Ask Richard: Young Atheist’s Friendship Challenged by Attempts to Save Her Soul

Note: The names in this letter are changed to protect people’s privacy.

Dear Richard,

I am an eighteen-year-old atheist high school student. I would consider myself “semi-out” as many of my friends know of my atheism but most of my relatives do not. (My older brother is also an atheist, and we are both waiting to move out and finish college to come out to our parents.)

Over the past year, I have become close friends with Craig, a deeply evangelical young man from a Christian homeschool background. Craig is caring, intelligent, and genuinely kind; despite our vastly different upbringings and religions, we share similar histories (in dealing with depression, bullying, and loneliness) and similar dreams and goals for the future, and I would consider him one of my dearest friends.

However, I sometimes see in him a streak of fear and narrow-mindedness I can only deduce is an effect of his upbringing. We have many religious debates that, while remaining overwhelmingly civil, do cause some tension between us. Lately, in particular, he has devoted considerable energy to attempting to save my soul. For the most part, I am flattered by this gesture, as I know it comes from a place of genuine concern. It saddens me to see Craig’s arguments for the existence of his God, though; he contends, as most evangelicals would, that humans can never achieve goodness and that life on this Earth has no purpose without hope for eternal life.

As a humanist, I can’t help but look at this incredible world and wish that my friend could see its beauty as I do. Craig had an extremely rough childhood, and I often wonder if his religion might be stopping him from acquiring the happiness this world offers that he so desperately needs. I’m not seeking to “convert” Craig by any means– his identity and his religion are deeply entwined, and the memory of the pain of my own deconversion is too fresh for me to wish the same struggle on my friend. I only wish he didn’t worry so much about me and about the whims of his God.

Richard, how can I put his fears to rest? How can I teach this boy raised on fear and intolerance that the world even with all its horrors is filled with human-created goodness and beauty and love? Will I ever be able to open his eyes?

Thank you again for all you do for the atheist community. The religious would call you a blessing; I would call you a good man we are lucky to have on our side.

Dear Ashley,

Friendships often start because two people find they have shared experiences of hardship, but if those friendships are to last, they must grow beyond having a shared negative, the commonality of pain. If an important part of your bond with Craig has been having similar histories of dealing with depression, bullying, and loneliness, then if either of you grow beyond that self-image, it might disrupt the friendship. If “We are both survivors of an unkind, unjust world” was originally a cornerstone of your friendship, then your efforts to shift Craig’s focus to the beauty, goodness and love that is also in the world might be undermining what he sees as your original camaraderie. He might unconsciously resist that in order to preserve the friendship’s original foundation.

However, you also said that the two of you have similar dreams and goals for the future. I suggest that you emphasize those positive commonalities in your conversations, and let the painful similarities of your past begin to slip into the past. Age 18 is a time of profound endings and beginnings. Adolescence is waning, and adulthood is dawning. Both of you should concentrate forward on what you each can become, not what each of you once were.

Although you said that you are not seeking to “convert” Craig, I think I hear in your letter what might be a desire to affirm and verify your own view of the world by convincing him to adopt that view. In a similar way, he’s busy trying to affirm and verify his beliefs by convincing you to adopt those beliefs. Examine yourself honestly, and if you find anything like that in yourself, discard it. Affirm and verify your view of the world through your own successful interactions with it, not by seeking consensus with others’ outlooks. If you actually enjoy having those very civil debates with Craig about things like how people can be good without gods, or that life can have joy and meaning without an afterlife, go ahead, but it’s much more important to just live that way in front of him. Demonstrate it daily in how you behave and interact with the world, but do it not so much to have a good effect on him as to have a good effect on you.

Although you currently find Craig’s efforts to save your soul a flattering gesture of his genuine concern, it is definitely going to get old. You said that it is already causing some tension between you. I think it will soon become an annoyance, and then a source of serious friction.

Consider that he might not be operating alone. It is quite possible that someone is encouraging or coaching him to try to convert you. You have consulted an outside source, me. He may have consulted an outside source as well. Converting people is what Evangelicals love to do. Sadly, sometimes a prospective convert becomes less and less a person in their eyes, and more and more a goal, a score, a trophy to win. If you are beginning to feel that he is recognizing or respecting your individuality less as he concentrates more on the abstract idea of your soul, then it is time to gently but firmly set down some boundaries.

It is completely legitimate in a friendship to have boundaries. Good friends, like good neighbors, have good fences. Setting a few limits can be as important for friendships as opening up other areas of interaction. Don’t be afraid to frankly and overtly tell him when you have had enough of the proselytizing. You can do it politely and respectfully, but your own comfort, integrity, and self-respect should never have to be sacrificed to preserve this friendship.

We teach others how to treat us, and a good method is to teach with a combination of example and instruction. If you want Craig to accept you as you are, model that for him by accepting him as he is. Accept the fact that he sees life and the world with a more negative vocabulary at this point in his life, and that might improve as he matures. At the same time, you can also assert in a gentle but straight forward way that he must accept you as you are:

“This is me. I come as-is. I’m not clay for you to mold or a soul for you to save. If the god you believe in is all wise and all powerful, then he knows far better than you what I need in that regard, and he is far more capable than you to get it done. It’s not up to you. Practice the faith to leave up to him the soul only he can save, and practice the respect to leave up to me the life only I can live.”

Speaking of opening up other areas of interaction, I strongly suggest that you avoid letting this become a romantic/sexual relationship. You find him caring, intelligent, and genuinely kind, and those qualities are clearly abundant in you. These traits are very attractive. The intoxication of initial romantic and sexual love would gloss over all your differences for a while, but they will still be there after the neurochemicals level off. By then you will both have much deeper emotional investments and vulnerabilities, and the differences that are causing only tension now will likely culminate in heartache.

I hope that the two of you can navigate your way through this challenge. Your friendship sounds like it is beneficial for both of you, if you can keep it open, honest, accepting, frank, and mutually respectful. Please feel free to write again to let us know how things have developed.


Related posts about atheists with religious friends:
Ask Richard: My Friend’s Religiosity is Becoming More Strange
Ask Richard: My Friend is Questioning Her Faith
Ask Richard: Should I Help My Christian Friends Keep Their Faith?

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.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Jeff P


    In order to re-enforce their beliefs, some evangelicals will rally around notions like everybody needs God in order to be moral or that no-one can find purpose in life without God. The best way to educate people who hold such views is merely to be a positive counter-example – someone who is moral without a belief in God and someone who has found (or is finding) a secular purpose in life. It really just takes one example to counter statements of “all X needs Y to be Z” or “no one can have X without Y”. Your only challenge is if you want to delay or postpone fully coming out. If so, you will have to word carefully exactly what you mean by basing your purpose and morality on things other than religious doctrine. Perhaps just kind of claim a fuzzy agnosticism towards questions of God’s existence and demonstrate to him that it is at least possible to live your life successfully without wrapping all the things that matter all up in religious faith.

  • LesterBallard

    I’m still friends with someone who is a very serious fundie type Christian. We were friends before he became a Christian, and it’s a . . . contentious friendship. I keep hoping he’ll come to his senses. And he keeps hoping, and praying, that I’ll see the light. Of course, if we met today we wouldn’t have shit to say to one another.

  • Ubi Dubium

    As I was reading Ashley’s letter, what came to mind was something similar to what Richard said.

    If Craig really trusts in his god, then he needs to let go of trying to convert Ashley and actually trust his god. If his god wants her converted, god can send Ashley the evidence she needs, because god would know what evidence that is, better than Craig would. And if Craig’s god never sees fit to send that evidence, Craig needs to know that it wasn’t his own fault. He did his best, and now he needs to relax, back off, and just “love thy neighbor” the way his bible says, and trust that god will take care of Ashley in his own way and own time.

    I expect his church is heaping a boatload of guilt on Craig, that if his dear friend never converts she’ll go to hell and it will be all his fault. That’s a lot of stress on poor Craig. I hope Craig can de-convert someday, he’d probably feel a lot better.

  • Artor

    I was in a relationship with a born-again Xian once, and the proselytizing never stopped. It eventually killed the relationship, but if I had wanted to and had the forethought to save things, I would have said something like this;

    Stop right there. I know your faith means a lot to you, and I’m glad that you’re concerned for me, but really, you need to knock that off right now, or we won’t be able to be friends. If you want to have a discussion about religion, then we can, but understand that I’ll back up my point with facts and logic and a knowledge of other religions & their mythology, and if you can’t do the same, then it’s not really a discussion, and you’ll only succeed in driving us apart.
    You know I don’t believe what you believe, and I have good reasons for that. If you insist on trying to “save” me, then I can only conclude that you have no respect for me, and that’s a deal-breaker. I’ll agree to not talk to you about science and evolution and logic if you promise not to talk to me about God or Jesus or the state of my soul, and we can be friends. Or you can keep proselytizing, and I’ll walk away and ignore you. What’ll it be?

    Unfortunately, I can almost guarantee that if you actually say this to your Xian friend, the response will be more of, “But I just don’t want to see you go to hell,” or something like that.

  • Fractal Heretic

    I’ve no experience with this, but I’ve been thinking a long time about what to say to my parents if I ever come out of the closet to them. I know I’ll probably never deconvert them, so I’ve set a more modest goal of at least convincing them not to worry about me. Here’s what I have so far:

    If God loves me, then he doesn’t want to send me to hell.
    If God is omnipotent, then he is able to save me without changing who I am.
    If God is all-knowing and understanding, then he knows and understands why I’m an atheist.
    If you go to heaven and I’m not there, will you worship the man who sent me to hell?

    It’s God’s responsibility to convert me, not yours.
    If God has a perfect plan, then what are you worried about?

  • Drew M.

    This worked on my father as well as one of my closest friends:

    “I respect your beliefs and would never try to talk you out of them because I know they give you comfort. Please show me the same courtesy.”

  • Rocky Morrison

    Pretty cruel stuff to say to your parents.

  • Tor

    I used many of those same statements to come out as gay to my parents. I never came out as atheist because it made no sense in my family (at least to me. I felt no need to hurt my super-believer mom). I just stopped attending church. Now (30 years later) when I visit my 94-year-old mother I sometimes attend church services with her because it makes her happy. No other reason.

  • chicago dyke

    cruel? what is “cruel” about repeating the tenets of their own faith back to them? they hear the same in church weekly or more, why is it cruel when those statements come from their own child?

    overly sensitive religious types annoy the crap out me. i really hope you’re not one of those, RM. the permanent victim stuff gets old, really fast. it seems like all the religious eventually always resort to it. “oh, you atheists are so mean! waaa!” when all we do is state facts, recite their beliefs, and ask simple questions.

  • chicago dyke

    cruel? what is “cruel” about repeating the tenets of their own faith back to them? they hear the same in church weekly or more, why is it cruel when those statements come from their own child?

    overly sensitive religious types annoy the crap out me. i really hope you’re not one of those, RM. the permanent victim stuff gets old, really fast. it seems like all the religious eventually always resort to it. “oh, you atheists are so mean! waaa!” when all we do is state facts, recite their beliefs, and ask simple questions.

  • Houndentenor

    I realize this doesn’t happen at all churches, but over the years in a wide variety of of churches (Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, and Episcopal) and temples (reform and conservative) I have heard hundreds of jabs at other faiths as well as nonbelievers. Some (Baptists mostly) are open in their condemnation of the others. Mostly it’s a sly jab that the a core belief of another denomination. So it’s laughable when I hear someone from any of these groups get bent out of shape (which they usually do) when someone criticizes what THEY believe. I call this the South Park rule. Oh, you laughed when they made fun of Scientologists but now they’re doing your group and you’re mad? Ummmm…you did realize that eventually it would be your turn, right? No one is free from criticism and when the outrage is targeted that someone dared criticize them (or the messenger) you know that even they at some level realize that what they believe is absurd.

  • Randay

    When in college, which was a scientifically oriented one, there were, to my surprise, Xian groups. I even shared a dorm room with a member of one of them. Besides him, some girls I met in class would try to convert me and invite me to services. Of course that never happened, but a couple of them were happy to have a sexual relationship with me. You never know where the good things will come from.

  • The Other Weirdo

    How are these statements cruel?

  • The Other Weirdo

    Isaac Hayes’ character Chef was retired in a particularly brutal and hilarious way exactly for this reason.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Sex with atheists provides a cloak of invisibility to believers, which shields them from God’s Omniscient Eye of Omniscience™. They have found a way to hide that which they do not wish Him to see.

  • TJ in AZ

    If a Christian could leave a comment:

    I have the same problem as a moderate member of a liberal denomination. I’ve lost friendships over the years with hard-core evangelicals who decided that my version of belief wasn’t as valid as theirs.

    It comes from a belief that they need to get as many “soldiers” on their side for the final battle. For them, there’s a very clear quota mentality. “How many people did you reach this week? How many people did you get to accept the Lord?” Just like mititary recruiters.

    Deeply ingrained, rather arrogant, highly disrespectful for anyone they run across (or is it run over?).

  • Richard Wade

    Hi TJ,
    Yes Christians are welcome to comment. Thank you for your respectful and sensible viewpoint.

  • TJ in AZ

    Thank you! Always a pleasure to engage in thoughtful dialogue.

    Something I’ve experienced is when you debate with an evangelical, and the discussion doesn’t turn their way, the will try to shut you down with a condescending, almost pitying look, pat your arm, and say, “I’ll pray for you.” My response has been, “Please make sure you pray for me, and not against me.”

    They tend to use prayer as a kind of lucky rabbit’s foot. Rub God the right way and he’ll grant your wish. In this case, it’s to make God force you to see things their way. They never consider maybe they’re the ones that need a change of perspective.

  • TJ in AZ

    For me, the lack of morals isn’t about lack of religious faith, it’s a lack of humanity. Basic morality is a fundamental trait of humanity, and those who disregard it set themselves apart from fellow human beings. So, it’s not usually ignorance, but selfish self-centeredness. Most people are brought up with a sense of right and wrong, and how to coexist with others.

    Blaming faith, or lack thereof, seems like a cheap excuse for being a jerk at the very least.