Ask Richard: Should I Help My Christian Friends Keep Their Faith?

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Hello Richard,

First, I wanted to thank you for the advice you gave not too long ago on relating to religious people at times of grief. My grandmother just passed away and that advice made dealing with her very large, very Polish and very Catholic side of the family much, much easier. It also gave me some direction in where to search to find some inner peace instead of looking towards “eternal life” or reuniting with her in heaven or other forms of what felt like denial with religious justification. Thank you.

I am the type of person that loves to think about questions, and loves to debate. Religion is high on my list of topics I enjoy because I feel like there are so many details to examine from so many different angles. It’s a topic I am very interested in. Unfortunately, I often forget that for other people, it’s not just another topic like politics or economics or even sports, but something that sets the foundation upon which they build their lives.

I have been fortunate enough to become good friends with some very smart people who are also good Christians (I say “good” in the sense they truly seem to try and follow Jesus and be good people, and have the ability to back up their beliefs much more than the average person). People who I can propose tough and interesting questions to and get some enlightening answers. I love discussing religion with them. However, I think I love it a little too much. Every time I find another interesting link online or see a point raised in a video of a debate or some potential biblical contradiction that I want their opinion on, I ask them about it. I feel like I might be doing that too often and in a way that is too strong. I am constantly asking them questions that get more and more specific, trying to understand their thought process, until I reach a point that I feel like they haven’t gotten to yet themselves. But, these aren’t just random anonymous people on the internet that I am drilling with questions, but people I care about deeply.

I know that some of them are starting to question their faith, and I feel like as a friend I should back off completely and be supportive of their faith and push them back in the other direction. As a friend, I would feel devastated if I helped to break apart the foundation they have stood on their entire life. I’m also a little torn at the same time, because I feel like discovering the truth should be a goal for everyone, and only good can come from challenging your beliefs. You either solidify them more, or you realize you are wrong and adopt the stronger position. Either way, it’s progress.

It’s hard for me to relate because for me, it is mostly just a topic I’m deeply interested in, but not invested in. I’d imagine that questioning whether the core of everything you’ve been taught and believed for 20+ years might not be true can have quite an impact on your life, both internally and externally. But is it right to hold back on them when I know they are asking questions that I have thought a lot about and have plenty of resources on? I feel like I would be helping to convert them, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I just want to know what I can do to be the best possible friend.

Thank you,
– Doug

Dear Doug,

When your friends come to you asking you questions, answer them honestly and thoroughly.

If you wonder if you’re being a pest because you’re going to them too often with questions that are too incisive, just ask them if you’re being a pest.

They sound like they can take care of themselves. If you give them permission to tell you if you’re annoying or upsetting them, then accept whatever answer they give as their honest and frank response. If they say “Yeah, please back off,” or “No, I’m fine with it,” then act accordingly. Since they know you’re going to take them at their word, they’re more likely to be candid with you.

If they are as intelligent and tough as you describe, I don’t think you need to worry about their overall well being in the long term. Questioning one’s own religious beliefs and even becoming free of them can sometimes be a painful process, but it is one of the things that intelligent and tough people often do. Their foundations may be shaken, but they usually recover. It’s helpful to have some understanding friends close by as they go through it.

I think the best possible friend you can be is to be the friend who cares about them but is still always honest with them. The fact that you want to avoid being insensitive to their feelings and to their sense of a foundation for their lives is a good sign that you can find ways to say the truth as you see it without being callous or brutal.

You wonder if as a friend you should “back off completely and be supportive of their faith and push them back in the other direction.” I think that would involve your being disingenuous or even dishonest. Taking extraordinary steps to try to keep them believers could be as unwise as taking extraordinary steps to tear their beliefs down.

Be supportive of them rather than supportive of any particular belief or loss of belief. Accept their process whichever way they go. You’ve been their friend while they have been believing Christians, and you can be their friend if they go through deep, personal changes. If their faith starts to crumble, you can be supportive by reassuring them that the good traits and behaviors you have admired in them can be preserved, even if the religious framework around those traits and behaviors has to be dismantled.

Also, don’t overestimate your power.

I think it’s rare when any person single-handedly causes another person to deconvert. That is usually a complex and gradual process involving many factors including inborn personality traits, personal experiences, level of education, exposure to many differing opinions, and the general historic trend in society toward secularism.

You may be one of the influences, but you’re not the sole influence. (pun intended) If it isn’t you, it will be somebody else anyway. However, with you they have a friend who cares about them.

Doug, it sounds like your friendship with them enriches their lives, just as they enrich yours. There may come a time when they can return the favor and be there for you, to walk with you through some other kind of life crisis, to be supportive of you rather than trying to influence any particular decision of yours that they would prefer.

That’s what friends are for.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://www.teamsmileandnod.com Kara Sherman

    Wonderful advice, Richard.

  • http://atheonomics.blogspot.com Richard H

    I think this was very good advice.

    It’s one thing to be polite about disagreement. It’s entirely another to feel that we need to protect our friends from questions that might be uncomfortable.

    Feeling like we need to lie or conceal our beliefs to protect a friend’s faith is just patronising.

  • http://libraryatheist.wordpress.com/ David

    “If it isn’t you, it will be somebody else anyway.”

    I agree with the rest of your response but this is fatalism. I have seen no evidence that we merely play roles that will be inevitably played by one if not by another.

    Aside from this minor point, I am once again thoroughly impressed by your advice.

  • Isabel Santos

    Hello, I’ve been following this blog for a few weeks and I love it.
    I’m not american, don’t know if it will be a problem. I’m brazilian, living in Brazil, hating it, but… it’s ok.
    I like the way you think, your advices use to be very logic, supportive and deep, like this one. The question Doug has made, made me think about the other side. I can’t consider myself an atheist ‘couse it sounds like a religion. It’s strange, but I feel like this is labelling me as a believer. I believe in non-God or non-gods, I’m Godless.
    I think that it is the problem when atheists try to explain their point of view, sounds like a sermon. Sorry if I am being obnoxious. I’m married to an adventist, former adventist, he still belives, just doesn’t attend anymore. ( he stopped attending long before we met )
    When I discuss with him, sometimes I have these feelings. Maybe I should create my religion… the non-religion cult.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Richard’s advise is “spot on” and I have nothing to add here. Just keep doing what you are doing.

    Jeff

  • http://www.frommormontoatheist.blogspot.com Leilani

    My ‘foundation of faith’ was cracked by someone who really cared for me at the time. Because he cared about me, I never felt like he was attacking me and I understood that he was concerned.
    It snowballed from there. I wouldn’t say he was the only reason I woke up to face the music of Mormonism, but he definitely started me thinking about why I was clinging to something that couldn’t possibly be true.
    Richard is definitely correct with saying it’s a multi-faceted complex journey. I still have days that are difficult. And even though I no longer speak to the person who posed those tough questions I couldn’t answer, I will always be grateful he loved me enough to jump start my logic and reason.

  • JulietEcho

    Good advice – and while I agree that you shouldn’t overestimate your power, I also think it’s important that you don’t underestimate it either. A number of people and other influences led me to believe that being non-religious was the superior intellectual position, pending any future evidence. There were quite a few, but each played an important part – and the last part was showing me that it was okay to call myself an atheist if that was where I stood.

  • muggle

    Good advice — and I’d also that I suspect his Christian friends welcome the discussion if for no other reason than they hope he’s considering their arguments. LOL, one or two are probably worrying about unduly influencing him.

    Many Christian sects believe it is a duty to testify. If his friends feel that fulfilled by discussing religion with him, that’s great and one of the most benign ways of doing so.

    Give and take. I envy him this. Mostly my Christian friends and I kind of agree not to discuss religion. Sometimes we’ll carefully tread into this dangerous category but whenever we do, it always gets to the point where they say you and I will have to disagree about that and it ends because I’m not going to force them to talk about it.

    In any case, to be other than honest, would damage this give and take and make his friendships less. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong or winning each other over to the other point of view. It’s about maintaining the relationship and he’s lucky to have friends he can go there with.

    As Richard said, that’s what friends are for.

  • Ron in Houston

    My initial impression was “why these people?”

    In this internet day and age you can ask questions to any number of folks many probably much better equipped to answer the questions.

    I suspect there is something more to who he is asking these questions. I don’t think that is necessarily good nor bad, but I do think it’s a valid area of introspection.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Good advice. I would also add this:

    Talk to some atheists who used to be believers, and ask them if they’re sorry they let go of their beliefs. Don’t ask people who have just recently deconverted; ask people who have been non-believers for at least a little while.

    I think you will find very, very few who say “Yes, I’m sorry that I’m an atheist, I wish I still believed.” Some may say that they have occasional moments of wishing they believed; but most will say that most of the time, they are more than fine with their atheism. (That’s what I’ve found in my conversations with atheists, anyway.)

    I think you may still be accepting the common assumption that religion is a better and stronger foundation for life than atheism and humanism. I hope you know that that’s not the case. Yes, the transition out of religion can be traumatic; but ask a bunch of atheists if they’re glad or sorry they went through it. Most of us will say that we’re happy to have made the journey, and that atheism/ humanism is a stronger and better foundation for our life — because it’s not a foundation built on lies and wishful thinking and the suspension of reason and questioning.

    If your friends are questioning their faith, their foundation is very likely already crumbling. You might want to focus your conversations, less on continuing to hack away at it with them, and more on giving them the tools and materials they’ll need when and if it comes time to build their new foundation.


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