Ask Richard: Facebook, Friends and Filters

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I will be attending a Catholic college in a few months and as an Atheist I have to admit I almost didn’t go simply for this reason, but I desperately wanted to be a part of a major program they offer, and the location is fantastic. I have spoken to current students and they have said that aside from a mass during the freshman orientation, all other Christian activities are completely optional and many to not participate (except for crosses in the classrooms). However, I currently have my religious views as Atheist in my information section on my Facebook profile, and as 80% of the student body identifies as catholic, I’m worried this might scare off potential friends before we even get to know each other.

Many of my current friends are religious (Christian, Hindu, and Muslim) and although it hasn’t always been smooth sailing with a few of them, it has never been a big enough issue where I was worried that it might end our friendship. However, these are all people who I have been friends with for years, and many were friends with me before I began speaking up about my atheism (meaning just admitting that I am an atheist, not meaning I tried to convert or argue with any of them).

I have absolutely no problem making religious friends, but I’m worried they may not feel the same way, and while I would never want to hide who I am, I’m concerned if it’s one of the first things they see about me, they may not take the time to get to know me before deciding not to bother. I’m anticipating some people thinking that I shouldn’t try and be friends with people who would avoid me just because of my religious views, but several of my current friends probably would have had the same apprehensions if we hadn’t met when we were in middle school and grown up together, so I don’t want to essentially root out those people who may not have had the chance to understand other people’s choices just yet. Having said all of that though, it does feel slightly like I’m hiding part of myself to gain acceptance if I take it off of my profile, and since I’m not one to bring religion up in a conversation it could potentially go undisclosed for a long time. Do you think I should leave it up or take it down ( I know all of this worry over something on Facebook probably seems silly).

Thank you!

Dear Kelly,

Many people have written to me describing how their atheism has been revealed either before they were ready, or to people they’d rather not have told, because it was in their profile or in their remarks on Facebook. Some have had it all out there on their public pages, yet they were surprised that word got to the wrong people at the wrong time. Some have had that information on their “friends only” sections, but that still relies on their friends being discreet, and not mentioning it to others.

Very few people really know how to keep a confidence, even when it is specified as confidential. They thoughtlessly blab it. If it isn’t specified as not to be disclosed, even fewer people have the judgment to make the decision that some delicate information might best be not mentioned to third parties until they check with you. So if you want your private information known to everyone, put it on Facebook. Giving it private or public status makes little difference. If you have enough friends who see it, word will get out.

You don’t owe anyone your outing. You have no duty to tell anyone anything about yourself that may drastically affect your social status or other aspects of your life. You are not being hypocritical or cowardly or dishonest by being discrete and prudent. If information has the potential to harm your interests, you should have complete control over when, how, and to whom it is revealed. If it takes a long time to get around to mentioning your atheism, so what? You have the right to act in your own self interest.

I think that you are right in anticipating that some people will say you shouldn’t even try to be friends with people who would avoid you just because of your religious views. I see two ways of handling this:

The first way, generally the way you’ve been doing it, is to leave that information unspoken until you have been able to establish a rapport with potential friends based on your personal demeanor and mutual interests. Then, once they see that you’re a decent, intelligent and likable person, acknowledging your atheism when the subject comes up will allow them to challenge their negative stereotypes that they have against atheists, if indeed they have any. You describe how you have been quite successful with this approach, having been able to keep the friendships of several religious people, even though it was rocky for a while.

This method takes maturity and courage, because it requires you to be willing to risk the possibility that after the time and effort of building the foundations of a friendship, they might not be able to handle it, and might disappoint you. Oh well, that’s life. Even if they reject you, at least they will have had an experience that does not fit their stereotype, and it might continue to chip away at their prejudice.

The other way of handling this says, “I don’t even want to bother meeting anyone who would reject me, knee-jerk fashion, just because of my views on religion.” That’s kind of knee-jerk right there. It requires setting up a pre-screening mechanism, a “friend filter” if you will, like an eHarmony profile that eliminates potential friends before you even meet them because they might have an insurmountable problem with your atheism.

Posting it on Facebook might filter out many of the people with a negative bias, but it doesn’t work for those who haven’t seen your Facebook page or heard the gossip. It would be more thorough to always wear a t-shirt that says, “These are some of the views I hold: (then there’s a long list) If there are any you don’t like, don’t talk to me.”

I think that this is an immature approach. It is timid and overly defensive, showing a lack of confidence in one’s ability to attract people who aren’t identical in every way, or to persuade them to reconsider their bias. It also does not realistically allow for how most people build friendships gradually, making adjustments in how they feel about the various aspects of a person as they learn about them a little at a time. People can get over their prejudice; it takes coaxing and diplomacy, and it takes the willingness to work with them. Sometimes all it takes is their knowing beforehand that you’re a good person.

Kelly, there is so much more to you than your atheism, and people who have been indoctrinated to have fear and suspicion against it need time to learn about the rest of you first. I think that posting your atheism on Facebook is directly in conflict with the method that you have been successfully using to ease religious friends over their bias, if they have it. I suggest that you take down all references to it on Facebook, both public and “friends-only,” and let your new acquaintances get to know you in a more natural, step-by-step way.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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