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Q: What's the best way to improve the religious climate in my extended family? We never talk about beliefs, yet they affect every aspect of everything we do as a family.

A: First and foremost, be out. Letting others know that there is a perfectly lovely nonreligious person in their midst is the single most powerful contribution you can make to an improved religious climate in the family.

Second, make beliefs a normal, natural topic. Do this by simply bringing up belief issues in conversation. Perhaps an Amish community is in the news, or FLDS,8 or Tibetan Buddhism. "It's so interesting that they believe XYZ" can start a rich conversation. Strap in first, of course.

Third, work to uncover the religious diversity present in every family. Even if you see your Southern Baptist clan as a sea of monolithic religiosity around the Secular Island of You, it's an illusion. There is always some variety in openness, in actual beliefs, and in comfort with difference. Find those who are religious but open and engage in a fascinating and easily overheard conversation about religious beliefs at your next family reunion or Thanksgiving gathering. This is not a time for critical challenge, just wide-eyed interest in this wonderful tapestry of belief.

Finally, my favorite: Take the Belief-o-Matic Quiz at, talk about your results, and invite other family members to do the same. The quiz asks twenty multiple-choice worldview questions, then spits out a list of belief systems and your percentage of overlap. I'm 100 percent Secular Humanist, 92 percent Unitarian Universalist, and 76 percent Theravada Buddhist. I'm less Jewish now (18 percent) than I was three years ago (38 percent) but slightly more Catholic (18 versus 16 percent). Now tell me that's not a fun and interesting conversation starter. Best idea: Email all family the link before your next gathering. Have the heart pills ready when Born-Again Grandma finds out she's 70 percent Islamic. And yes, that's the approximate result a conservative Christian will get. Go to and click Belief-o-Matic in the upper menu. If it helps to open conversations in your family, I'd really like to hear about it at [email protected].

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