Politics and Religion: Topics to Avoid During the Holidays

Christina Jeffrey, LMHC November 19, 2021

With the holidays coming, some conversations may be better to avoid with family. In this article, we’re diving into two of the top conversational taboos at the dinner table: politics and religion.

“As a species, we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”–Stephen King

It’s that time of year again. Despite the ongoing, if waning, pandemic, many of us face the prospect of going home for the holidays. For some, this is a time of boundless joy and anticipation. For others, it’s a building, overwhelming sense of dread.

However you approach the holidays, we are here to provide some context and guidance on navigating the sometimes triggering, often awkward, and occasionally cringey conversations around the table, such as those around the topics of politics and religion. 

Never Discuss Politics or Religion in Polite Company? 

Politics and religion are two of the most challenging conversations to discuss during the holidays.

Growing up, I would often hear, “You should never discuss politics and religion unless you want a fight.” The seasoned debater that I was, I felt confident in my reasonableness, so I ignored that advice, mainly at the cost of my own peace.

Now, as an older, wiser version of myself, I get it. I absolutely understand why “never discuss politics or religion in polite company” is a saying. As a bonus, I can articulate why avoiding the topic is an excellent course of action. In fact, your survival might depend on it. Not really… but more on that later.

I want to make it clear, this is not about picking sides or right and wrong. I’m not interested in dissecting morality or attacking the integrity of anyone’s beliefs—this is not Facebook. I aim to offer an examination of why we do what we do and the futility of trying to change people’s minds while eating turkey. 

So, buckle up as we dissect the ouroboros of feelings, identity, tribalism, and the survival instinct.

Why Politics and Family Don’t Mix

To answer why politics and family don’t mix, imagine your previous family celebrations. Whenever face to face over the dinner table with family, inevitable differences in opinions come boiling to the surface. Even if you come from a “good” family, there is a chance that after having left home, your beliefs changed and are no longer mirror copies of your parents’ or family. 

For the lucky ones, this doesn’t immediately devolve into a war of words. However, for many, this difference provides ripe ground for drawing battle lines.

This change in thinking is not something to avoid or feel ashamed of—it’s a healthy part of growing up and individuating. When we leave the nest, our minds expand as we gain exposure to ideas and ways of life outside those of our family of origin. 

Even something as simple as how you place toilet paper indicates the culture of our family of origin and will come into question at some point. For those of you who are dubious: I realized mid-pandemic that my husband puts the toilet paper on backward (under), and I suddenly found myself questioning what kind of psycho I was married to. I checked with my brother—he confirmed only psychos place the roll so the paper falls under. See? Family of origin will cosign your ideas as gospel. It’s the blessing and curse of a family. But I digress.

Why Politics and Religion Are Hot Topics

When we begin listening, debating, or battling over political and religious ideas, what we are doing is attacking beliefs. Beliefs are not rooted in fact or logic. Let me repeat that: BELIEFS ARE NOT LOGICAL.

Beliefs are born from feelings, or what feels true to a person at a particular time in their life. I’m here to tell you, feelings are not always logical. Sure, they make sense in context, but is it rational for me to assume I’m married to a psycho over the way the toilet paper falls? Absolutely not. Does it make sense when I explain how “we always did it at my house?” Sure.

The other thing about feelings—not only are they devoid of logic, but they also fail to respond to logic. If they did, every single client I work with who is addressing issues related to anxiety could reason themselves out of their anxious, racing thoughts and feelings, and I would be out of a job. Feelings do not care about reason and rationale. They are responses to a stimulus based on our own operating paradigm, which brings me to identity and tribalism.

Acknowledging Personal Beliefs and Identity

Our beliefs are a part of our identity. Acknowledging personal beliefs and identity determines how we view the world and our ideas of right and wrong. 

Often, our beliefs also foster a sense of belonging to an outside community. And that sense of belonging is what also feels threatened when we begin engaging the topics of politics and religion. Regardless of where you fall in either one of those camps, you are in a camp.

There are other people on the planet, in your neighborhood, maybe even in your house, who share the same ideas and worldview. You are not alone. And isn’t that the point? 

We are pack animals who come into the world entirely dependent upon others for our safety and survival. And guess what? That wiring does not disappear just because we grow up and go out in the world.

Political and Religious Beliefs As a Form Of Tribalism 

From a historical and evolutionary perspective, our entire survival has depended upon inclusion into the group at large. Shunning and ostracization was a death sentence. While that may not be the case any longer, particularly as it relates to the topic at hand, it doesn’t stop it from feeling that way. Again, not rational, but precisely what our brains are low-key signaling.

That need to belong, the desire for safety in numbers, is at the core of tribalism. This form of tribalism is best explained as the “us vs. them mentality.” 

To go against the group leads to the fear of alienation and isolation, which goes back to the prehistoric fear rooted in the amygdala that shunning equals death. It’s not really life or death, but it feels that way, which is why we will often double-down, become more adamant and self-righteous, and fight when our beliefs get attacked or questioned. Hence, people say “don’t discuss politics or religion” at family gatherings. 

See, you going after your cringey uncle over turkey is about more than just the words exchanged. It’s about identity, belonging, and survival. Again, this is not about right or wrong but about understanding ourselves as human animals.

How to Survive Conversations About Politics and Religion With Your Family

To preserve your peace during the holidays, I humbly offer these suggestions:

  • Do not attend every conversation and fight you find yourself invited to.
  • Remember that beliefs do not respond to fact and logic. When it comes to these topics, the Facebook rules of engagement apply—no one changes their mind when you point out the flaws in their reasoning.

All this said, I know why we do what we do, and there are still people in my life who I do not want to be around because their behavior, stemming from these ideas, violates my boundaries. Sometimes the best course of action is to honor your values and beliefs and make other plans, even at the expense of others’ feelings. Remember—you must live with yourself, not them.

If you decide to go visit family for the holidays or discuss politics with them, have an exit strategy, a plan to make it out alive—hopefully, with your peace intact. Good luck.

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