Ask Richard: My Atheist Boyfriend is Too Hostile to His Christian Friends

Dear Richard,

My boyfriend and I are both atheists, although he identifies more strongly with agnosticism. While all my close friends are atheists (not by my intention, it just ended up that way), his are Christians — very conservative Christians. Both of us, but especially him, get into heated arguments/debates with them over religion, gay rights, and the current administration. (Obama is the Devil, apparently, and Bush was the bees knees.) I’m writing to you about the way he *handles* these arguments. Like Mr. Friendly Atheist has said repeatedly, we’re not going to change any minds — about most anything, but the treatment of atheists in particular — by being hostile. And my boyfriend is very hostile.

When debating with them, he very quickly becomes overly sarcastic, insulting, patronizing, and belittling. Even when the argument ends, he brings it up shortly after and badgers about it endlessly. I’ve tried talking to him about it — even as it happens, I’ve tried bringing it to his attention. I told him that his behavior with them isn’t helping our “cause” — which would be the efforts to rid the world of the prejudices against atheism. He just doesn’t seem to understand that repeatedly talking about/insulting their invisible man in the sky, he’s alienating them and just proving them “right”.

I’ve debated with his friends myself — particularly the one he fights with the most. I managed to convince an extremely conservative friend of his to just *not* vote for Prop 8, with the right comparisons and patience, instead of cementing his decision to vote yes like my boyfriend had after 5 hours of arguing.

I love my boyfriend dearly, and in every other situation imaginable, he’s the sweetest, kindest man with more patience than a saint. It’s just this one thing… I don’t know how to get through to him that he can’t always beat people down until they admit he’s right or leave. What can I say to him? Or do?

Thanks for reading,

Frustrated.

Dear Frustrated,

After witnessing hundreds and hundreds of such discussions, I’ve decided that there are two very different basic reasons why people do it. One is to try to persuade another person to change their opinion, viewpoint, belief or behavior. The other is simply to express themselves.

I think your boyfriend may be in the second group. If so, he is focused on the satisfaction of expressing his opinions and venting his aggression. He is not focused on the effect he will have on whoever is listening. In fact, someone actually listening may be almost incidental. It’s expressing and venting that is the main point, not being heard, understood or gaining agreement.

When two opposing “expressors” get into one of these diatribe duels, it resembles ritualized combat. Although it may sound angry and loud, sometimes it’s more like a sparring that is not really intended to actually vanquish the opponent. If one side was to actually concede to the other, abandoning their opinion and adopting the victor’s opinion, then the fun would be over.

Think of what you have observed. Your boyfriend and one of his friends indulge in this game again and again, but nothing in either person changes, and they remain friends. For all their belligerent and bellicose bellowing, they both might as well be deaf. Yet they eagerly come back for more. It’s reasonable to conclude that they are getting exactly what they want: Play.

So helping our “cause,” (I hesitate to use that term) whether better treatment of atheists or promoting skeptical thought about religion and its social-political prejudices, is probably not really his concern. From how it sounds, you’re probably not going to get him to change his behavior. You can encourage him, but don’t expect a sudden turnaround, and don’t struggle so much that you end up calling yourself “Frustrated.” From his point of view, he’s enjoying the sport of it, so why should he stop? Little boys love to play out the dramas of epic struggles, and some of them don’t grow out of it until their hair is thin and their waists are thick.

Although I prefer constructive dialogues, I don’t think that we should presume that any individual atheist “owes” support to any goal, agenda or cause of atheists in general. Some want to act in ways that make things better for other atheists or society in general, while others are unconcerned with such things. For both better and worse, that is the nature of free thinking.

Now, if your boyfriend ever gets interested in actually persuading someone to rethink their views, then he would do well to learn from you. He will have to put aside his combative style because it just doesn’t result in a change of opinion. As you have noted, it results in reinforcing the original opinion. This is because when he includes insults with his argument, he gives the other person a strong emotional incentive to not agree with the argument. The implication is there that if the argument is valid, the insults are valid too.

The art of effective persuasion requires patience, empathy, compassion, tact, humor, and a good will that rises above the differences of opinion, to appeal to the mutual interests and needs that we share. It involves seed planting, nurturing, coaxing, and most of all, really good listening. The best persuaders talk much more with their ears than with their mouths.

Frustrated, when all their hostile posturing becomes tiresome, excuse yourself, telling them that you’ll be back after they’re finished having fun clashing their wooden swords. Find a mature person to converse with out of reach of the noise, or just enjoy the restorative and clarifying wisdom whispered to you by trees, sky, and fresh air. Listen well.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. All 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.

  • synergy

    Well said! I’m always saying the same thing to a few folks I know who use this form of, um, persuasion. Honey or vinegar? :)

  • Ron in Houston

    One is to try to persuade another person to change their opinion, viewpoint, belief or behavior.

    I’d more call it “planting seeds.” I wonder if an atheist ever had a believer have a “come to Darwin” epiphany.

    The other is simply to express themselves.

    As usual, Richard is nothing but diplomatic. Other words for “express(ing) themsleves?” Ranting, tirade, histrionic fit, all also come to mind. Granted sometimes folks simply express themselves, but usually if you feel the need to “debate” someone – then you’re probably a little past simple self expression.

    The art of effective persuasion requires patience, empathy, compassion, tact, humor, and a good will that rises above the differences of opinion, to appeal to the mutual interests and needs that we share. It involves seed planting, nurturing, coaxing, and most of all, really good listening. The best persuaders talk much more with their ears than with their mouths.

    I nominate Richard for president of the atheist cat herder club. He gives such great advice. If only are “real leaders” were so wise.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I agree with Richard. It takes two to tango and if your boyfriend remains friends with those he argues with then those other people must also be enjoying the arguments. It may be that what you perceive as insult, they just perceive as banter. Of course your boyfriend may also be living up to a perceived stereotype “the others” have of atheists. They may “need” him to stroke that stereotype from time to time to keep their world-view in check. I can see how you would view that as frustrating.

  • Dout

    I had a frind in LA that I used to spend hours upon hours doing this. It was some of the most fun either of us actualy had at work most people thought we were going to kill each other. I miss those days.

  • Darlene

    There is a very simple fix: when he hangs out with his Christian friends, you can hang out somewhere else, avoiding getting annoyed by your boyfriend’s behavior.

    His friends obviously don’t mind, since they are still his friends. He obviously enjoys it, since he keeps doing it.

    And I am unclear about what our “cause” is. I thought being an atheist was about not believing in god? Was there a memo about a list of other requirements for being an atheist that I missed?

    It is wise to keep your relationship with your boyfriend in one area, and let him deal with his relationships with his friends on his own. Unless he asks for advice, and even then I would be cautious, it is simply none of your concern.

    It doesn’t really matter what the debates are about: this is about relationships and control and boundries. He has invited you into his world with his friends; you are not there to pass judgement, you are there to share a piece of his world, one where you are a guest.

    If you don’t like the way he plays with friends find something else to do; accept it; or get another boyfriend whose behavior is more acceptable to you.

    But don’t think you’re going to change him. That way is only madness!

  • Myrdek

    When I was 16, during my “arguing” phase, I acted like that for a year. I managed to deconvert more than a dozen people, including all my friends, my parents and a priest.

    While this tactic might seem crude and childish, it does provide results. You can find a lot of people on forums like exchristian.net who were deconverted this way.

    It’s after the debate that people reflect on the conversation and consider the arguments. I can’t count the number of times that I had a debate and ended up stuck in a mental loop afterwards trying to make sense of it.

  • Min

    His friends obviously don’t mind, since they are still his friends.

    I think an important question here is: are they? I’m sure we’ve all known somebody in a group who was a jackass, but everybody in the group put up with him anyway because nobody could come right out and tell him to go away, or either nobody wants to do so out of fear of offending somebody who genuinely likes that person.

  • J. Allen

    I think what many don’t bring up is that the boyfriend may be venting because there is still pain there. It is hard to ‘get over’ being lied to in such a grand way, which I think is why many atheists come off as hostile. It might not help who he’s talking too, but it may be helping him heal. It’s also possible that he will make valid points that germinate in time, after his opponent relaxes.

    Of course, some folk just like arguing, or don’t have the emotional maturity to discuss such a sensitive issue in any practical way.

  • Ron in Houston

    Hmmm,

    Having read this a second time with more emphasis on the letter rather than Richard’s response I’d add this:

    I love my boyfriend dearly, and in every other situation imaginable, he’s the sweetest, kindest man with more patience than a saint.

    One of the things I’ve noticed is that the friend on the Prop 8 issue was another male.

    One of the things you need to realize is that the Mars/Venus thing is pretty true. Men and women are fairly different in many ways.

    We’re even more different in our relations to the opposite sex.

    Perhaps for biological reasons, men have learned to be more relational with women since women tend to relate to the world more in terms of relations. However, when it comes to other men, well, that’s a whole other story.

    I see your boyfriend (at least as to his male Prop 8 friend) acting like a typical male. Beating his chest, making big displays, and generally acting like a neanderthal. You’re revulsion at this behavior is certainly predictable and understandable.

    So, continue to love him, and forgive him his “maleness.”

  • littlejohn

    I think there is a third type of atheist debater: The person who thinks atheism is so glaringly, obviously true that the other person will change his position if shown the evidence clearly (and loudly) enough. I’ve been guilty of that myself.
    As I’ve gotten older, though, it occurs to me that lots of people realize their religious beliefs are illogical, but they’re too invested in them to admit their beliefs are illogical. After all, that would mean they’d have to change what might be the most important thing in their lives. Not an easy thing to do.
    Thought experiment: What would it do to your psyche if someone produced utterly convincing proof of the Christian god’s existence? I’d have to completely rebuild my belief system and my view of life, the universe and everything. It wouldn’t be fun.

  • Aj

    Checking our behaviour to see whether it’s harmful to “the cause”? Woah, I think I’m going to puke. I hate that people feel that they have to represent groups they identify with because some people are stupid enough to think they can categorize many people with small non-random samples. I hate more that others in the group start to apply pressure to those that they think shouldn’t represent their group, instead of attacking the stupid idea that’s the root problem.

    I disagree that expressing aggression and hostility towards the ideas of someone you want to persuade is counter-productive. Actually it’s the opposite of my experience. If you think you can’t plant the seeds of doubt through hostility towards ideas or actions then you’re not living on the same planet as I am. I’m embarrassed with some of the retarded ideas I had when I was young and which I may have continued to hold today if it wasn’t for aggression and hostility that forced me to check my ideas.

    I find it pathetic the way arrogant people belittle others as “little boys” and not “mature” for expressing themselves. I wouldn’t want to be around people who think “play” is something you grow out of or that little girls (or women for that matter) don’t engage in “sparring”. It’s hilarious that the advice is to say “have fun clashing your wooden swords” as if that’s not insulting, patronizing, and belittling, totally hypocritical.

    Does honey really catch more flies?

  • sam

    Totally agreed with the beginning of your response about this being a miniature form of battle. Totally disagree with the ending half where you referred to it in such a condescending manner. If you think fun and a lively debate are immature, you’re wrong.

  • Tom

    I think the central issue here is, is your boyfriend being compassionate?

    Compassion, despite what you may think, can come in the form of anger and vitriol.

    But, it is far easier to lose compassion for someone when under the influence of anger. Your feelings are valid, but you may need to think about this in a different way.

  • Ron in Houston

    I disagree that expressing aggression and hostility towards the ideas of someone you want to persuade is counter-productive. Actually it’s the opposite of my experience.

    What planet have you grown up on? You hit me with a 2 x 4 and my response is not going to be “well, gee I guess you’re right.” I’m gonna pick up that 2 x 4 and wack you right back.

  • Ron in Houston

    Compassion, despite what you may think, can come in the form of anger and vitriol.

    Wow! That one is deep. I’m really going to have to ponder the concept of “compassionate anger” and “compassionate vitriol.”

    I’m not going to knee jerk and say it’s impossible. But the concepts appear pretty contradictory in my book.

  • David

    I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents.

    I used to have great fun with a friend of mine. We would play chess in the cafeteria at school and in between moves we would trash talk each other.

    Everything from Shakespearean insults to the simple “You damn clever bastard.”

    We confused merry hell out of watchers who were more used to silence during chess.

    We were more mellow than those described in the letter above, no shouting, etc. and I would be surprised if people thought we meant the insults.

    But I bring this up just to communicate this point:
    Friendship is expressed in a great many ways. I still talk to Austin over the net, but I wish he was still in the area where we could more easily confuse the patrons of coffee shops.

  • Richard P

    “You hit me with a 2 x 4 and my response is not going to be “well, gee I guess you’re right.” I’m gonna pick up that 2 x 4 and whack you right back.”

    No you won’t!! You’ll be sleeping as he rummages through your pockets, stealing your keys and your wallet.

    But, I do think you will be dreaming about it.

    I also agree that those aggressive in their convictions can be more effective than what it may first seem. People respond to passion. If you don’t act as though you believe in what your saying, few will give you credibility. It’s the passionate religions that get the most converts. it is only obvious to think that those traits would need to be present to attract those to a more rational way of thinking. We are walking sacks of emotions after all, driven my needs and desires.

    However, there is a fine line between passion and being a jerk. He will have to learn the difference. If his friends reject him hopefully he will question what happened and learn. With any luck, he will be able to repair the damage.
    Life lessons, sometimes they suck.

  • Ron in Houston

    Richard P

    I really agree with what you’re saying. You respond to me with passion and I’m going to be put back and go “whoa, this guy is passionate.”

    I also agree there is a fine line between passion and being a jerk. There is a fine line between “whoa, this guy is passionate” and “man, this guy is a jerk, maybe I should kick him in the cajones.”

  • Richard P

    “Compassion, despite what you may think, can come in the form of anger and vitriol.”

    An excellent example….
    I used to go to a private school. In the winter we would snowshoe at least 4 miles every day. I was in grade 8 then. I was always one of the slower participants. I would trudge along hating what we were doing, feeling sorry for myself, and all of life’s hardships.
    One day one of the teachers came up behind me and started to laugh at me. I asked him why he was laughing.
    He said, because he was laughing at me because “your’re so stupid”(his exact words).
    I said, “I am not stupid.”
    He responded, “Yes you are. You are here moping about feeling sorry for your lot in life, feeling sorry for yourself, when, if you would realize that just over the hill and down the other side is where you really want to be. Instead of focusing on where you are, you could focus on where you want to be and you will be there in half the time. Instead you would rather wallow in your pity.. Yes, you are stupid.. He then passed me and disappeared over the hill.
    I thought about what he said realized I was being stupid and started to focus on where I wanted to be. I cut my times down by half and instead of moping out in the cold I enjoyed the time sipping hot chocolate and sweating in the steam bath. The next year our team won a forty two mile race, with me as the pacer… it was one of the greatest lessons in my life.
    Given to me in anger with vitriol, in compassion for my stupidity. I don’t think it would have registered in any other way.

  • Ron in Houston

    OK Richard P

    You’ve sold me on the compassion with vitriol. Calling you stupid was clearly vitriolic and he seemed to do it with compassion.

    Want to enlighten me on the concept of compassionate anger? I’m beginning to get it, but is the compassionate person really angry or just sort of faking it to wake you up.

  • Richard P

    I guess you had to be there, this teacher seemed to be very angry person. He didn’t present it as a smart remark, just a get out of my way stupid, attitude. Maybe it was just the delivery but for a 13yr old kid it was anger to me.

    I also once threw my brother out of my house, literally. He had an alcohol problem I refused to enable him. I threw him out and told him not to come back until he was sober. Yes, I was angry, come over to my house and puke on my floor. It took him a while but, one day he did come back.. three years later.. He said that my throwing him out was his wake up call. He knew I would never had done that except that I cared and refused to watch him destroy his life. I do not think he has had a drink in 10 years now.

    Sometimes the right thing is the hardest to do.

    I do not think these things apply to the conversation at hand. But, well timed angry or vitriolic responses can have there time and place.

  • Frustrated

    Hi, I’m the letter writer. I want to start off by saying I really, really poorly worded the “cause” part of my letter.

    After reading Richard’s response and all the comments, I must admit, it really does seem like their form of sparring, now that I look at it. They’re all into martial arts and fighting *anyway* so it truly shouldn’t be surprising to me. I’ve just got to learn to ignore it, I suppose. Easy enough, since a grand, grand, grand majority of these arguments are online.

    Thanks very much for your response Richard, you gave me a lot to think about.

  • Rhino1515

    I (male, atheist) have often been told I’m too strident, demeaning, argumentative and ridiculing when faced with someone who is an otherwise seemingly sane adult, but throws all reason to the wind when it comes to religious beliefs.
    Somehow, it bothers me much more when the person I’m speaking with is a friend whom I cherish for his intelligence, insight and wit than just some idiot on the street. The idiot on the street I can sneer at and walk away from when he is spouting some religious claptrap. When it’s someone I KNOW should know better — then I get loud and angry. I see it as such a waste of intelligence for someone to believe (or say they believe) religious nonsense.
    In the gay community, some say that we need both prongs of attack for our fight for human rights to succeed: a calm, reasoned, long-term approach and the loud, in-your-face protestors. One side gets laws passed, government regulations enacted, outdated policies removed from the books. And the other side keeps the emotional side of the fight in the public eye so no one thinks we’re done fighting for our rights.
    I suspect, in the long run, both prongs are necessary in the fight against religion, too.

  • muggle

    “And I am unclear about what our “cause” is. I thought being an atheist was about not believing in god? Was there a memo about a list of other requirements for being an atheist that I missed?”

    Woo hoo. Thank you. I’m tired of hearing about this cause all the time too. And day I have to meet a list of requirements is the day I become a nontheist.

    I’m often angrily compassionate. Seeing people treated unjustly or abused really pisses me the fuck off. That’s angrily compassionate and is often quite effective. Sadly, not always. But I’d say it’s been a good thing for civil rights that there are people who are angrily compassionate.

  • http://naturalpond.blogspot.com village1diot

    “I don’t think that we should presume that any individual atheist “owes” support to any goal, agenda or cause of atheists in general.”

    Thank You! Finally, I have heard it from someone other than myself.

    It bothers me when atheists tell other atheists how we should act or how we should best approach a dialog. The one that really gets me, “They don’t even get the concept of atheism. They should(or shouldn’t) blah blah blah…” Like there is some kind of atheist dogma that we need to adhere to.

    I never knew that a non-belief in god automatically signed us up for a cause.


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