Ask Richard: My Friend’s Religiosity Is Becoming More Strange

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

Dear Richard,

I’ve been an atheist since the 7th grade, and now I’m a junior in college. I’ve never been that great at making friends, and my one really close friend at school is quite possibly the most religious person I’ve ever met. The second time we got together to hang out, I told her I wasn’t religious, and asked if that would be a problem. She said it wouldn’t.

Now, two years later, I’m beginning to wonder.

When we watched a movie with a corrupt priest as a minor character, she said it was an attack on all of Christianity. When we watched a Hindi film that contained the line “even the divine beings have sinned,” she said she didn’t know how they could be divine then. She asks me around Christmas whether or not I believe in an after-life. Once she was talking about her Bible Study class and asked my opinion. When I said that topic had never been of interest to me, she took offense. Now out of the blue she’s texted asking “If man is capable of evil, where does good come from?”

Most of the time she’s okay, and I can ignore her or change the subject when she tries to bring it up. Should I, though? I don’t know what to do. Should I keep ignoring it, or confront her? Or should I just end the friendship?

I’d appreciate any advice you could give me.

Sincerely,
Michelle

Dear Michelle,

Be yourself, neither more nor less.

If you are comfortable with ignoring her religious remarks or changing the subject, fine, but you don’t need to make yourself uncomfortable by stifling yourself if you really want to voice your opinion. If you are comfortable with answering honestly when she asks for your opinion, fine, but you don’t need to make yourself uncomfortable by being more confrontive than you wish. If your reply is straightforward and polite but she takes offense, that feeling of offense is her responsibility. If her religious remarks are straightforward and polite but you take offense, that feeling of offense is your responsibility.

A good friendship is one that accommodates you being yourself and she being herself. If either person has to deny something they are, or pretend to be something they’re not, then it’s not a friendship worth maintaining. People are not static; they change over time. Sometimes friends can adjust to each other’s changes while still being true to themselves, and sometimes they cannot.

Your friend is probably getting these ideas from wherever she takes that Bible study class, and her remarks sound odd and off the wall because she’s not telling you any of the context. She might be bouncing these ideas off of you just to try them out instead attempting to proselytize you. It’s okay for friends to ask each other why they are saying something to them. With a mild tone ask her, “I don’t understand where you’re coming from with this. Are you just thinking out loud, or trying to convince me of something, or what?” This might help to clarify things, and it will also alert her to the fact that she’s not being fully understood. With better information about her motives, you can better decide if you should continue to ignore these remarks, or if you should confront her and if so, how, or if you should end the friendship.

One thing about yourself that you should look at is in this statement:

“I’ve never been that great at making friends,”

The best friendships celebrate their free choice to be friends from an abundance of possible friends. If you have the ongoing belief that you don’t make friends easily, and so maybe you’re lucky to have one at all, then you’ll have rather low standards for what is acceptable in a friendship, and you’ll hesitate to risk what you have in any attempt to improve it.

Question skeptically this idea that you have never been good at making friends, and more importantly the unsaid implication that you never will be good at making friends. Put that assumption to the test. Go out and look for more friends, perhaps where people have opinions similar to your own, such as a secular student group. You’re a junior in college. You’re surrounded by potential friends with similar views. Try it. You have nothing to lose but your self-limiting self-image. Most of our handicaps are not our actual inabilities, but our believed inabilities.

As you acquire new friends, you will be able to approach your present friend with a more self-confident attitude. You’ll be more willing to just be yourself with her, neither more nor less. Encourage her to just be herself with you, neither more or less, in particular sharing more of the context of her thoughts. That will either enrich your friendship with her, or will bring it to an end if one of you cannot adjust to accommodate the other. Either way, I think it will be an improvement in your life.

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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • MP

    It seems possible, though not clear from the letter, that the religious friend may just be trying to understand the beliefs of her atheist friend. Perhaps she is questioning her own beliefs, or perhaps she is just genuinely curious. In either case, answering her questions in a straight-forward manner seems like the most honest and beneficial thing to do. The religious friend is bringing these subjects up, so maybe she wants to discuss it. If she’s been a good friend, then it’s worth giving her the benefit of the doubt that she’s not just proselytizing.

  • Blacksheep

    Once she was talking about her Bible Study class and asked my opinion. When I said that topic had never been of interest to me, she took offense.

    That’s what friends do sometimes – ask opinions on things that interest them. If I responded, “That topic doesn’t interest me” in response to a frind who wanted my opinion (on something that didn’t interest me, but did interest them) i would expect them to be slightly put-off. It’s a bit of a shut-down.

    One of the nicest ways to be a friend is to be interested (sometimes, at least) in what they are. If it’s an acquaintence or co-worker that’s different, but a friend is a friend.

  • jon

    “If man is capable of evil, where does good come from?” Uhhhhh man? What is this I don’t even…

  • JenV

    “I don’t understand where you’re coming from with this. Are you just thinking out loud, or trying to convince me of something, or what?”

    If I might add a suggestion: take the “or what?” off of this question. It’s a bit snarky and gives the impression of annoyance on the part of the asker.

    Soften that sentence up a bit, and you’ve got it. Nice response, as usual, Richard :)

  • JenV

    ITA with Blacksheep, too.

  • dc

    I agree with Blacksheep’s suggestion that perhaps you could have softened your “That topic has never been of interest to me”. It’s OK to be honest, but I would have followed it up with “But I know it’s important to you, and you’re important to me, so it’s interesting to hear your perspective.”

    I like what Richard said about cultivating friendship. It’s always a healthy thing to have a number of friendships going in your life to keep you well rounded and less dependent on any one particular relationship to feed your need to socialize. I have had to “start over” in the friendship department several times – because of moving, a rash of my closest friends moving, or because of my leaving first the church I was raised in, and then Christianity altogether.

    I actually made a list of the qualities I was looking for in a friend and what it came down to is someone who is balanced. In other words there’s nothing too extreme about them. They aren’t in debt up to their eyeballs w/creditors pounding at their door but they also aren’t penny pinchers who can’t ever relax and spend a dime. Their home isn’t in danger of being declared unsafe to inhabit by the health department, but it’s not spotless either. They’re not road ragers, but they’re also not so passive that they can’t draw a boundary. Their kids aren’t out of control rebels or perfectly obedient. They practice good hygiene, but they aren’t one of those people who can’t leave the house without an hour of primping. etc.

    Growing up as a pastor’s daughter, attending the church school, I always had celebrity status and instant friends, but as an adult I’ve had to make an effort to cultivate friendships, especially since leaving my sub-culture. It’s really a lot like dating. You put yourself out there in society, by getting involved in different groups. It’s nice to have more than one group that you hang with – perhaps one from work, one from a class that you take, one from somewhere that you volunteer, one comprised of the people who live in your neighborhood, people you regularly see in your fav. coffee shop, those in a book club, support group or band you participate in – that kind of thing.

    If you strike up a great conversation with someone and don’t know if you would ever see them again, offer the information that you’ll be hanging out in the same location at the same time/same day the next week. Tell them that you enjoyed talking with them and hope you’ll bump into them again sometime. Or, be so bold as to offer to exchange contact info. and plan to grab a bite to eat/chat more sometime. The nice thing about joining various groups though, is that you’ll already see them at a regular scheduled time on a consistent basis, and it takes a bit of the pressure off to “ask them out”, so to speak. :)

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Michelle,

    It’s OK for non-believers to discuss religion with believers. I even think it is a good thing. You say religion doesn’t interest you but you live in a society where religion has a BIG impact in our lives due to all the religious people interjecting it into society. Therefore, religion necessarily becomes an important topic for non-believers as well. We don’t want to end up living in a Theocracy (like many of the Middle-Eastern countries) where some panel of religious elders pass judgments according to some holy book on all the important issues of the day.

    I would recommend finding some angle where discussing religion can become interesting to you. There are many concepts within religion that your friend may find interesting as well. Just don’t let her completely drive the conversation. Tangential to your letter, some subjects might be the following:

    1. Should a person (like a priest) who supposedly has the ear of God, be expected to be more virtuous than the average person? Does God choose who He talks to or do people choose to listen. Is it possible to “hear God” while not following what he says? If so, would that be an attack on that particular religion?
    2. Can a god sin or do bad things? Does the fact that God did something make it good just because He did it? Is “good” just operationally defined as “something God did or said”. Or is there an objective “good” that exists before even God. Is God subordinate to “good” or is “good” subordinate to “God”. If there is an absolute “good” before even God, why do we need God? If “good” is subordinate to God, then does “good” have any real meaning?
    3. If the afterlife represents an infinity of time, then why should beliefs in an infinitesimally short (by comparison) finite mortal existence determine this infinite afterlife? Is there redemption in the afterlife? Can you be saved after you die? Can you sneak into heaven? Can you fall from grace while in heaven and go to hell? Can you go on vacation to the other place? Is there a third option? A forth option?

    There are endless questions that you could talk about for any of these subjects. Don’t worry about having the “right” answers. Feel free to say “I don’t know”. Historically, religion has been all about inventing answers for these types of speculations. The bible is just a product of compiling stories and narratives about what ancient people believed about such questions. Have fun with asking questions. Your friend may even like the hard questions.

  • Nordog

    Please forgive my ignorance, but what does ITA mean?

    Thanks.

    Regarding Michelle’s letter to Richard, the idea that a minor corrupt priets film character is an attack on Chrisitanity is nuts.

    Discussing the nature of evil, or even the existance of evil in a purely materialistic reality, and other such questions, seems to be one of the greatest benefits of an athiest and theist being friends.

    The subject is fascinating (to me at least) and the two in the friendship are respectful (as friendship presumes) and rational, then the conversations can be great.

    Proselytizing is never cool, no matter who does it.

  • Justin Miyundees

    You’ve outgrown her so you might as well move on. However, do use the experience (which is surely not unlike the progression of other friendships we all experience) to steel your nerves for the more troublesome progression of familial relationships.

    Here’s a song lyric:

    We moved forward and you
    Settled into life where
    Nothing was new.

  • Michelle

    When it’s all laid out there like that, I can see it differently.
    I don’t think discussing religion is something I’ve ever been comfortable with, so when my friend brings it up I get defensive– but that’s not her fault.
    Considering all of this, I think I’ve been unfair to both of us.

    Everyone, thank you for taking the time to help me. It really means a lot.

  • Erik T

    Start a campus secular group. Doesn’t have to be formal, just a social gathering. Put up some flyers, it will probably start out small, which makes it easier to socialize with just a few new people. Many secular folks are not great at meeting people and don’t know how to do it, so creating a way to get together and meet does worlds of wonder.

  • http://happyatheists.com Slickninja

    Michelle: Join or start an non-religious group at school. My big mistake wasn’t participating as much as I should have in college. After I graduated I realized my mistake and then when I returned, I took a new approach realizing the unique opportunities of socializing in college. I joined AHA! in its infancy and to my surprise it dramatically change my social life and made plenty of like minded friends. Its nice to have friends who are of different walks of life and views but when it comes down to it, friends who have similar interests and views are much less complicated.

  • Heidi

    “If man is capable of evil, where does good come from?” Uhhhhh man? What is this I don’t even…

    ^This. What kind of weird, random thing is that to text to someone who has indicated a lack of interest in the subject?

    It seems like Michelle might need to tell this girl that she’s uncomfortable discussing religion with her, and afraid of offending her if she did discuss it.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Once she was talking about her Bible Study class and asked my opinion. When I said that topic had never been of interest to me, she took offense.

    In Michelle’s defense, even though most of the readers of this blog enjoy discussing such things, not every atheist is interested in religious topics. It’s perfectly okay not to be interested in the Bible, just like it’s perfectly okay not to be interested in Star Trek, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings. Michelle shouldn’t feel compelled to discuss the ins and outs of Christianity just because she happens to have a Christian friend. If you consider how many atheists there are in the United States, I’d wager that only a minority of us spend a lot of time thinking about religion. For people who aren’t interested in the topic, I’m sure such discussions can come across as rather boring.

  • Stephen P

    “If man is capable of evil, where does good come from?” Uhhhhh man? What is this I don’t even…

    I suspect that Richard is right when he suggests that she is just looking for someone to bounce ideas off – she’s not really sure herself what she thinks. My 2c worth: I’d text back a neutral (but clearly correct) “Man is capable of both evil and good” and see what, if anything, that led to.

  • Stephanie

    Nordog, ITA means “I totally agree.” :)

    And ITA with Blacksheep, too, and also with Dc. I have theist and deist friends as well as those holding secular views. Keeps my worldview from stagnating. You don’t have to agree with someone about everything in order to respect them and hold them dear.

  • Richard Wade

    JenV,

    If I might add a suggestion: take the “or what?” off of this question. It’s a bit snarky and gives the impression of annoyance on the part of the asker.

    Thank you for pointing out that the way I phrased it might sound snarky or annoyed. I always try to add an open-ended third option whenever I ask an either/or question. It prevents me from inadvertently setting up a false dichotomy, and it allows the possibility for learning something beyond the scope of my question. It’s really out of respect that I’m adding that fill-in-the-blank option, but I can see that in current vernacular, “or what” might sound impatient or irritated.

    In the future I’ll try phrasing such a question with “… or maybe is there some other reason that I’m not thinking of?” I hope that sounds friendlier.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    there just aren’t many believers in my circle of friends. /thinks about it/ nope. like, close to none. there’s one, he’s a special case, and another, married to a friend. other than that? my friends are all like me; atheist or at best “spiritual” without association with any established creed or faith.

  • T-Rex

    Pray for me. I have to attend a Catholic wedding this evening. Gah! This will be tough. Would it be rude to play angry birds during the magical incantations? With the volume low of course.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    It’s always a healthy thing to have a number of friendships going in your life to keep you well rounded and less dependent on any one particular relationship to feed your need to socialize.

    @dc: Jeez, so much work outside of… work!

    I guess I’m lucky that I never really had a need to socialize. Immediate family and a significant other is good enough for me. Plentiful solitude frees me up from so many unnecessary commitments. Keeping everyone else as mere co-workers or acquaintances makes life soooooo much easier. I never have to justify anything to others. I never have to worry about falling short compared to them. It’s so… freeing.

    When you compare it to all the work that goes into multiple dates that usually don’t pan out (why you need multiple of them), it sounds even more painful! Glad I don’t have to deal with any of that anymore.

    I know most people aren’t like me, though, so that’s why I’m lucky. I was actually glad to go to a big university with tens of thousands of students where I could just blend in between classes and do my own thing without ever having to chit-chat with random people. No one noticed me, and that’s the way I liked it. When you’re ‘invisible’ you’re pretty much free to do what you want with your time. No one bothers you. It’s awesome!


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