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Is my irritation over receiving tacky religious gifts unfounded?
December 31, 2008 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Is my irritation over receiving tacky religious gifts unfounded?

The situation: For Christmas this year, my sister-in-law and her husband gave my family religious gifts.

My feeling on the matter: It wasn't something innocuous like a great aunt giving a niece a childrens' bible because it seemed like a nice gift... the gifts were pretty much given as a form of propaganda. They know that I'm an atheist and that my wife has fallen so far off the southern Christian Fundamentalist wagon that she grew up on that she is for all intents and purposes agnostic now. Their gifts this year were books about finding Christ, how Christ was the one true way and the source of all moral authority and a bunch of other unsolicited nonsense. The real thorn was giving unsolicited books about religion to my daughter. I go out of my way to almost bite my tongue clean off when I hear them filling their childrens heads with the most absurd fundamentalist nonsense you've ever heard in your life because it isn't my place to intervene in how they raise their children. I would never, ever, -ever-, give their children unsolicited books about religion or sex or other topics that are the province of a parent to discuss with their child (even whilst cringing at the size of the therapy bills the poor kids will pay later in life to fix what has been done!)

Ultimately I'm offended not because I even cared that I received gifts from them... I've never been that into getting gifts whether for a holiday or my birthday. I'm offended because while I was picking out thoughtful gifts for them that I thought would be useful and beautiful (and entirely without any sort of agenda other than hoping they found them as useful and lovely as I thought they were), they were apparently putting together Missionary-in-a-Box(tm) for me.

I'm not about to pick up the phone and give them a stern talking to other anything... I just can't get over how incredibly tacky the gifts were.

Am I being irrational? Should I just accept that my in-laws are poster children for the Pat Roberston Glee Club and shrug it off?
posted by JFitzpatrick to Human Relations (82 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would be massively irritated about it too!

Ahh, but what to do with the irritation?
If you feel like having an honest conversation about the matter has a snowball's chance in hell of making a difference, do it.
But if you're confident that such discussion will fall on deaf ears, then just let it roll off your back. *shrug* That's who they are, and hopefully you can love or appreciate them despite that fairly obnoxious trait.
posted by browse at 4:48 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


You have every right to be irritated. Be thankful, however, that your daughter is gaining experience in the useful life skill of dealing with pushy religious fundamentalists - let's face it, they're something you're going to encounter a lot in life, whether you want to or not...
posted by fearthehat at 4:55 PM on December 31, 2008


Bear in mind that they probably think they are being thoughtful and saving your eternal soul. Just throw it away or give it to somebody who wants it, and be thankful that they care enough about you to try to save your soul. That said, maybe have some words with them about giving that crap to your child. It's dodgy enough to force your own children into this sort of thing, but foisting that kind of thing on somebody else's child is well beyond the bounds of what is appropriate.
posted by sinfony at 4:58 PM on December 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'm not condoning their behavior at all, but you have to remember that they're trying to give you what, in their mind, is the absolute best present anybody could ever give someone: eternal life. Oh, happy day!

Ahem.

That doesn't change the fact that they did not, for example, think about the things that are important to you and address those needs and desires when doing so. Or that they had a conversation with you about your thoughts on religion, instead of just handing you the DIY Conversion Kit.

I do think that now is the time to sit them down and have a discussion with them. Tell them that while you appreciate their wishes that you join them in ye olde Kingdom of Heaven, you do not believe in that as they do, and because you do not attempt to convert them to your way of thinking, could they please not do so to you? It's not a stern talking-to here, but that is really the heart of the matter: the gifts were thoughtless because, even forgetting the subject matter, they did not address your needs as a person.

Having established that, then, you're in "don't make me establish a gift registry" territory, which is slightly tacky in itself. Maybe you can talk to a more rational member of the family and ask if there's some way you can compromise -- making a donation to a semi-religious charity, for example, that you can both agree on, or simply not getting any gifts at all.

The gist is simply establishing a precedent, calmly and politely (which they may not see as politely, but you do your best to kill with genuine kindness) and then go about your atheist ways with a clear conscience that any of their gifts will go straight to the Salvation Army (ha!) next time they show up.
posted by Madamina at 5:01 PM on December 31, 2008


The best response - and I agree, this is ghastly - is to give the kids clandestine subscriptions to MAD magazine on their tenth birthdays. (clandestine=mailed to a friend's house. worked for me.)
posted by notsnot at 5:04 PM on December 31, 2008 [7 favorites]


I'd be irritated, I have a fundie sister-in-law, too. Good point on the "thoughtful & trying to save you" thing though, there are some fundies in that vein. In many cases, unfortunately, it is more a "you just aren't good enough" pressie.
posted by kellyblah at 5:07 PM on December 31, 2008


You are not being irrational.

Fight fire with fire. Send them Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation or Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. This is not the high road. Much less polarizing, I highly recommend A.J. Jacobs The Year of Living Biblically it is insightful and hilarious.

If you prefer to take the high road, in the future, in lieu of giving them actual gifts, make a donation to a secular charity in their name. Toys-for-Tots, Habitat For Humanity, The Nature Conservancy, Project Gutenberg, etc.
posted by geekyguy at 5:10 PM on December 31, 2008 [6 favorites]


They know your stance. Restate it clearly and firmly. Only once more. After that, it's copies of The God Delusion all around. Or The Satanic Bible.

Meekness is often a losing stance with certain sorts of people, and acquiring respect for your wishes requires a firmer stance. Sort of a "if you don't stop irritating me, I can sure as hell irritate you." It's sad, but sometimes that's how people work.
posted by adipocere at 5:11 PM on December 31, 2008


Ask them if they have a gift receipt -- you'd like to exchange them because the books didn't quite fit. ;)
posted by salvia at 5:14 PM on December 31, 2008 [11 favorites]


I agree with what has been said already. After telling me all about this book I should read she realized I wasn't going to rush out and get it so she sent me a copy. I made a half hearted attempt to read it (the writing/plot construction was awful). I tried to figure out if I should donate it or something, but then I realized that religious propaganda is not useful. The less copies are out there, the better. If some one wants it, make them pay full price.

There are lots of cool crafts you can do with books that involve cutting up books. You can maybe show your daughter how to make something cool out of trash.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 5:17 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


@geekyguy: Habitat for Humanity is a Christian charity. See their website, which notes, "Habitat for Humanity International is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry." That doesn't mean that non-Christians can't support their work, of course.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:17 PM on December 31, 2008


I am a Christian. Probably in your eyes, a rabid one.

I think what they did was a big mistake, and that they should not have done it.

The Christian thing to do would have been to get you something thoughtful that you wanted.

In their defense, they do care about you, but unfortunately sometimes people don't understand what the word counterproductive means, if you get my meaning.

My suggestion is to either donate these books to a church or go to a secondhand bookstore and trade them in. Someone who really wants or needs those books can obtain them that way. Then, take a deep breath and tell these people something along these lines:

"Look, we know you care about our immortal souls*. But all a gift like this does is irritate and annoy us. If you truly love us, pray for us. If we have questions we will get back to you. "

This will get them off your back and at the same time enable them to feel they are doing right by you Godwise. Win-win!

* I assume you don't believe in an immortal soul, but we're talking to THEM and they do.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:18 PM on December 31, 2008 [7 favorites]


@browse: "If you feel like having an honest conversation about the matter has a snowball's chance in hell of making a difference, do it."

I've known them for years now and we've talked about the topic (you really can't avoid it around them.) They are hard line fusion of southern fundamentalists and die hard ultra right conservatives... and I'm a northern atheist libertarian. I'm perfectly willing to make concession that being godless yankee in a southern land who doesn't have a problem with gay marriage or legalized prostitution makes me quite an extreme minority... and stay low key to keep the peace. They however don't do so well with it. I think the real issue is that it bothers them that I haven't rejected their religion out of hand... if you tallied up all the religious instruction I received in catholic school (sincere and intense study, not indoctrination) plus all the reading I've done on my own... I'd likely be an honorary theology school graduate. It's almost like they've made it a point to bring me back into the fold just because I've so consciously and thoughtfully rejected their core beliefs.

@Madamina: "Or that they had a conversation with you about your thoughts on religion, instead of just handing you the DIY Conversion Kit. "

They know my thoughts on religion, very clearly. They know that I am deeply concerned that people like them... hard line religious fundamentalists who only believe in liberty for those who believe like them (i.e. gay people can't marry because that would make God stop favoring the US and we'd all suffer some horrible fate, etc.) So giving me religious gifts is really akin to giving a friend of yours who stopped going to the bar with you because he didn't like alcohol and the effects it had... a copy of the New York Bar Tenders Guide to Mixed Drinks. You'd essentially be saying "I understand what you believe and desire, and at a time I completely disregard it and give you a book on what I think you should be doing instead."


I suppose I could summarize my disgust by saying: gift giving is about the recipient, not about the motives of the giver. I'd love for them to read some of the more interesting books about agnosticism/atheism that I've read. I think being free from the baggage and guilt they seem to have would make their lives infinitely better... but giving someone a book about the pitfalls of religion for Christmas is pretty shitty ;-)
posted by JFitzpatrick at 5:18 PM on December 31, 2008


JFitzpatrick, assuming you have summarized the situation well, then as a Christian I feel I must apologize for your in-laws. Quoting from the New Testament (not to irritate you, but rather to show you why I feel I need to apologize for them):

Matthew 5:13,16: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men...let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven".

I (at least) have always felt those verses commanded Christians to lead a life which helps to make the world a better place, and to do it for God.

Christianity is not (or should I say, was not meant to be) a cult. There should be no need to indoctrinate or recruit, at least not according to the founder's instructions.

For example, years ago I was on vacation in New Hampshire and visited a Shaker village. In the beginning of the Christian Shaker movement they were the ones with the best houses and most abundant food. When Winter came (in New Hampshire) many converted, but when Spring came they left (Shakers were very strict about male-female relations). The Shakers knew this but never let it bother them. That is what it's supposed to work like.

In closing I will quote from G. K. Chesterton: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."

Again, my apologies for my fellow Christians that you encountered.
posted by forthright at 5:19 PM on December 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


Hmm, more seriously, if you want to be less annoyed, just put it in the same basket as all the other totally inappropriate gifts people give, like when my 12-year-old cousin got Sing Along With Peter Pan for Christmas. Hmm, preteen boy -- bottle rockets? Nah, let's get him Peter Pan, he'll love that!
posted by salvia at 5:20 PM on December 31, 2008


"Thank you for the gifts, but my wife and I would prefer to make our own decisions about how we raise our children, and in our view this includes religious instruction. Could you please avoid it in the future? Thanks."

That's as politely as I can say the much ruder thoughts that this gives me.
posted by Bookhouse at 5:27 PM on December 31, 2008 [10 favorites]


You're not being irrational. However, if they honestly believe that you're going to burn in hell unless you're "saved" it makes sense that they'd do whatever they could to convert you. Try not to be upset with them, because it's the only type of concern they know how to show.

I recommend against "fighting fire with fire" because I can't see any good coming from it.

On the other hand, you should absolutely draw the line at conversations with your daughter. I would tell them in no uncertain terms that it's unacceptable. You might even consider setting something up like Planned Parenthood's Pledge a Picketer, where you tell them that each time they proselytize your daughter Planned Parenthood will be receiving a donation from you (or some other organization you support and they detest).

the gifts were thoughtless because, even forgetting the subject matter, they did not address your needs as a person.
They believe your greatest deficiency is your lack of belief if their god and nothing is going to change their mind.
posted by null terminated at 5:28 PM on December 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


*in their god
posted by null terminated at 5:30 PM on December 31, 2008


@St. Alia of the Bunnies / Forthright: The issue isn't the Christianity itself... I've certainly met my fair share of perfectly pleasant Christians who have simply taken the tenets of Christ's teaching to heart and gone about being helpful and constructive members of society. I grew up in a rather homey if somewhat boring Methodist church and as a child never really experienced what I would consider "crazy" Christians. I married a southern woman and wooooo let me tell you. Not to be stereotypical but my trips to the south are filled with exclamations like "ZOMG! I didn't know people actually did that!" I'd pay for a photograph of the expression on my face during my first introduction to glossolalia.

I appreciate both you putting yourself out there in a thread started by a self described atheist to say something positive. While the real issue is that the gift was inappropriate and tacky... it's hard to separate religion from the issue when the reason the person gives you the gift is that they apparently stay awake at night fretting about your soul and how best to reclaim it =/

@the many other responses that have come pouring in: Thanks for making me chuckle and take a deep breath. It's good to have a bit of perspective... I hope people keep responding! I'm enjoying reading the responses enormously.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 5:35 PM on December 31, 2008


I'd donate to an environmental charity to counter the waste that went into making such trite.
posted by ageispolis at 5:39 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


@null terminated:"On the other hand, you should absolutely draw the line at conversations with your daughter. I would tell them in no uncertain terms that it's unacceptable. You might even consider setting something up like Planned Parenthood's Pledge a Picketer, where you tell them that each time they proselytize your daughter Planned Parenthood will be receiving a donation from you (or some other organization you support and they detest)."

I don't think they would ever actually talk to her in person about it. As passionate as they are about religion her entire family seems to be completely terrified of me in person. I'm not a hulking beast of a man or prone to violence or anything... but I speak with enormous gravity and I tolerate absolutely no nonsense from them. Their behavior when they visit my home for example is nearly impeccable because it is well understood that the nonsense they pull in their own homes would lead them to be thrown out on the sidewalk and forgotten. Several of them have actually commented that the best place to have the family gather is at my home because I can keep the peace.

On the note about planned parenthood... it's so funny you bring that up. I joked with my wife last year about using that exact same tact if it came to blows ;-)
posted by JFitzpatrick at 5:39 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I eliminated problems like this by not observing the holiday at all. (I was "confirmed" as a Lutheran, but am most emphatically not a Christian anymore.) That's right, I ignore Christmas and observe the Solstice a few days earlier, which is the origin of the Christmas holiday anyway. People get me Solstice gifts and I give them Solstice gifts if any gifts change hands at all. Not sure if this could apply in your family situation.
posted by telstar at 5:40 PM on December 31, 2008


Have you never heard "It's the thought that counts?"

They spent time and effort to get your family gifts they thought you might need and you're going to insult them for it? Even if they were inappropriate, is that how you want to remember this Christmas?

Let it go, and next year institute a no gifts policy.
posted by madajb at 5:50 PM on December 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


What fearthehat says is true not only for random missionaries you daughter might encounter but your sister-in-laws kids too. If your kids are running off playing together at family gatherings as most will, I'd be very surprised if religion didn't come up eventually, particularly if her kids are turning into the missionary types it sounds like they're being brought up to be. Whatever you tell your own kids about what they're reading, and dispersing now as gifts, probably *will* make it through to their kids. In the spirit of "it takes a village to raise a child", and given that it's (arguably) ethically not-on for you, with all the authority an adult automatically has in a kid's eyes, to demonstrate directly to them alternative viewpoints without undermining their parents, it may not be an all-bad thing as regards those future therapy bills to have had this opportunity to discuss stuff with your daughter, with whom their kids can chat on a more even level. My cousin asked me about my religion when I was eight and we totally couldn't work our how our denominations of Christianity were different except at surface level; but later when it became relevant I did know there were alternatives. Just sayin'.

To answer your question, though, no, I don't think you're being irrational. If they want to provide religious subject matter to you when you've made it pretty clear you're not into it, they're doing themselves a favour, not you. To hell (pun not intended!) with any "We're just trying to save your mortal soul - we're doing it all for you!" excuses... If they want to save your souls so badly, they could try to do that AND give a gift: that's always an option, and it's one they haven't taken, so I'm calling "selfish" and "patronising" and "trying to make a point".

If you're not willing to talk to them, though, you may have to shrug it off unless you want to boil secretly inside when they're around. *Could* you talk with them and agree to disagree, and establish some rules for gift-giving that you all are ok with? Basically what Madamina said... though in the "straight to the Salvation Army" scenario I still feel like it's unfair if they break the rules that their kids get gifts from you while meantime your daughter misses out, with her gift shipped off to a religious charity to resell. :-/ Maybe express that "Let's not give gifts at all" is a last resort you'd be sad, but willing, to accept if they and you really can't establish some gift-giving rules you're all happy enough to accept and stick to.
posted by springbound at 5:56 PM on December 31, 2008


They spent time and effort to get your family gifts they thought you might need and you're going to insult them for it? Even if they were inappropriate, is that how you want to remember this Christmas?

Receiving religious nonsense from religious people does not really fit 'the thought that counts'. It's like a plumber giving you a spare plunger, or your white-collar Uncle giving you some some post-it notes and a handful of paperclips wrapped up in a rubber band. It's certainly good for their conscience, but its narrow minded consideration fails to take into account the alternate views of others.
posted by ageispolis at 5:59 PM on December 31, 2008 [7 favorites]


If you're wanting to avoid a confrontation with them about this year's incident, and are more trying to figure out how to avoid another scene like this next year, I have an idea that's backpacking on madajb's suggestion. Instead of suggesting a no-gifts policy, suggest a donation to charity-of-the-giver's-choice in the other people's names. That way they can give to a Christian charity THEY like, and you can give to a secular but still do-goodin' charity YOU like. And no hurt feelings, only good karma all around!

I suggest avoiding the no-gifting thing, because they might not go for it, or get offended about it, or worst of all SAY they'll agree to it but then show up with smaller, still religious-y "just for fun" presents for your and your family in '09. Then you're doubly annoyed. No-gifting policies can be rife with possible contention if even one person decides to bend the rules.

So I'm all about charity-giving in these complicated circumstances, because who can get pissy if you're helping save the world in their name? Especially if they're supposed to be good Christians?
posted by np312 at 6:01 PM on December 31, 2008


Giving doctrine to other people's children is absolutely rude. You should just address that with them. On the other hand, I would encourage your kid to read it, as well as any other religious texts. Surely she's smart enough to judge for herself! There are few better critical thinking tests or morality-defining exercises for a youngster than filtering the varied messages of religion, imo.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:02 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


What about "re-gifting" the books to them next year?
posted by JujuB at 6:08 PM on December 31, 2008 [5 favorites]


When my cats leave me half a mouse, I'm irritated, but I don't take it personally. That's just what cats do.

Your relatives are in the grip of an irrational delusion. That is, in itself, irritating, certainly. But within the scope of their delusion, they have apparently done their best to give you the best possible holiday present. Either that, or they are, as hypothesized above, judgmental assholes. We shall assume the former. In their way, they meant well.

Thank them sincerely, for you thank them for their thought and caring. You love them, or this would not even begin to offend you.

Then take the opportunity, which your misguided relatives have thoughtfully--THOUGHTFULLY--provided, to have a discussion with your daughter about religion and how you see it.

Fundamentalists are a fact of life. Most people can't begin to deal with the finitude of their lives. Be compassionate, or you'll regret it later.
posted by bricoleur at 6:25 PM on December 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


@madajab: "Have you never heard "It's the thought that counts?"

I have. In this case... I custom designed several of their gifts, asked them what their children wanted, purchased gifts that supported my nephews hobbies, and over all made sure that the things I sent were nice... and all that despite the awkwardness of my relationship with them.

They gave me a book about the absolute moral authority of Christian ideals that they thought was well camouflaged as a book about eastern mysticism which I might have actually ready because it had a Buddha on the cover. It was really a book about a guy who was Hindi but converted to Christianity with a fervor... and after giving it a cursory reading I have no idea why there was a Buddha on the cover other than putting Buddhas on things is apparently trendy?

So it's a clash between: "Hi, I custom designed this to fufill a need you have and I really hope you find it useful" and "Hi, I'm really bothered you don't share the same belief system I do so I'm going to give you a gift I'm absolutely positive you won't like on the off chance that it'll lead to you believing what I do."
posted by JFitzpatrick at 6:28 PM on December 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Receiving religious nonsense from religious people does not really fit 'the thought that counts'

Christmas is a religious holiday. Maybe they believe it's the event the holiday commemorates that counts.

JFitzpatrick, it's great that you've been civil about the whole thing. Just continue on that path. The holidays are rife with opportunities to take offense, just pass them on by.
posted by txvtchick at 6:36 PM on December 31, 2008


Have you never heard "It's the thought that counts?"

They spent time and effort to get your family gifts they thought you might need and you're going to insult them for it? Even if they were inappropriate, is that how you want to remember this Christmas?


I think that's what this whole thread has been about- they were either completely thoughtless, or so arrogant in their beliefs that they think the poster and his family should change. I'm pretty sure that's not what the Big Guy meant when he talked about evangelizing.

The world would be a much better place if the victims of this proselytizing were equally vocal that their own beliefs are their own business and that solicitation isn't allowed with them.
posted by gjc at 6:57 PM on December 31, 2008


I feel that something should be said to them, but I'd keep it strictly to the daughter's gift.

"At this point in her life, we're still doing our best to filter what sort books/movies/music she's exposed to. We need you to check with us first before giving her stuff about sex, drugs, or religion".

Not: "could you do this?" but: "you must do this".

They will no perfectly well how you feel about YOUR presents, you need not say a word about them.
posted by the bricabrac man at 7:07 PM on December 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


bleh. they will KNOW...
posted by the bricabrac man at 7:07 PM on December 31, 2008


In a perfect world you would have a highly respectful and satisfying discussion with your religious family members that results in them admitting that the gifts of religious books were more for them rather than for you, that they understand and respect your objections and in the future they would do better.

In reality there is a sort of religious person that tends to make sure every aspect of their lives has religion imbibed through and through. They surround themselves with like minded people and fill their world with religion, religion, religion. Religious paraphernalia on their calendars, plates, note paper, ALL GIFTS, you name it. Obvious to all, religious or not, this is not healthy.

I am going to assume your family is of this sort rather than the sort of enlightened religious people you can find posting above. I wouldn't let it get your goat. You aren't going to change them and they aren't going to change you. Be the bigger person and wave the truce flag.

This year is already blown. Since it sounds like you command respect within the family jump in early and make it very clear next year what kind of gifts will make your family happy. Don't leave them to figure it out for themselves. This will work well for your daughter especially since you can pick something with various aspects and each family member can contribute, i.e. "grandma already has dibbs on the easel and smock but no one has claimed the paintbrushes. Shall I tell everyone you've got that covered?" Or as suggested above, instate a (tacky) gift registry. You'll find the structure relaxing to all parties.

Good luck, you outline exactly why I hate the holidays!!
posted by tinamonster at 7:08 PM on December 31, 2008


It seems like the issue here is the sum of a few parts: 1) The mismatch in the functionality/usability/desire of the gifts you made and gave versus the unneeded/undesired gifts you received; 2) The perceived judgment of you and your heathen ways that the books carry; and 3) The proselytizing to your daughter.

Of these, I would think that the third part is the one that needs to be discussed. As for the others, what would you do with any other unnecessary gift? What would you do with an unsolicited cookbook or vacuum that may imply you don't cook or clean as well as the giver would want?

Granted, it would still be annoying and I would have a hard time getting past it. However, sometimes the caliber of gifts just don't match up, and you either resolve to give less/nothing, or hope for something better next year.

My response, however, would be different if this had happened several years in a row. If you get more religious propaganda next year, I think a response would be in order, but hopefully they will choose better after your reaction and your chat with them about the things they expose/introduce your daughter to.
posted by alpha_betty at 7:22 PM on December 31, 2008


Please just burn the books and tell them you did so. That's what I'd do.
posted by Manhasset at 7:35 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd put them back in the box, half unwrapped, and send them back with a note saying something to the effect, "You are my family and I will always love you but please do not ever, ever, ever send religious materials to me or my family again".

They have a right to their beliefs but they absolutely do not have any right to try and force those beliefs on you or your children and, while their hearts may be in the right place, doing so is just plain rude.

I'd be tempted to send them back after crossing out every single line with a permanent marker. Or make doodles of boobs all over every page. But I'm kind of a stinker.
posted by fenriq at 8:11 PM on December 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


So it's a clash between: "Hi, I custom designed this to fufill a need you have and I really hope you find it useful" and "Hi, I'm really bothered you don't share the same belief system I do so I'm going to give you a gift I'm absolutely positive you won't like on the off chance that it'll lead to you believing what I do."

Perhaps, but that more or less seems like you are complaining that the gift you received does not live up to your standards. Don't be that person.

People get gifts that aren't really the right thing all the time.
A blaze orange vest for the non-hunter in a hunting family. A gift certificate to a vegan restaurant for someone who thinks BBQ is the pinnacle of human cuisine. It happens.
And when it does, polite people nod, smile, find something nice to say about it, and move on.

Even if your relatives are being petty and evangelizing, here's your chance to be a better person.
I mean, hey, at least they thought your soul is worth saving. That's gotta count for something!
posted by madajb at 8:55 PM on December 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


My two cents...

I don't quite get the drama that people seem to inflict on gifts.

I'm 32 years old, and in the classic situation where I still get toys fit for a four year old. Or I get something completely innapropriate, or a gag gift, or something that should be racially offensive.

So what?

Someone thought to get me a gift, and for that I'm thankful. Do I really care about any motivations beyond getting me a gift? Not really. Do I even care what the gift is? No, I don't.

Someone gets you a gift. Either they want to, because they care, or they feel obligated. Does it really matter that they didn't follow your strict rules about what you accept into your house? In my opinion - no.

Are you so insecure in your beliefs that a religious gift upsets you this much? I'll skip the obvious analysis and let you sort that one out on your own...

But, really, my point is that I just don't think this should be upsetting you this much. Frankly you sound almost exactly like a lot of hardcore fundamentalists I've met. Chill out, thank your family for getting you the gifts, and use them them to teach your children your beliefs. (Make it into a game - have your kids point out the flaws in the books.) Basically, turn the gifts into an advantage to yourself. That way your family is happy they gave gifts that meant something to them, and you're happy that you've outsmarted them.
posted by krisak at 9:35 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think that's what this whole thread has been about- they were either completely thoughtless, or so arrogant in their beliefs that they think the poster and his family should change. I'm pretty sure that's not what the Big Guy meant when he talked about evangelizing.


Let's not bring Lester Carlson into this thread--some things are still sacred.
posted by mecran01 at 9:44 PM on December 31, 2008


This year my Mormon MIL gave her non-Mormon son and myself (a Catholic) a tile with the former president's "Be's" on a tile, disguised as something merely inspirational. When I (and my SIL, who received the same present) found out the origins of the "Be Involved, Be Positive, Be Humble, etc." we hit the roof. However, figuring out how to handle it was a delicate process.

We realized that she's trying to save her sons, period. Our own (and her sons') non-Mormon beliefs really don't calculate into the equation because those aren't the path to "eternal salvation" or what have you. No amount of our protesting is going to stop her from wanting her sons to return to what she feels is the right path.

So what do we do with the gift? We put it on display for her visit this weekend, and as soon as she leaves, we're going to peel those tacky-ass Cricut stickers off the thing and hammer up the tile to make into a mosaic. Gives us something to gossip about (and to smash later), and MIL feels like maybe she won a little, which will keep the peace for awhile. We'll know the real truth, though, and really, isn't that what matters?

As for your kids...just be open with them. I grew up Catholic, but with Mormon relatives (my dad was raised Mormon). My parents were always very open and honest with my brother and I. We received lots of Mormon-esque gifts over the years (coloring pages, figurines, books, etc.), and my parents just always told us that while that was what Aunt So-and-SO and Uncle What's-His-Bucket believed, it wasn't what we believed and it wasn't right. That didn't make Aunt and Uncle bad people at all; they just believed differently and were doing what they thought was right. If you give your kids all the info, they'll make the right choices.
posted by messylissa at 9:45 PM on December 31, 2008


@madajb: "Perhaps, but that more or less seems like you are complaining that the gift you received does not live up to your standards. Don't be that person."

I'm definitely not that person and the issue isn't about standards. If they'd have said they couldn't have afforded to send gifts this year it wouldn't have bothered me in the least and I'd still have sent them something since I could afford to send gifts. It's just annoying as hell to have someone give you a gift that is all about them and their beliefs. It'd be just as annoying if you were dead set against going back to college to get your graduate degree and your family members bought you GRE test prep books because they felt they knew what was best for you and they wanted you to go back to graduate college.

A gift that is an unintentionally or poorly thought out mismatch like buying outdoor gear for a friend because you forget that they aren't as into camping as you are... isn't the same as buying a book on hunting and giving it to your friend with a lifetime PETA membership because you think he should get over not wanting to shoot animals.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 9:46 PM on December 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


err, former Mormon president's "Be's."
posted by messylissa at 9:46 PM on December 31, 2008


If their kids are young enough, next Christmas get them horrible noisy things that the kids will ***L*O*V*E*** and that will drive their parents to drink. When I was little, I had a fireman's helmet with a rotating light and a siren on top. Something like that.

Otherwise, how you react should probably depend more on your wife and her relationship to them and what she feels is appropriate. Offhand, I'd guess that it might be time to write off thoughtful gift-giving to the parents and just give them a gift certificate from the local mall. This is still a bit of a fuck-you in your own head but doesn't descend to actual rudeness.

Or, if your wife doesn't mind giving them gifts in the same rude spirit that they've shown, "give" them donations to the ACLU. This would make you a bit of a jerk too. If you do something like this, remember that only a real Level 5 asshole would use the occasion to give their kids crappy gifts.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:44 PM on December 31, 2008


without any sort of agenda other than hoping they found them as useful and lovely as I thought they were

I'm jumping on the "this is exactly what your deluded rellies are doing as well" bandwagon.

If you've not experienced the high of strong religious belief, it can be almost impossible to credit the feeling of certainty it gives you, and it's almost impossible to credit just how amazingly good it feels to have that certainty.

Am I being irrational?

No. If anybody is being irrational in this scenario, it's your relatives. Strictly speaking, they're not even being irrational; it's just that their reasoning is grounded in a bunch of arbitrary, self-reinforcing hooey. And although you may find the whole idea that your immortal soul is in dire need of salvation to be as ludicrous as I do, the point is that these people take this ludicrous idea incredibly seriously because it is the basis of the certainty they're addicted to.

Should I just accept that my in-laws are poster children for the Pat Roberston Glee Club and shrug it off?

Yes.

Doing anything else will cause unnecessary stress and angst for all concerned.
posted by flabdablet at 11:13 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


isn't the same as buying a book on hunting and giving it to your friend with a lifetime PETA membership because you think he should get over not wanting to shoot animals

Right. So you don't want to be the guy that gives The God Delusion to your rellies with lifetime church membership because you think they should get over not wanting to face their own mortality.

Just snicker behind their backs.
posted by flabdablet at 11:17 PM on December 31, 2008


the gifts were pretty much given as a form of propaganda.

Then you have every right to be irritated. This is indeed rude and obnoxious behaviour, because it's quite deliberate.

Bear in mind that they probably think they are being thoughtful and saving your eternal soul.

Try not to be upset with them, because it's the only type of concern they know how to show.

So? Rude is rude. The motivation for rudeness being religion rather than politics or some other belief is no excuse.
posted by rodgerd at 11:31 PM on December 31, 2008


I would be annoyed. And if it's 'the thought that counts' this makes it even more annoying; they thought about it and decided to give you something they knew for sure you didn't want, and that would probably upset you. I find it smarmy, sly and hostile.

Next year, I'd tell them that you are making a donation to [some religious charity that does good work, like Habitat for Humanity] for them, and you ask that they donate any money that they would normally spend on gifts for your family to [some inoffensive secular charity that you support]. And if they insist on giving you gifts, take them and say "thanks! We're collecting some stuff for the Salvation Army this year, and I'm sure these will be very appreciated!"
posted by taz at 11:32 PM on December 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm going to answer the question as asked, though it's subjective and I don't expect to be especially helpful.

If they're fundamentalists, they're certain bad things are going to happen to you and your family if you don't drop everything and embrace their religion. Not only do they feel justified, they surely feel obligated to preach to you; not only for what they perceive as your benefit, but their own (e.g. in whatever afterlife or end of world scenario they entertain). If anything, they probably regret not hitting you with it harder, or not finding ways to isolate and preach to your daughter outside of your supervision. An irony of life is that many bad acts are perpetrated by people certain they're doing the right thing.

That you don't preach to them in kind about another religion, or argue the fatuousness of theirs, unfortunately doesn't change that a fundamental tenet of their world view is all about getting all up in people's grills with it.

Whether a conversation with them about it would be productive, I can't say. They might respect you, or they might just get pissed off and defensive.
posted by evil holiday magic at 11:54 PM on December 31, 2008


It's just annoying as hell to have someone give you a gift that is all about them and their beliefs

But the point I'm trying to make, apparently poorly, is that it doesn't have to be annoying. It doesn't have to be about whatever motives you might ascribe to your relatives.
Forgive and forget, shove the book in the closet, and next Christmas use one of the strategies(homemade gifts only, donations to charity, etc) posted up above to avoid the same situation.

Oh, and the blaze orange for the non-hunter? Completely intentional gifts from a hard-core hunting family. In a couple of years, my buddy is going to have enough clothing to be a traffic cone at Halloween.
posted by madajb at 1:07 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This thread is awesome. I'm with JuJuB, re-gift the books next year. Did you mention the age of your children? It matters because you need to discuss the gifts with the children if they're old enough. I would definitely discuss it with the givers, though. As your children grow older it will become more of an issue.

The sequence I've seen occurs roughly in this order:
Baby Bibles with special monograms, Cute children stories to read aloud, Precious Moments Bibles and knick-knacks, Secret Baptisms, Fancy clothes and shoes, Kidnappings to major church events, Inspirational books geared to young teens, Religious jewelry, Teen's bible, Kidnappings to minor church events, Tickets to religious music concerts, Summer "vacation camps" (aka revivals) in the mountains, etc.

My family used to do this type of stuff to me and then my son all the time. I was raised in an extremely religious Southern Baptist family and church. They're also the most morally corrupt people I personally know and I most definitely do liken them to a Cult. As I write this, I'm actually upset and shaking just thinking back. When my son was 10, my mother was determined to take him to Easter service and I refused to allow it. I literally resorted to using the words police and kidnapping in the same sentence to stop her. And, just recently, I've learned that when he was 3 his other grandparents had him baptized.

But, really, you should put your foot down and address it directly with them. It definitely is not just about the gift. I fear it will only get worse if you don't. The charity donations are a great idea, but expect them to still bring small religious trinkets as stocking stuffers. If you'd like, you can do that same. Don't make the holiday a battlefield, although that'd be funny. :) They will pray for you and their local congregations will pray for you, I'm sure. It may all backfire and just make them more determined.

Also, you might want to consider holding your tongue a little less. They might see your silence as a weakness, an opening, for their evangelizing.
posted by ick at 1:53 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thing is, I don't know your in-laws. From the southern baptists and Stadium MegaChurch pentacostals I've known, I can say that really churchy people who give out unsolicited books on religion tend to fall into two categories:

1) the clueless but well meaning, who just want to bring you to Jesus

2) the passive-aggressive shit stirrer

If they're in the first category, you just need to gently explain to them that you respect their love for you and your family, and their faith, but that you have your own. You, your wife and your daughter have a right to come to Christ in your own way and time, and if that ever happens, they'll be some of the first you'll talk to. For now, though, it's your house, your child, and you'd like some sort of promise on their part that they will leave religion out of things for now. You might get the occasional slip up from them over time, but you need to respect their faith as much as they respect yours.

If they're in the second category, they're doing it to get a rise out of you as much as they might be trying to save your eternal soul. In that case, make it clear to them that you really value family, and would like to have closeness, but that this kind of thing off of them is going to form a rift. If you play it that way, instead of playing Holy Wars, you'll bring home to them what the cost of them continuing down this path will be. Don't engage them on the religion, just talk about family and closeness and acceptance. Ask them if they feel that you try and convert their kids to your point of view, and how they'd feel about that. They might act like jackasses when you have this discussion, but I'd be amazed if it didn't take the fizzle out of the Onwards Christian Soldiers sort of thing for them.

Not sure how old your daughter is, but you also need to think about things like her cousins inviting her to Vacation Bible School, etc. This isn't going to be a one-act play. Just sayin'.
posted by Grrlscout at 1:56 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another post about a sneaky baptism. It also covers issue of unwanted religious pressures from family.
posted by ick at 2:13 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't have an opinion about this one way or another because it's so far off left from center from my world, but just reiterating about the irritation issue, just because it's so very hard to recycle those thingies and it's just more piling on the poundage for the planet.
posted by watercarrier at 3:11 AM on January 1, 2009


+1 for returning the gifts as unsuitable. I wouldn't wait until next year to do it, either. I'd invite them round, and explain that the gifts were unsuitable right now. And make them take them back with them.

These people knew that you would probably be offended. And they bought you the gifts anyway. That's just plain ignorant.
posted by Solomon at 3:39 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


My parents taught me to always accept gifts with grace and to say thanks, and to sound like I meant it.

Once the day is over, do whatever you want with them.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:46 AM on January 1, 2009


If your kids are running off playing together at family gatherings as most will, I'd be very surprised if religion didn't come up eventually, particularly if her kids are turning into the missionary types it sounds like they're being brought up to be.....it may not be an all-bad thing as regards those future therapy bills to have had this opportunity to discuss stuff with your daughter, with whom their kids can chat on a more even level.

A slight tangent/derail on this: if the children (theirs and yours) are ever left unsupervised together, there's a strong chance theirs will try to "save" yours. (I grew up in a diverse town, and heard more than one story of a Hindu or Catholic girl asked to kneel and accept Jesus as their personal savior at a sleepover when they were outnumbered by the well-meaning Baptist girls.)

Children DO talk about religion with one another--and quite earnestly and urgently if they were born into a fundamentalist faith and literally want to "save" their friends from eternal damnation--so you should be talking to your children early on about beliefs.
posted by availablelight at 5:28 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why not give them a few books that inspired you? Read any good books on logic or atheism or social etiquette? Maybe they'll get the hint or learn something new.
posted by Knigel at 5:31 AM on January 1, 2009


There's a lot of vitriol in this thread that's a bit depressing.

The bottom line is, on a religious holiday, your wife's sister gave your wife and her family religious gifts about the religion that they both grew up with. It irritated you but you've handled it gracefully so far. Does your wife share your irritation?
posted by txvtchick at 7:40 AM on January 1, 2009


There's a stereotype of atheists in the Christian community that they're smug, condescending assholes. Also, evil, but let's lay that last word aside for the moment.

If you make a scene, you will confirm the bias. And you'll be the bad guy.

Take the books to a chain bookstore, exchange them for credit, and buy something else you and the kids like. Do like you would any bad present -- smile, give a nice thank you, and start pricing the return.

When the time for the conversation finally comes, tell the truth, explain your position, and say they're family but you're atheists and don't want any part of religious texts and teaching. And leave it at that, really. Be clear and explicit, but try doing it in love and not anger. If you can make your case in love, they're more likely to back off and unleash the full force of Jesus junk on you.

I'm willing to bet that if you gave them Bertrand Russell or Sam Harris next Christmas they'd say "thank you" in public and sell/burn them in private. If you want them to respect your beliefs, respect them first.
posted by dw at 7:55 AM on January 1, 2009


They gave you a tacky gift. Sincerely thank them, move on, and do whatever you want with the books. Ask them to check with you before getting your daughter gifts like that in the future, but I don't think you need to read them the riot act or explain why. A simple, "Please check with me before buying my daughter that kind of reading material in the future" should suffice. The conversation ends there.

Your gifts sound truly nice and thoughtful and you sound like you take a lot of pride in how well you did this year. That's an awesome feeling, but it doesn't entitle you to judge their misguided efforts so harshly. Giving kick-ass gifts will never guarantee that you get them in return, and kick-ass gifts shouldn't be given with that mindset.
posted by juliplease at 8:02 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]



There's a stereotype of atheists in the Christian community that they're smug, condescending assholes.


Interesting! The opposite generalization could probably be made with equal truth. (At least if you substitute "fundamentalist" for Christian.)

The problem as I see it with responding or retaliating in some of the ways suggested above is context. The books were a gift. There is no way to know for sure whether the motive was love, hostility, concern, self-righteousness, or something (maybe subconscious) in between. Generally the polite thing to do as a gift recipient is to give the benefit of the doubt, however clumsy the gift selection.

Using a gift exchange as a jumping-off point for setting your relatives straight is not going to go over well, and JFitzpatrick, your reputation as a peacekeeper is something to nurture. I'd recommend saving the frank discussion for a less volatile context--that is, any time that your relatives haven't just done something for you that is, on the face of it at least, an expression of love.

Privately you can do what we've done in our family: send some gifts straight to Salvation Army, including secreting away certain presents to the kids when they're not looking.
posted by torticat at 9:08 AM on January 1, 2009


I would definitely take the low road here. Typically I would recommend the high road. The high road will sometimes encourage the creepy in-laws to follow your lead, but in your case I'd say they think they are so much better than you anyway. So I'd just totally have fun with this and send them this in the mail:

Dear Self-Righteous In-Laws,
Um, I hate the gifts you gave us. They are entirely inappropriate, especially the one's you gave MY child. Next time we are all together for a gift-giving holiday, your little ones will be receiving a copy of "Catcher in the Rye" and a pack of Camels. Then I'm going to take them out and teach them to shoplift.
Love,
JFitzpatrick

Then follow through (maybe not with the shoplifting part, though...you don't want to end up in jail, especially if their kiddos are with you).

And for an added punch, you could include a picture of a naked lady in the envelope. Send it under the guise of a Thank-You note.
posted by junipero at 9:09 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don’t think you’re being irrational, and I don’t think this is a case where you need to just fake-smile your way through stupid gifts. I think you should say something to your relatives. There’s a big difference between giving something ill-suited to the recipient and giving something intended to change the recipient to suit the giver's beliefs or opinions. If I gave my vegan cousin a non-vegan cookbook as a gift because I forgot she was vegan, I’d be dumb but she should thank me and just re-gift it; if I gave my vegan cousin a book outlining why being vegan is wrong and bad and will give you cancer because I thought she should stop being vegan, then I’d be a jerk and my cousin should confront me about it.

I love, love, love St. Alia’s suggestion of asking them for prayers instead of books. I think that that conversation would encourage good behavior all around. You would be engaging them in terms they understand and value (prayer, the power of God to change people’s hearts/lives) rather than demanding that they cease caring about your souls on your terms (you don’t believe in souls or needing salvation), and they would (hopefully) see that they’re dealing with thoughtful people rather than defiant sinners who just need to hear the message one more time.

At the same time, I think the conversation around the kids’ gifts should be explicit: you would never give their kids books you knew to be contrary to their family’s beliefs, and they must respect your family’s beliefs and refrain from proselytizing to your kids via Christian-themed gifts.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:34 AM on January 1, 2009


The most important thing here is your daughter. Have a talk with her, if you haven't already, and explore how she feels about the "gift." Keep it open-ended and see where it goes.

As for your relatives, I agree with juliplease. Don't return rudeness with rudeness. Keep things classy. But be sure to assert yourself about what sorts of things are given to your daughter in the future.
posted by Robert Angelo at 10:44 AM on January 1, 2009


@ROU_Xenophobe: "If you do something like this, remember that only a real Level 5 asshole would use the occasion to give their kids crappy gifts."

I'd never mix the kids up in it. The only time I'd get involved is if they ask me in their teens, as the religious black sheep of the family, some honest advice because religious guilt is tearing them up. It seems to tear up everyone in that family... so if they say "Uncle J, do you think people go to hell if they do XYZ" I'm not going to nod solemly and tell them that I'll be praying for them ;-)

@flabdablet:"If you've not experienced the high of strong religious belief, it can be almost impossible to credit the feeling of certainty it gives you, and it's almost impossible to credit just how amazingly good it feels to have that certainty."

Hmm that's true. My wife has mentioned something to that effect, having grown up in such a fundamentalist home. She says she wouldn't trade the sense of well being that comes from being free from the religious baggage for anything but that it's easy to miss the absolute certainty/security that comes with being a die hard fundamentalist.

@ick: "I've learned that when he was 3 his other grandparents had him baptized."

I don't even know what to say to that. It's not like as an atheist I think getting baptized actually means anything... but if I found out that someone in my family had taken my child and gone behind my back to get them involved in some religious ritual like that I would rain a fury down upon them so hard they'd be terrified to enter the entire state I lived in. My goodness. Who does something like that?

@Grrlscout: "Not sure how old your daughter is, but you also need to think about things like her cousins inviting her to Vacation Bible School, etc. This isn't going to be a one-act play. Just sayin'."

Like I said in a previous response, I'm almost certain none of the adults in the family would try to corner my daughter and talk to her... all the adults know that the first rule of the game for good behavior around me is that there is only one strike allowed. As far as future interactions go with cousins... I'm pretty confident in my daughters intellect. She just turned three and she already has an enormously large grasp on the world. For isntance on the day before her third birthday, I said "Tomorrow will be your birthday!" and she shook her head and said "Birthday? No no daddy, I was already born... my birthday already happened." I'd say understanding the concept of your own birth and it's existance in the past is a pretty good start on being a thoughtful person =)

@availablelight: "Children DO talk about religion with one another--and quite earnestly and urgently if they were born into a fundamentalist faith and literally want to "save" their friends from eternal damnation--so you should be talking to your children early on about beliefs."

I wouldn't have really thought kids could be that into it... until I saw the documentary Jesus Camp. I'm still freaked out by how passionate those kids are at such a young age. =/ I think I'll be completely creeped out by the scene with the little girls crying about abortion until the end of my days. Such a horror to see someone take away the innocence of childhood.

@txtvchick: "The bottom line is, on a religious holiday, your wife's sister gave your wife and her family religious gifts about the religion that they both grew up with. It irritated you but you've handled it gracefully so far. Does your wife share your irritation?"

My irritation was mild and more about how tacky the gift was... my wife was way way way more pissed off.

To me the gift symbolizes how my inlaws are willing to reject a good relationship with my family to be "right" and try to preach to us. With out sounding completely conceited... we're the best shot at a fun normal family they have. When they visit their kids have fun, everyone is relaxed for the most part... I do an excellent job managing and difusing the tensions of their completely dysfunctional family and every time they visit everyone talks about what a great time they had and how family visits never go smoother. So rather than accept that we simply don't believe in the sky wizards they believe in... and continue to have a fun and enjoyable relationship with us... they increasingly make it about their religion and put up a wall between us. They tell us that they pray for us because we aren't raising our daughter to know Jesus... when you mention anything like "man I can't believe I got in a car accident" they say things like "You should keep Jesus in your heart, that will protect you from harm" and absolutely stupid things like that. So I more sigh knowing that they are tossing away a perfectly good family relationship over their silly beliefs.

My wife on the other hand was about a point away from "Absolutely Furious" on the irritation scale. I think she and I are in agreement that my inlaws religious fixation does more to harm them than help them and she's had it up to here with their preaching.

@dw: "There's a stereotype of atheists in the Christian community that they're smug, condescending assholes. Also, evil, but let's lay that last word aside for the moment."

I'm a super chill guy and a super chill atheist... but in defense of atheists... It's really hard not to come off as condescending when someone is aggressively in your face and arguing about the existence of intangible and unknowable beings who are controlling the universe. It's like standing there while a kid kicks you in the shin and screams that Santa is real.

"Be clear and explicit, but try doing it in love and not anger. If you can make your case in love, they're more likely to back off and unleash the full force of Jesus junk on you."

Fair enough and solid advice. I'm not really angry at them... it's just a book after all. Mostly irritated and largely saddened by the emotional trap they are caught in. Christianity serves some people well and they are peaceful for their beliefs... I don't really see it serving them that way. I see a family caught up in a whirlwind of cultish guilt. =(


@junipero: I laughed out loud at most of your post. My wife was so annoyed by the religious gifts that her response was "Lets get them a subscription to Penthouse."
posted by JFitzpatrick at 11:22 AM on January 1, 2009


You should shrug it off.

If it makes you feel any better or gives you a better perspective - my mother is absolutely convinced that I pretend to be an atheist to piss her off and make her look like a bad mother. She does not in any way shape or form actually grasp that I believe the things I do for my own reasons. The punch-line: she was not religious until after I left home!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:10 PM on January 1, 2009


I generally think it's unwise to get too upset over a gift. They have a belief system that is extremely important to them, and they may believe it is their Christian duty to share it. Or maybe they're self-righteous assholes. If they gave you a gift of country - western music cds - some singer they just looooove, knowing you really hate C&W, that's sort of jerk-ish, but you wouldn't be as upset. Throw the Christian crap away, or give it to the Salvation Army. Fighting over religion causes disharmony, even up to war. Don't be part of that.

Don't overprotect your kids from religious messages. Instead, make sure they have a good education in your values, expose them to lots of facts, like science and history, and allow them to make their own choice.

It's hard to have a nice relationship with people who want to change you, and don't respect your choices, but don't behave that way towards them.
posted by theora55 at 12:22 PM on January 1, 2009


To me the gift symbolizes how my inlaws are willing to reject a good relationship with my family to be "right" and try to preach to us. With out sounding completely conceited... we're the best shot at a fun normal family they have [snip] So rather than accept that we simply don't believe in the sky wizards they believe in... and continue to have a fun and enjoyable relationship with us... they increasingly make it about their religion and put up a wall between us. They tell us that they pray for us because we aren't raising our daughter to know Jesus... [snip] So I more sigh knowing that they are tossing away a perfectly good family relationship over their silly beliefs.

For context, I was raised evangelical, got really fundamentalist, and now I'm atheist.

You need to realise that these 'silly beliefs' are real to those people. Hell? Real. Speaking in tongues? Proof. And beautiful proof, at that. You guys? Great people in great danger. They're not faking it, they're not choosing it, it is REAL to them. It's just as hard for them to pretend it's not real as it is for you to pretend it is real.

So think, what would you do if it was real? Maybe an analogy. The few members of your family that are fun and normal are addicted to drugs. Or alcohol. You care about them. You can't let this go, because this is going to kill them, and it's certainly going to damage their child. It hurts you to think about where their behaviour will lead to. Maybe if you could just talk some sense in them... just make them see what's happening. And they keep suggesting that you should back off! Leave them to their addictions, that it's their choice. But it just makes your heart hurt every time you see it, every time you think about where that path leads.

This is the situation they're in. Different people would react different ways, but you need to respect that this is not a silly game for them, this is not them just trying to piss you off. This is them trying to throw you a lifeline, because in their reality, you absolutely need one. And yes, they're willing to sacrifice their good relationship with you to throw you that lifeline.

I've gotten in the habit of saying to my concerned fundamentalist family members and friends, "Thank you for your concern, I understand why you are upset, but I really don't think we can talk about this. This conversation always turns into a fight, and I don't want to fight with you, because you are my family and I love you. I hear you, I really do." What's an annoyance for me is heart-breaking for them, so I have to respect the difficult situation they're in.
posted by heatherann at 3:35 PM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


availablelight: more than one story of a Hindu or Catholic girl asked to kneel and accept Jesus as their personal savior at a sleepover when they were outnumbered by the well-meaning Baptist girls

You just gave me a flashback to a sleepover at age 12 or so with two friends who insisted that I accept Jesus as my personal saviour. (Urban Western Canada, for the record, and my family didn't go to church but I was brought up with a touch more exposure to UCC viewpoints than those of other denominations or faiths, though nothing dogmatic.) When they finally figured out that "No" really meant "No," they asked me to, instead of saying "No," say "I'm not ready for Him yet."

Which I eventually did to get them to stop badgering me, but I was on the verge of tears because it was a lie, the "ready" and the "yet," the presumption that I was just too immature to accept Jesus now and it was just a matter of time until I came to my senses and joined the ranks of people who, in effect, bully, because they think their God wants them to, and that thought repulsed me. I didn't have the vocabulary to express all that, though.

As to answering the question, your reaction is not irrational and your dealings with them in general sound well grounded. Best of luck in teaching your daughter about thinking for herself and coming to her own decisions (and being able to defend them, if necessary, with calm assurance and the delight that comes from logic click-click-clicking into place).
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:44 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm a super chill guy and a super chill atheist... but in defense of atheists... It's really hard not to come off as condescending when someone is aggressively in your face and arguing about the existence of intangible and unknowable beings who are controlling the universe. It's like standing there while a kid kicks you in the shin and screams that Santa is real.

It's really quite striking just how disconcerting and irritating it can be to find predictable people behaving perfectly predictably. How can these people not see the walking clichés that they have allowed themselves to become?

The trick to dealing with this is whole-hearted and completely guilt-free acceptance of the strategic advantage their predictability gives you in any conflict you might later find yourself embroiled in. Learn to take the candy from those babies without hesitation or shame.

Keeping your perfectly reasonable condescension to yourself is of course the tactically sound option.

I think she and I are in agreement that my inlaws religious fixation does more to harm them than help them and she's had it up to here with their preaching

I think you'll probably find that your inlaws are in agreement that the way you've corrupted your wife and children with your wilful and pernicious atheism does more to harm them than help them and they've had it up to here with your sinful pride.

As non-believers, you and she both have the luxury of being free to snicker patronizingly behind the backs of the deluded. Your rellies have no such recourse, since mockery of the unsaved is sinful. Merciless exercise of this luxury will of course make both of you feel much less irritated and do them no harm at all.

Pick your battles, bide your time, and stand ready to give succour and support to any of your rellies who show signs of wanting to escape from happy clappy land. Until and unless they do, there is nothing you can or should do about their religious beliefs.

defend them, if necessary, with calm assurance and the delight that comes from logic click-click-clicking into place

Atheists don't have exclusive possession of logic, and although it's lovely to feel pleased with ourselves for our ability to mount a logically sound argument, this is a purely self-indulgent pleasure and can become counter-productive if taken to excess.

Logic is a reliable system for deriving conclusions from premises. My disagreement with people whose world-view includes a conscious, beneficent God susceptible to entreaty by prayer is a disagreement about fundamental premises*, not conclusions, and no amount of logic from either side is much help in shifting the other. All logic can hope to achieve is to undermine the rationalizations that theists and atheists both erect in an attempt to defend their a-priori assumptions.

Very few people are prepared to admit that the real reason they believe in their God is because they were indoctrinated into that belief as children. I count myself very lucky to be among those not so indoctrinated. I am sure that many other people count themselves equally lucky to have been born into their own faith tradition.

It seems to me that as long as other people's delusions manifest in ways that are harmless, there's no point launching into a quixotic campaign to tear them down. And I'd personally file the giving of tacky religious gifts during a tacky religious festival under "eye-rollingly predictable and mostly harmless".

*Just to be perfectly clear about what those premises are: mine go something like "it's unwise to assume the existence of entities for which no reliable evidence has been produced, and it's unwise to lump all the things I don't understand together as effects of a common though ill-defined cause" while the religious one goes something like "there is no god but ${god}, and ${entity} is ${his} ${message}". Neither of these premises is better supported by logic than the other.
posted by flabdablet at 6:49 PM on January 1, 2009


I mostly agree with torticat, dw, and the others who had similar opinions. And perhaps might take juliplease's approach with regards to your daughter--or wait and see if I got a repeat next year, and then do so.

Probably your interpretation of the events is correct, in which case I too would be very irritated. But, when you described the book they gave you, I wondered if there is any possibility that they were genuinely trying to build bridges. Say they know little to nothing of Eastern thought, and they know there is a religious divide between your families. Maybe they saw the cover, flipped through it, thought the content described a guy into Eastern thought coming to understand (they would probably see conversion as understanding) Christianity, and thought, "Hey, maybe this book will help JFitzpatrick understand why we're so attached to these beliefs"?

Depending on the other books they gave your family, maybe you can immediately rule this out. I'm just throwing it out there, that maybe they are trying to connect with you.

I think, living where you are living, you probably feel as if you are under a constant barrage of beliefs opposed to yours, always having to stand your ground against them. And there probably are a lot of aggressive people who are angry about what you stand for or believe. On the other hand, some people who make comments or give you gifts probably genuinely do care for you and/or want you to be well and happy, but do so through a religion filter that's transparent and second nature to them, but offensive to you. It might be harder to recognize those instances because of the offensiveness, which they may not be aware of in the least.
posted by Herkimer at 6:58 PM on January 1, 2009


I hear you. I get how much thought you put into their gifts -- I do the same thing. The thing, though, is that they thought they were doing the very same thing with those gifts for you. I know that you interpreted it as "all about them," but they honestly think it was best for you. What's going on is not a matter of them having selected slipshod gifts, the problem is the deeper disconnect you each have with religous opinion. Because I'm sure you've had other people who have given you crap gifts, and you didn't react this way.

This is not to say that you aren't justified in being irritated; I just think it's important to consider whether you are more irritated about the religious issue, or the "thought-put-into-gift inequity". I think they're two different things, and unfortunately, there ain't much you can do about either one, to my mind. If you tried to tell them something to counter the religious issue, they may interpret that as all the more reason to step up their efforts to convert you -- you know, "oh mercy, is that what he really thinks? Oh, he's really far gone, we need to help him!" Changing their opinions may only be something that gets done through example (your continuing to have a perfectly normal life and continuing to seem pretty content, despite your atheism, may eventually cause them to wonder if maybe there's something to that), but arguing is probably not going to work.

That leaves you with the gift-thought-inequity -- which, again, they may not agree that they DIDN'T think about you. But even if they did get slipshod on the gift -- well, we all have cases where people really kind of do a crap job of thinking what kind of gift to give us, and there isn't always anything you can do about that. I have some relatives that are just awful at picking out gifts, but if I took them aside about it, I'd make them feel terrible and it wouldn't be worth it.

Mind, what they give your child is a different thing, and I think you are indeed justified in asking them to respect your rights as parents and giving you the opportunity to preview things first -- you could say that "you want to make sure there's nothing that scares her" or something vague like that. Hell, that could mean she gets nightmares easy or something.

But otherwise, I think trying to talk to them about this would be a Phyrric victory at best.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:59 PM on January 1, 2009


Atheists don't have exclusive possession of logic

Sorry, I realized after posting how superior-than-thou that sounded. I am not myself atheist, and that remark wasn't intended to imply that I think believers are inevitably logic-impaired. It was an expression of regret for not having had those analytical tools at my disposal as early as would have been useful.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 7:19 PM on January 1, 2009


I grew up outside of any religion, in a pretty easy-going Christian town. I definitely spent a lot of time investigating the beliefs of the kind and good people around me, before coming back to essentially the place my parents initially stood on the matter.

What I think a lot of evangelists can't understand is that there are folks who have read the Bible and understand Christianity, but nevertheless choose another path. They seem to believe that if they could only get you to read what they've read, you will reach the same conclusion. When I was in high school, I'd often be asked to play in holiday concerts at my friends' churches, and there was inevitably a sweet old lady who, upon hearing I didn't attend a church, asked me if I knew what the Bible was.

Since they really do think they're trying to do you the Ultimate Favor, it's a delicate situation to let them know that they're hurting their cause more than helping it. I do think, though, that it's important to let them know that their actions are causing you guys some grief. I made you a Shitty First Draft of what kind of response I'd give them. Hope it's not too obnoxious.

“I thought about not bringing this up at all, because I worried that I might make you feel as though we were angry with you. We're not upset at the moment, but I wanted to talk with you about this, since I think your gifts are bringing the opposite of what you had intended. You know we are not Christians, and I hope it's equally clear that we respect your beliefs. When you give us books and materials with a Christian theme, we understand that you mean it as an act of love. I need to be clear, though, that our choice of religion is not motivated by ignorance of Christianity. We understand how it works and what it means to people; we simply do not subscribe to the same ideas.

I understand that you're worried about my daughter, and I'm thankful there are people around who care so much about her. Her choice of religion will be hers, however, and gifts involving Christianity make us very uncomfortable. Again, this is not because she is ignorant of Christianity and won't develop an even greater understanding as she grows up. We have not kept anything from her, and don't plan to do so. We are uncomfortable because such gifts carry with them the implication that the way in which we live our lives is wrong. We know our daughter to be already a thoughtful, gracious, and friendly kid, and hope you would agree. It is very meaningful to us that you care enough to want her to experience the same positive gains you attribute to Christianity. It's simply not our path, which we have chosen with great care. When you continue to prosthelytize to our family, we feel unheard, disrespected, and frustrated. If you give us more gifts in this vein, we will politely return them to you so that the gifts can be given instead to those who will find solace in them.

I guess what I'm trying to tell you is that we respect your choice of religion and join you in celebrating the good things it brings to your life. We wish only that you would respect our choice in the same way. Thank you for thinking of us this holiday season, and it was great to see you.”
posted by lauranesson at 9:30 AM on January 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


lauranesson: I do tend to be of the opinion that one should pick one's battles with this sort of thing, but -- that was really gracefully phrased. Kudos.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:41 AM on January 2, 2009


I read this question yesterday, and today my daughter (age 5) received a very religious Christmas gift. Yes, we're atheists, and rather up-front about it. The gift-giver is my daughter's six-year-old friend, and her father is a chaplain in the Army (a violation of church and state that irritates me to no end). He and his wife (and the wife's parents, our next-door-neighbors) are the kindest, most generous and gentle people, and although we come from very different lifestyles, we genuinely like these people. So none of the really mean suggestions on this thread (as amusing as they are) are appropriate for this situation.

Still, it has given me the opportunity to think about why this irritates me so much.

One main issue is that I believe that they would not have sent her a very Christian gift if we were practicing Jews. I believe that fundamentalists see atheists as having a religion-shaped hole in their lives, and try to be the first to fill up that hole. Others in this thread have suggested this as well. The notion that we have explicitly chosen this path, and that it's the right one for us, does not seem to be on the radar.

Another issue, of course, is the clear insinuation that I am a failure as a mother because I have not raised my child to believe in the things that their child believes in, and they therefore must step in. Buying my child a toy does not carry the same message, because a child can have many toys. Trying to change our daughter's entire fundamental belief system is not simply a thoughtless gift -- it's an insult to our way of being and raising a child.

And third, it seems like an invitation for conflict. Why would these people invite conflict with us? Are they passively-aggressively seeking to needle us? To get us to bring up the subject so they can try to convert us? Because they find us flawed and don't really care if we're hurt or angry or annoyed? Why do this? I realize that everything they stake their lives in -- religion, the military, politics -- goes against who I am, so I steer away from those subjects and stick to the areas we agree. Why are these "kind, generous and gentle people" poking at us?

It is counterproductive. It does cause me to see them as less kind, generous, and gentle. I was in no danger of becoming Christian (or any religion) before, but I must confess that when choosing between donating to Habitat for Humanity (whose work I greatly admire) and the ACLU, this interaction tips the scales for the organization that protects freedom from religion.

So, JFitzpatrick, to answer your question, I believe that your irritation (and your wife's anger) are not unfounded. Your relatives are insulting your intelligence and your intentional choice of atheism by trying to fill up that religion-shaped hole; they are insulting your parenting by trying to fix your daughter; and they are trying to knock a chip off your shoulder and start a(nother) fight. How you can have them over to your home, time and time again, is beyond me. You have the patience, of, um, Job?
posted by Capri at 10:39 PM on January 2, 2009


I believe that fundamentalists see atheists as having a religion-shaped hole in their lives, and try to be the first to fill up that hole. Others in this thread have suggested this as well. The notion that we have explicitly chosen this path, and that it's the right one for us, does not seem to be on the radar.

So far you're doing fine.

Why would these people invite conflict with us?

Because, by their lights, that's not what they're seeking to do. By their lights, they're just trying to fill up that religion-shaped hole you mentioned, for which they themselves can find no plausible explanation other than ignorance of their beloved deity.

Are they passively-aggressively seeking to needle us?

No. They genuinely don't grasp that it is possible to have a full, rounded, satisfying and morally competent life without fearing a loving God.

To get us to bring up the subject so they can try to convert us?

Possibly.

Because they find us flawed...

Not so much flawed as lost, perhaps.

...and don't really care if we're hurt or angry or annoyed?

I'm tipping that they will have no clue at all why anybody should perceive the "Good News" as hurtful or annoying. From their point of view, it's the wellspring of all that's wonderful, and they're driven to share it.

Why do this?

Because they care about you; because they have been brought up to think of atheists as people who are "not ready for Jesus" rather than people who, having given the matter careful thought, find religious dogma to be a crock; and because it pains them to think of lovely people like you going Straight to Hell when you die.

I realize that everything they stake their lives in -- religion, the military, politics -- goes against who I am, so I steer away from those subjects and stick to the areas we agree.

Perhaps you might re-think that policy. Hiding your differences from them makes it much harder for them to behave appropriately toward you.

Why are these "kind, generous and gentle people" poking at us?

Because they think it's the right thing to do.

Don't mirror their failure of empathy. Doing so will only make you cross.

Rather, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
posted by flabdablet at 2:20 AM on January 4, 2009


Not for nothin', but you could just bust out a bible and start reading from "The Song of Solomon" at the dinner table. That's another option, to rock their status quo, if nothing else.
posted by evil holiday magic at 5:38 AM on January 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


her father is a chaplain in the Army (a violation of church and state that irritates me to no end)

It is not a violation of church and state. The chaplains in the military are there to fill the religious needs of the the service members who may not be in a position to get them due to location or duty constraints. And they have other duties which include serving members of any religion, or no religion.
posted by txvtchick at 10:18 AM on January 7, 2009


This is passive-aggressive missionary work whether they realize it or not. Send them a Flying Spaghetti Monster T-shirt or a Darwin fish and they might get your point.
posted by teg4rvn at 11:02 AM on January 7, 2009


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