Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where executives, executors, and executioners alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about how to handle religious differences.
I’m an atheist. It’s not something I try to make a big deal out of (there’s nothing worse than a proselytizing non-believer), but it’s an important part of my identity, and something I firmly believe.
Generally, this isn’t a problem; everyone has different guiding principles, and mine just happen not to involve faith. The issue is that I have a good friend who is not only religious, but has dedicated his life to God. He recently completed seminary school and became a minister at a church he helped to found. Again, not a problem, per se, but it seems like since he became a religious figure, all he ever talks about on social media (our main interaction now, as he lives far away) is God and church and prayer.
I’m not sure how to engage with this; it’s obviously not meant for me (he thankfully isn’t trying to convert me directly), but it’s also not something I feel comfortable commenting on. But I also don’t want to just ignore things that are obviously important to my friend. But, also, “liking” bible verses and prayer meetings seems hypocritical, since I don’t share those beliefs.
How can I keep up my friendship with this person if I can’t figure out a way to talk to him?
The Only Footprints in the Sand
You make a point in your letter that I think is pretty key to my response, Footprints: you believe that your friend’s posts on social media aren’t “meant for you.” The thing is, though, your friend isn’t posting these missives to some closed group solely for believers; he’s putting them out there on his own page, and one would assume he’s aware that he has non-believers as friends. In my book, that makes his words as much for you as any social media post is for anything other than our own narcissistic pleasure.
Let me be clear, though, that I’m not saying you should be picking fights and quibbling with the wording of religious doctrine. Your letter indicates that you have a lot of respect for your friend’s faith, even though you don’t share it, and you should preserve that moving forward! Part of that exercise, though, can mean engaging with your friend’s posts as they are: reading what they actually say and mean and responding to that rather than to the religious baggage they haul along (and that you’re bringing with you, too).
Here’s an example. Say your friend posts a bible verse:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34
Instead of seeing that citation and immediately stepping away from the keyboard, think about what your friend is trying to say. Is he reminding his friends to treat strangers with love and respect? Is he advocating for sensible immigration policy? There’s more here than some black box labeled “DOGMA,” and if you take the time to actually engage with content you’ve deemed off limits to you due to faith-based differences, you may find that you have a better relationship with your friend than you did before he joined the cloth.
Human beings have a natural tendency to group things, places, and people into little boxes, like predator/prey, food/not food, safe/not safe. And while that’s really handy when you’re a neanderthal trying to live long enough to procreate, it’s a less helpful instinct when you’re an educated modern person trying to develop meaningful relationships with his fellow hairless monkeys. You’ve put yourself in the atheist-box, and your friend in the God-box, and decided that ne’er the twain shall meet. When you realize that we’re all just in the people-box, that’s when we really start to see one another rather than the labels on all those ticky tacky little boxes.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.