Ask Richard: How Can I Avoid Religion Without Becoming a Recluse?


Apr. 7, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I recently "came out" as an atheist and it has been somewhat difficult on a number of fronts. Although I have been skeptical of religion for many years, feeling that it was self-serving and didn't hold up to rational analysis, things have gotten strange since I finally decided to tell people that I didn't believe in a god. Almost everyone I know is either religious in the traditional sense or some adherent of New Age spiritualism, and although most have been okay with my atheism, some have condescendingly said I'm going through a "phase" and one or two have been hostile.

I'm also gay, and surprisingly a lot of the problems I've been experiencing is with the LGBT community, where it seems people are falling all over themselves to be super-religious in response to the intolerant religious right. By stating I am an atheist, some of them seem to think I am playing into the hands of our enemies (I am a frequent speaker at LGBT events).

I have found myself avoiding religious people whenever possible, partly because it troubles me how much they rely on superstition. I purposely avoid friends whom I know will respond to every illness, problem or world event with prayer or "sending energy and healing." These are all well meaning folks, but their beliefs rub me raw and I often find myself responding poorly to their barrage of superstitious beliefs.

How do I integrate my atheism in a world where I am surrounded by people extolling the virtues of their personal superstitions or delusions without constantly blowing my stack or being forced to debate belief and non-belief? I really don't want to become a recluse who only speaks to others who have given up religion!

–Becoming a Loner


Dear Becoming,

You said you don't want to become a recluse who only talks to non-believers, but since you didn't mention having any atheist friends, you don't seem to even have that outlet. Without having any relief from people talking about their favorite invisible entities or intangible energies, of course you're getting fed up and becoming unsocial. You're suffering from overexposure to secondary woo.

Yes, you will probably always be surrounded by people who believe inane things, and they will get to you sometimes. But you can be more relaxed and tolerant while in their midst if you can detoxify from the secondary woo on a regular basis.

Socializing with rationalists could be like stepping outside of a crowded, stuffy room full of woo smokers for several minutes of fresh air. After you've recharged your bloodstream with oxygen, you can go back into the room and hang out for quite a while without feeling like you're suffocating.

So here's my advice: first find a group of atheists and rationalists and meet with them regularly to relax, swap stories, laugh and be encouraged. You need this mental oxygen.

Second, develop a sense of calm and confidence within yourself. Think about how fortunate you are: you have, against high odds, freed yourself from superstitious chains that hobble the minds of most people. Yes, what they believe is nonsense to you, but don't think of yourself as being better than them–think of yourself as just being luckier. That will help you to avoid being smug or condescending, like those religious and New Age acquaintances you mentioned. The whole mentality of thinking in terms of being superior or inferior to others is a trap. If you see yourself either way, you won't be happy being with others and you'll likely start isolating yourself.

I have to wonder if some of the hostility that you're sensing in others is a reaction to the hostility they're sensing in you. You can help to defuse the situation by removing your resentment. When other people refer to their reliance on undetectable beings and powers, ask yourself if you really need to spend time and energy being upset about their peculiar thoughts.

This is especially essential to bear in mind when you interact with the LGBT community because you have important work to do and you can't do it alone. If you spend no time or energy making any heavy judgmental evaluations about them, you won't feel frustrated or angry that you have to work with them.

I assume that you're working for the benefit of the entire LGBT community–not just the rational ones. In order for all of you to succeed in gaining justice and equality, you must all overlook your differences and focus on your common goals. Respond with that sentiment whenever any of your LGBT associates express disapproval of your atheism. United you stand, divided you fall.

Finally, you may have to divest yourself of the more seriously negative acquaintances in your life. After you relax your own tension and resentment, several of your friends and co-workers may gradually respond favorably–but a few might not. No matter how calm or self confident you get, there are a few folks who are simply toxic. If after a reasonable amount of time some remain hostile, then you should quietly drift away from them. You have more important things to do with your time and talent than to waste them on futile debates or avoiding futile debates with people who will not let go of their antagonism and listen with open minds.

Becoming, you can treat these interactions with believers as opportunities to grow and mature within yourself, to see beyond your differences and to achieve aspirations that you and they share. Perhaps you will change your name from Becoming a Loner to Becoming a Leader.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.