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.
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?”
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?