Ask Richard: Asian Agnostic Perplexed by Gay Catholic Friend

Dear Richard,

I hope this will get published as I would like not only your views on this, but the general web views as well. Either way here is my story:

Let me first start off by saying that I am Agnostic and I do not believe in any religion.

I have a friend, let’s call him SM, who was born into Catholicism. He is the only child in his family and therefore the only son. He grew up being led to believe that Paris Hilton was sent from the devil himself, and he was only allowed to play amongst baptized children. Being in Asia, and with so many other religions around, he was only allowed to play with a selected few from his parents’ church.

I met SM when he was in high school, and we’ve been close friends ever since. About two years ago, at age 22, he decided to come out of the closet and admitted to a group of us that he was or is in fact a homosexual. This was okay by us because no matter what he will still be our friend but it wasn’t that way with his parents. They told him basically to ‘change’ or get out of the house. He chose the former, and he has lied to them ever since.

The problem here is not his parents or his homosexuality. This is him choosing to still remain a devoted Catholic. He still goes to the church with his parents every Sunday for mass, or every Christmas days, singing in church choirs and playing in church plays. In many occasions I have argued with him on the fact that his “God” is a homophobic God and asked him if he really did believe in this homophobic God, that he would eventually go to hell. Isn’t this a form of hypocrisy?

He believes that people ACTUALLY are descendants of Adam and Eve and that ‘God’ created the world in seven days. He also said that Christianity is open for interpretation and he will interpret it however he likes. He said that I kept quoting from the Old Testament and that the new Testament is much better.

I tried to reason with him, to quote science and humanity reasons but he always manages to get angry. He would say, “Why can’t you just let people believe what they want to believe? Why do you have to condemn my religion?” and I would always respond with the same thing: “If you know someone’s on drugs and he thought drugs was the best thing in the world, would you still reason with him to get off it?”

Is it wrong of me to keep pushing him off a religion that hates his kind (and I don’t mean this in a bad way) repeatedly? We’re still really great friends and hang out every weekend, but to see him embrace his sexuality and then having to hide it and going to church and believing that ‘God’ is the only one that understands him and gets him and yet he is still going to hell is beyond me. I do not know how to deal with this situation. Please help.

Regards,
Troubled Asian Friend

Dear Troubled,

I think the best thing you can do for your friend is to keep the promise that you and your friends gave him: “No matter what, he will still be our friend.” At the time, you were talking about his sexual orientation, but he needs you to extend that to the rest of what he is for the time being.

He’s caught between his parents who don’t accept his sexuality, but do accept his religious choices, and his friend who accepts his sexuality but does not accept his religious choices.

Everyone in his life is being conditional and selective in their acceptance of him. He needs someone who will just let him be exactly as he is, in all his self-contradictory complexity, and you are the best candidate.

He’s not asking his parents to accept all that he is because they are too deeply entrenched in their narrow, xenophobic beliefs to be able to provide him unconditional love and acceptance. However, he is asking you to accept all that he is, because you are the freethinker. You are the one who hopefully has the ability to rise above your own bias, and to let him be what he currently needs to be. He isn’t trying to “save” you from your agnosticism, and you don’t need to “save” him from his faith.

Deconverting is very often a painful upheaval, and each person has to become ready for that in their own time. I don’t think it is wise or respectful for someone else to decide when that should be and try to push them away from their religious beliefs before they’re ready. I’m sure you mean well for your friend, but it’s very easy for your priority to shift from wanting what’s right for him, to your being right about his religion.

Paradoxically, I think if you are fully openhearted and allowing of how he currently thinks, he will be more open-minded to how you think. You don’t have to agree with his ideas, but you will be the truest friend when you are genuinely free of having an agenda for what you want him to believe. Love and friendship are “as is” propositions, not “only if” propositions.

He’s very young in many ways. He’s only 24, and having been raised in so insular an environment, he could be emotionally much younger than that. Right now he wants to live in harmony with is parents. In one way he’s being flexible in his thinking. He’s talking about being able to interpret his religion so that it works for him right now, which sounds like a better approach than his parents use. It will take time for him to gradually mature and to become more confident, assertive and independent. Having friends who don’t push, don’t require, and don’t disapprove will help him develop his sense of self.

So I suggest that you stop the arguing and debating about religion with him that he’s asked you to stop, as well as the metaphor about drug addiction. At this point in time it’s only adding to his several experiences of disapproval and rejection. Encourage him to relax and have fun with you and your shared group of friends, and if he begins to explore his sexuality while away from his parents, that’s good. If he begins to express doubt about his faith, fine, don’t immediately seize on it. Let him choose the pace. Just answer his questions and offer your reassurance.

He’s lucky to have you as a friend, and I think you will discover that you’re lucky to have him as a friend. You both have valuable lessons to teach each other. He will grow because of you, and you will grow because of him.

Richard

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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  • Cabal

    People are _never_ mutual friends on a “no matter what” basis. Friendship, like practically everything else in this world, is conditional, dependent. It depends on chemistry, shared interests, abilities to co-operate and reconcile, etc. When those elements disintegrate so too does the friendship. If one were to test “no matter what,” how far would you go? Do you protect a friend who’s committed rape? Or is that some no-brainer? Although the effects religion may not seem as violent as other traditional post-Enlightenment forms of violence, its impositions on all of us (and especially SM!) refigures it as one of the _most_ violent forces in our current state of the world.

    I’m, for once, also disappointed by the Hollywood/Opera response that this site is doling out. We don’t live in the movies where everything magically works out.

    Troubled, I agree with your sentiment that you should try to help this friend of yours on “drugs,” per se. You can try to retain the friendship; I think that’s a laudable and admirable goal. But bear in mind that friendships have thresholds and that one must not necessarily cling on to the past if/when the future becomes/is unsustainable.

  • Claudia

    I agree with Richard, but I think you can work on your friends beliefs in a much more gentle and indirect way. Educate yourself about the biology of homosexuality. There’s a wealth of information on the subject. There are even some hypothesis as to how homosexuality has been maintained through evolutionary history.

    Don’t neccesarily bring the subject up yourself. If he’s a close friend and he comes to trust that every conversation about his parents objections to his homosexuality are not going to result in you going on a rant on his religion, he will discuss his sexuality with you. When that happens, slowly start introducing him to what science has to say on the subject. Show him that science affirms that he is perfectly natural and normal. You don’t have to hide that you read up on the subject because of him. You can openly state that since he is your friend you were inspired to know more about homosexuality. Never be afraid to say you don’t know an answer to a question and see if you can’t send him good links on the subject.
    He’s a creationist. At this point he’s closed to scientific thinking. You are very unlikely to convert him, especially because he probably feels that the comfort religion gives him is absolutely essential to his sanity given that he knows his parents love is conditional on him pretending to be something he’s not. What you can do is show him how science is not an enemy, and that in fact he can find things there that affirm who he is. If you can start him down the path of seeing that affirmation does not neccesarily have to come from god, you will have done him a great service, whether or not he continues down the road to true rationalism.

  • Sarah

    I agree with your friend’s “Why can’t you just let people believe what they want to believe?” sentiment. Unlike many drugs, religion isn’t dangerous to his health or possibly fatal. If it’s such a big deal that you feel like you can’t be friends with him over it, then stop being friends with him. But if you do want to be his friend, stop harassing him and accept him for who he is.

  • anna nonymous

    Thank you Richard (I might have a slight online crush on you based on this response 😉 )
    I agree, unconditional means unconditional. As long as Asian Agnostics friend doesn’t turn into a homophobic jerk, he needs to be. I assume his friends accepting his homosexuality is a great help in his attempt to not loose his family. As long as he doesn’t hate himself for being gay but can “interpret religion” his way, let it be for now.

  • asonge

    I’d just like to say that most people are fine in their contradictory nature. If he asks you outright, I would continue to say that his religion right now is a large detriment to his long term mental health. Right now, it’s unthinkable to him that his religion is wrong. He’s going to have to have some experiences that let him know it’s okay to doubt. His “spiritual life” (and I mean that as describing the phenomenon, not the supernatural explanation) is going to be upside-down a lot over the next several years. Show him a good time, and let him see that the heathens are all good people. It takes a lot of work to keep hard reality at bay. I think if you keep him as a friend, he’ll feel safe questioning…there’s no way he’s going to realize the long term damage that religion may do to him until he can feel safe enough to question. That’s just my limited opinion, though.

  • Emma

    I tend to disagree with your religion as drugs metaphor. If his beliefs made him unhappy (eg: he was thinking “Oh God, I’m an abomination, I’m going to Hell”), then I’d be worried. But as Richard noted, his selective interpretation of scripture has let him get around this issue. More worrisome is the fact that he has to lie everyday to his parents. You don’t mention if SM’s shown unhappiness with that situation. If so, though, he’s definitely going to need the support of a friend.

    Also worth noting that if SM does become atheist or agnostic, it might only make him unhappier. He would either have to lie to his parents (again) by pretending that religion is still a big part of his daily life, or he could come clean with them, and get the same ultimatum he got from them when he came out as gay. Not a fun situation.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Troubled,

    There are lots of different kinds of Catholics. I’ve known some that would NEVER marry a non-Catholic and think all non-Catholics are going to hell. I’ve known others that are just Catholic because their parents were Catholic and they only go to church twice a year (Christmas and Easter) and never think about it any other time. Some of the most liberal open-minded people I know are Catholics. Perhaps just mention to him that it is OK to be one of these liberal open-minded Catholics… He can still be Catholic and not believe all the conservative things that his parents or his priest or the current pope believe. He can be Catholic and gay and all sorts of other things as well. Leave it to him to throw off the mantle of Catholicism if and when he wants to. He may want to keep it his whole life. If so, perhaps, he can just stretch the walls out a bit to better suit him.

  • Parse

    I agree with Richard’s advice, so long as your friend isn’t trying to push his religion on you. If your friend is willing to start religious arguments (and does so), then you are free to respond to them. Do you appreciate your Christian friends trying to convert you? How do you think you appear to them when you bring up these arguments? Accept your friend for who he is, and keep showing him that you’re as trustworthy and accepting as you were when he outed himself to you. If or when he’s willing to question his faith, for his sake you’ll want to be there to provide answers – I’m sure you could imagine the responses he’d get if he went to a church leader with them.
    If nothing else, consider this: What would happen if you managed to make SM reconsider his faith? His family already threatened to disown him over his orientation; don’t you think that they’d do the same if he left their church?

  • S-Y

    I would say to learn the religion in and out first, as one will learn that BOTH testaments include homophobic passages. Quote them, and ask the friend to consider the existence of a god who appears to directly condone such homophobia. Some Christian groups may not care much for these passages and denounce it, but that doesn’t make them go away, nor does it take away from the fact that their god meant for those passages to be in there.

    However, it definitely appears that SM is getting pushed in the wrong way, perhaps too far as well. It’s a tough situation to handle, as one would not let a friend take drugs to harm them physically, one does not want a friend harmed mentally or emotionally by their religion, church, or both. It’s a matter of giving the friend enough space though; no one can make them think for themselves.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    …I would always respond with the same thing: “If you know someone’s on drugs and he thought drugs was the best thing in the world, would you still reason with him to get off it?”

    Well there is not much point in harrassing someone repeatedly, especially if you’re just saying the same thing each time. I daresay he heard you the first time and found it unpersuasive.

    Look, if he’s gay and Catholic, you won’t be the last person to criticize him for it. Unless he’s closeted, he’ll hear no end of it from queers and Christians alike. With that in mind, please exercise some sensitivity. If you have to argue, don’t be a broken record; increase quality and reduce quantity.

    One thing you should know is that the Catholic church is nominally gay-friendly, but isn’t really. They advocate respect and compassion for gay people, but believe that they should be celibate. The whole thing is an exercise in lowering standards for what constitutes proper respect. Of course, some would take this not as an argument against Catholicism, but an argument for a better Catholicism.

  • http://atheistreadsbible.blogspot.com/ Jude

    Excellent advice, Richard. People should be whoever they are, even if who they are isn’t someone you agree with (the only exceptions are murderers and abusers). Atheists who proselytize Christians about atheism offend me as much as Christians proselytizing anyone. I became an atheist at the age of 10, but I didn’t stop going to church until I was 19. A lot of the reason for that was social and music–I was in every possible choir. I went to church to study and I went to church to sing. Andrew Sullivan seems to be able to love his church even though he’s gay; so let this guy be who he is.

  • Jim H

    Troubled Asian Friend:

    Don’t assume too much…it could be that SM is merely “deep undercover” to keep his parents’ emotional and financial support. I am only suggesting this hypothetically, but he could be following, or paying lip service to, his parents’ wishes for that reason alone, and he might change when he no longer needs that support.

    Whether or not this is true, you need to heed his request that you let him believe what he wants to believe–that’s no more or less than we atheists ask of our friends and neighbors.

  • Richard Wade

    Cabal,

    Please read my statement carefully:

    At the time, you were talking about his sexual orientation, but he needs you to extend that to the rest of what he is for the time being.

    Going by the letter, what SM currently is does not include any abusive, dangerous, unethical or illegal behavior. There is no point in building a straw man argument about protecting a rapist, or any other intolerable extreme.

    I’m challenging Troubled to simply expand his/her acceptance to include SM’s religious stance, because as SM is behaving now, doing that would not cause Troubled any trouble. SM is not trying to proselytize Troubled or initiate any conflict at all. He simply wants and needs a safe friendship where he can be himself.

    If you are wanting to make a general statement about how there’s no such thing as absolutely unconditional friendship or love, yes, I agree with you. I’ve seen, up close, appalling acts of incomprehensible cruelty that obliterated very deeply devoted love.

    Of course there are human limits to human love. Nothing in this letter has even come close to that limit. Troubled is clearly capable of accepting SM’s current set of beliefs and behaviors because s/he wrote this letter asking about it. If it were beyond his/her threshold of tolerance, the friendship would already be dead, and no letter would have been written.

    I also agree with you that life is not like the movies where everything magically works out. I’ll hazard to say that from my background, I know that more vividly than most people. However when I have seen good outcomes come from interpersonal conflicts, it has usually been because people stopped trying to beat the worst out of each other and began to patiently coax the best from each other.

  • minus

    TAF:

    I am a life long atheist. Most of my friends are atheists, but I enjoy the friendship of people of many religious beliefs. Friends do not have to agree about everything. One of the most important things I have learned in my 70 plus years is that nobody likes unsolicited advice. If he’s not asking you what you think, keep it to yourself.

    One other point here. This guy is quite young. He thinks he might be gay, but maybe he’s not. It’s possible. I have known people who were not sure of their sexuality and spent years trying to figure it out.

    Just be a friend. Let him find himself.

  • Stephen P

    He grew up being led to believe that Paris Hilton was sent from the devil himself

    That seems like a good first approximation.

    Ahem. But on to the main point: I totally agree with Richard that you should give it a rest for a while. It sounds like you’ve made your point. If your friend wants to discuss religion, or wants to ask you something about evolution, then by all means give your answer, without going over the top. If he doesn’t, then talk about other things.

  • Sean

    If his religion isn’t doing him too much harm, why press the issue? If it is doing harm, he needs someone who supports him first, and worries about his religion second. Don’t become a nag that he can’t talk to. It’s also patronizing to have the straight guy talking about what’s best for gay people, even if he’s right.

    Don’t censor yourself, but any relationship where one person just has to convert the other has a problem.

  • Stephanie

    One more in Richard’s camp. I have religious friends. I have non-religious friends. I have friends floating somewhere in between who don’t even want to hear about religion because they’re having a hard enough time figuring out what to think on their own. In having a friendship, you’ve taken on a moral obligation to support and commiserate in tough times and to laugh and share with them during the good ones. That is what you owe your friend and he owes you. Nowhere is there any demand that you two see the world the same way.

  • Jacques

    I’m gay and used to be a fundamentalist Christian. I was still deeply entrenched in unquestioning belief when I stumbled on some strong and well thought out religious criticism. I will always be thankful that (among others) Richard Dawkins’ cold logic was stronger than my blind faith. I honestly didn’t want to loose my faith. I only wanted to be able to refute religious criticism when I read Dawkins. I don’t think anyone picks their views on religion depending on what is the most comfortable, but rather what makes the most sense to them. More than half of the gay people I know are Christians in my corner of the third world. Even if most atheists were homophobes, I would still be an atheist, because I can’t find a compelling reason to believe in deities.

    Continue to talk about religion and point to it’s flaws, but I suggest you don’t focus too much about what the bible says about gay people. There is enough genocide, slavery and misogyny, not to mention talking snakes, in there to get a good argument. If you convince someone who wholeheartedly believes in a god that that god hates him, he might very likely start to hate himself, if he doesn’t already. I should know. Being religious is a lot like being brainwashed, and very difficult to let go of. He is a creationist, not because he doesn’t understand the evidence, but because he does not allow himself to let go of his beliefs. That same attitude carries over to every other aspect of his religious world view.

    He is most likely conflicted about his situation. Richard is right – don’t make him even more conflicted. And from my experience with non-religious friends when I was still religious, making him feel stupid is not the best tactic. But always keep pointing out good religious criticism, one of the arguments might eventually stick, or maybe turn him into a liberal Christian, which in my book is half a win.

  • Erp

    I agree with Richard, don’t push. Also though the Catholic church is officially anti-homosexual acts, some devout Catholics aren’t. You might want to become familiar with the organization Dignity and make sure your friend is since they may offer him support from within his religion that you can not. Also be aware of the organization Courage which has official Catholic hierarchy support (unlike Dignity) but is unlikely to provide the necessary support. Some more info at the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance website.

  • CanadianChick

    I agree with Richard – stop pushing. It’s only going to cause your friend more stress and strain.

    I’m a happy atheist. My best friend is a happy liberal Christian (who finds my atheism such a non issue that his wife didn’t know until a month before their wedding). One of the reasons we stay friends, in spite of us having opposing views on deities, is because neither of us pushes the other. Now, if he wasn’t a liberal Christian (and more lefty than I am) it might be different, but like your friend, he sees through the lens of liberal interpretation.

    We met at a church youth dance, BTW, so it’s not like he didn’t have to adapt to my “uncloseting”…it’ll score a point on the side of compassion if you can be there for him during his closet makeover.

  • MIhangel apYrs

    Troubled
    he trusted you with one of the most intense secrets imaginable for someone from his religion and culture. He probably agonised over it, and was terrified that he’s lose friends, face, and reputation.

    Such trust deserves support and friendship, conditional only in terms of what you can accommodate as an intelligent, sensitive person.

    1 Religion is always a hotspot for the very religious; as an agnostic it isn’t really any issue to you what he believes unless it is damaging. As others have said, read up about the contrary argument to “all gays burn”

    2 His parents have forced him into a corner, don’t you do the same otherwise he’ll have a (good) friend fewer to depend on.

    Keep him safe, and confident. His instincts will do the rest when he’s ready, or falls in love

  • Silent Service

    Good advice, Richard. I find Cabal’s attitude that friends can be so easily discarded disturbing. Even if a friend commits a terrible crime, you may have considerable emotional investment in that friendship. You can disapprove and even condemn horrible actions and still grant unconditional love. Tell me, Cabal, do you think people should abandon their loved ones when those loved ones commit a horrible crime? Or do you think that perhaps you should encourage them to own up to their crimes, support them through trial, and then help them to rehabilitate while they are in prison?

    And how the hell does rape, a violent violation of a person’s personal self, compare to following the church of the funny hat dude? We may all agree here that funny hat dude is an evil asshat, but somehow following him in worship of zombie Jebus just doesn’t quite compare to being a rapist.

  • walkamungus

    Good advice from Richard, but Claudia really nailed it.

    Right now, help SM understand his sexuality. That’s his major stressor, and he doesn’t need a second one; his life probably sucks enough right now. He already knows your views on his religion, so drop it. His religious practice is familiar and is probably giving him some stability, even if he’s going to church in part to please his parents. For the short term, being the best friend you can be means helping him focus on one thing at a time.

  • McWaffle

    Sounds a lot like SM’s preferred version of Christianity is just about as contradictory, self-serving and nonsensical as anybody else’s. I know some kinda-Christians, and they also just selectively dismiss anything in the Bible that doesn’t line up with modern science and modern ethics. So, bottom line, he doesn’t deserve any more pointed criticism of his beliefs than others do. Which, in my opinion, is still a fair amount.