christian,

Religious difference is one of humanity’s greatest sources of disconnection and violence, even though all major religions profess the ultimate values of compassion and love. How does faith and an intention to “live a good life” get so off course, disconnecting us from loved ones and strangers alike?

This disorientation largely occurs when we read our holy texts and, rather than focusing inward and using these words as our chosen sacred compass, we externalize their guidelines and insist others follow. There are universal needs underneath this strategy of insistence: shared reality and shared values, a sense of belonging and the emotional safety that follows, familiarity and predictability, and a fervent desire to contribute to the lives (and afterlives) of others. Yet when this intended contribution takes the form of a demand instead of a connection request in which we’re willing to hear “no thanks,” others can become defensive or retaliate with their own demands to be heard and respected.

It sounds as if you and your family have a history of making demands of each other around adopting your chosen life compasses. (Your self-descriptors as “obstinate” and “combative” suggest that your family may feel quite similar to you in this situation; they may “protect” their beliefs with you because they aren’t sure if you’re willing to respect and value what they hold so dear.) It sounds like you’re tired of the disconnection that results from these mutual demands, you sense how your current approach of avoiding the subject of faith altogether could lead to inauthenticity and unwanted distance, and yet you’re not sure how to enter into the subject in a new way that leads to compassion, understanding, and closeness.

Am I getting you? Are you longing to share your full self with your family, and for all of you to truly hear each other with love and respect? And are you wanting that caring energy fostered within your family to extend out into the world? If so, one strategy you might consider: Rather than initiating an exploratory conversation or “debate” about beliefs, how about first requesting a restorative conversation about how painfully these past conversations have gone for everyone involved?

In your request, include your feelings (your regret about the past arguments, your longing to connect now, and your fears about sharing) and the underlying needs you’re hoping will be met in your restorative conversation (harmony, mutual acceptance, hearing and being heard, loving closeness). Then make a clear, actionable request, such as, “Would you be willing to try out an hour-long conversation, so we can take turns sharing how these past conversations have felt and how we wish they’d gone, while the other person just listens with warmth and reflects back what they’re hearing?” Be open to counter requests, until you arrive on a strategy that feels mutually safe and hopeful.

Having these conversations with your mom, sister, and brother will be vulnerable, and it may take a few tries with each one of them to land on solid ground together. But these are some of your closest people—what is more sacred in life than continually finding your way back to the compassion and love between you?

Before you approach them, though, get as clear as you can within yourself. You say that you’re trying to embrace all different types of pieties as valid conduits to the sacred. Does that include theirs, even if theirs isn’t as inclusive as your own? Can you accept their choice of compasses for themselves? Can you relinquish the lukewarm goal of tolerating them and ask your sacred compass to continually guide you toward genuine and vulnerable connection with them, despite your differences?

Take heart that accepting your family’s choices doesn’t mean you can’t express different views or share how it feels when their words land painfully for you. Accepting them simply means that after they hear you, you understand that they may still choose to head in the same direction as before. If you can truly accept that, you may sometimes mourn their choices, but it won’t stop you from having an ongoing dialogue about what’s alive inside you—without the intent to change each other, but simply the intent to genuinely know and love each other.

With love and empathy,


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