Advice to an Atheist

I recently received an e-mail from an atheist who’s grappling with what I imagine is a common dilemma. I offered some advice, but I wouldn’t presume to think that my suggestions are definitive. I’m curious to see what Daylight Atheism commenters have to say:

I realize that you don’t run an advice column, or anything like it, but I’m sure you have had experience dealing with people who are close to you who happen to be theists. I can’t really find any resources for atheists to deal with such a situation; just for theists in the reverse situation. I would really appreciate if you could refer me to anything like that, and maybe give your own perspective on the situation.

I’ve never really known the religious affiliation of my best friend; she seems like an atheist in many ways, frankly, as she is quite irreverent toward religious concepts and rarely mentions religion in any capacity. However, recently it has become abundantly clear that she considers herself to be a Christian, and we’ve talked about religion. She has a very sparse understanding of Christianity, as she is a highly infrequent churchgoer; she went to church more often as a child. Anyway, as a result, she’s been left with no rational arguments for Christianity, just dogma. The rationally-based essays on your website just bounce off of her Sunday School shield. I really get the feeling that she has no deep belief in Christianity, but I have no idea how to even discuss the subject of religion when I keep running into a dogmatic shield of “I don’t question the Bible.”

I’m not trying to force her into atheism or anything of the sort; I want to respect her freedom of belief. At the same time, I’m deeply bothered by the fact that such a highly intelligent person has absolutely no interest in even examining her own beliefs and deciding on something beyond blind conviction. I don’t plan to make this issue into something that ruins our friendship, but I am closer to her than to any other person, and the presence of such a wide topic which I can’t even hope to discuss with her is painful.

If you have spare time, I would appreciate any advice you might be able to give me.

This was my thought:

This is a tough situation, no doubt about it. Probably, most people would advise you just to not bring up the topic of religion with your friend any more. But I understand the frustration of feeling that an entire area of discussion, particularly one that’s important to you, is off-limits. It’s good to have another person to bounce thoughts off of, and a true friendship shouldn’t have to tiptoe around issues like that, in my opinion. And I know it’s particularly frustrating dealing with someone who hasn’t even thought their own beliefs through.

I have a suggestion: Might it be possible for you to come at the topic from another angle? Instead of discussing or debating a faith your friend obviously has no intention of questioning right now, you could talk to her about other belief systems which she has no vested interest in defending – something you can both agree on. It could be Islam or some other belief system that’s common in the world today, or even another sect of Christianity whose political beliefs are far different from her own, something she feels less kinship with. She may be less reluctant to talk and learn about it when it’s not her own beliefs at stake. And by subtly bringing up topics or beliefs that have parallels to her own faith, it may be possible to plant a seed of doubt that may make her more open to future discussions.

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  • C. L. Hanson

    Here’s my advice, from experience with people with a similar profile: Don’t push it. Pressuring her to make a choice that she’s not ready to make is as likely to push her away from you as toward you. Don’t assume that her beliefs are wishy-washy or that she hasn’t thought about it just because that’s the impression you get. It may very well be that she cares deeply about her beliefs but plays them down for you because she wants to avoid a confrontation. What looks to you like encouraging her to think might look to her like an attack that will put her on the defensive and make her feel angry and hostile towards your position.

    My recommendation is to be totally honest and straight-forward about your own beliefs. Don’t hesitate or act the slightest bit apologetic about your atheism whenever it comes up naturally in conversation. But when it comes to her beliefs, give her an attitude of “We believe differently, but it’s okay to agree to disagree,” and let her deal with the big questions on her own timetable.

    Take it as you will, but that’s what I’d do. I’ve seen too many people (wrongly) assume others’ beliefs are shallow and unconsidered, and end up making enemies because of that assumption.

  • Stacey Melissa

    I’d make the same recommendation that C. L. Hanson did.

    There’s a forum called “Secular Lifestyle” at IIDB that is dedicated to discussing our interactions with theistic friends and family. You’re likely to get a wide variety of ideas and opinions from the armchair commentators there.

  • Chris

    Isn’t this issue exactly what Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is about? Maybe it could provide some help – either reading it yourself, or lending it to your friend, or both.

    The comparative-religion angle is a proven winner, too. Once you examine several different belief systems from around the world, it’s much easier to recognize another one that isn’t really that different from the rest. This leads directly into “they can’t all be true, so how do you know any of them are?”.

  • Roberto Juan Martinez

    My suggestion — make some new friends.

  • Ceetar

    Well..why does it matter? The emailer mentions a ‘sunday school shield’ but it really seems more of a security blanket. Would you tel a 4 year old there is no such thing as Santa? Probably not, why take away the joy and comfort it brings?

    No one can truly know everything, and in some cases blind faith or ignorance or whatever you want to call it works fine. If she has no strong feelings about Christianity as suspected, she’s probably not overly enthused to be discussing it one way or another. Just like it’s never come up in the past.

    Other religions and believes are a possible topic of conversation, but it may just be that you don’t share this interest strongly. Just as I rarely engage Ebon here in a discussion of the Mets depth at second base, she probably doesn’t count Christianity high on her list of interests.

  • prase

    I would do nothing. Atheists don’t have to evangelise, right? Why one must fight against the religion is because it is often a source of harmful prejudices. But when the faith is as weak as that the believer even doesn’t have interest to discuss or think about? If the believer acts as an atheist and the only link to Xianity is that she identified herself such?

    Everybody has some imperfections (as atheists we can count religious belief as an imperfection, I hope) and we shall bother only with the important ones.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Call me an asshole, but why should security blanket be a reasonable justification for… anything?

    Honestly, I’d just point out she is acting exactly the same as people indoctrinated in differant religions. Or, if she is Protestant, Catholics.

  • Greta Christina

    Your situation is eerily similar to one I had myself recently. (We’re not the same person by any chance, are we?)

    And my advice, from sad experience: If you value the friendship, drop it. (The subject, not the friendship.)

    When I was first starting to identify as an atheist, and to speak about it publicly and write about it in my blog, I also thought that this friend would be a good person to bounce ideas off of. I thought, “How wonderful that I have a smart, thoughtful Christian friend, someone I respect, who I can debate these ideas with. I can clarify my own thinking, and maybe she can clarify hers.”

    And this person — despite the fact that we’ve been part of the same close “chosen family”/ circle of friends for many years, despite the fact that we have many friends in common and see each other fairly often — will now barely speak to me.

    I didn’t press the debates on her; she got into them on her own, in comments on my blog. But I also continued — rather doggedly, I’ll acknowledge — to pursue the debates once they’d started. And I’m now sorry that I did. I wish I had recognized sooner that she was getting uncomfortable and unhappy with the debates, and taken the initiative myself to drop them.

    Like your friend, she hadn’t really thought about her Christianity very carefully. But while she wasn’t an active churchgoer, her faith was pretty important to her, and I think she took my critiques of it very personally, like I was critiquing a precious part of her own selfhood. And I suppose I can’t blame her.

    In my experience, discussing religion with theists isn’t like discussing other issues, like politics or art. The core of religious belief is very irrational, and therefore not very amenable to debate; and it’s also very personal. Believers don’t see it as a lively exchange of ideas. They see it as if you’re saying you don’t like the person they’re in love with. My advice, sadly, is to save the debates about religion for Some Guy on the Internet, or other people whose friendships you wouldn’t mind losing.

  • prase

    discussing religion with theists isn’t like discussing other issues, like politics or art
    I think it’s not so different since I know people who find disagreement in political opinion as a personal attack too.

  • Blue Nine

    She’s been left with no rational arguments for Christianity, just dogma.
    Isn’t that true of all christians?

  • Robert Madewell

    I think you should do nothing. Already it sounds like she is moderate enough that you should have few conflicts concerning religion. It sounds to me like she’s just not that interested in religious concerns. Just keep being friends and leave the religious/irreligious topics alone. She’s probably just not interested enough in it to take a stand either way. I wish I could be like that.

  • Lyra

    My advice: ask, don’t tell. I was in a similar situation a while ago, with my boyfriend of all people. I actually achieved a success! At first I hit him with all the reasons not to believe in god, but that bounced right off his faith shield. I changed tactics and started asking him why he did believe in god, not in an attacking sort of way, but just like, “I really don’t understand how god-belief works. Why do you think there is a god?” I was pretty socratic about it, asking leading questions and requesting elaboration when his arguments didn’t quite measure up. This was better-received, but eventually I could tell that this line of conversation was starting to bother him. At that point I dropped the subject for, literally, a year. When I tentatively brought it up again, I found that in the intervening time he had come to terms with the fact that his arguments weren’t that good, and had actually stopped believing. I suspect that if I had continued to heckle him throughout that year, he would have remained resistant to “losing the argument” and even if it hadn’t ruined our relationship, he wouldn’t have been in the mindset where he would be able to change his mind. The best thing to do turned out to be to set him on the path of self-reflection and then let him take it from there.

    There were other things that happened in that year, including him moving out of his parents’ house where they made him attend church every week, and lots of non-biblically-endorsed premarital sex (which I don’t necessarily recommend you try on your friend), so I can’t say for sure that it was really my discussion approach that changed him at all, but I do think that in general, when someone perceives that you are trying to change their mind about something they feel strongly about, they instinctively become resistant to being swayed. I think you have a better chance if you get them thinking about it under the guise of trying to understand their viewpoint, then step back and trust their intelligence to do the rest.

  • Jim Coufal

    A lots of good advice to choose from in all of the above. What I have to offer is simply another approach, and it may be one that would be seen through. Instead of talking theology (dogma), when the opportunity presents itself bring up the action or results of religious belief—that where the proof of the pudding is supposed to be. There are enough instances of gross violence committed in the name of religion and god, from large-scale genocides to individuals killing their children because god told them to, etc. This might lead to discussion of how religious beliefs limit individual freedom by demanding obedience to authority and even back to dogma.

    In any case, good luck.

    Jim C.

  • KShep

    ^^^What Jim said. I have a co-worker who has all the faith-based trappings you can imagine. He even speaks in tongues. We occasionally get into discussions about religion, and, with carefully chosen words, I’ve gotten him to start to think instead of just believing. And I’m not even trying to sway him at all, just gently pointing out the ridiculousness of some of the things xtians hold so dear (Ex: “If the leaders of the anti-abortion movement are really interested in eliminating abortion, why aren’t they doing something about all those unwanted and unplanned pregnancies? Wouldn’t reducing those reduce abortions?”) while letting him know in words and deeds that you need not be religious to be a good person. This seems to work better than doggedly attacking religion because, as has been pointed out above, people take that approach personally, no matter how well you come across.

    Remember at all times that you can’t win an argument with a believer. You can only explain your side concisely and thoroughly when the opportunity presents itself and let them come to their own conclusions. It’ll take a while—be patient.

  • Anonymous

    Hello; I’m the person who sent the email to Ebonmuse.

    I’d like to thank everyone for the advice, though I think that some people got the wrong idea from my email. Partly this is because I wrote it while I was much more bothered about the whole situation than I am now. I haven’t pushed her at all, beyond the conversation we had right after I found out she was a Christian. I do plan to mostly leave the situation alone, as my atheism is definitely not the most important thing in my life; attacking her religion directly is NOT something I plan to do, and I’m not going to mention religion in any capacity unless she brings it up. She has, a few times, and I’ve just been pretty straightforward. No bad feelings have arisen.

    Roberto Juan Martinez: I have other friends, thanks very much. Making assumptions about people is an unwise thing to do, especially when your uninsightful comments are surrounded by so much better advice.

    Anyway, thanks again for the advice, and I would appreciate further discussion on the topic! I’ll answer any further comments over the next few days.

  • Alex Weaver

    Roberto Juan Martinez: I have other friends, thanks very much. Making assumptions about people is an unwise thing to do, especially when your uninsightful comments are surrounded by so much better advice.

    I assume the operative part of that comment was a clumsy way of saying that this friendship probably isn’t worth bothering with, rather than an indictment of you personally.

  • Christopher


    “discussing religion with theists isn’t like discussing other issues, like politics or art
    I think it’s not so different since I know people who find disagreement in political opinion as a personal attack too.”

    My family is the same way too: any attempt to analyse thier opinions on any subject they care about (politics, religion, the arts, etc…) from another perspective ultimately devolves into a fight – as they perceive any challenge to their pet ideologies as an attack on them personally, as they’ve grown so used to being part of a herd they forgot their own individuality.

    I really don’t talk to them all that much anymore – there’s no point in attempting to have rational discussions with people so captivated by collective social thought that they can’t see anything outside that lense anymore…

  • Brad

    I’d endorse the ideas from Lyra and C. L. Hansen. Except, I don’t think you should operate any sort of ruse or “guise” or “subtly bringing up topics” in order to change her. Make sure that it’s known that you accept her regardless of her religious belief (your atheism isn’t a personal attack on her). And especially if atheism isn’t that hugely important to you, you don’t need to risk making things personal with her.

    What I would do is, if she opens the subject up, just be honest with her about yourself and what you think of her beliefs (not her), or whatever much of her beliefs you can guess at. Then don’t push the point; just make it known and out there. The reason you should be open like this is not to change her, but to arrive at some mutual understanding.

  • Jenny

    Hello, I find this very interesting. I am in this same situation and I have also been dealing with this for some time, however I am the “friend”, not the “atheist”.
    I know this is also a topic that seems to bother my friend and we both use to tip toe around faith/religion. I have found that in my case, talking it out worked best. We have very intense debates and we don’t hold punches but it has not hurt our friendship in any way. If anything, it has shown me a new side of my friend and I respect his passion and enthusiasm in the subject. He’s a smart guy and his arguments are flawless but he has not changed my opinion nor I his, we just don’t need to hide our views on it. It’s just another part of our friendship.

  • Polly

    I heartily agree with Lyra’s approach. “Socratic” is definitely the way to go.

    It causes the least offense, forces the questioner to adopt a humble disposition (’cause atheists, myself included, come off as arrogant sometimes), and if done correctly and gently (not like an exam) gives the other person and their ego room to retreat safely.

    I don’t regard this as “tricky” or manipulative IF they already know where you stand on the issue. You’re not coming at them as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

    Frontal assaults only leave room for complete capitulation or a fight to the death; or a cold war until the next engagement. The believer falls back 100% of the time on hard-faith possibly combined with a vague mysticism wherein god has “revealed” himself in personal experiences.

  • Mr.Pendent

    I come across this sort of thing a fair bit, as most of my family (immediate and extended) are religious (though, thankfully, not fundamentalists). They don’t preach at me, certainly, and don’t try to convert me, and I don’t try to convert them.

    But I do not agree that you should just not bring it up. That, in my opinion, is the wrong way. If this person is your friend, then being with them shouldn’t force you to act like someone else. Even when I’m with my immediate family, I don’t pretend to any god-belief. When they prey, I stand there quietly, head up, and wait for them to finish. If they say something about how God did such-and-such, I’ll call them on it. I don’t get into big arguments unless they want to, but I’m not going to sit there and listen to them say something stupid.

    My point is just that I am myself–and atheist. They do not try to avoid talking about God around me (nor would I expect them to) so why should they expect anything different from me? This is more of that same crap that we’ve heard all before, most recently in the shrill whine from folks about how PZ was picking on them.

    Someone else posted a good idea a few weeks ago about treating religion as a hobby. Would you not mock NASCAR fans (or the “sport”) if this person was a big fan? If you this person were a racewalker, would you shy away from saying that people look very funny when they do that? Then why should religion be any different?

    Be yourself. Better to have a friend who knows you and disagrees with you than one who thinks you are someone you’re not.

  • Mr.Pendent

    hehe…Freudian slip. I obviously meant “pray”, not “prey” up there…

  • Jim Baerg

    Someone else posted a good idea a few weeks ago about treating religion as a hobby. Would you not mock NASCAR fans (or the “sport”) if this person was a big fan? If you this person were a racewalker, would you shy away from saying that people look very funny when they do that? Then why should religion be any different?

    The difference is that hobbies are matters of taste, there can be no right or wrong on such issues. Religions usually make claims about matters of fact & so can be right or wrong. Where the religion is wrong it deserves less respect than a hobby that doesn’t appeal to you.

  • Mr.Pendent

    I agree with you, Jim. Completely. I’m all for facing theists head-on and arguing their faith down to a nub.

    But the question posed was about specifically avoiding that scenario. To say that since the religion is wrong it deserves less respect than a hobby (less than NASCAR?) is all fine, but is no more helpful to the person seeking help dealing with her theist friend than the unhelpful “get different friends” above.

    Also, my point was simply that if she would not filter her comments about NASCAR, then she shouldn’t filter them about religion. If she would avoid saying things about NASCAR (or ping-pong, or any other hobby) to her friend, then she should do the same in this case.

  • KShep

    As someone who once attended a NASCAR race, I can say with certainty that it is now a religion in and of itself, with a spiritual leader known as “Earnhardt.” :^)

  • Alex Dino

    I have a similar situation, although the other party is my mother. Unfortunately, I was forced to drop the subject although, even after several years of intense (yet respectful) debates. As a former Catholic myself, my mother was unable to understand how I “lost faith.” Even though I am quite confident that she questions and even doubts her own faith, I think that she needs it to live a fulfilling and hopeful life, thus I forced myself to avoid such conversations.

  • Bijibaboom

    I’m having the same experience right now with my best friend. I find the hard part is STARTING the discussion about faith.Once you get past that initial few sentences of awkwardness,then you’re on a roll.To start the discussion,I used the method mentioned earlier of bringing up other faiths first then finding an opportunity to naturally divert the topic to his own faith.Another method would be stating an interesting (and established!)scientific fact that contradicts his religious teachings to invoke his interest.However,it’s still pretty hard to get rid of the awkwardness and I find myself on my toes most of the time to avoid offending him.He’s aware of my discomfort and that makes him uncomfortable too,increasing awkwardness.
    Another frustration: Sometimes, even when he faces up to and acknowledge all the evidences against his faith, he just won’t reconsider his position.He’s 14 and his parents are Christians,so I guess the social impact of denouncing his faith is too great for him to seriously consider doing it. I do “win” all our arguments, but even when he knows that there are problems with his faith, he just choses to ignore them,probably due to all the brainwashing of not questioning the Bible.
    The bright side is that he’s open to scientific evidences, unlike many fundamentalists.

  • velkyn

    sounds like the “friend” is just another middle aged person who is suddenly scared of death and wants one foot in the pearly gates, no matter what.

  • bob

    Some have said that the atheist should probably just keep his mouth closed on the subject, unless of course, the friend brings it up.
    I have been dating my girlfriend for over three years. She is a Christian who attends church almost every Sunday. She gives at least 10% of her income to the church. She is a hard working woman approaching middle age with a limited income not even approaching middle class.
    We have discussed the situation on a few occasions-her spending every Sunday in church when we could go do something fun, and her giving so much of her sparse income to the church when she should be investing for retirement.
    We love each other, but it is the proverbial brick wall when it comes to her religious practices. Her faith has no affect on me, but it is her practice of her faith. If she just believed in God, heaven, hell, I couldn’t care less, but when I see her faith robing her of her time (our time together) and her money, I do speak up every now and then. But, the conversation never ends well.

  • Valhar2000

    Lyra: you were playing with a significant advantage! It is not for nothin that we spaniards have the saying: “Pueden más dos tetas que dos carretas”

  • Valhar2000

    Bob: one of the many reasons I really don’t think I could ever date a theist. It would be a possibly small, but constant and unrelenting source of annoyance, and I can get all the annoyance I need from other sources.

  • merkur

    At the same time, I’m deeply bothered by the fact that such a highly intelligent person has absolutely no interest in even examining her own beliefs and deciding on something beyond blind conviction.

    That’s your problem, not hers. Drop the subject, or (if it bothers you that much) drop the friendship.

  • alnitak

    The method of distraction by discussing another faith has worked for me. My devout sister was happy to heap scorn on the Mormon faith. Much later on, I gently pointed out the similarities between her blind faith and belief in the Angel Moroni. Lots of real discussion followed.

  • Scott Andersen

    Religious affiliation provides a sense of identity. Having been brought up in a religious tradition, breaking from that tradition can be a traumatic experience. Even as one grows older and the faith of their upbringing becomes less incorporated into their life the sense of belonging can remain strong.

    When tackling a tough situation I like consciously ask myself what it is that I want to achieve. By framing the answer to that question I gain focus and clarity of purpose. From what I can ascertain from our AdviceSeeker’s words, it appears that his/her objective is to remove a barrier in their friendship, that barrier being a closed off section of the life of a dear friend, a prominent portion of the friend’s personhood that cannot be reached by someone deeply desiring to share their self with someone they love. What follows proceeds from that assumption. If the assumption is wrong then the following thoughts are of limited value in the situation.

    Walls are built out of fear. That which we fear we build walls against to protect us from assault. Anything that is perceived to be an assault will only serve to strengthen the walls.

    So what does the friend fear? Her religious identity. Remember that those things with which we identify are parts of our personhood; they make a portion of how we know ourselves and our place in the world. Even if a given identity has no rational base or remains uncontemplated, it remains a part of how we know ourselves. The problem in such a case is that contemplation of the identity risks exposure of that identity to assault from within. When it comes to identity, we fear to look at that which we fear we might reject because it opens the door to questioning all the things with which we identify. In so doing we risk what is, to some, the unriskable; the collapse of our existing identity. It is dangerous ground.

    The solution?

    I can think of only one thing: identity substitution. It psychologically much easier to adopt a new identity element than question an existing one. Indeed, incorporating new identity elements is one of the ways in which we grow and mature. And once incorporated, if a newly adopted identity element happens to supersede an older one it can be relatively easy to jettison the no-longer-needed identity.

    No one can make an offering of a new identity element to another. We talking about the self here and only the self can locate and accept a new element. All a loving friend can do is promote exposure to new identity elements and leave the loved one to adopt or not as they deem desirable. Keep in mind that identity substitution requires that the new element provide everything important to the individual that the old element contained and that it is exceedingly difficult for an observer to know what those things might be.

    And so, after all that long-winded analysis coming from a mind that is simply striving to see what it can in the situation we come to basically the same conclusion that Ebonmuse provided at the beginning: exposure to other belief systems.

  • Stephen Newport

    I realize my comment is in a long list now, but I didn’t see it mentioned. In a very prejudice, religious world, I don’t think it is a far stretch to assume that you prioritize knowledge, truth and the betterment of yourself simply by being atheist. This means that it would probably be a value for you to have friends that questioned you and sharpened you. A friendship where you desire that, but your friend doesn’t isn’t a very good relationship. She will never help you become a better person, and she refuses to listen to something that could help her.

    You might suggest that good relationships question each other to bring out the best in them. If she is not doing that, I would submit she’s not a very good friend.