Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Do I Have to Tell My Family I’m No Longer Religious?

October 2, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Do I Have to Tell My Family I’m No Longer Religious?


I am an African-American woman from a very religious Southern Baptist family. I now live in Europe with my husband, who is an atheist, and my two children. I am spiritual but not religious in any way that my family would recognize. We are teaching our children about all religions, as well as how to be good, compassionate, humble humans.

We are going to visit my extended family in the Bible Belt, and I’m really nervous about what will happen. I haven’t told my family about my beliefs, and they have very little contact with me or my children, so it hasn’t come up. There are sure to be many mentions of God and Christ and assumptions about our beliefs, and telling them the truth would most likely result in a lot of anger and drama and possible excommunication from the family. I want my children to have a positive experience with my family and with African-American culture for that weekend. Should I tell my children to just go along with my family’s assumption that we are practicing Christians and explain to them why? Or should I out myself to my extended family in order to teach my children a lesson about being true to themselves? Name Withheld

My response: If you’re going to not believe in supernatural beings, why not complete the step and not believe in supernatural right answers to your questions about what you should do. Instead, you could figure out your answer for yourself and take responsibility for how you act as a result.

The conflict is already there, however latent. What you do about it is up to you. Nobody else knows all the people or has to live with the consequences like you do. You can figure this out yourself. Nobody else can anyway.

The New York Times response:

You speak of “outing” yourself to your family, and there’s a good analogy here with the predicament of lesbian and gay people in religious families that condemn homosexuality. Not telling your family is keeping something from them that they’d want to know — but not something they have a right to know. Still, working out how to share the information with them, if you can, would be a very good thing.

In fact, it’s probably necessary, in the long run, if your children are to maintain meaningful relationships with the rest of the family. You ask what you should tell your children, which suggests that they’re old enough to understand the matter. So I’d discuss with them the pros and cons of making your heterodoxy known.

Bear in mind, however, that there’s something to be said for buffering candor with courtesy. Over a weekend, there’s nothing wrong with bowing your head during grace and going along with the religiosity. That’s the courtesy part. But — the candor part — if someone asks any of you about churchgoing, or whether you’ve been saved, you shouldn’t lie. You could try to fend off questions by saying that you’re sorry but you don’t like to discuss religion, or that your views are complicated. How you handle all this with your children in advance will help educate them about the ethics of the situation and prepare them to deal with these questions if they arise.

As an emergency physician, I resuscitate critically ill patients. The invasive procedures incur high risk but are required to sustain life. Whenever possible, one colleague defers these procedures for hours until the shift handover to me. I am then left with no choice but to almost immediately start life support or watch the patient die. I told my colleague that delaying resuscitative measures until I am left to perform them is unfair to me and to a patient who has deteriorated over many hours. As my chagrin at his “passing the buck” distracts me, I am at greater risk of making mistakes for which I, and not he, will be responsible. What should I do? Name Withheld

My response: You didn’t explain why the colleague defers. Are you equally qualified and he is passing off responsibility? Are you more qualified, he could do things, but prefers not to? Maybe I’m missing something but I can’t tell.

In any case, your job happens to involve life and death but the team aspect of it is high-stakes versions of the same as in other work, or, for that matter, roommates where one doesn’t wash the dishes. You can not do anything about the team aspect and live with the consequences as they happen. You can work with your colleague to create a different result. You can talk to someone with more authority.

I recommend considering all your options, creating as many new ones as you can, and acting on the one you think has the greatest chance of working out for the most people.

The New York Times response:

Your colleague is not doing his job. You’ve told him that. It’s time to tell the hospital authorities. His unwillingness to do these procedures doesn’t just burden you with work that he should be doing; it puts patients at risk. (Legally, it may put the hospital at risk, too.)

I understand that professions have implicit codes about not ratting out peers, and that you may be undermined by others if you do. But this is a regrettable feature of those codes. It’s honor among thieves that lends support to thievery. Stand up for yourself and for the patients your colleague is letting down.

I was outraged by a recent phone call from an old friend. We knew each other slightly as teenagers in India, but we both moved to the United States in the ’80s, where our friendship grew. We now live on separate coasts and call each other for birthdays, mainly. She called me after a long hiatus to talk about her marital problems.

I have known her husband since before they were married. I feel closer to him. He visits the city where I live a few times a year and spends an evening with me in my home. I usually take him to the airport early the next morning. Our chats are free-ranging and frank. He speaks about his problems with his wife as well. I do not discuss the conversations I have with either spouse with the other.

In her phone call, my friend accused me of being a rotten friend because I had not checked with her about her husband staying overnight at my place. She said it was “common knowledge” that I was looking for a partner (I am a widow and have been single for 14 years), and that my entertaining him was a breach of protocol, that a good friend would have made sure she did not mind. I lost my cool and told her that communications between spouses were their affair, and that it was not my part to tell her where her husband was. I should not have lost my cool, but I was hurt by her implications and the assault on my integrity. Our friendship is broken.

I realize that what is at stake here are the values we carry over from our old cultures. We have both lived here for more than 30 years, and I am conscious of a nuanced inner life in which my Indian cultural underpinnings butt up against my adapted American sensibilities. In India, most homes have servants who “talk,” and appearances need to be kept up as families are closely intertwined.

I have no designs on her husband, and our friendship (the husband’s and mine) includes conversations about many issues — growing old, being an immigrant in America, being parents. Do you think I should have checked with her? Name Withheld

My response: There are two greater issues. One is that you lost your cool, remain outraged, and seem still troubled by this interaction. If you are having trouble finding peace, you have potential to develop emotional skills to improve your life.

Second, you’re looking for right and wrong in an emotional situation. I suggest you ask Do you want to win debates or enjoy life? You don’t sound as self-righteous as Walter, but If you think you’re right and they’re wrong, you’re probably annoying someone.

I suggest focusing on improving your emotional well-being and the relationship in the present (or moving on) over judging what you should or should not have done in a past you can’t change.

Independent of people’s opinions of what you should have done or not, I’m curious why you didn’t tell her anyway. One of my top principles for business relationships: No surprises applies to all relationships. Except for birthdays and competition, I don’t find doing things that surprise other people helpful. I don’t see it as a matter of should or should not, but what creates relationships I like more. You know you could have checked. Honestly, why didn’t you?

The New York Times response:

The person who needed to check with your friend was her husband. You were keeping confidences shared with you by each of them from the other. And it would have been wrong to interfere in their relationship by revealing to her that he planned to stay with you and hadn’t told her.

You’re right that it probably didn’t help to blow up at her, especially because, given your shared background, you understand why she was upset. But you also have reason to regret not insisting that the husband tell his wife he was staying with you. If a straight, married man stays with a straight woman and doesn’t tell his wife, there’s typically a violation of marital trust. There’s not much difference between the United States and India about that.

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