'Understanding an Atheist' author Kevin Davis.

‘Understanding an Atheist’ author Kevin Davis. Photo courtesy Davis.

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.

37 Comments

    • So an author urges atheists to avoid anti-theist language, be kinder to believers in a god, and also urges everyone to put family ahead of religious differences, fostering family love.

      …… And a Christian responds with “Please excuse me while I clean up my vomit.”

      That speaks volumes about the hate fostered by religion. I guess that follows Jesus’ repeated commands to put religion ahead of family love. Thanks, Lles.

      • Here is the puke line:

        “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 other’s or mask their own bigotry.”

        Yes, he said all those wonderful things you mentioned about getting along, and no sane person would disagree with the spirit if what he said. But then he said the quoted sentence.

        See, his deepest desire is for a secular world with secular people. He’s talking about his family members here. He believes religion is predatory apparently, as it is used to take advantage of people, and that they hide bigotry with it. Or at least he believes religion itself is bigotry therefore hateful discrimination. Thats a very statist viewpoint, formed in the mind of someone who has grown up believing the governments interpretation of right and wrong. But aside from that, he think his family is at face value all the things he just said was bad about a religious world.

        So excuse me if I don’t think his previous siren song about getting along is genuine.

        • He wishes for a secular world but in the next line, says he knows that’s not going to happen in our lifetime. So he’s absolutely being genuine when he says he would rather have people set aside their religious differences and try to understand each other as people, so that relationships can be repaired. Basically, wish #1 is not going to happen, so let’s be realistic and go for wish #2.

          Try separating the religion from the person. He’s saying individuals use religion to hide their bigotry, not that religion = bigotry. And I don’t know where you get the “someone who has grown up believing the gov’t interpretation of right and wrong.”

          • Perhaps. I’ve just been defending my right to hold a religious worldview and actually live it in society for so long, my natural inclination now it to be skeptical of peacemakers from the other side.

          • Jm: There is no way people can set aside religious differences. That would be tantamount to setting aside one’s belief or non-belief. Honesty and respect of each other, regardless of belief, is the real solution among people who do not share belief.

        • Along with others here, it seems clear to me that he is being genuine in this interview. I guess we’ll just have to disagree on that.

          Do you really think that religion isn’t used to take advantage of people, nor to hide bigotry? I think most people, religious or not, agree that religion often is used to take advantage of people, and to hide bigotry. It certainly was used to hide bigotry leading up to the Civil War – reading the letters, articles, and especially sermons from the mid 1800′s makes that as clear as day that subjugation of the African Americans was seen as instituted in Genesis (in the Curse of Ham), and affirmed throughout the Bibles, including by Jesus himself, from Genesis to Revelation.

          Even as far back at the Roman Empire, Seneca noted:
          “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

          And, by the way, he wasn’t talking about Christianity, as he’d never heard of it.

          I’m not sure where you get the idea that he supports government control. He never mentions government, nor says anything in favor of a government view of right & wrong. If anything, as Seneca observed, isn’t a more religious society one more directly controlled by the government? Mostly, it seems like you are making up and inserting “goverment” where it isn’t mentioned.

          • Quick pronoun clarification:

            Seneca wasn’t talking about Christianity.

            Davis doesn’t mention government.

        • Lies Nats: Your “secular world” cannot be the only world. Religious belief is a part of many lives, in greatly varying degrees of honesty. The world cannot be only secular, but it can be civil, with honesty and respect practiced by everyone.

          With a hope for that ultimate condition, the Framers of our Constitution promptly set up a division between the religious and civil aspects of our supposed, hoped-for democracy by demanding in the vert first clause of the First Amendment to that Constitution that there be a separation of religion and government, church and state. That rightful freedom protects those of religion as well as those of no religion–equally.

          Unfortunately, sadly, our own government has violated that separation, that protection, many times. The current Catholic-dominated Supreme Court just demonstrated the latest violation in Justice Alito’s distorted Hobby Lobby decision.

          • I disagree. The ruling enabled a minority group of christians to live a christian life with a clear conscience.

        • ikonografer (@ikonografer)

          your right to hold a religious worldview? are you kidding? you’re not a minority, being religious, you hold the MAJORITY position. there’s zero need for you to ‘defend’ your right to a religious worldview, and no, there is no war on christmas.

        • Not That Kind of Angel

          Religion teaches Bigotry. Sorry, that’s a fact.

          big·ot·ry
          noun
          bigoted attitudes; intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.

        • Lles: And you want some religious world. So what’s the difference? Everyone ought to want a secular world – it’s would be a hell of a lot do safer and saner if you stopped trying to shove your magic up everyone’s orafices and ranting about hellfire and damnation if they don’t enjoy the engorgement….

      • Jon: What “volumes” such attitudes and words really “speak” are a lack of honesty and respect for others. Without them, there can be no civility, no peace. All we need do is look about at the ugly acrimony that abounds in our society to see examples. Who’s ready to “throw the first stone?” First of all, “To thine own self be true.”

        • g –

          Right. We (regardless of what worldview we are), need to respect all people. That certainly goes for family, but goes for others too. After all, we are all related if one just goes back a few generations.

    • Lies Nats: Why should you “vomit?” Security in one’s own thinking, and honesty and respect toward others, should make it possible for people with different beliefs and no beliefs to live harmoniously.

  1. Any believers or non-believers, if they are honest and respect others as much as they wish others to be honest and respect them, should have no problems getting along. Honesty and respect are the “golden rule” of civilization, a two-way street.

    Problems only arise when the dishonesty of disrespect interferes. That is easy to see in the ways that people speak to and about others. We need not be common believers, not believers at all, to be honest and respectful of each other.

    Forceful or crude proselytizing by anyone is dishonest and disrespectful. Discussion need not be arrogant or acrimonious. That is dishonest and disrespectful.

  2. My mom is a liberal Christian, so she’s fine with me being a queer atheist. When we do talk about religion, we mostly focus on the stuff we agree upon–how religious nutjobs are screwing over the country.

      • g -
        I wonder, however, if practicing respect for others is fully compatible with the scripture of each of the religions. For instance, the Bibles are clear that believers are commanded specifically to proselytize. Those Bibles are also clear that other religions are not to be tolerated (it’s practically the main theme, repeated over and over). Deut. 13 makes that clear, among with so many other sections. Plus, all that follows directly and logically from the idea of eternal torture for those of other religions (and John 14:6 and so many other verses make it clear that Hell is based on religion, not good deeds).

        For instance, if it were really true that all other religions led directly to eternal torture, then any action against them would be justified. If a person threatened my children with horrific torture (which is what they’d be doing if they did anything to allow the children to see non-Christian views), then it would be my moral obligation to stop that danger by any means necessary. In fact, that would apply to other peoples children too, including the children of, say, Buddhists, or the non-religious. If Hell were real, might it suggest that the moral thing to do would be to “rescue” those children? Isn’t Hell infinitely worse than child abuse, where I would feel justified in working to rescue a child from? I’m so glad that most Christians have the sense not to follow their own scriptures to their logical conclusion.

        • If one has to resort to a self-interested religious scripture to guide their behavior around non-believers, they are already setting themselves up for trouble.

          In the end, religious types use scripture to justify behavior they are already inclined to do. It doesn’t guide one’s actions, it justifies it after the fact.

          • So at the end of the day, there’s actually ZERO chance of Larry sincerely respecting Bible-believing Christians.

            Why is that, you ask?

            Because it’s impossible for Larry to respect the biblical truth claims and biblical historical claims that Larry already knows WILL be offered in one way or another to influence those of Larry’s atheistic persuasion AWAY from that evil messed-up hooly-magoo’d (just being honest about it) persuasion.

            So you need to fess up to the real deal. Tell the truth and shame the devil, they say!!

          • Larry – I can’t say that the heinous things in scripture never guide Christians. I suspect that sometimes they do, and sometimes they justify terrible actions using scripture, and sometimes it’s some of both. The bottom line is that the horrible commandments in scripture aid and abet horrible behavior, and have done so from the start. Augustine himself justified using the threats of torture and death to convert Pagans to Christianity based on the words of Jesus, so it’s nothing new.

            Doc Anthony-

            I’m concerned that your post confuses the respect for people and the respect for their ideas. One can respect a person without respecting or agreeing with the ideas they hold. Thinking of those that I love, I don’t think that I’m in perfect agreement on every idea with any of them. Farther out, I respect all people – simply by merit of their being human, while I know that we humans often hold incorrect and even harmful ideas. Ideas aren’t people, just like corporations aren’t people.

            So while I don’t agree with the idea that any of the Bibles are an inerrant source of truth and historical claims (indeed, they’ve been shown many times to be factually and historically false, in addition to being self- contradictory), I do affirm my respect for all Christians (and all Muslims, all Hindus, all Zoroastrians, all Pastafarians, and so on).

          • Doc, you don’t speak for all “bible believing Christians” you just like to think you do. Your version of Christianity has nothing of value for anyone outside its bubble. Christians like yourself represent the worst aspects of the faith. They don’t respect other beliefs or people, openly ignorant, openly bigoted, and prefer to coerce others into accepting their belief rather than set good examples for others to follow.

            No doc, I will never respect you and you will never respect me in return. It is foolish to expect respect from me when you never give it.

        • There isn’t a place of fiery torment forever for wicked ones, which unfortunately has been taught by false religions through the centuries. There is only the common grave of mankind, referred to as Sheol (Old Testament) and Hades (New Testament), commonly rendered in some translations as Hell.

          That is probably one of the major reasons people become atheist or agnostic, because the hell”fire” doctrine falls against the Bible teaching that God is love (1 John 4:8).

          The Bible truthfully provides the condition of the dead at Ecclesiastes 9:5,10, stating that the dead know nothing at all and they end up in the “grave” (according to the King James Version), whether they are good or bad persons.

          Jesus himself likened death to being “asleep in death”, when discussing the condition of Lazarus who had been dead for a number of days before resurrecting him back to life (John 11:11-14). Jesus himself died and was unconscious in Hell, the common grave, for 3 days before his loving Father, God, resurrected him, and Jesus was not a place of fiery torment (Acts 2:31).

          Another important point that clarifies this further is Psalm 37:10,11, which contains a promise from God that the wicked ones will no longer “exist” and the meek shall inherit the earth. If the wicked ones are tormented forever, they would still need to be alive to feel the pain; thus, their fate is death, with no hope of being brought back to life.

          Lastly, when God pronounced judgment on our original parents, Adam and Eve, for disobedience and sinning against him, God told them that after they died, they would return to the GROUND; that “from dust you are and to dust you will return,” not tormented (Genesis 3:19). This has been happening to mankind ever since.

          All these Scriptural points only confirm how loving and just God is, something which false religions misrepresent and for which they will receive his due judgment (Revelation 17:1-5; 18:1-8).

          Besides that, God holds out the hope of resurrection back to life on a cleansed earth of those we have lost to death due to sickness, accidents, natural disasters, etc. (John 5:28,29; Acts 24:15).

          All the miracles that Jesus, the son of God and Messiah, performed for humans (curing all types of sickness, resurrecting the dead, etc.) while on earth was just a “small” preview of what God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) will provide meek mankind on earth during his millenial rule as King in the near future (Revelation 21:1-4). Another testament to the great love of God, and his son, Jesus, for mankind!

      • All: is this a example of the honest respect I should reciprocate? Religious nutjobs?

        You know, I know quite a few blue words to describe gays. Should I use them to recipricate the respect just shown, im sure you will all groupthink togather and call me a hater.

        • Travis wasn’t calling all religious people nut jobs. He’s saying the nut jobs are the ones screwing over the country. Clearly, there are nut jobs in every walk of life. As an atheist, I can say I’ve come into contact with plenty of nonbelievers who deserve the label.

          • given the context he was calling conservative religious people nutjobs and leaving those that were liberal as sound in thought.

  3. Davis says, “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.” This is probably true in some cases, but the implication is that atheists mainly attend religious services because they are afraid to talk to family members about their beliefs. In my experience and research, people with different religions (or no religion) can get pleasure out of attending religious services with family, for myriad reasons (comfort, culture, fellowship, love of the music) without having to agree about their beliefs. Walk into any synagogue and you will find theists and atheists sitting together, in families. They are not “tolerating” each other, or being dishonest with each other. They are agreeing to disagree while supporting and loving each other, and enjoying a sense of community.

  4. Jon says, “one can respect a person without respecting or agreeing with the ideas they hold”, and I think all people have heard that saying.

    But in real life, that don’t work so well. Witness the posts you read where a homosexual or an atheist can only hang with family members via everybody agreeing NOT to discuss the elephant in the room when everybody’s gathered together. So the level of “respect” ain’t necessarily as real as advertised by the usual sayings.

    And there’s a reason for that, as I explained to Larry. If a gay man KNOWS that Mom or Dad or Sis or Grandma believes 1 Cor. 6:9-11 with no sidesteppings and no liberal watering-downs, then that will stick in the craw even if the family member never nags or preaches or even mentions it.

    Merely SEEING the family member visually, is an automatic reminder of the potent phrase “nor homosexuals, nor sodomites” (and for atheists like Larry, an automatic reminder of the sharp “without excuse” of Rom. 1:20).

    So for many folks, the result is to insist that the family (especially the Christian members of the family) “don’t ask about nor discuss it”, or else somebody will boycott the next Christmas dinner. We say we “respect” others, but things ain’t never so simple.

  5. 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.

    Over time, I’ve found that a friend or family member’s take on the existence of deities or their particular denomination/sect is of secondary importance. What matters to me is how different our basic values are and how that effects our interactions with others. Agnostics, Pagans, atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, or whatever: I’ve known people from all of those groups who’ve shared the same basic, open, empathetic, pluralistic approach to the world as any other progressive person. How we arrive at those common values might be different (and i find those differences to be endlessly fascinating), but we’re often on the same page regarding a whole host of social issues and world events. What gods or non-gods one favors have tended to represent a relatively minor difference.

    I’ve also know small minded, prejudiced people who defend social hierarchy tooth and nail. I’ve know both religious and non-religious people of all stripes who embrace the desire hurt those who refuse to conform to a hierarchy which deems various marginalized populaces as little more than human waste.

    Some people who center their prejudice and fear of the other can be reasoned with over time. Sadly, there are many who can not. I see plenty of people, atheist and religious alike, who would readily don sheets and burn people’s homes and businesses to the ground in an historical era only a few decades old. Religion, science, politics, and secular philosophy can all be manipulated to serve as justification for terrible deeds and wretched ideas. It just so happens that we live in a time where the most powerful bigots of the hour are wearing crosses and holding bibles. At the root of the matter lies not religion, but the human failing of being so easily guided by fear, hatred, and a desire to controlling those who are at the focus of those emotions.

    I refuse to share my life with people who are driven by fear and hatred. If necessary, I will (sadly) fight those individuals to the bitter end so that I may secure my right to exist without their lust for hierarchy and control bringing harm upon my life and the lives of my loved ones… but to those who lie outside of this sad, grasping assortment of phobic misanthropes, I extend my hand in friendship, religious, non-religious, or whatever.

    And it would seem that this comment thread has drawn out the particular brand of phobic misanthropes who brandish crosses and religious texts as weapons. They aren’t our allies and are likely to never be. There are plenty who are, however, and they hail from a diverse assortment of histories.

    • You were doing so well, then had to throw down the hate. Both sides continue to act badly, and you kept that going by blaming the religious. Again, BOTH sides need to clean up. Sky daddy, sky fairy, “at least the Christians are dying off”, that’s that open minded.

  6. Michael Glass

    Many people can get on despite their differences. Others can’t. This applies to politics, religion and other hot topics. Religion is no different to other contentious issues.

    Fortunately, in the real world, most people don’t act like trolls, whatever they might think.

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