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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