Carolyn Hax: The niece, the school project and the atheism

Carolyn Hax
Columnist October 8, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My 13-year-old niece is interviewing family members about their religious beliefs for a school project. Niece wants to talk to me this weekend.

I am an atheist. Niece’s mom is uncomfortable with this fact. Is there anything in particular I should say to make clear that I respect the beliefs of others, while not shying away from openly and proudly proclaiming my own (lack of ) beliefs?

Atheist Uncle


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

“I respect the beliefs of others, but I don’t shy away from openly and proudly proclaiming my own (lack of) beliefs.” That is, if she asks you how you regard beliefs that differ from yours. If she doesn’t ask that, then just stick to the point of the project, and answer truthfully whatever questions she asks about your beliefs.

Why do you need to spin your atheism to be palatable to the mother? It’s not like you’re sneaking your niece liquor or R-rated movies; you’re just telling your truth.

Plus, the project isn’t about orchestrating family harmony, it’s about your niece’s education. Plus, any discomfort her mom feels is the mom’s problem, and if the niece wants to talk to Mom about it or vice versa, then nothing’s stopping them. Plus, if her mother thinks atheism is so radioactive that her daughter’s faith can’t withstand mention of it, then she doesn’t have much faith in her faith.

Dear Carolyn:

I got married five months ago. People often ask if I’m happy with married life or if it has surprised me.

I know they’re just making conversation, but my honest answer would be that it’s been completely anticlimactic. Nothing changed since before we were married.

I’ve given this answer once or twice with a smile and finished it off with, “. . . exactly what I was hoping for,” but people still seem as if I’ve answered in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

Is there an implication here that I should be aware of? All I can think is that it suggests we lived together before marriage (gasp!). Should I just say something empty and get back to work? I’m not a romantic and I didn’t buy into the whole bride thing. Is this one of those times where I fake it?

Anticlimactic

It might not be that you’re inducing gasps, but instead just deviating from the fairy-tale playbook.

How about instead: “Yes I am happy/No I’m not surprised! That’s why I married him.” It’s the same answer, just a bit sunnier than “anticlimactic,” and it has the most polite little touch of, “. . . but thanks for the stupid* question,” which we all know it is, despite coming from a good place in most people.

It’s also, if anyone’s reading hard between the lines, a great way to make the point that you married because you were happy, not that you’re happy because you married, a fine point that might appeal to the non-romantic in you.

*Yes, stupid, because: Answer A (“I’m so happy!”) can sound fake even when you mean it, especially if you’re forcing cheer through annoyance at the question — and if you’re unhappy, what’s Answer B? A question with no good answer is pretty much the definition of putting someone on the spot.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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