Saturday, September 18, 2010

What to do with Family?

This time next week, I'll be up in St. Louis celebrating my paternal grandma's 90th birthday. Several family members from both my side and my husband's side of the family live there. Additionally, uncles and cousins will be flying in from Detroit, Seattle, and Atlanta for the occasion. My sister and her family will also drive up from the south. I'm certainly looking forward to the party and to the family reunion. I've never visited my dad's side of the family as much as I've wanted as he grew up in Detroit, meaning that visits during my childhood were generally confined to a 2 week long trip each summer. It was a time to enjoy Vernor's ginger ale, which hadn't made it way to the south back then. I haven't returned to Detroit in several years because my grandma had a stroke and moved to St. Louis to live with 2 of my aunts. All this to say, I'll be catching up with many family members next weekend.

Which brings me to my question for today: How do I handle my changing religious beliefs with family members who are overwhelmingly church of Christ Christians with a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible? In my family, on both sides, as well as my husband's family in fact, you basically either attend a church of Christ or you don't attend at all. And most attend. I'm not saying I'm planning on bringing anything up this weekend, because I don't think I will. But, I do feel uncomfortable with the fact that I haven't shared a very large part of my life with the people I care the most about in this world. It makes me feel a bit disingenuous and disconnected in some of these relationships.

For my part, I no longer feel like this reevaluation/deconstruction of my faith is a dark blot on my soul that must be hidden from others out of embarrassment or fear for what it means about me. I feel much more comfortable in my own skin and my doubts have been normalized by others, including many of you reading this blog. Nonetheless, I have little faith that family members would be so accepting or understanding of what I'm experiencing. I haven't heard anyone else talk about a faith crisis. Here I'm talking of my closest family. I've certainly witnessed aunts, uncles, and cousins stop attending church for a time, so certainly some must have gone through a type of questioning process.

I realize my family might surprise me with their level of understanding and acceptance, as several friends have done, but one of my friends summed it up well in an email he wrote. He said, "And one of the challenges of a deep faith crisis is that it threatens the most dear communities that we have (read: family) with a challenge to their own faith and the dislocation of one of their primary meaning
makers (read: you)." When any of us are threatened, we tend to respond defensively, out of anxiety, and it's not typically pretty. I know that my faith crisis is not so nearly threatening to friends as it is to family.

How have you addressed this issue in your life? What thoughts do you have on addressing the reevaluation of religious beliefs within our communities?


  1. I've had a couple of conversations which were less than satisfying. One, I had been reading Brian McLaren, and the person I was talking to had not read McLaren, he had only read a book written as a rejection of McLaren's work. and I think I talked too much and too passionately about it.

    All that to say, I generally go with the smile and nod thing. Though I very much relate to what you said, "I no longer feel like this reevaluation/deconstruction of my faith is a dark blot on my soul that must be hidden from others out of embarrassment or fear for what it means about me." It certainly shouldn't be.

  2. Good question. (Of course)

    Within my family, there are certain levels of familiarity, just like friends. Some I am closer to; others I am not.

    My immediate family (as typical in any confrontational issue) swept it under the rug as soon as possible and aggressively ignore it as much as possible. At first there were some hesitant awkwardness—an occasional, “Didn’t God give us a great…day….to……………golf?” One could palpably sense the instant they realize what they were saying to whom.

    We have had our family (from my father down, with all seven siblings & their kids) Christmas at our house for a number of years. In 2004, when I announced my atheism, it was decided to hold Christmas at my sister’s for the first time….ever. After two years of it, she became a bit tired of holding it (we have a good-sized family) and it switched back to my home.

    When the family was all together, I asked my dad to say a prayer before we ate. You see feel the release of tension. (Hey—so what if it was my house? The majority [i.e. all but me at the time] are Christians--let them have their ceremony.) Looking back, I think this may be the moment when they realized I wouldn’t be shoving atheism down anyone’s throat.

    My immediate family knows…and ignores it. I have told some of the extended family, who I am closer to, but not others. If they bring it up, I tend to be non-committal. Responding with “That’s nice” or “A good thought.” My profession has instilled a very good ability to give an answer that sounds supportive, but isn’t really.

    I figure, why bring in such confrontation? Those that truly know me…know. Those that don’t have a need…do not. They don’t need some atheist blasting away about historical evidence surrounding Judean burial rites to explain contradictions in gospel accounts.

    When people ask, “How are you doing?” they want to hear “Fine.” They don’t want a detailed account of your last physical exam. When they ask, “So what church are you attending?” they want to hear some nice answer, (“First Church of Second Street on the Third Sunday.”) I’d probably answer, “I don’t attend church” and if pressed further would continue with, “There really isn’t a church that has quite suited our needs” and leave it at that. Most would prefer not to press it; just like they wouldn’t press too much about any physical affliction I was having.