Open thread: Talking to religious family over Thanksgiving

It’s a big cliche at this time of year that people get together with lots of family members who have very different opinions, and they get in terrible arguments around the dinner table. I wanted to write a blog post about coping with this situation, but since my family isn’t religious, I have limited personal experience with this (mainly with some in-laws, but not for several years). One friend with a fundamentalist family (she may identify herself if she chooses) told me that you should never engage with your religious family about your atheism on Thanksgiving. And if they insist on talking about religion or politics, leave the room.

So instead of writing a real post about my opinions, I thought I’d just sit back and listen. For people with religious families of any kind, whether fundamentalist or liberal: In your personal experience, has it ever been productive to let yourself be drawn into a religious discussion with your family, particularly on Thanksgiving? I’d love to hear your anecdotes about this, whether it is about moderate success or comically catastrophic failure. Any strategies for shutting down discussions that aren’t welcome?


  1. Dan says

    My Dad’s a pastor at a large independent evangelical Christian church. It’s a really heavy thing to contend with. Whenever we are at social gatherings I always overhear him passionately informing people of the discovered Arc in Turkey, the discovery of Jericho, how he’s read the Quran and understands the true motivations of Muslims, that Hilary wants to institute Sharia law, that climate change is BS, etc. I do my best to not engage but it’s really hard bc I know how much influence he has over my family and all of their friends at church. Whenever I have engaged and tried to introduce some facts it becomes clear that they are just smiling and nodding but aren’t listening to anything I say bc I’m a deceived atheist. I’m trying to keep my focus on the long game. Eventually I might put enough cracks in their beliefs to get a little light in and at least give a few of the less brainwashed some second thoughts. But I also don’t want to push too hard bc they could easily decide to keep me away from the nieces and nephews and stuff. But yea, there’s always this elephant in the room as I’m the only non-believer among 15-20 people at these types of gatherings. I think the best strategy to shut down these conversations is just for it to be out that you don’t believe. Whether or not they respect that or it affects the discussions that happen after it’s in the open probably depends on the family but I’d love to hear some alternate approaches 🙂 At my nephews bday last week I almost just got up an left bc of conversations I was overhearing that made me want to scream

  2. L.Long says

    Once my mom died, i came out to the rest of the family as a rabid atheist!
    One meal I gave thanks to the real people who did real work, they then asked me to thank gawd! Ha! I told them the ‘psychotic dimwit never did nothing that I can see, I thank the ones who do the work!!’ They say they pray for me!

  3. DiegoT says

    Thanks Zeus, here in South America we don’t know even what Thanksgiving is (maybe because people are mostly Catholic). I hope that ugly thing does not take place here, as Halloween is.

  4. lorn says

    It won’t work everywhere but in some settings I’ve seen people allow some debate. In one case they gave each of the three of us two minutes to make our points and then everyone, eight or ten, voted to determine the winner. It was fun. It also served to highlight those who were just generally angry over those who had a case. Afterward we hugged and declared our love, and undying, profound and eternal disagreement.

    Sometimes people just want to be heard and they get ever more irrational and obnoxious as a way of subconsciously raising the volume in attempt to be heard. A lot of older white males, commonly referred to as cranks, are just expressing their alarm at their loss of good jobs, status, hope, and optimism. They can’t bring themselves to talk about their fear and disappointment so they project it out as resentment of the other.

  5. David Jones says

    They, religious types ‘ have an authority figure, God, that binds them ‘in group’ and as god is very ‘powerfull’ they develop a certain condescending sympathy.
    They are submissive but not to anyone who purely resides in this universe.
    The content of their ‘message’ is irrelevant, as is the noise of the humanist in response.
    Two separate groups with different authority figures! Best simply enjoy the lunch knowing none of us have a clue.
    Merry Xmas.

  6. adamah says

    Since few families with adult siblings rarely meet at any other times BUT holidays, if not then, when?

    I disagree with the “ixnay on the theismaay” talk, since you have to be true to yourself and your beliefs, being comfortable in your own skin with the decisions you’ve made. And hopefully you’re able to explain your reasoning (a few atheists indeed fit the Xian cliche, “denying God so they can sin”).

    Being open to sharing your rationale for disbelief is one of the liberating benefits of leading an evidence-based life.

    But the flip side is, don’t be THAT obnoxious guy who tries to force his beliefs down the gullets of others, looking for any tangentially-related excuse or pretense to steer the conversation to one’s lack of faith.

    It’s onerous when overly-zealous religious types preach to “plant seeds”, and the same thing applies when many ex-proselytizers become atheists and they want to preach to everyone. .

    So if the conversation naturally leads in that direction, I won’t shy away from speaking of my beliefs or answering questions.

    But don’t preach, since unlike Christians, there’s no scriptural mandate to justify doing so (i.e. there’s no heavenly reward, or everlasting life in a paradise Earth at stake if you don’t).

    I think many atheists are looking for a quick fix to religiosity, when a long-game approach is more appropriate.

    It took many discussions over 30 yrs to deconvert one JW family member who had plenty of personal motivation to leave: he was gay and living in the closet. But with a hard-core family of JWs (except for me), he risked being shunned by them by outing himself).

    It was an emotional conversation when he finally admitted to himself that it was all just a pipe-dream: I remember him saying that it was rather cruel to yank the rug out from underneath someone without having anything to offer in its place. I responded that it’s far better IMO to have a sober assessment of ugly reality than it is to be deluded with some pie-in-the sky pipe-dream.

  7. Conversion Tube says

    @ 1. Dan

    There are several ways you can combat them lightly and which simultaneously allows them to speak even more. Check out Street Epistemology on youtube.

    But more simply when they make bold ridiculous claims simply in a nice sincere voice, repeat back to them what they just said but in different wording, emphasising the absurdity of their statement and see if you can get them to agree yes that’s what I meant. Then it’s on display for everyone in the room to hear and contemplate.

    Then just a simply, sorry, I disagree, that doesn’t sound right to me. You bet your ass people in the room will be on your side, even if they don’t say it.

  8. Conversion Tube says

    So let me get this right, because she has a vagina and you have a penis, that means she should be doing the dishes, even after she spent the day cooking the meal?

  9. says

    I am a guest at my girlfriend’s family’s house this Thanksgiving and her entire family is Seventh-Day Adventist. Although my girlfriend isn’t particularly vocal or active during the time I’ve known her, she does play ball when she’s with family. I just found out that I’m going with them to church service tomorrow and am not sure what to expect. Her older brother is a part-time minister and her father a popular chaplain in town so I’m sure I’ll be in for quite a pseudo-logical roller coaster ride. I’m taking the advice I’ve heard on your show which is to attend with an open mind and learn about their belief so I’m prepared should I get into a discussion. The family knows I’m an unbeliever and have been prompted to not be pressuring and thus far have been holding to the agreement but we’ll see come church time.

  10. JohnFromLONDONuk says

    Matt… How can you have a debate with anyine when you say to a person ‘where is your proof’ and when they tell you and you do not like the proof, you hang up on them. No theist is given a chance.

    Anyways… Humans were designed to live forever on Earth. 🙂

  11. says

    I went to SDA church yesterday with my girlfriend’s family. Her Dad is a missionary and her brother is a pastor so naturally I was right up front. The ceremony was really bland in comparison to most of the services I used to go to as a kid. The pastor was a fit looking guy with grey hair in a nice suit. His sermon was, strangely enough called “Thanks for Nothing” where he talks about being thankful for things which didn’t happen to you(e.g. You rode your motorcycle and didn’t die in an accident etc.). What bothered me was how many symbolic key words he used. He loved throwing around words like “love” “cup of salvation” “terrorists” and “atheists.” He snapped his fingers a lot, changed the pace of his words frequently but the subject matter bounced around and didn’t seem to have any specific point. It was clear to me that he was a song-and-dance man and didn’t hesitate to drop in small hints to tithe more. I counted two times they passed around the collection dishes. The money was collected by the children and was put in a piggy bank that was in the shape of a church and to seal it up they simply put the roof on it. I was rather startled when after the completion of the sermon the pastor came over and shook my hand first but he was aiming to speak with my girlfriend’s father. It occurred to me that the guy was great at talking to groups as a whole but he was shy on an individual basis.

    My diagnosis is that the whole thing is a psychological mind-game. I can see how standing up and down, repeating and singing to overwhelming music can make you more susceptible to The Message. Staying with a very devout family for the week gave me an inside look on how the religion sort of acts like the common healthy diet is supposed to act: cleansing you by following certain rules. This included: not leaving the house much, rarely listening to music or movies, not eating meat, not watching TV on Saturdays(“The Sabbath”) and other subtle things which I probably noted simply as quirky. My girlfriend felt guilty driving yesterday and even worse agreeing to go to a coffee shop with me since I think they’re not allowed to purchase things on Saturdays.

    I felt equipped to handle this environment purely based on the fact that I’ve watched so many documentaries on Scientology, conservative Christian groups(e.g. Jesus camp) and having grown up in a Presby church myself. Ultimately, it solidified my distaste for religion by confirming that it was basically brainwashing for sake of earning cash but mostly the experience just gave me a head/stomachache.

  12. Monocle Smile says

    Are you the “prophecy” caller? Because you were given a chance. And your reason for believing is some of the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard from a theist. You were given several chances, actually, despite arguing dishonestly from the start when you blabbered about cosmology and then spun off into laughable “prophecies” and an even more laughable conspiracy theory.

    Also, when you made the claim that other religions have a “much lower percentage” of true prophecies, I think you were being dishonest yet again. That sounds like a bad excuse somebody makes on the spot. If you weren’t making it up, then show your work. Because this is a nontrivial undertaking and you should remember all or most of the details if you actually did what you said you did.

    Anyways… Humans were designed to live forever on Earth.

    Please elaborate, because I’m struggling to decipher this such that it’s not codswallop.

  13. adamah says

    @MS, as Matt clearly stated during the show, John is the same caller from last week.

    @JohnFromLONDONuk, since you brought up the tree of knowledge of Good and Bad from the Garden of Eden, have you noted the huge logical problem appearing in the account?

    In the Genesis account, the fruit promised “to make one wise”, but how was Eve supposed to know it wasn’t wise to disobey God, since Eve hadn’t yet eaten of the fruit at that point?

    making a moral decision

  14. Monocle Smile says

    I haven’t seen today’s show and this wasn’t posted in the open thread. I’ll have to see the show, but it sounds like John dug a deeper hole than previously.

  15. JohnFromLONDONuk says

    Dear Adamah.. Would it be ok to chat in the new thread ? (applies to MS too, thanks).

    Quick answer though, God told Eve she would die if she ate, before, so that she could make a decision.

  16. Conversion Tube says


    You gain knowledge through learning and experience. Why would anyone accept that a tree can just hand out “Knowledge”. What is the process for the knowledge to be gained? How does eating an apple immediately mean you have a grand understanding of all sorts of things around you? Think about the process? What is the mechanism for change?

    It’s completely ridiculous.

  17. adamah says

    John, I have a strong suspicion that you’re a JW: am I correct? You use terminology that is a dead-giveaway (eg Christendom, perfect human pair, reference to eternal life on Earth, etc).

    But yeah, it’s OT to discuss the Adam and Eve account in this thread, so I’ll post to the thread for the show you called into yesterday.

  18. adamah says

    Conversion Tube, that’s one fast way to undermine your credibility: you obviously are unfamiliar with the account in Genesis 3, exposing your ignorance in the process. That almost guarantees that theists will dismiss your criticism out of hand….

    Genesis makes it perfectly clear that it’s not just any kind of knowledge that’s bestowed to those who ate of it, but only MORAL knowledge (aka wisdom). Think of it as ‘wisdom fruit’, which allowed the eater to discern right from wrong.

    Wisdom is needed to make wise moral decisions.

    That’s the so-called ‘Paradox of Adam and Eve’: how could Eve know that disobeying God was wrong, when she hadn’t yet eaten of the fruit that gave her the ability to act as a independent moral free agent?

    It’s only after eating the fruit that Eve realized she had done wrong, but that only begs the question: why would a wise God play such a cruel trick on his children?

    Point is, there’s a basic logical problem with the account….

  19. corwyn says

    Humans were designed to live forever on Earth.

    I have a hundred billion data points that say that that is wrong; what do you have?

  20. corwyn says

    God told Eve she would die if she ate, before, so that she could make a decision.

    God lied to Eve she would die if she ate, before, so that she could make a decision.

    “From every tree of the garden you may eat to satisfaction. 17 But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will certainly die.”

    Fixed that for you.

  21. Conversion Tube says

    Adamah, you didn’t clarify the problem in any way. What is the mechanism for food entering the mouth and being swallowed which causes you to learn morality?

    It’s utterly foolish, and needs to be stated as such.

  22. adamah says

    @Conversation Tube, when talking to believers, it is sometimes useful to tentatively accept their unsupported account in order to examine the moral ramifications of the story, since Xians will only point out it was a miracle: as the Bible says, “With God, all things are possible”.

    (It’s also the reason why it’s equally a waste of time to argue the impossibility of the Flood account from a physics or geological standpoint, since believers similarly cite it as a miracle: it’s their “get out of jail free” card.)

    We’ve done exactly that above, in an attempt to point out how ridiculous the account is, not only from a scientific angle, but more importantly, from the moral angle. In the account, God is amoral as they get, for whom but a sadist would set their “children” up for certain failure?

  23. says

    Davis DeBard, thanks for sharing. It’s good they seem to be fine with accepting you as a unbeliever. As long as they don’t put unreasonable conditions on you or the relationship that you and your girlfriend have formed, then I can’t really see anything to be too worried about. Having guilt over buying a coffee on a Saturday is a much better problem to have than for your girlfriend to be conflicted about you as a unbeliever (her going to bat for you by prompting the family to not pressure you is pretty awesome). Best of luck to you, and thanks for posting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *