Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
This is probably a little bit different than what you are used to answering, but this seems to be a sensible place to ask for advice. Recently, I’ve been facing some religious discrimination at the hands of my Atheist friends. I went to a very liberal Christian high school that accepted people of all religious beliefs, and generally, people were open and accepting of what others thought. There, I knew Buddhists, Atheists, Jewish people, and even a Muslim person. However, for whatever reason, the majority of my friends here at college have been non-religious.
I don’t proselytize, and I generally only talk about my faith when asked directly. However, since disclosing that I am a practicing Christian, I’ve been mocked, belittled, and talked down to by a few of my Atheist friends. I get remarks like, “I can’t believe that you actually think that” or “Oh, we’d better not talk about this- it would probably offend him.” It’s automatically assumed that I am an easily offended, narrow minded, Bible-thumping bigot. Naturally, being unfairly classified like this hurts quite a bit. I’ve tried turning the other cheek and responding in a non-confrontational manner, but this has not been very successful.
So, what steps can I take to convince my atheist friends to treat me like a human, regardless of my worldview?
My advice to you is essentially the same as I would give to an atheist being similarly treated by Christian friends, or any combination of friends with differing religious viewpoints.
You have tried the non-confrontational approach, and it has not worked, so call your friends out on it. Remember that confrontational does not necessarily mean boorish, uncivil, or rude. You can be confrontational but still be calm, gracious, and friendly. You can be cool-headed and warm-hearted even as you tell it the way it is.
With a composed and pleasant tone, tell them that you value their friendship, and you’d like it to continue, but lately their treatment of you is not what friends should do to each other. Cite specific examples of when they have been condescending, personally contemptuous, sarcastic, or they have incorrectly assumed negative things about you that are based on misconceptions.
Explain to them that there is a difference between respecting someone’s beliefs, and treating someone respectfully. They probably do not respect your beliefs, and you can understand that, but they certainly can treat you respectfully, just as you have been treating them respectfully, regardless of your differing views.
If you want to persuade anyone to change their treatment of you, appeal to the values that they already hold, rather than trying to get them to first adopt the values that you hold. Build a case that treating you respectfully is a reflection of the principles they hold in high esteem.
In the case of your friends, suggest that as atheists, they probably value skepticism. Skepticism involves refraining from jumping to conclusions or making assumptions without acceptable evidence. That includes not assuming that someone in a given category possesses all the characteristics of the stereotype of that category. Propose that they should practice good skepticism by looking for evidence in you before they assume things about you.
They can do this by asking you about your beliefs, your emotional reactions, and your social or political opinions. Assure them that you’ll answer their questions without a sermon. Point out that you don’t proselytize, and of course you will appreciate them not trying to do something similar to you.
Model for them how a person can change their attitude through open-minded investigation. If you can come up with a real example, tell them how you were once told that all atheists possess some particular loathsome characteristic, but because you have been friends with them, you know that that is incorrect. Challenge your friends to do the same thing with you. Propose a mutual pact, an assumption-free zone where all of you will abstain from pre-judging each other and will openly and safely talk to each other.
Some of them might respond by saying that they were just kidding or teasing. That might be so, but properly done, teasing is supposed to bond friends closer together. If it starts to divide friends, then it’s not being done right, and it should stop. A stronger foundation of mutual understanding, trust, and affection is needed before kidding or teasing can be a positive dynamic in a friendship. That foundation is built by exchanging questions and answers in a frank yet respectful way.
Friendships become deeper when friends give each other permission to be honest and frank, but that does not imply permission to be cruel. It’s possible for friends to have discussions where they clearly disagree without indulging in belittling, personal put-downs, or mockery of stereotypes that don’t apply. It’s important to also honestly say “Ouch, that hurts” when a friend’s honesty is clumsy, tactless or unnecessarily harsh. It’s also important for friends to forgive each other when they realize their blunder.
I understand that it’s not easy to confront people whom you care about, even in the amicable way I’ve described. If you feel too apprehensive about the prospect, you could simply show them this post with your letter and my suggestions. The fact that you wrote to a site called Friendly Atheist will probably blow away several of their assumptions about you, and it could start a more relaxed and productive conversation between you and them.
Jonathan, you sound like an interesting and caring friend, someone who would be a plus in any person’s life. I hope that things work out for you and your friends.