Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. From what I’ve read, you typically give advice concerning family and jobs, rather than matters of the heart. I sincerely hope that you can help me resolve this problem.
I’m a young female college student, and I consider myself an anti-theist atheist. I’ve developed a romantic interest in a close friend who I’ve known for several years. We are compatible in the areas that are important to me — political views, interests, sense of humor, and others — except for one: he is a practicing Catholic. My dilemma is whether or not to pursue a committed relationship with him.
It’s not entirely clear how fervently my friend believes. I can tell you that he regularly prays before meals, attends church every few months, and participates in Lent and other Christian holidays. He also supports (perhaps loosely) some Christian principles such as abstaining from premarital sex. However, I have heard him criticize certain Catholic leaders for opposing contraception, and in the past he has distanced himself from his parents who he calls “radically religious.” It seems like he lives in the Christian tradition without centering his life on God. But I can’t be sure, and I feel like it would be unfriendly to ask him directly.
Religious disagreements aren’t always a relationship barrier, as I’m sure many happily married couples could tell me. But there are potential conflicts for me to consider. Since my friend is subtle and reserved about his beliefs, I am more concerned that I would create problems, not him. I am certainly willing to tone down my opinionated disposition, but I don’t know if that will solve the problem.
If my friend and I were to become closer, I’m sure I would more often witness his religiosity. I fear I would lose respect for him every time he prayed or went to church (that’s already sort of true since he prays silently when we go out to eat). I also worry that not only will I say something offensive to him, but that I won’t be sorry I did. We can’t simply agree never to talk about religion. Such a topic is inevitable, as well as relevant to how we view the world. I see religion as unreal, pointless, and often harmful, and I won’t be able to ignore his theism.
Although it will be difficult, I am prepared to put aside my feelings for my friend if I decide it’s not a good idea for us to be together. If decide to go ahead and pursue him romantically, I don’t know how I will handle or avoid the conflicts I have mentioned.
Any advice you can offer would be much appreciated.
I know just the person whom you should consult. He’s the world’s leading authority on your friend’s views about religion, atheism, and even your friend’s feelings about you.
That expert is your friend.
When people begin to feel romantic love toward a friend, that is when they should become more open, frank and forthcoming about their feelings, not less. Unfortunately, the common tendency is to become more self protective and less self expressive. People think that more is at risk in a love relationship than a friendship, so they hesitate to share the very things that could allow the love to flourish. So they go on and on in limbo, wondering, guessing, wishing, and hoping that they can somehow learn the truth without telling the truth, without risking being hurt or embarrassed. Often they wait so long that opportunity slips through their fingers. Love is not for the timid.
So is there an atheist’s approach to this kind of situation? Perhaps. If you accept the idea that atheists tend to be realists, focused on what actually is rather than wishful thinking, if you accept the idea that atheists tend to be rational, preferring to figure things out logically, and if you accept the idea that to be realists and rationalists, they avoid making assumptions and instead try to gather data, information and evidence, then the atheist’s approach to this would be to gather the information you need in a step-by-step process.
There is a myth perpetuated by romance novels that predicaments posed by love cannot or even should not be handled with reason. Just as we have rejected other superstitions, we need to disabuse ourselves of this assumption that we cannot apply good problem solving skills to something as important as finding out where we stand with a potential lover. When it comes to such a significant thing in our lives, why should we follow the silly notion that we cannot use our prefrontal cortex, and only use our gut?
The first step would be to find out what are your friend’s feelings toward you. To do that, you simply need to come forth with your feelings in a candid but not dramatic way, and then ask him frankly if he has any similar emotions toward you. If he does not have a romantic interest that is in any way mutual, then you need not go any further in pursuing a love relationship. If you can set those feelings aside, as you said you think you can, then your friendship can continue. If sharing your feelings with him “scares him off,” and he ends the friendship, then he is a rather shallow and immature friend anyway. Good that you found out.
If he does have some comparable affections for you and an interest in a committed relationship, then you would go to the next step, to exchange information about religious attitudes. You seem to be mostly worried that his religiosity would be a deal breaker for you, but your atheism might very well be a deal breaker for him. As you say, religious disagreements are not always a relationship barrier. Some couples are able to make it work. But sadly it often is insurmountable, even with some Christians who have some liberal traits as your friend appears to have.
Whether the two of you become a committed couple or remain at the friendship level, it is not a good idea to keep suppressing an important aspect of yourself in order to preserve the relationship. Build relationships that allow both people to fully be who they are. You have strong opinions about religion, and you’re not going to be able to keep swallowing them. It will eventually become obvious that you are being evasive or disingenuous. He’ll either figure it out, or he might misinterpret your being cagey in some way that makes things worse. As you have said, discussing religion is probably inevitable. The longer you put it off, the more painful it will be if it splits you up.
Similarly as with your feelings, you can lay out your opinions on religion in a frank but courteous way, and encourage him to do the same. It would not be as you say, “unfriendly to ask him directly.” It would be respectful to both him and yourself, showing that you have confidence in both of your abilities to discuss this maturely and civilly. If the two of you cannot do this, then again, it’s good that you found out.
Enamored, I hope you can get past your hesitation and free yourself from this endless guessing and wondering about what might be, could be, and would be. Use those good traits that atheists tend to have and boldly and assertively find out what is. To learn his truth, tell your truth.
For the best friendships or love relationships, ask earnestly, answer honestly, love openly, and think rationally.