28

I know a very similar question was asked only recently by @Bradley Wilson, and another similar question was asked by @Beofett over a week ago, but the specific situation and also the cultural context are very different here, so please don't close my question as a duplicate!
Note 2: The specific religion in question is not relevant because this situation occurs similarly in every religion here. I have added the India tag as a matter of course but feel this type of religious issue would be universal, so I welcome answers from members all over the world.


Now India has always been a very spiritual country and (not all but most) people of all faiths tend to be quite religious here. They also assume that others are similarly spiritual, even if they are members of other religions.

My distant relative who lives in the same city is such a person. He is 66 and a highly qualified Retired Professor of Commerce who happens to have become more religiously conscious over the years and 'feels the divine grace' all around him. That is very fine indeed but for the fact he assumes I feel similarly.

This is, of course, a typical assumption here, but it is a fact that I don't feel the divine grace all around me. I was given quite a religious upbringing but was always lukewarm towards religion and since I never felt the divine grace they talk about, I have never really been much of a believer, formally rejecting religion in private when I reached my mid-twenties. I am not against religious belief and might even believe in a 'higher power' myself if I later experience the divine grace conclusively, but I am not at all the type of firm believer he imagines me to be, at present.

Uncle has been visiting me once in a while and discusses 'spiritual matters.' He is luckily not much for religious rituals and suchlike, but talks to me with the implicit presumption that I too am spiritually inclined and feel the divine grace. He even sometimes asks me about my religious experiences. This puts me in a false position because I am trapped in having to choose between insincere agreement with him and explicit rejection of his ideas. I have uneasily agreed with him so far without much conviction.

The problem is that I can't tell him straight out that I don't really believe in his religion (into which I was born and of which I am a nominal member) or indeed in any other religion or divinity because he would be shocked and possibly tell other relatives and even mutual friends, which is inconvenient for me and culturally awkward in a predominantly religious society. I also don't want to discuss my lack of belief with Uncle or anybody else who might possibly make it their mission to bring me 'back onto the spiritual path.'

Please note that it wouldn't be a real liability for me to tell Uncle or anyone else that I am not their type of believer, and there are no serious social consequences to that nowadays in India, at least in my community, but I simply dislike the type of debate that will follow, demands for my reasons and possible efforts to make me a believer. So my real problem here is I don't want to be pushed into telling anybody that I lack religious belief. [Thanks to @deg who asked for this clarification.] That is why the 'direct' approach is not a genuine option. On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable with putting on a pretence of religiosity for the uncle's benefit, which also seems dishonest to my way of thinking.

So how to deal diplomatically with this person? My first tendency is to avoid him but that is hardly 'interpersonally intelligent', now is it! Please advise how to deal interactively and constructively with this situation.

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    So what's the real problem here, annoyance with the uncle or fear of the community's reaction ? – deg Sep 17 '17 at 4:07
  • It would be easy enough @deg to tell Uncle or anyone else that I am not their type of believer, and there are no serious consequences to that nowadays in India, but I simply dislike the type of debate that will follow, demands for my reasons and possible efforts to make me a believer. The real problem here is I don't want to be pushed into telling anybody that I lack religious belief. That is why the 'direct' approach is not a genuine option. Now I edited this explanation into my question. Thanks for your comment asking for clarification! – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 4:13
  • "...explicit rejection of his ideas" You do not need to explicitly reject them. Just do not agree with them and do not discuss the matter further. Say, you are less sure about these things than he is and cannot say them for yourself but you also do not wish to discuss it. This respectfully aims at him stopping to convert you without lowering his belief in any way. – Trilarion Sep 18 '17 at 16:19
  • That's indeed a very diplomatic approach, @Trilarion. – English Student Sep 18 '17 at 23:45
22

This is very, very similar to an existing answer, except it is subtly different enough that I think it is worth mentioning.

First of all, you can always listen and nod to acknowledge that you're following without ever voicing your view. You should allow the conversation to keep going without your input as much as possible, and only worry about what to say when he actually expects you to say something.

So let's say he asks something and your response would be different based on your views.

If you respond with "I keep my religious views private", you implicitly go into a defensive mode, and potentially open yourself up to further inquisition as to what you exactly mean and why.

Instead, try something subtly different (especially note the word personal instead of private, and the substitution of "I keep religion private" with the idea that "I believe religion is a personal matter"):

Uncle—over the years, I've come to view religion as one of the most personal of all matters.
Unlike many others, I do not view religion as a community activity. To me, religion is a means for finding the right path and values in your own personal life, not a means for people to potentially influence each others' lives. To this end, I only discuss religious topics with others when I find the need for such guidance in my life, and otherwise, since I am also not a religious scholar qualified to give religious opinions of my own to others, it is not a topic that I otherwise feel appropriate to discuss in conversations, whether it is regarding my own views or those of others. I hope you can understand.

Notice that this sends quite a different message from saying that you want your views to be kept private, since the topic is no longer privacy, but rather what you believe is an appropriate topic to discuss with others in the first place.
With this kind of a response, you're getting across that you have thought about these issues, and that you believe religion itself is fundamentally a personal matter.

  • One of the best answers yet -- thank you so much, @Mehrdad and I wish I could give you 6 upvotes! But the system allows only +1. Now armed with your advice I am waiting for Uncle to appear... – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 7:46
  • @EnglishStudent: Happy to :) glad to hear! Hope it goes well. – Mehrdad Sep 17 '17 at 8:28
  • Oh yes Uncle will get a nice reply if he comes today, @Mehrdad. – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 8:44
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    @EnglishStudent: Just make sure to practice saying it in a natural way so it doesn't sounds like you're reciting prose like this from memory :) – Mehrdad Sep 17 '17 at 9:02
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    Uncle visited only once since your answer (October 12, I think) and I was able to use your advice to 'keep the religious discussion neutral', thanks @Mehrdad! He left to visit his son in Dubai and is not expected back till January 2018. – English Student Nov 13 '17 at 13:58
24

I living in rapidly changing society in terms of religious observance and practice, namely Ireland. I previously lived in London and Dublin, and have recently returned to (very) rural Ireland, a place where religion is still very important on a day to day level. I am very lapsed in any degree of observance, only attending on occasions of funerals, etc, where I'm not there for the religion.

When devout people meet me, neighbours, family friends and relations, they usually assume that I am nearly as devout as they are!

If they try to engage me on direct religious matters, I just say that I keep my religious views very private and refuse to comment further. It might seem a bit rude, but it certainly is better than lying or misleading them.

Would this approach be acceptable in your culture/society?

  • Thanks for the prompt answer @Conor and it confirms my idea that this is a universal problem in these changing times -- I upvote your valid suggestion to just say that I keep my religious views very private and refuse to comment further but Uncle is a relative so I can't claim privacy. He'll be sure to investigate! [It's also not the done thing in India to say straight out that you don't believe in divinity. People will ask why and though I have very good reasons I wouldn't want to debate it with anybody (especially Uncle). Also leads to efforts to persuade one back onto the spiritual path.] – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 3:39
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    @EnglishStudent Thanks for the upvote! When you wrote "but Uncle is a relative so I can't claim privacy" is where you need to stand tough and say that you'd rather not talk about such matters, that you prefer to keep them private! The tenth (or twentieth) time you say it, it just might get through to him! – Conor Sep 17 '17 at 3:48
  • @EnglishStudent Perhaps this is a cultural difference, but I would think that everyone has the right to privacy no matter their culture. If you wish to keep something private, that's your decision and family and friends especially should respect your decisions. – Cronax Sep 18 '17 at 11:16
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    Well, some things are certainly private but religion is generally considered more social than personal in India, though someone can try to say it's private -- less likely to work in my case, @Cronax, because Uncle is a relative and also quite persistent: he will want to know why it is private, if you can imagine that -- hence this question! – English Student Sep 18 '17 at 11:37
  • The "I keep this private" part is particularly smart, because if you instead claim unbelief, they are likely to just switch their efforts to proselytizing. – T.E.D. Sep 18 '17 at 14:29
10

I can't speak to your exact example because of the different countries we live in, but my parents are also of Indian descent, and I am also atheist. I was born and raised in the US. I think I told my parents that I was atheist sometime in middle or early high school. My dad took a while to accept it, but he has.

I don't personally think it's worth trying to hide your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) from someone when the topic comes up. You shouldn't necessarily announce it to the world at every opportunity, but if someone asks, I'd just answer honestly. If they don't want to accept it, it's their problem. In my experience, the people who don't want to accept it just pretend not to know anyway.

  • Thanks for a good answer, @V2Blast. My father is not very religious and has accepted my lack of belief, while my mother is religious but willing to ignore it. My sister is very spiritual but very gracious because I was not yet lucky to feel the divine grace. I never told anybody else because they wouldn't understand and also argue. The 'uncle' in question is argumentative and will draw me into a debate as to why and when I 'lost belief' which is the type of discussion I intensely dislike. That's my problem, and Uncle might also tell others leading to much awkwardness in the community. – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 3:49
  • @V2Blast I think that your approach works well with many people, but when you encounter the zealot who "knows" what's good for your spiritual well being, it can be most difficult to convince them that you're OK and don't actually need any of the religious stuff that anchors their entire existence. – Conor Sep 17 '17 at 3:53
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    If someone doesn't respect your beliefs - or doesn't at least leave you be even after you make it clear you're not interested in getting into a debate about your personal beliefs - then I'd just stop talking to them about it. I've had a few relatives/family friends like this; I've told them I'm not interested in debating the topic, and if they continue to bother me about it, I walk away. If they're not willing to listen to you, they should understand that you're not obligated to listen to them either. – V2Blast Sep 17 '17 at 4:08
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    People don't consider it intrusive here to 'advise' about belief, but it is a good thing that Indian society is much more liberal than before about such matters (at least in my community) @V2Blast. Your frank and uncompromising position on this matter is much appreciated. – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 4:29
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    Yes indeed it is, @Eric Duminil, and also not recommended in some regions and in some communities in India as well. – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 14:16
4

Why does he visit you?

If you understand why he does what he does, you can think of ways to give him what he requires while making him let you off.

  1. He may realize you fake the belief and want to "strengthen you"
  2. He may be lonely (perhaps also because he annoyed others and they avoid him)
  3. Perhaps someone else in the family set him off (watch English Student, I think he may be undergoing crisis of faith, help him with your experience Uncle)
  4. Perhaps he believes you to be his spiritual successor?

And others. Depending on what is he after AND WHAT YOU WANT out of that situation, you will have to choose your strategy.

Strategies

The already suggested one - honesty. Means the path of drama and conflict and you perhaps fighting for your beliefs or for your right to separate from beliefs of your community. Which you don't like that much else you would have accepted those answers that opt for that path.

Be the bigger zealot.

Come up with rituals, questions, problems and others he will not like and talk to him like "it's true faith only if you walk the path of fire" or whatever else that ups the game. Does he dislike waking up early? But that's when you should pray the most! Does he like wine? But it's good only for heathens! And so on. Make it inconvenient for him to talk with you about faith. This always looks great in comedies, right? There are problems though. One: you are essentially lying (some will understand white lie, some will say you played him for a fool, some will say he got what he deserved for intruding too much, some will say you dared toy with older Uncle who only meant what's good for you). Two: your reputation. You are bluffing your way out this way, but you need to be able to pick up the ante. If you say "we should not drink wine this offends God" and he agrees... you can't drink wine where he sees. So pick your way of showing piety/zealotry carefully.

I am not ready

You mentioned that what makes you uncomfortable is when he asks for your experiences. Say you are not ready to discuss this. Express your discomfort, the fact you have no good words, that you can't talk about it as well as he can. This will be also a way to find out if he's visiting you for your or his own sake. If he will quickly accept this and go on about himself, he cares about somebody who would listen to his preaching. Or who would make him less lonely. If he will try to get your answer and encourage you to talk or to offer support to help you, he is seeing you as someone who needs his help.

Redirect him

Mention to elders in your family that Uncle is lonely and that you cannot properly manage the situation ("I'm too young" may work wonders here). Say that a woman is needed. Perhaps someone will want to play the matchmaker?

Let Uncle know that you feel he would be a great volunteer in a local hospital or that some university is struggling for they don't have folks who would teach XYZ which he is good at. Perhaps help arrange someone else mention that for him. Find him something that will occupy him, ranging from a chess partner, scientific study, research material, puzzle down to someone else in the family (or in the neighbourhood) who may need him more (or even a woman).

Find a mediator

Talk to someone in the family (or in your circles) who would be able to get him to stop or at least slow down. Tell them he is pressing you too much or that it is disruptive... get them to intervene. Perhaps his senior colleague from work? Or his great-aunt or your grand-mother? There certainly are some people whom he respects and to whom he would lend his ear if they were to say "if you pester English Student too much this is not good".

Avoid him

Obvious, but may be tiring and if he's persistent - ineffective. Also, if he calls you in advance and asks you to find some time for him and social contract makes you the bad guy if you don't then this may not work, but...

Cut down on your free time. Find activities where you are required and essential. Activities that he (and others) can't fault you for.

  • Thanks a lot for the detailed answer which gives some very good options, @LIttle Ancient Forest Kami. I upvote! Best part: "Say you are not ready to discuss this. Express your discomfort, the fact you have no good words, that you can't talk about it as well as he can (...) If he will quickly accept this and go on about himself, he cares about somebody who would listen to his preaching." -- Uncle's married and quite busy teaching Commerce to students but too impressed with the divine grace -- This is a good & helpful answer, and I would really like to see more such posts from you on IPS.SE! – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 22:06
  • I'm glad you found something of use @EnglishStudent. All the best to you in finding a perfect solution for you and your Uncle! – LIttle Ancient Forest Kami Sep 18 '17 at 17:35
  • Thank you. I am sure my specific situation is representative of a generic religious issue encountered by less-believing individuals in various parts of the world, @LIttle Ancient Forest Kami, and so I really appreciate your contribution which will be useful to many future readers. – English Student Sep 18 '17 at 23:51
3

This is an issue for me as well. I am Buddhist and live nowhere near anyone else that I am aware is Buddhist. The area I live is predominantly Christian and my own family is devout (large family on both sides and most are local). I haven't found a good answer. In my case any level of honesty generally gets only two reactions. One is to try to save me and "bring me back into the fold" which I don't want to have happening. The other is to assume it's a phase, like some current fashion. Once in a rare while someone will respond like they are afraid to have me around their impressionable children because I might pull them away from "the church" with my crazy beliefs.

The one time I managed an open talk to my mother she basically told me I was condemning her to hell "if I did this" because it means she failed me as a mother to bring me up "right". Needless to say, I have no need to have that talk ever again in my life. Mind you, when we talked, I was over 30 and hadn't lived in her home or relied on my parents in over a decade. She wasn't cruel in the way she said it. She was sad. She believes this is true. It makes me sad she believes my beliefs are tied into her afterlife.

I don't have a poetic answer that will cover every occasion. I defer to staying quiet about it, trying to change subjects if that seems possible. If I am cornered I simply say things that deflect, like if they told me of some time they were touched by the "Holy Spirit" and then want some testimony from me, I simply say that I am sorry that I haven't been so lucky as to have any impressive story to share like that. With people I am less close to, I still avoid this. I have learned that it is not well accepted here.

If I get to know someone well, I will share it. I have relatives that do know, but only a few. They also are wise enough to know that they shouldn't randomly discuss it. I wouldn't ask them to lie for me, but I do prefer they not offer that information up to others if not directly asked. It's been about 15 years since I became Buddhist and over time it's become more natural for me and I navigate the conversations easier while avoiding saying anything that is likely to cause discomfort by being too open.

My spouse is atheist. We tell no one, ever. It's like hanging a target on yourself here. If you live in a highly religious area that has a predominant religion it's hard. It's hard too even if the area isn't so much, but your family is (assuming you are close and see them often). I still attend church sometimes, but for special things. I will go with my mother for special days. It doesn't bother me to attend and she uses that I think to tell herself I am still a "believer". I am not looking to cause her any strife and I can live my life the way I would anyway, I just don't talk about it. For me, this is very livable. Others I know feel the need to be more open and share what they believe. I am not wired this way. I wasn't ever.

So the TL;DR is that if it doesn't bother you to keep that private, there is no reason you have to share that about yourself. You can usually deflect, ask them more about themselves and get off the hook of having to talk. My biggest obstacle is when people ask to "pray with me". I hate that but I am not sure how to get out of it. If asked to say anything I get out of it by saying I am not good with wording on vocalized prayer, they should do it.

  • Paragraphs 4 and 5 answer the OP. I'd highlight that piece about your husband not openly admitting his atheism. It's my impression that in the US, many view atheists as being godless (wicked) and an evil influence. The part where you mention being a Buddhist is not really relevant to the OP. You are still professing a belief in a supernatural being, and more importantly, Buddhism enjoys a positive press. – user3114 Sep 17 '17 at 7:07
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    Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience, @threetimes. It's easy, especially in India, to pretend belief and 'go with the flow', which is what I usually do for unavoidable religious occasions. Your experience of following one faith among everyone else following a very different faith is also pertinent in the sense that it is probably very difficult to discuss the matter with anyone without provoking debate and well-intentioned advice. Same here, except that in the place of your personal religion, there is no religion and that is what cannot be discussed. I appreciate & upvote! – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 7:38
  • Note too that I am receptive to the philosophical and ethical teachings of the great world religions and often get sentimental about the tremendous burdens carried by the different deities on whom so many millions depend -- it's just the inability to literally believe in 'higher powers' when I have not had any convincing personal experience of divinity, @threetimes. – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 7:42
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    @Mari-LouA I am not sure you are totally familiar with Buddhism. I do not believe Buddha to be supernatural at all. I follow a philosophy, not a deity in my case. Some do take a more supernatural sort of interpretation, but like many other religions, there are a number of forms. Buddhism on the whole is more about naming a practice versus specified beliefs. – threetimes Sep 17 '17 at 9:31
  • The first and last questions (and answers) here really explain what I was trying to say about how my beliefs aren't terribly different than atheism, but obviously more articulate and with more information. :) buddhanet.net/10-gqga.htm – threetimes Sep 17 '17 at 9:41
3

Your problem is not Uncle. Your problem is YOU. You are what we call in North America "a pushover". Whenever somebody pushes you just go along with it. Are you going to stand up for yourself and be your own person or are you going to let other people, Uncle for example, control you and tell you what you will talk about and how you will talk about it?

In some of your posts you have said things similar to "that is something we just do not do in India". Well, maybe it's time you change that. Next time Uncle attempts to engage you in religious conversation tell him you are not religious and do not wish to engage in such conversation. The exact words you choose are irrelevant. What IS relevant is that you tell him and, even more important, that if he refuses to comply you DO NOT simply give in. If he refuses to drop the subject then you must tell him that if he persists then there will be no further discussion on ANY topic. If you are in his home then you leave. If he is in your home then you demand that he leave and if he refuses then you call the police. I believe in respecting my elders but there are limits. I do not allow them to drag me into conversations I do not want to be involved it. NO EXCEPTIONS! That's the rule and if they don't like it then that's their problem, not mine.

If you don't want to tell him directly then listen to what he has to say and when he asks a question or indicates that it's your turn to speak then you simply say something that has nothing to do with his question, like... "So tell me, dear Uncle, what do you think of the price of potatoes in Moscow?" or "How do you like my shirt?" or "I think I will buy a pet bird tomorrow" and then you casually take a bit from a sandwich or nonchalantly drop a candy in your mouth. Or you just stare at him and say nothing. Whatever you do, do not follow his direction until he moves away from the topic of religion.

  • 1
    Thanks for the strong but perceptive advice, @uKinCallMeAl -- it may actually be needed, I daresay, though I tend not antagonize anybody if I can help it, particularly if it's not going to cost me (I mean if it's not a critical matter.) India has a tradition of indulging elders. It's also a cultural thing here (though by no means uniformly seen) that we follow the path of least resistance with the selfish but eminently sensible motive of saving energy for things that really matter to us. But Uncle is a domineering type and not subtle: so your methods may be the only ones to work in this case! – English Student Sep 17 '17 at 11:41
3

Why can't you take spiritual matters as subjects? It would be fun when you will try to question him some ontological, metaphysical, epistemological etc question or give his beliefs to philosophical or intellectual dimensions. By doing this, either you will depress him through dry philosophies enough not to initiate spiritual talks or you will start enjoying the matter not as believer but as intellectual entertainment.

  • 1
    Really good advice @Rohit! Thank you and I upvote. I am actually very interested in religious philosophies from an ethical, intellectual and social perspective. Whether or not somebody believes personally in religion, the great religious teachings have shaped the development of human civilization. So you say I could take Uncle a long way down such topics, and away from a simple religiosity of belief towards more meta-religious discussion? Yes, that makes eminent sense. – English Student Sep 18 '17 at 12:23
  • Exactly! @EnglishStudent Take this as an opportunity. :) – user5981 Sep 18 '17 at 12:33
  • Thank you. I am sure my specific situation is representative of a generic religious issue encountered by less-believing individuals in various parts of the world, @Rohit, and so I really appreciate your contribution which will be useful to many future readers. – English Student Sep 18 '17 at 23:52

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