Theists, Atheists, and the Holiday Season

During the holiday season, family members with diverse opinions about theology are often thrown together in religiously-themed celebrations. This web site includes five entries that focus on this challenge:

November 25, 2011: “How Was Thanksgiving with Your Religious Relatives? Or Your Atheist Relatives?”

November 29, 2011: “A Highly Recommended Article – ‘Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents.’”

December 16, 2011: “Do You Dread Christmas Because of Religious Disagreements?
Perhaps It’s Time for ‘The Positive Dodge.’”

November 16, 2012: “Family Time at the Holidays: A Challenge for Theists and Atheists .”

November 26, 2012: “A Song for the Holidays.”

If you can’t access any of these I’ll be happy to send you the link. Generally if you just keep scrolling downward, all 121 entries will eventually appear.

May the remaining days of December offer memorable moments of love, insight, and fulfillment, sending you into 2015 with confident anticipation.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Family Time at the Holidays: A Challenge for Theists and Atheists

The holiday season sometimes triggers tensions about religion, when family members who disagree about theology are thrown together in religiously-themed celebrations. For ideas about enjoying each other instead of arguing, see my entry of November 25, 2011, How Was Thanksgiving with Your Religious Relatives? Or Your Atheist Relatives? If you’d like suggestions about Christmas gatherings, see my December 16, 2011 post.

For a lighthearted yet thoughtful look at this topic, check out “The Christians and the Pagans,” a song about a modern family Christmas by Dar Williams. For the lyrics go to

There may be YouTube versions available as well. Here’s how the song ends:

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.

May your family gatherings be a time of love and laughter, regardless of how you answer the Great Big Questions.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Do You Dread Christmas Because of Religious Disagreements? Perhaps It’s Time for “The Positive Dodge”

Because Christmas is both a religious holy-day and a cultural holiday, Christians and non-Christians are often thrown together at celebrations of the birth of Jesus. One spouse may be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist, for example, while the other spouse comes from a family full of Baptists or Catholics. On 12/25 they may all get together for meals, parties, and religious services.

Many people avoid debating religion (or politics) on such occasions, but such disagreements may surface in spite of our best efforts. There may be subtle frictions about who offers a blessing at Christmas dinner or what is said during this prayer. Non-Christians may be uncomfortable at a Christmas Eve service, or upset about part of the sermon. If some family members don’t attend services, others may resent their absence.

You may want to use these difficulties as an opportunity to deal openly with religious differences. In many cases this would be counterproductive, of course. But when disagreements are not extreme and both parties are relatively open-minded, such a discussion may be desirable. If you think it could be helpful to address this topic, check out my earlier blog, God-Talk: Ways to Break the Ice, July 28, 2011.

Nevertheless, Christmas is often an awkward time to talk about God. Holiday get-togethers tend to be busy and full of hustle-bustle, making it hard to have an in-depth conversation. If discussing spiritual matters seems either untimely or undesirable, you might try an approach I call the positive dodge.

A positive dodge is a way of ducking out of a difficult discussion, while saying or doing something positive for your relationship. Here are five examples:

1. Acknowledge that this is a big, complicated issue. “I guess it’s obvious that you and I are sometimes uncomfortable because of religious differences. This is such a big subject; I think it would literally take hours to deal with it. If you ever want to have some long talks about God, Jesus, and so on, I’d be open to that. But for now, I want to just enjoy your company and be grateful for having this family time together.”

2. Express warm feelings. “Joe, I doubt that we’ll ever agree completely about Christianity. But I just put that aside when we get together because I like you a lot, I know you’re a good person, and if your [religious faith / your non-religious philosophy of life] helps you be the way you are then it must have some good in it.”

3. Express regret. “It makes me sad when religion comes between us. Our relationship is important to me, and I don’t want theology to get in the way. I’m sorry for anything I’ve said about spirituality that may have hurt you, and I hope we can love each other even when we don’t understand each other.”

4. Transition to another important topic. “Helen, I know we see religion differently. But I just want to tell you how much I appreciate the way you have been helping Dad deal with his illness. I am so moved by what Sis told me you did at the hospital.”

5. Suggest humility about matters of faith. “When you and I disagree about religion, I just try to remember that all of these big questions about God and life and the universe are hard for any of us to understand. You’re doing your best to comprehend these mysteries and so am I. My beliefs may or may not turn out to be correct, and none of us have all the answers. But we love each other and we want the best for each other. So for today, let’s just enjoy Christmas together.” This approach may backfire if the other person is dogmatically certain of being right, but many people are more humble and open-minded than that.

All five of these examples dodge the issue at hand, but in a way that can move the relationship forward. Rather than just tensely looking for an exit, we can candidly state that this doesn’t seem like a good time to talk theology, and then say something that helps create closeness instead of distance.

If any of you want to share stories about religious disagreements at Christmas, please free to post them in a Comment. Merry Christmas to my Christian readers, and Happy Holidays to those of all faiths and philosophies.


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A Highly Recommended Article — “Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents”

I recently read a practical and insightful essay by Michelle Richards on communication between people who disagree about religion. Although Michelle was writing for Unitarian Universalists, her ideas would work well in all sorts of settings.

Michelle points out that if we reject the religion of our childhood, our parents may take this as a personal rejection. She suggests focusing on similarities more than dwelling on differences, and I certainly agree. In my book and in my blog I am trying to show how people with “opposite” views about religion have more in common than it seems.

She goes on to say that “the arrival of precious grandchildren raises the stakes even higher.” Grandparents who were looking forward to celebrating their grandchild’s life passages in familiar ways may be deeply disappointed. Michelle draws upon her own experiences, describing her parents’ responses to her daughter’s life passages.

“Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents” is well worth reading. Here’s the link:


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How Was Thanksgiving with Your Religious Relatives? Or Your Atheist Relatives?

Over the river and down the road, to Grandmother’s house we went — millions and millions of us all over the country. Thanksgiving can be a joyous occasion, but religious differences sometimes mar family festivities.

So what was yesterday like for you? Did theological matters come up, directly or indirectly? Were there subtle frictions about who offered a blessing for the meal or what was said during this prayer? Was attendance at religious services part of your holiday activities? How was that for you? Will you be going to a church, synagogue, or mosque with your extended family this weekend? Are you looking forward to this, or dreading it?

When family members sense that their religious (or non-religious) convictions have been criticized, they may feel as if their very being has been attacked. One way to ease these tensions is to emphasize that we love each other, we want the best for each other, and we’re all trying to understand life’s mysteries as well as we know how.

If we cannot say these things sincerely, there may be some very basic family issues that need to be resolved before we address religious differences.

A note to Christians, and atheists/agnostics with Christian relatives: Thanksgiving can serve as a dress rehearsal for the religious holiday which occurs one month from today. What can you learn from your recent Thanksgiving experience that will help you on December 25?

May your family gatherings be a blessing rather than a burden, a time of affection and forgiveness rather than resentment and hostility.


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