Ask Richard: My Christian Friend Sent Strangers to Evangelize Me

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?

Thanks,
Rita

Dear Rita,

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.

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.

  • Hybrid

    Personally, I have sympathy for such proselytizers. Heaven and Hell are such powerful memes, they grip the imagination and can eventually subvert the entire psyche (even in individuals not normally taken by emotions).

    That being said, you’ve given good advice. Boundaries will be key if this friendship is to be salvaged, but even so it’s going to take a lot of patience by Rita. Good job.

  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com Eamon Knight

    Partially flippantly, I’m going to say: she should let her evangelist friend stew in her own juice for a while, and go hang with the gay guy. If they live in a particularly devout area, he might appreciate a non-judgemental friend about now ;-) .

  • Ron in Houston

    Geez, I’d be questioning myself why I want to maintain a relationship with this person. I mean ultra religiosity, hysteria, emotional manipulation? Sounds awfully like a person with a serious personality disorder.

    Now matter what I agree with Richard, this would be the type of friend where boundaries are both clear and enforced.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    It seems that the evangelical mind finds great difficulty in “just being friends” with no strings attached. Too often friendship is conditional with sharing common religious beliefs. I guess atheists could also be somewhat guilty of this as well, but at least atheists don’t have this whole “afterlife thing” hanging over their heads.

    Perhaps just have a frank conversation with her letting her know three things:
    1. that you realize that if she is right, you will be going to hell. (But you don’t believe she is right).
    2. Let her know that belief is largely unconscious (one doesn’t really choose a belief… it just kind of happens) so your beliefs can’t really be changed by evangelism.
    3. You want to maintain an unconditional friendship with her.

    She will then have to decide whether she can participate in an unconditional friendship. It will be difficult or her, though, since every time she sees you, she may envision you burning in flames. Eventually something may have to give. Either the friendship or her black and white belief about an afterlife.

    You could also play the “by the grace of God” angle that entrance to heaven is up to God where God has the power to send even atheists to heaven if He wants. So she can therefor lighten-up and give the evangelism a rest.

  • Polly

    I’ve said it before, but I’ll offer this advice again. Just blaspheme the Holy Spigot already and make the fate of your soul a non-issue.

  • Jim G

    Know it won’t happen, but I fantasize that evangelism-girl answers the door one day to find Richard Dawkins, who says “Hi, ‘Rita’ sent me here to atheize you.”

  • http://ottodestruct.com Otto

    Rita is a better person than I. Because if it was me, then that’s end-of-friendship behavior.

    Heck, I’d stop speaking to my own grandmother for less.

  • littlejohn

    What Otto said.
    This friendship is over. The “friend” who sent evangelists probably has no idea how offensive and patronizing she’s being, but if she has that much trouble with both gays and atheists, she couldn’t be my friend.
    I wouldn’t dream of sending my atheist pals (and they wouldn’t go) to annoy a religious person.

  • http://www.givesgoodemail.com Givesgoodemail

    One of two conditions exists: either her friend is too far gone to recognize reality (and never will), or the friend is using her world-view to ignore what the letter-writer is and what she believes in because she wants to.

    Either way, the friendship is gone in one direction, and will be gone in the other in the near future.

    DTFMA

  • http://claire-chan.livejournal.com/profile Claire Binkley

    I really fear reconversion attempts from the scores of christian heathen friends I’ve accumulated. This advice is solid; I really appreciate reading it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    My Christian Friend Sent Strangers to Evangelize Me

    This is a simple case of improper English usage. If someone sends strangers to evangelize you, that person is not your friend.

  • Edmond

    @Eamon Knight:

    I don’t think that advice is flippant at all, I think it’s right on target. This poor guy, who is having REAL problems, bares his soul to what he thought was a friend, and gets accused of lying. Let the crybaby figure out her “problems” on her own. Her friends are honest with her, and she’s “heartbroken”? She’s going to solve her own issues by being more approachable. The young gay man is the real friend in need.

    The other girl has her god, right? If it has all the answers, it’ll comfort her.

  • The Other Tom

    I’ve had an evangelical friend since childhood who has always known I’m an atheist. I’d like to discuss that a little, but first, some praise to “Rita”.

    Rita, I’m gay. THANK YOU for standing up for what’s right and declining to participate in anti-gay bigotry, even if it was as relatively harmless as just trying to pray that gay away. If we as gay people ever achieve cultural equality in this nation, it will be in good part thanks to decent, moral people such as yourself who have refused to give their approval to bigotry against us.

    So, for 30-something years I’ve been friends with a guy I’ll call Jack. We met on the first day of first grade. He has a strong personality and suffered from hyperactivity, so he was a bit of a wild child for a few years, but settled down and became a good friend. Heck, he became like the brother I never had.

    His religion is very important to him, and it always bothered him that I was openly atheist. (As a kid, to be honest, I was not only openly but in fact rather snobbily atheist.) I didn’t go out of my way to rub his nose in it, but when he would (as kids do) go out of his way to rub my nose in christianity, I would take the opportunity to tell him at length what I thought of religion, and it wasn’t pretty. We had some arguments about that.

    But what caused the really BIG arguments wasn’t just everyday discussion, but rather, his periodic attempts to convert me. Over time these got more serious, and included using lies to get me into the church (“we’re going out to dinner” would actually mean “we’re going to church and there will be food there” for example) and, worse, telling me that if I didn’t become a christian and join his church, we couldn’t be friends any more. My reaction to the former was to stop talking to him for six months. My reaction to the latter was “I’ll miss you terribly,” and he stopped talking to me for six months.

    As we grew older, he eventually moved away from the area, but we kept in touch. He stopped trying to convert me, although when I flew out to visit him I was always invited to church at least once, which I declined. Eventually I learned why we’d had these periodic dramatic events of trying to convert me, leading to him eventually doing or saying something drastic: his church told him to do it. He was being questioned regularly by his church about any friendships he maintained outside the church – meaning me – and he was expected to convert these people and bring them into the church, and was required to report weekly on what he had done to convert them (me), and if progress wasn’t made, he was instructed to tell me that he couldn’t be my friend any more because as a christian he could only have christian friends. The fact that he would stop talking to me for some months and then call me to be friends again was, I gather, against his church’s wishes, and showed that his friendship with me was stronger than his allegiance to their orders… in the long run anyway. The reason he eventually stopped with the drama is that when he moved he went to a new church, and they didn’t care if he had one friend who wasn’t a member who lived 1000 miles away.

    What I’m trying to say here is, these sort of friendships can be difficult, and require patience. But obviously it was important enough to me for me to go to the effort of making it work.

    Rita, I want to address one specific thing you said:

    In hindsight, I realize that my timing may have been a bit insensitive as she had just learned of her friend’s sexuality.

    Not your fault. I think the important thing to remember here is that it wasn’t really your timing, Your friend put you on the spot by asking for you to pray with her, and in doing so, to lend your approval to her anti-gay bigotry. That forced your hand.

    Your friend chose to be part of this religion of hers. Even if it was the religion of her family and she was raised to it (you didn’t say so I discuss this as a possibility) she chose to stay with it as an adult and to accept its tenets. She chooses to live her life according to its bigotry (and even if she is a nice person trying to do the right thing, you should recognize that her anti-gay, anti-atheist sentiments are bigoted).

    People who believe in evangelical / fundamentalist christianity as a young person often reach a time in their lives when they’re forced to confront the reality that a lot of people don’t believe in their nonsense. In the case of my friend, it was when we turned 18 and many of his friends came out of the closet as gay. I called him one day with the intent of coming out to him, and before I could he started to tell me how several of his friends had just done so and how shocked he was, and joked that he and I were the only straight guys left. I replied “Well, I’m afraid I have some news for you…” He though I was joking and laughed. I had to tell him that no, really, I am gay. He stopped talking to me for a while. He got over it eventually.

    My opinion in both cases is that while we can make the effort to be nice about it, any upset they may feel on learning such news they brought on themselves. If they hadn’t chosen a religion that pushes bigotry, they wouldn’t have anything to be upset about, learning that someone is gay or atheist would be simply a fact with no great importance. So again – we can make the effort to be nice about it, but we shouldn’t feel any guilt about them being upset.

  • TheLoneIguana

    I was at a friend’s house once years ago when a group from a nearby church came by.
    I don’t think they were her particular flavor or religiosity, but my friend, who is just a very friendly person, allowed them to come in, give their spiel, and leave.
    I stayed in the kitchen keeping an eye on dinner.
    After they left, she came into the kitchen and said, “I didn’t plan that! I swear!”
    Cracked me up.

  • Richard P

    Remember that your just a shinny new piece of foil for the ravens. It will not take long before they lose interest if you do not encourage them. Those that hang into it can be quieted if they find your willing to debate the matter, and if you can debate the matter effectively. This can be a great time to sort out your thoughts and vocalize for yourself what you believe on these issues. Doing this by email is great way to bring concepts together. Don’t worry about how they react, this is for you, there just a sounding board.

    It will help your self-confidence and you may even learn a few things. Coming from a christian background it is good to become articulate in what your new understanding entails. It will help to decrease the guilt, doubt and inferiority training so prevalent in religious teaching.

    As far as your friend goes, I would just let time decide how she wants to continue. I would respond to nothing she does unless it is face to face. I would let her curiosity bring her back to you. Insist that you get equal time voice your position. Bring to the table the willingness to agree to disagree.
    This is a great opportunity for you to learn. Use it.
    She will either run away and would have been little if anything you could do about it, or she will be like a dog returning to and old bone. Next thing you know you will be laughing at how silly it all was over a bottle of Baha Rosa, and using your Bibles to roast wieners.

  • penn

    Apparently this woman is dreadfully hurt when her friends aren’t immediately direct and open about the most personal parts of their lives. But, when her friends do share private informations with her she goes and tells her other friends how horrible they are and tries to find out what can be done to change them. It’s noble that Rita wants to salvage this friendship, but her friend needs to make some serious changes in how she relates to people.

  • Slickninja

    I gotta say, Richard always impresses me with his advice…

  • Kirk

    Two words would come to my mind if a “friend” pulled that sort of crap on me. “F” and “YOU”.

  • Potco

    There is so much more fun to be had here. She should go to the meeting with the pastor and try and deconvert him, bring him a good atheist book, I am really enjoying the arguments in Godless by Dan Barker. Also, the callers who just wanted to pray for her, ask them to pray that they become an atheist. Maybe ask if they are in a devil cult. May not set the best example of atheists but these peoples view of atheists won’t change, might as well enjoy their rigidity.

  • Richard P

    “There is so much more fun to be had here.”

    I agree. I can’t remember the last time I had a pack of christians trying to convert me. I think it was a car load of jw’s last summer. Funny thing, I invited them back but they never stop in anymore….

    It is always important to have fun when your learning.

    “but these peoples view of atheists won’t change”

    I don’t believe that is true. Lots won’t, but there are a lot of x-chrixtians here. We all had to change our view at some time.
    We need to work towards critical mass. One seed at a time.

  • BlueRidgeLady

    If someone gave my private phone number to a pastor and had them call me, that person would get a stern talking to, and the pastor would, too. How DARE someone think that is acceptable!? I am pissed just reading this. What a violation of trust and privacy!
    I would suggest to cut and run if the offender doesn’t quit. You shouldn’t be guilted into anything, especially like this.

  • Potco

    Richard, I don’t disagree that some will change their mind, but people who would be calling are not going to be open minded. The people who’s mind will change have an open mind, they will come asking question, why do you believe this, they won’t be the people calling saying you’re going to hell. If someone is asking about why I believe something I answer every question gull, but if they just want to convert me I start to mess with their mind.

  • Richard P

    Potco, I agree with you 100%. I do not think for a moment that they will be anything but in full convert mode. I do not think they will want to listen and feel it is even less likely they will register much if they did.

    However, I also think it takes only one small seed to grow into a tree of doubt that may one day may turn into a thought. Change happens instantaneously, it is the process of arriving at the state to change that takes longer.

    I also think that people defend things they doubt in order to shore up there beliefs, a well defended position may be that piece of evidence that helps these christians make the switch to a more rational line of thought. How can you pass up a chance that might happen. I can’t, to me it would be a disservice to the person if I did not try. Even if it takes years before there is any change, it is still worth planting.

    And, yes it does come with the enjoyment of messing with their minds. What else are the minds of others for if not to mess with them? Of course I mean that in the nicest possible way…

  • Tizzle

    A chuch man came to my door once, after he met my minister father…but he admitted that my dad specifically told him not to contact me. I was really nice to him because he was so old. But how rude!

    I’ve had friends I had to let go of, even though I loved them absolutely.

    If this friend can’t be like my father, and remains like the rude preacher, you may have to move on. It’s very sad, and it requires a mourning period. And the sadness and hurt comes back periodically…I must have re-mourned the loss of my brother’s friendship every year for a dozen years. And another friend, although I see him on facebook, we aren’t really friends, and that saddens me for reasons I can’t comprehend. Love is like that.

    So…I would certainly try for a while to keep the friendship, but I would have some ultimate trigger wherein I stopped allowing her “superior morals” to trump the relationship. Because in my experience, Christians don’t let me talk about what I want to talk about (my life) because the gay thing, or the sex-before-marriage thing, or the drinking thing offends their sensibilities. Which is reallly just a control issue.

  • BrettH

    Polly: I don’t know a lot about other denominations views on blasphemy, but at the Baptist church I grew up going to there were no unforgivable sins. In fact, we tended to look down on churches that thought there were unforgivable sins. We were taught about things God liked and things God didn’t like, but once you were saved it was just a matter of how happy God would be with you when you get to heaven. As far as I can figure, I’m still “saved” by that churches definition even though I’ve been an atheist for years. This wasn’t a liberal church either, they had all the bigotry you’d expect at a fundamentalist church.

  • grazatt

    The Other Tom, how was it that your straight Evangelical friend wound up with so many gay friends?

  • Heidi

    This “friend” person needs to grow up and quit the drama queen routine. No, everyone is not Just Like Her. And no, she can’t force them all to change by siccing her godlings on them. Ask her how she would feel if she started getting contacted by Muslims or Jews who were sent to convert her.

    And yeah, not only would I go hang with the gay guy, I’d tell her I was going to discuss with him how to deal with a judgmental friend who betrays your trust. Speaking of which, is this gay guy out with everyone, or was this supposed to have been a private matter between the two of them? Because if she’s going around outing a friend… strike two.

  • Parse

    One note on the double bind – it’s entirely possible that the friend doesn’t know she’s doing it. I’ve been on the receiving end of this far too many times, and most of the time the other person doesn’t realize what they’re doing. Take for example the all-time classic, “Does this [article of clothing] make me look fat?” All the asker knows is that you told them something they didn’t want to hear; they don’t consider how they’d react to the alternative.

    In these circumstances, I tend to A) resort to sarcastic humor (“Yes!”), B) call them out on the question (“What do you want me to say? Yes? No?”), or C) both (“Yes!” “What!?!” “Seriously, what did you expect me to say? ‘Yes’? ‘No’? There’s no good answer to that, and you know it.”)

    And yes, I know the proper response to that question is, “That [color/pattern/style] looks [great/terrible] on you!”, but after the first two or three times of hearing that during a shopping trip, it gets old.