Keeping Religious Friends

Posted on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

“I could never be friends with a Christian.”

–an atheist friend.

In theory, I absolutely agree.  Though some beliefs seem to be hidden away to accomodate for the demands of polite society, sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of conversation to get to not only the beliefs that someone has, but also the effects of those beliefs.  An example would be a friend of mine who years ago told me she wouldn’t let her then-newborn daughter celebrate Halloween because it was devil worship.  I pointed out that it was actually a hybrid of the Catholic All Saints’ Day and the previous Irish/Celtic Samhain and, not only was it not devil worship, but it was in both cultures exactly the opposite.  The ancient Celts wore costumes in order to disguise themselves from demons and evil spirits, and shoo them away.  My friend would have none of it.  ”It’s devil worship,” she repeated.

Under most other circumstances, though, this anti-Halloween friend and I got along famously.  I was aware of her born-again Christianity.  She was aware of my atheism.  It didn’t come up.

Let’s turn to a family friend.  The woman in question is a deist.  We were on a trip many years ago and somehow got onto the general topic of beliefs.

“Do you believe in the afterlife?” she asked.

“No,” was my simple answer.

“Why not?”

“Because I see no reason to.  Modern science has proved that there is no possibility of conscious existence after death.”

She didn’t pursue it.  We enjoyed the rest of our day.

Now a look at a more difficult example.  Years ago, I was having lunch with a friend and God came up.  I’d known that she was a born-again Christian.  She’d known that I was an atheist.  I asked her a couple of questions.  Her answers were pretty much along the lines of “because God did it” or “it’s God’s way” or whatever vague bullshit you’d care to insert into those quote marks.  I pushed a little with the standard “how do you know?” or “what’s the evidence?”.  She didn’t get defensive or emotional exactly, but she did get pretty dismissive and condescending.  She gave me similar versions of what she’d already said and shut down.  In the months following that lunch meeting, our friendship waned and now it’s been about ten years since we last spoke.  I’m not saying that her Christianity and my atheism made our friendship dissipate, but I can say that her blatant “my life is perfect because of God (and yours isn’t because of a lack thereof)” attitude was a definite turn-off.

So clearly, this can go both ways.  We can have friendships with the religious, provided the topic of religion either never comes up, comes up with little horseplay, or the parties involved in the conversation don’t push too hard.

Now to the meat.  I’ve known another couple, he a preacher’s kid, she a convert shortly before their marriage.  I’ve known them since ’95 (though her a bit later).  On his side, things tend to stay strictly academic.  When I’ve asked questions, he’s answered them.  He almost never gets emotionally involved.  On her side, it’s a little different.  She becomes instantly emotional, defensive, and offended.  One might even argue that these emotional states are ones which she enjoys and her converted Christianity affords her a culturally-approved way of indulging them.

But I digress.

This couple and I have had a close relationship since we met.  They hosted me for a week or so between when I graduated college and left for a summer trip to Europe.  They hosted me when I came back.  We’ve socialized countless times.  We’ve been to mutual birthdays, graduations, etc.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

The middle of ’08, tragedy hit the dead center of my life.  I’ll save the particulars for another time.  The result being that, while staying with this couple, I plagued him with questions about God’s justice, Hell, Heaven, all that jazz.  It wasn’t that I wanted to believe or to prove him wrong.  What I wanted was for him to explain, from his Christian point of view, the reason behind my experience.  To his credit, he admitted he had few answers.  She never addressed the topic directly.

In ’09, partially inspired by ’08, but also by many other things, I started the Atheist Asshole blog on WordPress.  In short, I was sick of theists getting a pass and seemingly either no one doing or saying anything about it.  (Admittedly, I was quite emotional when I started the blog.)  I’ve posted frequently.  I’ve posted scathing attacks on topics, institutions, and people.  I’ve posted through Twitter and Facebook.  I’ve done my best to keep the ad hominems to a minimum.  I’ve honestly figured that, while some of the things I’ve posted may be offensive to my religious friends, family, and acquaintances, they can be adults and deal with it.  I’ve heard nothing this entire time.

Until a week ago.

I received the following from my convert friend:

“I’m gonna remove you from my facebook friends, kinda tired of hearing all your anti-Christian stuff, you really are pretty insensitive about it. Even though I love you as a person, I just dont want to read it all the time, it hurts that you can be so snide about it, when its something that me and mark really believe in. Maybe that doesn’t matter that some of your friends actually believe in God, but it matters to me and I just dont wanna read about it on a regular basis. I don’t push my faith into your face all the time and I’d appreciate having the same courtesy, so for our friendship I’ll just turn it off.”

I was fucking furious.  Beyond the accusations of being “snide” or “insensitive”, neither of which were backed up by cited evidence (though it’d be dumb for me to deny either entirely), I was most struck by the end.  ”…so for our friendship…”

Huh.  For our friendship.  For our friendship??  For our friendship!!

What the fuck?!  Was she really saying, suggesting, implying, insisting what I thought she was?  If she were to read more, we wouldn’t be friends anymore??  I was astonished.  After all the time and experience we’d three invested in our relationship, she was willing to hinge it all on, essentially, a disagreement.  Granted, it’s a very large disagreement, but a disagreement no less.

Given the conditional nature of her statement, I have assumed that her, his, and my relationship is at least forever altered if not actually over.  I’ve chosen not to respond as I simply don’t want to get into it.  But I’ve been left with the lingering, gut-wrenching question.

What now?

At first, I wanted to write back and rip her a new one.  Statements like “your beliefs are bullshit” or “Christianity has done demonstrable harm” or “if our friendship is conditional upon the level of offence you choose to take, then let’s stop wasting our mutual time” felt satisfying.  Then I thought I’d blog about it and rip her a new one there.  Then I figured the best thing to do was nothing at all.  For the sake of my emotional sanity, I’ve assumed that the relationship is over, but I’ve also decided not to put my foot down.  I’m mourning our relationship.  I’m second-guessing all the great times and wondering what would’ve happened had I been more insistent in my atheism.

And I guess therein lies the rub.  We can have religious friends provided we not rock the boat.  And if we do, we must do so politely, non-attacking, concede, and move on.  But is that right?  Is that ethical and moral?  Is that any kind of meaningful friendship?  If a friend were beating his wife, would we stand by and do nothing?  The analogy is flawed, but the intent stands.  If we, as atheists, can see the demontrable harm religion does, can we also not hold our theist friends to ethical and moral standards?  Must we stand by and say, “Oh, it’s okay that you believe in hogwash that at least encourages ignorant thinking and at most inflicts actual harm”?  And if not standing by means not having those friends, should we?

I’d been proud to believe that my atheist friend’s statement was wrong.  I’d been proud to believe that my preacher’s kid and convert friends and I had something stronger than what our individual beliefs attempted to strain.  But maybe if two parties are to have any relationship, they must be able to experience it on all levels, lest it be a surface-stagnating acquaintance.  And if that means that I can’t share deeply emotional relationships with theists, then so be it.  Maybe I was wrong. Since this happened, I’ve been far more devoted to my own blog as well as AtheistConnect.

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