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I think you've underestimated your ability to handle and give advice on this situation. I know your thoughts have helped me to frame very similar issues in my personal relationships.


Personally, I find your advice rather sound. I agree with the first commenter in that it feels like you're selling yourself short, Greta.

I feel like this situation would be radically different if Heather's brother did not potentially have a terminal illness. Because of that possibility, the situation to me becomes a lot more serious, and Heather's beliefs should take the backburner. Being his sister and all, I would assume that she wants him to see a doctor regardless of his spiritual beliefs, and I would readily agree that that's a good plan -- his health ought to be seen to by a professional. (Other mights not agree, but it seems most people visiting this blog would.) From that perspective I feel as though your last two paragraphs, Greta, are exactly the angle Heather should go for.


Taking care of family members takes priority, but on the subject of coming out...

I was already used to thinking everyone else was dangerously wrong as a Catholic. How to come out as an atheist, outside of open areas like college, I just state I frame problems in this world in concrete terms without mentioning atheist. It's the truth, and communicates what I'm about more than a word that brings up associations from their own mind.


That situation is not about religion. That situation is about mental health issues. "Meeting people where they are" is good advice - there is absolutely no point in challenging her brother's religion or asserting her atheism when there is a far more obvious and pressing issue at hand. People can believe in all kinds of strange things and still seek medical help; that's not happening here. Best wishes to the poster and her family dealing with this frightening situation.

Chris Hallquist (The Uncredible Hallq)

Excellent advice, Greta.

The one point I differ from you is that I generally don't bother walking the line between explaining why I believe what I believe and telling people I think they're wrong. It's a line that's too conceptually blurry, and unnecessary with the kind of people I like to be friends with. My best friends tend to be atheists, and I value people I can have relatively frank intellectual discussions with. If you don't fit into one of those categories, I might have other reasons to want to be friends with you, but they don't include me wanting to be bombarded with questions and having to deal with you being offended if I answer in the wrong way is not among them. There have been times I've met people who are religious and do start religious discussions with me, who are to to some degree unhappy with my answers, and who end up not being friends with me. But they tend to be people I wouldn't have ended up friends with anyway, so the largely reasoned, largely civil discussions of religions I've had with them are probably the most I was going to get out of the interaction anyway.


As for the health thing, claiming that even the most devout spiritual healing advocates you know go to the doctor if things are seriously wrong might work. make up a guru friend or something.

As for coming out as atheist...I have Christian relatives for whom it was an unspoken thing for a long time. I made it clear I wasn't going to make a scene during their traditions, and they left it at that.

As for my pagan friends, polite honesty worked fine. I would go "I stopped practicing a long time ago." They would ask why. "It just wasn't resonating with me." They would ask about other varieties of sky-cake (thank you Patton Oswalt). I would brush it off as follows: "Nothing felt right for me, so I went on a bit of a spiritual journey. At the end of it, what I found was mySelf. It works for me, I know it's not for everybody." It's not technically a lie. And that whole spiritual journey bit tends to make them ooh and ahh and back off. The "it's not for everybody" actually makes atheism sound cool and elitist, which is feeds the holier-than-thou complex most pagans I've known have. Oddly, I've de-converted a handful this way, because eventually they want to know details, and I'd slowly mete out stuff that was first atheist-friendly (lay-man's science books a good here, or fiction), followed by whatever pro-atheist books I thought they might actually enjoy.

The whole me actually engaging in discourse to actively convince them they are wrong? Epic Fail. every time.


My suggestion for how to deal with the possibly ill brother:

The primary goal is to find out if he is sick. Do not discuss your beliefs. Encourage him to see an MD for "diagnosis only" and not for treatment. Use some explanation such as "so you can better explain it to your less enlightened friends," or "to be open minded to another perspective."

Liz, brilliant method!


Who you are and what you believe is not dependent on other people, including, Heather, your brother. Whether you are athiest, gay or whatever, your self-worth depends on what you think of yourself, not what other people think of you. This is the hardest lesson we all learn in life. Unfortunately some of use reach old age before we realise this truth.

Kit Whitfield

Ugh, don't envy you. Here's my two cents...

If I were you, I'd treat the atheism conversation and the health conversation as two completely different conversations. Otherwise he's going to assume that anything you say about his health is ideological, and thus ignorable.

If it was a minor issue, I'd say begin by dropping atheism into a conversation at a point where it seems relevant, just to let him know where you're personally at, then see how he takes it before giving him any advice.

If it seems possible he's got a terminal illness, though, that takes priority.

I'd begin there. It's perfectly reasonable to say, 'You're my brother and I love you, and the idea that you might have this awful thing really scares me.' That's the conversation you really need to be having, and you could then move to, 'Would you get tested? Just to set my mind at ease?' if it seemed feasible.

The fact that you're an atheist isn't central to your worries about his wellbeing. You could believe all kinds of things and still have doubts about what the best kinds of health treatment are; after all, even in the alternative medicine community there's a lot of disagreement.

But I agree with lilacsigil that this might be a mental health issue. If he's that big a fan of Carlos Castaneda then I wouldn't rule out the possibility that he's having a bad reaction to taking some hallucinogen or other, for instance. If he's thinking in such spiritually grandiose terms and talks excitedly about his wild beliefs all the time while never asking you about yours, I wouldn't rule out mania or bipolar. He could, of course, be perfectly well - kooky ideas don't prove anything - but at least in my experience such illnesses are relatively common and might be worth considering as possibilities. If that's what's up with him, he's still sick even if he doesn't have the family illness, but persuading him to get help is going to be extremely difficult.

The awkward thing is that you live so far away from him. That means your contact with him is limited, and all these are conversations that probably won't work over the phone or e-mail. If you're seriously worried I'd consider a visit, either you to him or him to you, so you can find out as much as possible about this illness he thinks he has and why he thinks he has it.

So if there's a chance that he's really ill, either in body or in mind, I'd leave atheism on the back burner for now. That's a conversation to be had in a safe place, and if your brother might be in danger, it's not the moment. You've got two different relationships to what he's saying: as a disagreeing atheist and as a concerned sister, and I'd expect him to listen much more to the concerned sister. We generally listen more to love than we do to theoretical disagreement.

Just my opinion, of course, but from what you say - he might be harming himself but he might think you're attacking him if you say so - the strongest emotion I'm hearing is worry for him. Leading with that rather than with philosophical disagreements is probably the most honest thing to do. And when we're worried for someone and won't be honest about it, it generally comes out in how we talk anyway and then we do end up putting their hackles up.

Recently, a number of billboards with polite atheists messages, such as "Don't Believe In God? You are not alone." have resulted in death threats from theists. This is evidence that when it comes to atheism, how you say it is not what matters; theists are offended by the content, and not the wrapping. I see freethinkers choosing a wide variety of labels for themselves - agnostic, unbeliever, nonbeliever, nontheist, atheist, and so forth. It is often assumed that those who call themselves atheists are least acceptable in society. But it seems to me all are reviled; the particular name chosen makes little difference to many theists.

Dan Dennett explained in his book Breaking The Spell (which every theist should read), that religion protects itself by building a wide variety of social constructs that make it impermissible to even discuss the possibility that it may be mistaken. These restrictions are aimed at content, not at presentation.

On the other hand - I do know people, who, years ago, would get upset with me when I told them I was an atheist, but are now atheists themselves.


Greta's advice on this sounds very good to me.

I'm going to echo what others here have been saying. Worry about convincing your brother to see a doctor first. There are lots of ways to frame it so it fits with his beliefs, though talking about some other well known spiritual practitioner who still sees the doctor seems a good way to start. Another way is to talk about doing the whole workup. Remind him balance is important, and that he needs to care for the physical as well as the spiritual. As people have said, you might not believe it yourself, but a lot of people in pagan traditions love the idea of balance.

After that, you can worry about coming out about your atheism. Pagans seem to be pretty accepting of other belief systems (and lack of belief), so long as you accept that their beliefs are theirs to decide. They don't seem to mind disagreement, just unwelcome attempts to convince them to change their beliefs. Whether this will hold true for your brother, I don't know, but I would imagine it would, especially since you're both close.

In any case, good luck.


I can't imagine the frustration and anxiety this situation would generate! I sincerely hope you manage to remain true to yourself and keep your brother's love at the same time. While your current tactic is keeping the tensions down, I can't help but think your brother would WANT to know you better, to understand what makes you tick. It may simply not have occurred to him that you disagree, or that any disagreement might be fundamental to who you are. Perhaps if you raised the issue in this manner, he would be very sympathetic and interested in your point of view.

This may sound like that fuzzy distinction between "this is what I believe" and "this is why you're wrong", but I think if you do it right, those concepts hopefully won't blur. I managed to execute this successfully with my father--the same man whose first words when picking me up for Thanksgiving dinner one year were, "so, your mother tells me you don't believe in creation..." with a stern voice. To a BIOLOGY MAJOR.


I avoided my father for several years after I left home, but I was able to talk to him about losing faith fairly easily. The trick was to ask to talk to him alone, when we weren't talking about anything else (especially not religion) and emphasize that I was revealing something personal about myself. I told him that I made the trip home because I didn't want to lose him as my father just because we disagreed, but I couldn't hide my true opinions from him either. The revelation was a shocking blow--he had thought the "big news" was a wedding in the works--but the fact that I made the effort and the risk to tell him the truth, out of love for him as my father, made him very happy. In the end, we had a little bit of a debate, and it was all in fun and good spirits. I no longer feel that I have to hide from my family, and he doesn't have to fear that he's lost a daughter.

Perhaps if you approach him in the spirit of sisterhood, explaining you want to share something of your own feelings with him, he will be happy to learn about his sister. It sounds like he cares about you. I'm sure he'd enjoy learning more about the person he loves.

Regarding the medical issue, you might look around for folks in the woo community who don't reject evidence-based medicine, and see if you can refer him to them. Sounds slimy, but it might work. My tactic would likely be to emphasize that evidence-based medicine is backed up by evidence, but I have a feeling this would probably get you no-where fast here. ^^;

Best of luck!


The most recent "conversation" I had about religion with a friend was the night before his wedding. He was talking about how this wedding was going to include a full mass and then he turned to me and said, "since you're a Dawkinist now, I hope that's OK with you."

I was so taken aback by that statement... first, the idea that I consider prominent atheists to be my prophets, second, that I was going to make some sort of ruckus in his church... that frankly I just didn't say anything. I just made a face and said, "um, what? No." He laughed and the conversation moved on to other things.

I didn't need to go crazy on him or start into anything. The timing was bad, the group of people in the room weren't interested, I didn't feel like I had to protect my honor in that moment. Maybe that's the attitude that is keeping people in the closet, I don't know. I haven't figured out yet how to do any better.

Like Greta, my inclination is to keep the peace. The truth is that I have plenty of respect for my religious friends, at least in part because they don't evangelize to me and, in turn, I don't tell them they shouldn't believe.

The last person who invited me to go to church was my mother. I politely declined and haven't been asked again.

I hope you are successful in getting your brother medical advice. I am fairly strident about medical topics and what sort of medicine I believe is baloney (basically all "alternative" medicine and any anti-vax sentiment), but since I work in health care it's a little different.

Blake Stacey

I'll admit up front that I don't have too much personal experience on the whole "coming out" front. My immediate family is godless as they come; my colleagues and many of my friends are scientists, or people I met through the Boston Skeptics social scene. A few of my circle do things like meditation as stress-relief, but without much "spiritual" baggage attached. (The folks I've known who've taken psychedelic drugs -- whole metric Hunter S. Thompsons' worth, in some cases -- regard their experiences as evidence that the mind is physical in origin, the electrochemical activity of the brain.) I was a little worried when my mother started giving copies of my science-fiction novel to all her friends and coworkers: while I didn't aim for this as a primary outcome, parts of it might come off as stridently anti-religious as His Dark Materials, particularly to those with a hair trigger for offence (see Llewelly Foo's comment above). But I haven't had to deal with fallout from that yet, so maybe I never will! (Right.)

Now, for the more pressing matter: I agree that the "atheism conversation" and the "health conversation" should be kept separate. Appealing to "balance" sounds like a decent idea; another idea, wholly shameless, is to ask, "How do you think [insert loved one here] would feel if you died and they found out you'd never even seen a doctor?" Depending on his beliefs, one could also try to adapt the old chestnut about the guy waiting on the roof of his house during a flood, who tells a boat and then a helicopter, "God will provide!" Then, in Heaven, God lays the smack down: "Who do you think sent the helicopter!?" I don't know if a "God/the spirit world/Nature helps them who help themselves" line would work, but an appeal along that direction might help him think that doctors aren't intrinsically evil or useless.


Greta has offered great advice, and I'll try to add to it.

Coming out to your brother, Heather, probably isn't necessary. I've found the most effective way to deal with situations like yours is to simply ask questions. Like, when your brother goes on about his magic spells or whatever, you could earnestly ask him exactly how it works, and follow up with demands for more detail. Push him to flesh out his beliefs with detail, and when he falls short, repeat his words back to him in an effort to hammer home their ridiculousness.

This tactic has been enormously effective, for me anyway, at getting believers to think about their positions. You don't have to talk about atheism at all. You don't have to have a prepared argument for everything he asserts. Just ask pointed questions and, when you can, challenge his positions with information you are familiar with.

My experience is that believers have made up their minds what an atheist is ("devil worshiper"---opposite of god worshiper, right?), and you can't change it, so don't bother trying. Your atheism is irrelevant to the situation at hand. His health is possibly in danger, and he's avoiding treatment in the hope that he'll be saved by nonsense.

I hope I'm helping. I don't envy your situation. Hang in there, and good luck.

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