Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
Rita wrote a long letter which I have edited and paraphrased for space reasons. She was raised as a Christian and has recently come out as an atheist to her friends from her home town.
One girl in particular, whom I grew up with and whom I love very much, has become uber-conservative and evangelical in recent years. One night she asked me to pray for a friend that had confided in her that he was gay. She thinks this is a “choice” that condemns him to hell. She was especially upset because he had not told her before now, and she felt as though he has been lying to her for a long time.
Rita wasn’t willing to do that both because she is a nonbeliever and because she doesn’t think that gay people need any fixing. She decided to tell her friend that she’s an atheist to avoid being accused of “lying” in the same way as the gay friend. It was a complete surprise to the girl.
She didn’t handle it well at all. She burst into tears and said she couldn’t handle this right now and had to go. In hindsight, I realize that my timing may have been a bit insensitive as she had just learned of her friend’s sexuality. However, what’s done is done. A few days after the event, I received a lengthy hand written letter in the mail from her. It told of how her heart was broken for me and that, though she still loves me, she is deeply saddened by the fact that my life cannot have meaning in god and that I do not know the joys of a deep personal relationship with him. She also mentioned how if only I’d open my heart to him, god could comfort me and show me his love in the worst of times.
Rita wrote her friend back with a respectful, thorough, and well-considered explanation of her views, and how her life is very meaningful now.
I didn’t hear from her for several weeks, so I figured that she needed some time to process and that this would blow over. Then I began to receive e-mails from several people in her Bible Study, people I didn’t know, telling me that their group was praying for me and asking if I had any specific prayer requests. I even got a call from her pastor saying that if I wanted to come in and speak to him about my “doubts’ he’d be happy to set up a time. He also gave me a list of Christian books to read to help “further my search for truth.”
Personally, I’m a bit offended. I think this behavior is completely inappropriate and this rigorous pursuit of my saving soul is rude and distasteful. I’m so taken aback that I’m not quite sure how to respond. I’d really appreciate your advice as to how to approach the situation in a kind, non-threatening way.
I believe she has the best of intentions. I understand that she gets so much meaning and fulfillment out of her spirituality that she only wants me to experience that too. I feel our relationship will never be the same, but I still do love this girl and I’d like to keep her in my life. However, I do not want our entire relationship’s goal to be for her to one day “save” me. How else can I get this across to her?
I commend you for your patience and your wish to be gentle with your friend. Recently I answered a letter where I talk about accepting friends’ religiosity as it is, but that acceptance does not include tolerating inappropriate behavior. This friendship might be salvageable, but as you say, it will never be the same. You’re going to have to set some clear boundaries and be ready to enforce them.
You have described three kinds of manipulation in her behavior. One is the double bind. Because of her social intolerance and judgmental beliefs about gays, it’s not surprising that her gay friend withheld outing himself to her for so long. When he finally did, she didn’t respond with graciousness and gratitude for his honesty. Instead, she characterized his holding back as “lying” to her. That’s a double bind, where he’s wrong whichever way he goes. You sensed that trap, so you told her you’re an atheist then and there.
She reacted to that with her next manipulation, hysteria. Bursting into tears and later telling you that she’s “heartbroken” about your atheism might have been her genuine reaction, but it was also so melodramatic that if you don’t have your wits about you, you might find yourself apologizing for your point of view rather than simply explaining your point of view, and you explained it very respectfully and thoroughly.
Her worst manipulation of course was having strangers send you emails for a “gang save,” and finally having the preacher call you with his unsolicited offers of literature and counsel. Those clearly go far beyond the bounds of your friendship as you understood it. You shared your atheism with her and her alone. Her tactic to involve outsiders imposing on you without your consent was very presumptuous, disrespectful and just way out of line.
I’m not saying that she’s consciously doing what she knows is inappropriate. I agree with you that she probably is convinced that she has good intentions. She thinks that her desire to save your soul fully justifies her actions. The irony of the old proverb makes me chuckle here: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Her belief system encourages paternalism, the forcing of things on others “for their own good,” in the opinion of those doing the forcing. On the outside it might look like kindness, but at its root is the desire to control others. The effect of all this “kindness” on the recipients can sometimes be very destructive.
I’m reminded of a remark by Thoreau in Walden: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
Rita, much of what you should tell her is in your last paragraph: “I still do love this girl and I’d like to keep her in my life. However, I do not want our entire relationship’s goal to be for her to one day “save” me.” You asked how you can get this across to her. You just said it beautifully. The words are straight forward but they are still kind and non-threatening, as you wanted.
Gently but clearly explain that the emails and phone calls from others must cease immediately. Telling others about your confidences without your permission is unacceptable. You understand that her faith is a big part of her life, but her overt or covert attempts to evangelize you will not be welcome. You are not a trophy for her crusade.
If she tries the hysterical crying and heartbreak routine again, patiently tell her that that makes being with her difficult. Keeping the gay friend in mind, tell her that if she wants people to be honest with her, she has to take some responsibility for making it safe for them to do so.
She might be able to outwardly comply with your requirements, but you should have no illusions. As long as she adheres to her beliefs, she will always secretly desire to reconvert you. If, knowing that, you can still enjoy her company, then I wish for both of you a friendship that can grow and mature.