Ask Richard: Atheist Has to Listen to Roommate’s Christian Rock

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

Dear Richard,

I recently moved in with three other girls into a small, one bedroom apartment (we’ve all left home a year early to pursue a very specialized career). Along with the normal problems that accompany living in tight quarters I’ve run into a problem with the music one of my roommates has been listening to- namely Christian rock. She doesn’t wear ear buds and I, raised in a non-religious household, get very distracted when the music playing in our house suddenly switches from Passion Pit to Jars of Clay. Unlike my other (Christian) roommates, I’m not used to music that “praises the Lord”. Given that we’re all still young and under enormous pressure in our professional lives, I have thus far tried to avoid any confrontation and ignore the music. I don’t want to offend anyone by making them feel as if their religion annoys me. But how can I, at some point, let my roommate know her music is making me uncomfortable, if I should at all?

Thanks, Natalie

Dear Natalie,

Religion versus atheism is not the issue here. There’s no need to make it the issue.

Four young women crowded into a small, one bedroom apartment is a situation that will cause continuous stress unless each person is constantly aware of and adjusting for how everything she does directly affects all the others. Everything that each of you do, cooking, keeping the place clean, keeping track of your things, where and when you sleep, when and how long you use the bathroom, where, when and how you relax, even just turning on a light will immediately have an impact on the other three, and little conflicts between each person’s needs will steadily build up stress. Any single small problem could be shrugged off, but the cumulative effect of hundreds of tiny collisions builds to a breaking point.

It doesn’t matter whether your roommate is playing Passion Pit, or Jars of Clay, or Metallica, or Mozart. In such close quarters, each person must have access to a small unencumbered physical space around her and a small space of quietude around her whenever she needs it. This is a basic need for the comfort and sanity of each of you, and it requires no further justification than that.

The four of you must have already worked out some formal or informal “rules of the house” in order to be able to co-exist in such crowded conditions even for a single day. Propose to all of them that listening to music with ear buds should be a rule of the house. Don’t even bring up the type of music being played. Whether or not you like the music is irrelevant, and if one of them asks you, gently say that that’s not the point. All of you need to have the option for quiet or music of your choice.

From your letter it sounds like you’re getting an education or training as well as working, so when you come home, you’re tired. If studying is part of your routine, then you need freedom from distraction. Whatever your bodies and minds need, each you can and must find ways to provide it for yourselves without intruding onto the needs of the others.

Use some example of how your roommate has been considerate to your and the others’ needs, thank her for that, and draw a parallel to this issue. You’re rewarding her for being kind and thoughtful, and here’s another way she can be kind and thoughtful. By speaking in these general, human-oriented terms, hopefully you can present your proposal in a way that does not put anyone, them or you, on the defensive about their taste in music or their beliefs.

Many atheists go through several often painful experiences of disapproval, rejection, and conflict with religious people around them. I think that as a result, sometimes an atheist might assume too quickly that an atheism/theism issue might be an important part of a conflict. If an ordinary conflict has religion as only a peripheral detail as this one does, to focus on that as if it’s a central part of the conflict will make it unnecessarily emotionally charged and risky. If that’s not really a part of the problem, then there’s no need to include it when you start looking for a solution.

I’d be interested to hear how this works out. Please write again.


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.