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Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

Compared to the letters you normally answer, my problem is very small. The thing is, it’s progressively getting worse and I want to nip it now rather than let it grow into something more column-worthy!

The problem is my sister. Most of my family members are atheists to varying degrees, except for my sister who converted to Islam in her early twenties. Ever since then, religion has been a very sore topic in our family.

Many of us (myself included) are involved in local atheist organizations and spend a lot of our time planning events, etc. Naturally, this is a common topic for us to discuss. When this happens, my sister will often tell us that we’re being rude, or that we’re attacking her and her beliefs. It’s gotten to the point that I can’t even talk to my father, for example, while she’s in the room because she will stop her own conversation to tell us that our topic of choice is offending her.

I don’t get to spend a lot of time with my family, and even less time without her present, and the sharing of ideas and discussing what we’re up to in our lives is a huge part of what we talk about. So we’re presented with the choice between sticking to a very limited range of topics or having her get upset (which frequently involves crying and the slamming of doors). I feel like our dinner table is being held hostage!

She’s still a member of the family, and it upsets my mother a great deal when these scenes happen. We can’t just cut her out of the family or stop inviting her, but our gatherings have been getting increasingly stressful as a result of her outbursts. Not talking to my parents about what we’re up to isn’t a realistic option either.

How can I toughen her skin so that she stops making our gatherings such minefields?

Audrey

Dear Audrey,

Your sister is playing the role of an overgrown spoiled brat. Many people’s initial reaction to that might be to harshly put her in her place in a humiliating way, but perhaps there is a gentler way that will accomplish the same thing and yet allow her to continue to feel that she is an accepted part of the family. Perhaps she already feels excluded, and you could possibly even help to reverse that without compromising your own principles or rights.

It will be more effort than a brutal put-down, but I’m hoping to suggest a process that won’t further isolate or alienate her. Using some empathy, seeing that she’s already feeling outnumbered and an outsider in the family will help to guide your words so that even though you won’t be accommodating her unreasonable demands, you will also avoid causing her unnecessary hurt.

She’s taking advantage of the privileged status for religion that is found around the world. Any other idea, stance or practice can be discussed critically or challenged, but not things that are attached to religion. It can be so ingrained by custom and culture that even when people intellectually know that the “hands off” rule is unjustified, emotionally they can still feel a strong reluctance to break the rule.

You say you feel like the family is being held hostage. That is exactly what is happening, but there are no guns or shackles to keep you constrained. The only power your sister has over the family is whatever power the family is giving to her. She cries and slams doors, and your mother gets upset. It seems to me that your mother’s upset is the key. As long as the rest of the family thinks that your sister’s tantrums upsetting your mother must be avoided at all costs, this hostage situation will continue.

You’ll need to assert your right to free speech, but it will be better if you make some preparations first:

The first thing to do is to look into your own and the other family members’ behavior, just to make sure that no one is deliberately trying to provoke your sister into a conniption by talking about something she dislikes. The discussions about atheism and atheist activities should really be nothing more than the natural consequence of having several family members involved in those things. This is important because when you affirm your right to speak about whatever you please, I think she’s likely to accuse the rest of you of “doing it on purpose.” In order to help her see that not everything is about her, you must be able to honestly say that no one is purposely altering their discussion toward atheism just to have an effect on her, and so no one should have to purposely alter their discussion away from atheism either.

The second thing to do is to have more than one person talk to your mother. It’s important to help her understand that you’re going to respectfully but firmly let your sister know that everyone in the family must have the right to speak freely to each other without having to muzzle themselves in her presence. Although your sister may throw the biggest tantrum yet, for the sake of stopping this petty tyranny, it’s important for your mother to not be pulled into being used to censor the family in order to “protect” your sister.

Finally, one family member should privately speak to your sister, letting her know that he or she is speaking on behalf of the rest of the family. Choose the person who can best hold their temper. Patiently make it clear that you all respect her right to believe as she chooses, even though you don’t share her beliefs. Let her know that although she may feel alone or separated because of that, it is no one’s intention to separate her or to hurt her feelings.

Gently tell her that just like her, everyone in the family has the right to believe as they do, and to discuss their views with each other freely and openly. No one has the right to censor her, and she has no right to censor others. These outbursts of hers are not a legitimate expression of her beliefs; she’s just trying to shut people up, and that will not be acceptable.

Let her know that discussions about atheism and atheist activities are not aimed at her just because she is in the room. If she is uncomfortable overhearing people talk about something, she is free to quietly leave the room, although it might be better for her to develop the maturity and self confidence to be undisturbed by it.

Given your description of her childish reactions before, she may try a louder version of her manipulative bad temper. Do not react by shouting or quarreling. Your message has hopefully been sufficiently delivered, and her reaction is her responsibility. If it’s more of the same, ignore it. Continue to freely discuss whatever you want with whomever you want. If she interrupts you with her objections, quietly and very briefly remind her of what you said about everyone’s rights. Restate that her childish tirades will not work, and add that by trying those tactics she does not represent her faith with dignity. Tell her that if she wants to have a civil discussion with you about her beliefs and yours, you’re open to that. You would like her to be comfortable in the home, but since no one is trying to make her uncomfortable, her feelings are her responsibility.

Audrey, keep a good grip on your own dignity. By never allowing yourself to be goaded into a shouting match and door-slamming contest with her, you will not only be describing the grown-up good manners that you expect from her, you will also be modeling them.

Allow her some time to change. It’s not easy to suddenly switch from spoiled brat to mature equal family member. People get over bad habits with stumbles and stalls. Encourage everyone to stick to your usual conversations unperturbed by any of her efforts to coerce you into silence, and if necessary, patiently and briefly reiterate that this family expects mutual respect for and from everyone. Hopefully she will grow beyond her undignified efforts to control others, and hopefully she will be able to feel loved and accepted by the family regardless of differences in beliefs.

Richard

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