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