Respecting religious differences in emotionally charged conversations?
April 9, 2016 10:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm an atheist. I don't wear this fact on my sleeve. Most of the time, I actively avoid religion as a conversational topic. There are some conversations, however, where you can't duck the topic, because you're providing support to someone who has experienced a personal tragedy, such as the death of a loved one, and in the course of that conversation, they will invoke their religious beliefs. The question I am posing is: how can I provide emotional support and maintain proper boundaries while respecting their beliefs and my own as well?
posted by the hot hot side of randy to Human Relations (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you are providing support for someone, then the first priority is to be supportive. You don't need to agree with them but it would be inappropriate to contradict their beliefs in this context. The best response is "That thought must a comfort to you." or even "That must be a comfort to you." If this is making you uncomfortable, then I would try to steer the conversation back to safer territory - like "What can I do to support you?"
posted by metahawk at 11:03 AM on April 9, 2016 [16 favorites]


Respecting difference to me (an atheist) in these situations means that if it's them who is grieving you shut up and let them and their family/friends grieve however works for them. If it's you who is grieving and they say "Well at least now your hedgehog is with jesus" you say "Thanks" or you say "Thanks but I don't find that image comforting." If they're not threatening your beliefs but just reflecting their own, the way to be respectful in these situations is to shut up, usually. But that's a larger manners/etiquette issue and not specifically about religion. Your role as a polite person is to try to help other people be comfortable.

I assume you've thought about this long enough that you know ways to be secularly comforting about these topics in a general sense. So you say "I am sorry for your loss" and "Let me know if there is something that I can do to help" and if there is a service in a church for the deceased you make a choice about that which is based in the priority which is in line with the priority that atheism holds in your life relative to the other aspects of your life vis a vis community/family/other things. And you can even go ta church but not sing the "I LOVE TO BE WITH JESUS" songs or whatever it is and if people give you a hard time about that, that is sort of on them.

I dealt with a lot of "Happy Easter" wishes over the last weeks and it always bugs me as a secular atheist Jew. That said, most of these people are trying to be kind and not start a fight with me so if I decide to make it a fight, as opposed to "Thanks but I don't celebrate. How was your Easter?" I am the one who is starting a fight. Not saying it's always the right move, but that it's worth understanding the dynamic.

There is a time and a place for mild and less-mild corrections about the way the world works and how there is room for people of faith and secular people. I'll usually take this up with people in positions of power (teachers, cops, people who works for the government) and leave it alone with other people.
posted by jessamyn at 11:05 AM on April 9, 2016 [27 favorites]


What metahawk said. If they're asking direct questions, you can also deflect, or respond to the emotional content and not the religious content:

"Do you think I'll see him in heaven again?"
"I'm not sure. What do you believe?"

"Why would God do this?"
"I don't know. It doesn't seem fair."
posted by lazuli at 11:06 AM on April 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


You can acknowledge a person's beliefs without subscribing to them. Often people, and especially people who are going through stuff, just need a friendly ear. Let them talk. If they ask you questions predicated on religious belief, it's fine to admit that you're not a religious person and that maybe you're not the best person to answer it, and to ask if they've talked with their priest/pastor/rabbi/etc. about it? People are people and coping mechanisms, whether religious or otherwise, tend to have much in common. The odds are that someone looking for answers as to why awful things have happened from a religious standpoint isn't really looking for an argument.

Part of respecting your own beliefs is not assuming that you have to defend them; your beliefs, if they're worth having, should stand on their own. Supporting someone whose spiritual path is different from yours is only a problem if you feel the need to defend your atheism against their faith.
posted by pipeski at 11:07 AM on April 9, 2016 [10 favorites]


I asked a similar question with some good answers that might be of value to you -- How can I politely rebut "Everything happens for a reason"?
posted by tatiana wishbone at 11:08 AM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


In a supportive situation, honestly who cares what you think. This isn't "my non god is better than your god."

When my mom is upset I suggest to her that she prays to Jesus because I know this is something that makes her happy. Much like how I would tell my sporty friends to go for a run.

The boundaries here exist in your own head - you know exactly what you think and believe and that is more than enough.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2016 [22 favorites]


I'm an atheist as well, and when it comes to talking with a religious person who is grieving, I neither argue with or affirm their beliefs where they depart from mine. If they say, "I know I'll see so-and-so again in heaven some day," or "God knows best", I say nothing at all, because no good will come of it. I instead focus on engaging with them on the kind of matters that we can agree on. If they take comfort in remembering good things about the person, I can be there for that. If they're trying to make peace with unfinished emotional matters between them and the person they lost, I can perhaps be helpful in that way. I can encourage them to take up the threads of daily life again, with its routines and pleasures. There have been three deaths in my quite religious family in the last five years, and despite our widely divergent beliefs we all experienced grief in much the same way, so I stay safely on that common ground and it hasn't been an issue except for some secret, momentary wincing on my part.
posted by orange swan at 11:12 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm also an atheist, but there's a time and place. When a friend's loved one has died, and they are religious, I'd say my own beliefs aren't relevant in that conversation. Just as my similar tragedy from five years ago does not need a massive airing at that moment, even though it might very well come up for me.

It takes nothing from you to listen and affirm and comfort a person who draws on religious beliefs in their time of suffering.

I have been in the reverse situation, where religion was brought into a funeral service despite this not being a belief of the family ... at first I was annoyed on a family member's behalf, but he just smiled and accepted it all as love offered by people who cared. So mindful of what I've said above, I add that if you have non-religious comforts to offer--a favourite poem about loss that has helped you, for example--then these would probably be appreciated (as long as it's not a treatise against their faith and how it can't address loss).
posted by chapps at 11:27 AM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


When my friends' mother passed, I took great comfort in the fact that they believed she had "served God's purpose for her on Earth and was brought to be with Him." I did not believe this personally, but knowing that they were able to see purpose in her life and death -- despite how devastated they were -- was a beautiful thing. So when you're providing someone comfort, think about how their beliefs may be bringing them comfort.

Tangentially, I was raised in a non-Western religion and always felt super outsider and weird because of it. I no longer practice the religion of my youth, and am exploring Christianity (my bf's religion). But part of growing up in an outsider religion was learning that it's often more important that people believe something than believing nothing, because having purpose (even if false purpose to another purpose) can make the difference between misery and happiness in this rat race of existence. And in the end, someone's going to be right and a whole lot of people are going to be wrong, and it might not matter anyhow because we may or may not get to find out what that right thing is.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:37 AM on April 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


The consensus seems to be "If they experienced a personal tragedy, it is not about you. Do what you can that is still honest to support them" But that is making me wonder why that wasn't already obvious to you. I assume you are caring person so I was wondering why that would be hard. I'm thinking maybe it is because you feel so invisible in your own minority beliefs that this stuff really feels like something you need to stand up to. So my second suggestion (see above for the my first answer) is that you try to find more way to be visible in your atheism. (Not with those people at that moment but rather in other parts of your life when it is more appropriate.)

I spend a lot of time hanging out with people are either very new-agey or who believe in a very active personal God. Sometime when they say "God found me a parking space" I will ask some questions about what that means to them and then say "That's interesting, I have a very different view of how the world works." If they are open to having a conversation and being curious about me, it can very satisfying. If not, then I know that friendship is going to be limited. Another time I was on a retreat where people were offering lots of ritual to share (not the organizers) and I finally said "Let me offer my own 'prayer"" and got up to say something that was in the mood but completely consistent with my own beliefs. It was such a relief - they didn't get it but it made be feel like I was showing up as someone who didn't just automatically go along with their stuff. I have no idea what your version of this might look like but it might feel good to try to find some place times and places where you can be openly (but not aggressively) atheist.
posted by metahawk at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


My approach is to remember that it doesn't matter what I think. A few weeks ago, I was talking to someone I don't know super-well who has been having some struggles, and she mentioned that she's a Christian and has really appreciated her church's support, and I just said that I was really glad that she had that in her life, because I am. Why would she care that I don't believe the things she does? There's no need for me to interject myself, and I certainly don't have any interest in converting her or anything. She's found something that works for her, and it's not hurting anyone as far as I know, so who am I to tell her she's wrong?

Now, if someone is trying to impose their beliefs on me, either by offering religious platitudes about something, or telling me what they think I should or shouldn't do, that's a bit different. In benign cases like someone telling me Jesus has got my back or whatever, I'll just say, "I'm not religious, but thank you."

If they're being buttheads about it, then I allow myself to be proportionately buttheaded back at them.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:50 AM on April 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


When my mom died I had to bite my lip during several conversations in which people expressed the notion that she's in a better place now, etc. But that's not quite as difficult as being in a conversation where you feel that kind of sentiment is being evoked by the nature of the situation, but you simply can't bring it out with any sincerity. Depending on the level of the friendship it might even be acceptable to say something like “Well, you know I can't go with you there, but you have my sympathy.”
posted by zadcat at 11:55 AM on April 9, 2016


It's absolutely inappropriate to seek affirmation for your belief system when your actions are intended to support someone who is grieving. Full stop.
posted by stormyteal at 12:09 PM on April 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


I was in the hospital for a few days once, with "atheist" listed on my patient sheet. At one point a nun walked in and after a brief how-are-you-doing conversation, said that she saw I was an atheist but that she wanted me to know she would pray for me anyway. Jeez, don't call attention to our religious differences, making me thank you for something you *know* isn't what I want, while I'm busy lying around here swimming in my stink and fretting about my organs, and maybe needing some support that I wouldn't think of as "prayer". If she'd just said she was checking in and hoped I felt better, and was there if I wanted to talk, it would have been a much nicer gesture.

So, what I'm saying is, it's kindest to talk to them in a way that draws on your common beliefs and doesn't draw attention to differences. I like some of the suggestions above for deflecting talk about god without explicitly disagreeing.
posted by xris at 12:17 PM on April 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


It's absolutely inappropriate to seek affirmation for your belief system when your actions are intended to support someone who is grieving. Full stop.

Agreed, when someone is grieving, it stops being about you.
posted by Toddles at 12:31 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am what I suppose could be labeled a spiritual atheist. I don't believe in the existence of God, but I do believe in the personal value of religious ritual and structure to humanity over the course of its existence and on an individual basis in my own life and the lives of others.

It is entirely possible to be an atheist and still go through many of the motions of religious tradition, completely without disrespecting either party. If people ask you to pray for their loved ones, you can say "I will keep them in my thoughts" and mean it. If people ask you to come to a synagogue or mosque and you need to wear a head covering, do it, because to you a silly hat is just a silly hat.

Now, if someone is pressuring you to tell their toddler about how their dead hamster is with Jesus now or something, you can say "I'm not comfortable with that" and change the subject. But for the most part, religious structure around death and illness is there for an underlying non-godly reason. It's to help people process and unpack their grief in a way that enables them to retain functionality.

So you can help by taking up the slack. Feed the mourners. Do something in the memory of a dead loved one that they would have really enjoyed and tell the grieving people all about it. Provide a safe, calm space for them to be quiet and sad in where nobody is going to judge but you are there to make sure they stay hydrated and can get home okay.

When someone is grieving it will go unremarked when you are slow to respond to a statement. Use that time to figure out the underlying need in their religious statement. Do that instead. It gets easier with practice.
posted by Mizu at 12:48 PM on April 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


Is this hypothetical, or something you're experiencing? If this is happening now I cringe at the idea of you "standing up" for atheism in the face of a suffering person who has turned to you. Respectfully listening to the beliefs of your suffering friend is the right thing to do in the situation you describe. Listening noncombatively to different beliefs is not the same thing as espousing them, here.

I guess I'm not sure what you mean by "respecting" your own beliefs. Your friend isn't persecuting you. Merely being in the presence of different beliefs without asserting your own should not chip away at your own convictions if they are strong enough. (I am often in a similar dynamic. It may chip away at my patience but not in my beliefs.)

If your goal is to ease their suffering, then you should be happy and even vocally supportive if they have beliefs that comfort them. If your goal is to evangelize for atheism at inappropriate times, then you need to check yourself because that's a quality of the most zealous religious folk that, as an atheist, it seems you'd want to reject.
posted by kapers at 1:02 PM on April 9, 2016


If your goal is to evangelize for atheism at inappropriate times, then you need to check yourself because that's a quality of the most zealous religious folk that, as an atheist, it seems you'd want to reject.

That is not my goal at all, even though the admittedly sparse language of my original post does leave an opening for people to make that sort of interpretation.

Proselytizing is not my goal here. Not one bit. What I'm interested in is more along the lines of xris' reference above to "deflecting talk about god without explicitly disagreeing."
posted by the hot hot side of randy at 1:20 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


It is entirely possible to be an atheist and still go through many of the motions of religious tradition, completely without disrespecting either party. If people ask you to pray for their loved ones, you can say "I will keep them in my thoughts" and mean it. If people ask you to come to a synagogue or mosque and you need to wear a head covering, do it, because to you a silly hat is just a silly hat.

This is outside of my comfort zone.
posted by the hot hot side of randy at 1:28 PM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


One thing I've realized we can all agree on is that the deceased is "no longer suffering" and/or "at peace now". Those are my stock phrases for both redirecting well-intentioned religious/spiritual platitudes offered to me, and bulking out "I'm so sorry for your loss" when everyone else is talking about prayers and so on.

A situation I have been specially struggling with is my father's death, which my mother likes to discuss in religious terms I completely do not identify with. That she doesn't respect my need to grieve in my own way doesn't mean, I don't think, that I should completely trample over hers, but I do make a lot of non-committal noises and try to redirect conversations before they become upsetting. Talking about funny memories is usually a good gambit, as is looking at photos old enough that she really has to think to remember what was going on and then spend a bunch of time explaining that context to me.
posted by teremala at 1:45 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


What I'm interested in is more along the lines of xris' reference above to "deflecting talk about god without explicitly disagreeing."

Sympathetic non-word vocalizations will get you pretty far.
posted by lazuli at 1:57 PM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Sympathetic non-word vocalizations will get you pretty far.

They really will. I've had long conversations with people where I've just 'hmm'ed, with the occasional 'mm-hmm', and said not a single English word. You'd be surprised how often I've then been told I'm a good listener. And I'm really not.
posted by pipeski at 2:32 PM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Sometimes a kind lie is better than a harsh truth. There are times to be right & times to do right. You get to decide what sort of person you want to be here right or kind. Remembering that you are not helping the atheist cause any by trampling over peoples feelings, letting them see an avowed atheist can still be kind & respectful of other peoples beliefs will do more for you & the points you want to prove than any other action. It might also open them up to conversations on the matter at a more appropriate time instead of causing them to shut down & refuse to talk to you about it ever because you hurt them when they just needed support.

This is a situation where you politely nod, pat someones hand, say things like "I'm sure that means a lot to you", & hmmmhmmming sympathetically.
posted by wwax at 2:57 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Google "comfort in, dump out". It's the idea that your needs/beliefs etc don't matter when dealing with anyone closer to the crisis or grief than you. You only provide support and comfort IN. If you want to b*tch and moan about how hard it is to be an atheist in this situation, you dump that outwards only, i.e. to people further from the crisis than you are, e.g. metafilter strangers. People closer to the crisis get to say whatever they like and get nothing but support from people further out.
posted by Stephanie_Says at 3:24 PM on April 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sympathetic non-word vocalizations will get you pretty far.

This is true. Also touch - a hug, a pat on the shoulder - depending on the relationship of course.
posted by bunderful at 5:24 PM on April 9, 2016


In the specific case of not participating in the performance of a religious ritual that's part of the general goings-on, I believe that it is completely acceptable to say that you're not comfortable participating, but you really don't need to go into detailed reasons or anything like that ("it's a personal matter" or the Miss-Manners-approved "That won't be possible" are magic words here, IMHO). If they press, remain firm, but as others have noted, this isn't about you, so don't make it about you when you defend your decision. You can say "no" without feeling obligated to offer an explanation. I'd personally try to deflect the conversation into a direction focused on them and being empathetic to their grief, after the refusal. I feel like the likelihood of them pressing the matter is likely to be small, in any case.
posted by Aleyn at 5:50 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Google "comfort in, dump out". It's the idea that your needs/beliefs etc don't matter when dealing with anyone closer to the crisis or grief than you. You only provide support and comfort IN. If you want to b*tch and moan about how hard it is to be an atheist in this situation, you dump that outwards only, i.e. to people further from the crisis than you are, e.g. metafilter strangers. People closer to the crisis get to say whatever they like and get nothing but support from people further out.

This is true to a point. Grieving people don't get to be abusive to others without consequence (rude, sure, but not abusive), and grieving people don't get to insist other people do things that seriously contradict their beliefs (ask, sure, but not insist). It's hard to know exactly what you have in mind, the hot hot side of randy. If someone asks you to do something you're not comfortable with (e.g., pray, attend church) you can politely decline and offer to do something similar but non-religious, if you're comfortable with it (e.g., "I don't pray, but he'll be in my thoughts" (you can even leave off the "I don't pray" part), "I won't be able to make it, but I'll be thinking of you"). If someone just says something with which you disagree, however, it's best to be polite and noncommittal.
posted by lazuli at 6:11 PM on April 9, 2016


I am an atheist. If ever there was a time for little white lies, this is it. This is *not* the time to take a stand. I just go along with whatever they say as if I agree with it. You are not, after all, going to burn in hell for pretending to believe in God - but you may be able to help someone who's grieving feel a little bit better.

It will make no difference to anyone in the world, except the person you are comforting.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:32 PM on April 9, 2016


"You'll be in my thoughts" is my fallback, along with the sympathetic non-word vocalizations.
posted by languagehat at 2:01 PM on April 10, 2016


This is outside of my comfort zone.

I want to say this as gently as possible: when someone else is in the midst of grief, your comfort zone is not really relevant.

No one is asking you to fake a religion, or to recite Psalms by heart, or to make a donation to a religious organization in these moments. They are asking you to be with them.

To be honest, attending any funeral is outside of 99% of humanity's comfort zone. But we don't go to funerals to be comfortable. We attend them to stand as a community of love and support for the people who are grieving for a loved one. Attending a funeral in a house of worship does not mean "I endorse every belief and societal action of this institution and its adherents". It means being present, while someone you love is suffering.

My mother's funeral was in a church. People came who I know are actively hostile to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. But they also knew my mother's faith was an essential part of who she was, and they swallowed their objections for 1.5 hours, so that my father and I were surrounded by a mass of people who loved us and wanted to show us we were not alone. In the new absence of my mother, their presence was literal and symbolic. She no longer breathed, but they came and hugged me close and breathed into my shoulder. They showed up as a group of living humans to say: you are not alone. We honor her life by continuing to walk with you. Here is food, and drink, and a gentle hand.

You don't have to go up to the altar call, or listen to the sermon, or pay to light a candle, or sing the hymns, or respect one single aspect of the entire institution. But I will tell you that being there matters. People showing up matters. I was deeply, desperately grateful to the people who came despite my factual knowledge that being inside a church was distasteful to them.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:42 AM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is outside of my comfort zone.

I believe there is some sort of intelligence behind the workings of the universe (aka "god"). My oldest son does not. He and I have lively discussions about our different points of view. We both respect the other's right to believe what they believe.

In part based on that, my impression is you have gotten insufficient support, validation or respect for your views. There seems to be a general bias in the world that atheists do not merit the same level of respect for their beliefs as folks who ascribe to a religion.

So, I will suggest you seek out some kind of support system or perhaps therapy. It sounds to me like this is a sore spot for you and it gets rubbed raw easily and situations of grief are particularly problematic because you feel completely dismissed and invalidated. Perhaps if you work on your baggage about this, these situations will feel less burdensome and that will make it easier to just make polite noises and not feel like there is serious friction here that needs to be addressed.

I also wonder why (or if) you might be required or expected to attend services. You might think about that. I have arranged my life where there is little of that sort of expectation on me. Perhaps you could do the same if it bothers you that much.
posted by Michele in California at 12:36 PM on April 11, 2016


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