Okay, I had to take the bait when I read your blog post. I am an atheist, and my boyfriend (who I live with) is Catholic. Normally, it is not an issue. He is not a devout Catholic, he never wants to go to mass, he doesn’t pray, he even told me he’s really not sure there is a god. However, he gets really offended if I say anything bad about Catholicism or religion and thinks I don’t need to be so outspoken about my atheism. I’m not really sure what to do as I see myself more as raising interesting and thought-provoking points and he sees it as an attack. I love my boyfriend very much and I don’t need him to be an atheist, but why is he so defensive about something he doesn’t even act like matters to him?
Your statement and question are crystal clear. If you haven’t yet, present them to him instead of me, but be certain to present it all in a way that helps him feel completely safe to answer honestly. So much of communication is in the tone. His answer might require some introspective effort on his part, so it might take some time, and might come in small installments. Be equal parts patient, loving and curious. Approach his puzzling defensiveness as if it is an interesting quirk in a personality that you love, so you won’t inadvertently create the sense that you see it as a flaw. Then he might become curious about it too, rather than becoming even more defensive about his defensiveness.
Beyond whatever he might say I can only speculate, and offhand I can think of five possibilities:
- His family background might not have included the understanding that “interesting and thought-provoking” conversations can be non-adversarial, that they aren’t necessarily one person attacking another. Not all families know how to have such conversations. If this is the case, he might react as if it is an attack.
- Even though he may even be not so sure about God, being Catholic for him may include some self identity, family identity and loyalty, cultural identity, sense of place and sense of tradition. If so, those things might trigger a defensive reaction.
- Another possibility is that it might not be defensiveness about his own beliefs, but instead it might be a less–than-conscious objection to your atheism. He has been brought up in a society that sees atheism as ugly, evil, vulgar, disrespectful and dangerous. His loving you as an individual may not have completely erased such negative feelings about a category of which you are a member.
- There is the possibility that because of that stigma, he wants to avoid social embarrassment if your atheism is revealed to others, so he wishes you’d just not talk about it.
- Your arguments are strong and compelling, and he feels what little faith he has left giving way. For emotional reasons, he doesn’t want to completely lose it. Many atheists know how painful that process can be. So he wants you to back off.
Speculations like these are more often wrong than right when I haven’t gotten to know the person, so the best expert to consult about him is him. If you think any of the above possibilities might be correct, be careful to only propose them if he seems stuck and cannot find the insight he needs to answer your original question. Again, the tone is important; present them as mere suggestions, not accusations.
Nora, he’s a lucky guy to have so loving and intelligent a girlfriend. Intelligence sometimes makes the loving more complicated, but also can make it more satisfying.