What do you do when a family member tells you they’re an atheist?
Kevin Davis, founder and blogger at DividedUnderGod.com, has written a new book that he hopes will help religious people who are struggling to relate to an atheist in their family — Understanding an Atheist: A Practical Guide to Relating to Nonbelievers.
Below, Davis tells me about what inspired him to write this book, offers his advice to both atheists and theists trying to relate to family members with different beliefs, and shares how being a father has impacted his passion for building understanding between people with different views.
Chris Stedman: Understanding an Atheist seeks to help religious people understand atheist family members. What inspired you to write it?
Kevin Davis: I was raised Catholic and am surrounded by Christian family and friends. I’ve been an atheist for over 15 years and have often felt out of place. Over time I’ve realized that many of the religious people in my life are uncomfortable addressing my atheism.
There’s this unspoken rule that we don’t discuss religious differences. If we can’t talk about things that are as important as the meaning of life, how we came to be, and how we should live our lives, then do we really know the people who are most important to us? If we avoid talking about our differences, there will always be a distance between us. If we love our family and friends, we should make every effort to understand what’s important to them and what motivates them to live their lives a certain way—whether we agree with their philosophies or not.
CS: What do you think is the single biggest issue that makes it hard for theists to understand atheists and vice versa?
KD: I think it all stems from this notion that religious differences shouldn’t be discussed. And in a society full of believers, being a nonbeliever has become stigmatized—which is why so many atheists continue attending religious services with their families just so they don’t upset their loved ones by being honest about their beliefs. But if we’re able to discard this stigma and remove religion from the list of topics that are taboo, we can start to address our fundamental philosophical differences and bridge the religious divide.
CS: What advice would you give to religious people who are having a difficult time understanding an atheist relative?
KD: It’s really simple. Talk to them. Ask questions. Get to know them in a way that you don’t already. You may know your relative is an atheist, but what do you know about that? Do you know what life is like as an atheist? Do you know what struggles they face, what prejudices they encounter, and why they don’t believe? The purpose of Understanding an Atheist is to help get those conversations started. In the book, I attempt to answer some of the questions believers might have about atheists but aren’t comfortable asking. Hopefully it will serve as a precursor to sitting down with atheist loved ones, and will give some frame of reference or background about what it’s like to live a life without religion.
CS: What would you suggest to atheists struggling to relate to religious family members?
I know from experience that it can be easy for atheists to fall into the anti-theism mindset—to think religion should be attacked and removed from our lives for good. And I’m not saying that’s invalid. However, we need to focus on the things we can control. Let’s be realistic: Although religion is on the decline in many parts of the world, it won’t be removed from the planet in our lifetime. You can’t expect someone to show tolerance for your views if you don’t show that same tolerance in return. So displaying an aggressive anti-theistic attitude toward family and friends doesn’t do us any good as atheists who want to do something about the stigma. It won’t win over hearts and minds, it alienates our loved ones, and widens the divide. In contrast, we should focus on overcoming the unfair negative perceptions of atheists by working together with the religious to do good works for the betterment of humanity as a whole.
CS: You’re a father. What role does that play in your wanting to help people to better understand atheists? What kind of world do you hope your son will live in someday?
KD: I would love for my son, and everyone else, to live in a secular world, where individuals don’t use religion as a tool to take advantage of others or mask their own bigotry. But this has happened throughout human history and I don’t expect it to change any time soon. So should my son decide that atheism is the path he takes—and it will be his decision—then I hope that this book has an impact on those he will come into contact with, so that he isn’t prejudged by those who have been taught that atheists are morally corrupt or evil. I want him to be judged for who he is, and so far that’s a kind, happy, and loving little boy.