Tips for Avoiding Theological Arguments

I sometimes get emails from readers asking for advice. In this post, I want to reprint an email I received yesterday, offer my thoughts, and ask for your input.


I’m a freshman in college, about to come home for spring break. As a current atheist who was raised Catholic, I have a question about how to interact with family friends and church acquaintances.

What should I say when they ask questions about (what they assume to be) my faith, like “Is your boyfriend/roommate/best friend/friend group/RP circle Catholic?” or “What’s the church in that area like?” or “Is it hard to be Catholic at a [non-catholic religion] school?”

I don’t want to lie, but if I tell the truth I get the feeling I’ll be dragged down into a long theological discussion/argument I really don’t want to initiate. I figured you might have experience in this area, so I’m really hoping for some pointers on how to finesse this.

Thank you!


I’m no expert, but let me offer a few thoughts. First, I think a lot of it is learning how to diffuse situations rather than escalate them, and maintaining a light attitude and refusing to let things go in a heavier and more serious direction. You can affect a lot of this simply by the way you comport yourself in these interactions. For example:

Church acquaintance: “Is your boyfriend Catholic?”

You: “No.”

Church acquaintance: “But doesn’t that bother you?”

You: “No, we get along just fine.”

While this obviously doesn’t always work, approaching these kinds of conversations in this way can take the wind out of your interrogator’s sales without leading to an argument or confrontation. Here’s another example of how this can work:

Church acquaintance: “What’s the church in that area like?”

You: “I’m not sure, actually. School keeps me really busy.”

Church acquaintance: “Oh.”

And if the church acquaintance is especially nosy and devout:

Church acquaintance: “You know that failing to attend weekly mass is a mortal sin, right?”

You: “Yes, I’m aware of that.”

In other words, keeping things light and brief so as to diffuse situations and avoid getting pulled into something more serious does not have to mean lying or saying you believe things you don’t.

Of course, this isn’t always enough. “I appreciate your concern, I really do, but my beliefs are between me and God” is a response that veers a bit in the direction of being untruthful and is a bit more confrontational in some ways, but is sometimes helpful. “If you’re worried about me, I welcome your prayers” is another. Changing the conversation can also be a good tool in general, though at times it can be more pointed—”I’d rather not talk about XYZ, but I’d love to talk to you about what I’m studying/that time we had a Jurassic Park marathon because the university closed for snow/this cool club I’ve gotten involved in.” In the end, the balance you strike depends both on just how confrontational or accommodation you’re feeling and how far the party or parties you are speaking with are willing to push.

I notice that you mentioned family friends and church acquaintances in your email, but not your own family. I personally find that handling family friends and acquaintances is a lot easier than handling family itself. Your family will not be so easily put off or satisfied with surface level conversations. I don’t know whether you’re out as an atheist to them or not, but I wish you all the best in that area. Once your parents know something is up, you can tell them you are questioning rather than straight out telling them you’re an atheist, and that may help soften the blow for a time. Another suggestion is that if certain topics are just too painful to discuss with your parents, you can always put them off limits—”Mom, I know your faith is very important to you, and I’m truly sorry you are hurt by my own lack of faith. I think it’s probably best for our relationship if we just don’t talk about religion for the time being.” And as they say, it takes two to tango.

How about the rest of you? What advice would you give Veronica?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • SundogA

    As an atheist with a largely christian family, I’d say bite the bullet. People who know you well probably will realize that you’re holding something back, or avoiding a topic, and while they may respect you enough not to push it, they will wonder, and worry.
    My only advice about coming out would be to do it with your closest family members first and in small groups, so that you won’t find yourself surrounded and outnumbered – and if you find yourself in such a position, leave it. Better to end a conversation outright than be browbeaten into either compliance or saying something you’ll all regret later.

  • Jason Dick

    Well, I don’t know so much about avoiding them. But if you do find yourself in a position where you can’t or don’t want to avoid a theological argument, I would offer the following advice:

    Religious people the world over tend to rely upon various scripts to shore up their beliefs. They use these scripts to describe people who have fallen away from the church, “He hates God.” They use the scripts to strengthen their own beliefs, “How can you be moral without the church?” I think the best thing you can do here is to be aware of the scripts that your family members use, and come up with ways to completely short-circuit them when they bring them up. This doesn’t mean being mean or confrontational: it means just diverging at right angles from what the script they bring up expects. If your response to the script completely undercuts the assumptions upon which the script was based, it will be very, very hard for them to come up with a response.

    For example, one of the most common scripts that people used when I was young (in my church and my family) was that people who stop believing do so because they are angry at God: it isn’t real lack of belief, they’re just upset. To undercut that directly, the primary thing that I did was that I described my lack of belief in as intellectual terms as possible. I tried my best to make it clear not so much in what I said, but in how I said it, that my lack of belief had nothing whatsoever to do with anger: it was simply a matter of no longer being able to bring myself to accept the claim that there is a god.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      I find that this is true outside of religious communities as well. I have a couple friends who’ve been homeless, had abortions, or are in non-monogamous/heterosexual relationships, and they deal with the exact same scripts – even from within the atheist/secular community.

    • The_L

      I hate the “you can’t be moral without religion” garbage. My father has used that on me, and…it’s not a sign of goodness that the Heaven/Hell carrot-and-stick is the only thing that keeps you from murdering people; it’s a sign that you are a dangerously out-of-control person!

  • xLainx

    Hey, Veronica here. In my family, I kind of have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing going between my parents and me – I haven’t told them anything, and they don’t ask. They know I’d rather not go to church with them when I’m home (like my sister) and they allow that, but we haven’t really talked about why that is or what I (don’t) believe. I get the feeling they’re a little awkward about the subject, and would really like to keep things pleasant when I’m home.

    My church friends, on the other hand, are mainly more devout than my family, and I know they tend to talk about religion/Catholicism more. Also, in my family, should it come up, I can say “I’d rather not talk about that” or something; I don’t know if these people will let it go so easily. So basically, it’s both much more likely to come up with church friends, and (potentially) harder to change the subject when it does.

  • Christine

    This won’t work with friends who are a) not particularly up on recent church history or b) think that the pope is amazing, but only if he’s as conservative as they are. But you can point out that your conscience does not dictate that you go to church (or dictates that you do not). It’s limited, but it’s a start. (It leaves you very open to them telling you why you should maybe think differently). Also, you obviously don’t want to use this if you’re uncomfortable using church arguments.

  • Bob Jase

    You could just wear something with a pentagram prominantly displayed on it. Seriously, I’ve done that and it worked wonders – no one wanted to discuss religion with me.

  • Jason Dick

    I honestly don’t know what to say to avoid confrontation, but if the conversation comes up anyway, this is what I would suggest:

    Most religious people rely strongly upon a relatively small set of specific scripts to describe their own motivations for belief and their opinions of non-believers. Being your family, you probably know extremely well what these scripts are. A good strategy is to derail those scripts so that they don’t know what to say. If they don’t have a good fallback, that can bring a quick end to the conversation.

    For example, one extremely common script that I heard from family and in church growing up was the belief that people stop believing in God because they are angry. To undercut that, when I came out to my family I was very careful to describe my beliefs in intellectual terms, and was especially careful, not in what I said quite so much as how I said it, that I wasn’t resentful at all towards God. Bear in mind that the strategy here isn’t to outright deny the script (because denial can easily be read as, well, denial), but instead to present yourself in such a way that applying the script doesn’t even make sense.

    It also helps to focus on “I” statements, such as, “I just can’t believe that the Church’s teachings were true any longer.”

    After all, even if you don’t want to get into a theological argument, it’s probably a good idea to have a plan in case one comes up regardless. Better to be caught prepared than caught flat-footed.

    • JohnH

      If the point is to not become engaged in a theological argument then bringing up specific doubts may not be helpful as chances are that the friends will have encountered those doubts themselves and have something that works for them and may attempt to ‘fix’ the problem as they see it.

      Lying about the reason is even worse, assuming argument is to be avoided and friendships continued (if possible). That is if you come up with some ‘intellectual’ reason and that isn’t why you don’t believe in God or (conversely ) if you come up with some ‘emotional’ reason which isn’t actually it then it is likely that those you talk to may be able to tell A) you don’t actually believe in what you are saying and B) your reasoning will probably not make much sense as it isn’t the thing that you have actually wrestled with and understand fully your own thoughts on the matter. Both or either can lead to argument and destroy friendships as a feeling of lack of trust and honesty (even when you don’t argue) can easily develop (also if others can tell that you don’t believe in what you are saying then placing you in some script or narrative is much easier).

  • Kmlai

    Hi Veronica,

    I’m in the exact same situation with my own family and friends as an atheistic ex-catholic. What Libby said about “questioning” has been very useful to me, and I often cite that I feel uncomfortable going to church at school because I don’t know anyone there to attend with. The parents are way harder though, I can vouch for that. Good luck, I hope it all works out for the best!

  • Adam Haun

    Hello Veronica,

    I would advise against trying to argue anything, even if somebody wants to. Some good reasons are:

    1. You are not obligated to dissect your religious views for others, family friends or no. Trying to force you into a discussion that makes you uncomfortable is rude, and you can (politely!) remind them of that.
    2. If the people in question are your parents’ age, they’re still going to see you as a kid. (They may never stop doing this.) That will make it easier for them to dismiss what you say.
    3. Unless they’re total jerks, they’ll probably be motivated by (misguided) concern for your well-being. It’s hard to argue about that without hurting their feelings.

    If anyone gets pushy, you might say something like “This is a very personal thing for me and I’m not comfortable discussing it right now.” Speak calmly. *Very* calmly. Be polite and non-condescending, regardless of what they do. Tone and body language can matter more than the actual words, especially when people are surprised and/or upset. You need to respond to the emotional reaction first. You might try reminding them that you’re not rejecting them personally.

    You might consider when you want to tell your parents. Is now a good time? If you’re going home for the summer, they’ll have the rest of the semester to get used to the idea of you being an atheist. They might talk about it with their friends, which could save you some trouble down the road.

    I don’t know your full situation, obviously. A lot depends on things like your exact relationship with each person, whether you became an atheist before or after you left for college, etc. If you’ve got any high school friends you want to visit, you can use them as an excuse to get out of awkward situations. Just schedule time with them close to time with family friends.

    Good luck!

  • Karen

    Husband and I were married in the Catholic Church, even though he’s never been Catholic, since my mother threw a tantrum at the notion we not do that. A few months later I admitted to my mother that I was attending a non-denominational Christian church; she accused me of giving up my religion for my husband, and I just shrugged and said Christianity is Christianity. We never talked about it again. I didn’t let on later that we’d abandoned churchgoing, or that we’d grown into atheism (him) or humanism (me), but I expect she figured it out and just didn’t see the point of talking about it. She probably prayed about it every night. My father, meanwhile, was not religious at all, and didn’t care.

    I lost track of what few friends I did have in (Catholic) high school. I did track down my then-best-friend, who has since had 12 children and is uber-conservative-Catholic, attending Latin mass. That blew me away. We haven’t talked but once.

    I guess what I’m trying to say by example is that there are people who will, if not take your beliefs in stride, at least ignore them to your face. The folks who freak out at your lack of faith may just be friends you grow away from. Painful, I know. But sometimes necessary.

  • ako

    I’ve seen basically two approaches that seem to work depending on the personality type.

    For a lot of people, the polite-but-firm “I don’t want to discuss/argue about this” approach works (especially if you offer a new subject fairly quickly so it’s easy for everyone to move on). This works for people who haven’t decided that you believing exactly what they believe is more important than being polite and respecting your wishes.

    I’ve also know a few aggressive evangelizing types who are determined not to drop it, and sadly, I haven’t really found a way out with someone who’s unwilling to drop it except arguing effectively enough once or twice that they subsequently decide they’d rather not hear that kind of challenge to their own faith. I pretty much only break this out if the person is being rude and ignoring my wishes (or if we’re both willing to jump into a “This is the blunt version of why I think you’re wrong” argument about religion), and it’s not actually any use for getting through that particular holiday without trouble, but it can lead to things being reasonably peaceful in the long run.

  • Epiphyta

    Veronica, may I recommend the current discussion about establishing boundaries at Captain Awkward? The focus is on declining a drink, but the techniques are very adaptable. It is also one of the few sites on the Internet where I encourage reading the comments.

    • Monika

      Seconded. Captain Awkward is invaluable for all awkward situations! Plus funny and as mentioned with fantastic comments.

  • xLainx

    Veronica again. A little additional information:

    My main concern is the godmother of my two younger siblings; she’ll be coming over for dinner at some point during the break. She’s in her 60s, and is a VERY conservative Catholic. I know she habitually talks about Catholicism, and while I’m hoping she’ll back down if I say “That’s personal, and I don’t want to discuss it,” I’m worried her concern for my spiritual welfare will override her politeness.

    I was really ambivalent about religion throughout my senior year, despite ostensibly being a practicing Catholic. It wasn’t until I had the autonomy of college before I could admit that, though – to myself or anyone else. I was calling myself an atheist by the end of first semester.

    • Sophie

      Veronica – I was raised Catholic on my mother’s side, my grandparents in particular are very devout. I began questioning my faith as a young teenager and chose not to be confirmed. At the time it was very difficult my mum, who didn’t really practice anymore, was extremely angry at me because she didn’t want my grandparents to be upset. And she decided that I was going to have to tell my grandparents my decision as punishment. Obviously my grandparents were very upset, but I explained my reasoning to them and eventually they respected my choice. I know that my agnostism does pain them but their love for me is more important than that. I also know that they would be much more offended by me being a hypocrite and ‘playing at faith’ to please them than me being honest with them. I do still believe in some form of higher being although I don’t practice any religion and I am happy to accept prayers and masses as I believe any positive energy in my direction is a good thing which I think that does give them hope that maybe one day I will return to the fold. Obviously your situation is a little different as you no longer believe at all, but I think as long as you are respectful of your family’s and your friends’ beliefs and you are honest about the process you have been through then they should be respectful of your beliefs. I’m not saying that it won’t be a rocky process and that it won’t take time but I do believe that it will be ok eventually.

  • ArachneS

    Parents found out last week that husband and I are no longer Catholic and completely blew up over it. My dad said some things that I would rather not recall, and I shut it down by telling them that I couldn’t discuss the subject with them as emotions just run too high on it.

    I don’t know what I’m going to say when religion comes up with the rest of the family. It was hard enough for 15 minutes with my mom and dad, who I really am not very close to.

    Not only that, but the last stretch of when we were still part of the catholic church was then we had our second child baptized. My family is of the very conservative type that considers being a godparent to be a serious obligation to make sure the children get educated in the catholic church. How do we tell our kids god-parents(who are my siblings and their spouses) that we no longer agree with many things the Catholic church teaches, and certainly don’t want religious indoctrination for our kids?

  • Liberated Liberal

    Another ex-Catholic here. In my case, very big smiles followed by a shrug and a firm resolve to not talk about it worked just about every time for me. Although I was much more tolerant and unbothered by the pressure then, so I think they sensed that I truly wasn’t interested in their judgement. When people understand they won’t have any influence over you, they tend to retreat pretty quickly.

    My mom was the only exception, and verbally abused me quite a bit over my atheism. But I have been rewarded in that after encouraging her to watch HBO’s latest documentary on the church’s child abuse scandal (preceded by a year of printing out and handing her every piece of dirt on the church I could find :) ), she has officially left the church as of last month.

  • UrsulaL

    Since you say that you’re a freshman in college, I’m guessing that you’re still getting at least some financial support from your family.

    So the first thing to consider is how the situation may affect your access to education. Might your family cut off financial support if they think that your college environment is harming you religiously? Might they try to insist that you transfer to a Catholic college? Or to a school where you would live at home, under their closer supervision? Awkward conversations are one potential problem for young adults in your situation, but far from the only potential problem.

    Assuming that you know your family situation, and aren’t concerned about having your educational opportunities harmed, then part of what you’re facing is getting your family to shift from seeing you as a child, who should follow their lead, when it comes to religion, to seeing you as an adult whose religious opinions are owed the same respect they’d give to any other adult.

    Which is part of the larger issue of them learning to see you as an adult in general, and you learning to interact with them as an adult, rather than with the habits from childhood.

    And that transition almost inevitably involves awkward conversations. Conversations about culture, and religion, and politics, and all sorts of other issues where in the past you’d be more inclined to follow their lead and they’d assume that you’ll follow their lead, but now you’re going to have your own adult opinions that may be different from theirs. An awkwardness that has as much to do with redefining relationships as it does with disagreement.

    I’m not sure how much help this is, but maybe looking at the problem from another angle will give you some other ideas on how you want to handle it.

  • Tonya Richard

    My mother is still a devout fundamentalist Christian, she is also aware that I am now an atheist. At first, we would try to discuss our different beliefs, but this did not go well at all! So now we basically avoid subjects that we know we don’t agree on. I love my mother and she loves me, and it isn’t worth destroying our relationship over a difference in beliefs. Of course, not everyone is as kind and loving as my mother. She does insert her beliefs in general conversation sometimes, I don’t think it is intentional, but even if it is, I choose to just politely ignore what she says. As for other people in my life, most do not know I am an atheist, and right now I am not going to tell them. When religious conversations come up, I just stay quiet. So far nobody has questioned me, and I havn’t offered any information. If anyone pushes me, I will just say I don’t want to talk about it and politely end the conversation. No one can make you talk about something if you don’t want to.

  • Emaloo

    I’m another ex-Catholic atheist. This will depend on the politics of the people you’re worried about, but for more conservative members of my family, I told them that I object to the Catholic church’s politics, and quit attending church as the only act of protest available. Since my entire family is pro birth control and completely appalled by the child rape cases, I was fortunate to have some common ground to work with. If you frame is as an objection to actions, rather than ideas, a lot of people seem less threatened. At the very least, it moves the discussion back into reality, because regardless of one’s opinion of the church’s actions, they did demonstrably happen.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    It takes two to have an argument. Don’t take the bait, don’t try to justify yourself, or make excuses, or explain your lifestyle. You won’t win, and it’ll just leave you more open to their comments.

    Libby Anne’s short, non-descriptive responses are perfect. They aren’t rude, but they also aren’t giving away the information needed to fuel an argument.

    If the person keeps persisting, I find that a simple “I’m sorry, I have to go now. It was great seeing you!” works well.

  • UrsulaL

    Another thing to consider is that the best way to deal with potentially problematic arguments often depends on the nature of your relationship with any given individual.

    Avoiding a difficult theological discussion will be a very different experience when you’re avoiding the discussion with someone you’ve previously enjoyed having long discussions about theology, moral and social issues, current events, etc. with, as compared to avoiding such discussions with someone where your typical conversations are long and interesting but about different topics, or avoiding such discussions with someone where you’ve talked about theology and religion regularly but in a superficial manner, such as reassuring a religiously minded relative that you’re going to church and liked the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book they gave you for Christmas last year, but which you only glanced at.

    A brief answer that changes the topic will be quite natural in the latter sort of relationship. If your discussions of theology and religion have been brief and superficial in the past, then changing the subject or giving a short answer will be straightforward.

    But the same answer may cause its own problems if you’re talking to someone where the two of you have enjoyed long and detailed discussions in the past, because it may seem as if you are cutting off your relationship with them, but they don’t know why. In that situation, if you value the relationship and want it to continue, then you’ll likely have to bit the bullet and have the awkward conversations, to get to the other side of them and to be able to continue your ongoing and enjoyable discussions in an honest way.

  • stinger

    Some good suggestions here. I might add, since you pretty well know that the topic will come up, and probably at dinner where a full-blown discussion/argument would be extra unpleasant, that you may want to prepare a couple of strong diversion topics. Strong for this particular individual. “Well, Sibling-Godmother dear, I do find that college requires a greater focus on my coursework and professors than high school did, so that’s where my head’s been and I don’t really have much to say about [religious topic]. But tell me, what do you think of Pope Francis?” Or, “How is Father XX’s gout?” Topics that you know she’ll have plenty to say about and that allow you to show that you haven’t lost all interest in HER or in Catholic issues. I’ve never been Catholic, but I could stand a conversation about the Pope for the space of a dinner. In fact, his ascension seems particularly timely for you! :)

  • meg

    I like Libby’s responses – I would only add that, with a particularly rude or aggressive individual, eye contact and a long pause before repeating your polite deferring statement can do wonders. They’re often surprised enough to stop and any one else nearby usually jumps in with a change in conversation

  • The_L

    I will say that it is HARD to come out as Not-A-Christian when your parents are of the “Other religions and atheism are stupid” or “What will the neighbors think?” camps. I really wish my mother would understand that I’ve long outgrown my “trying to be weird” phase. I just want to be myself; if who I am is a little unusual, that’s my business.

  • Asuka0278

    Another ex-Catholic weighing in on the subject. I’m a cradle Catholic from a very large, well known, moderate Catholic family in our area. I also avoid conflict like the plague. My tactic has mainly been to smile and nod and keep quiet when my family decides to talk about Church related stuff. They all know I no longer attend except when I might like to sing. (I always enjoyed the songs our little folk group (run by my mom) did so I will occassionally sing at on holidays if the mood strikes me.) I am also pretty lucky in that they just don’t push the subject. My brother (who is also a recovering Catholic) has adopted the policy (and to a certain extent so have I….) that there are two things he refuses to discuss with ANYONE (except for a very select few) politics and religion. He doesn’t budge even if people press him. He says those two topics are extremely heated even in like-minded circles where most of the time people share almost identical beliefs. People can always find things to argue about.
    Again, we’re pretty lucky that for the most part our family is of the live and let live type. My mother struggles with the fact that we’re not completely raising our children in the Church. (We did have them baptized. It was important for our parents and grandparents and we figured some old guy pouring water on our daughters’ heads wasn’t going to hurt them and would make a bunch of people happy so why the hell not. There was great satisfaction for my husband and I when the catechism oil made our youngest’s hair stick up like two little devil horns. Fantastically, brilliantly hilarious.) But, for the most part she leaves it alone.
    I do have an Aunt and Uncle who are swimming in the deep end of the Catholic pool and a cousin who is scuba diving in it. (she goes to Latin Mass and practices pre-Vatican II stuff) but even they kinda just keep their opinions to themselves. They may not agree with the decisions we make but it isn’t their life. I’m pretty much an agnostic (as is my husband.) The other thing we haven’t done is officially announce our beliefs. You don’t have to go into detail. No one is saying you have to stand up and announce it. Chances are you won’t even have to talk about it. Like I said I tend to be non-confrontational. I keep up with some of the news in the Church or people from the church where I grew up; typical gossipy stuff. But, i leave it at that. On the few occasions where I have chosen to make a statement about my beliefs I usually just smile and say “Sorry, we’re heathens now so I don’t really care.” and leave it at that. Don’t stress out over it. In my experience, eventually, over time people generally will just leave it alone. And for those few who don’t want to leave it alone just say “i’m sorry but I refuse to discuss this because it is none of your business.” Everyone here has really good ideas and those I’ve presented are what works for me in my situation. I think Stinger’s response is great as well. Talking about the new pope is probably a good subject. And you can even say “I’ve only read x,y,z about him what have you heard?” and again smile and nod politely. :)

  • Rosie

    There are a lot of good suggestions here. I’ll also add that if or when you’re able to do it, physical distance can work wonders. I’ve gotten much less grief over my apostasy since I lived halfway across the continent (USA) for eight years, and could only afford to come back to visit my parents for maybe three days every other year. They advocated for me to move back, and now that I have they’re careful to keep clear of things that might make me want to move again. That wasn’t my intention or my expectation, but it sure has worked out that way.