COLUMN By RICHARD WADE
Feb. 3, 2010
You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard@ca.rr.com. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of request; please be patient.
I have been fortunate enough to become good friends with some very smart people who are also good Christians (I say "good" in the sense that they truly seem to try and follow Jesus and be good people, and they back up their beliefs). I love discussing religion with them. However, I think I love it a little too much.
Every time I find an interesting link online, see a point raised in a debate or discover a potential biblical contradiction that I want their opinion on, I ask them about it. I constantly ask them very specific questions in order to try and understand their thought processes, but I will push them beyond a point where they have gotten to themselves. I feel I might be doing this too often and forcefully: these aren't just anonymous people on the Internet that I am drilling with questions, these are people I deeply care about.
I know that some of them are starting to question their faith, and I feel that as a friend I should back off completely and encourage them to keep their faith. I would be devastated if I helped to break apart the foundation they have built their entire lives upon. But I'm also torn because I feel that discovering the truth should be a goal for everyone. Only good can come from challenging your beliefs–you either solidify them or realize you are wrong. Either way, it's progress.
In addition, it's hard for me to relate to them because, though I'm deeply interested in this topic, I'm not personally invested in it. I imagine that questioning everything you've been taught and believed in for 20-plus years can have quite an impact on your life.
Should I hold back my resources and thoughts when they are asking questions? And if I don't, would I be helping to (wrongly) convert them? What should I do to be the best possible friend?
When your friends come to you asking you questions, answer them honestly and thoroughly. If you wonder if you're being a pest because you're going to them too often with questions that are too incisive, just ask them if you're being a pest.
Your friends sound like they can take care of themselves. If you give them permission to tell you if you're annoying or upsetting them, then accept whatever answer they give. Act accordingly based on whether they say, "Yeah, please back off," or, "No, I'm fine with it." Since they know you're going to take them at their word, they're more likely to be candid with you.
If they are as intelligent and tough as you describe, I don't think you need to worry about their long-term well-being.
Questioning one's own religious beliefs can sometimes be a painful process, but it is a thing that intelligent and tough people often do. Their foundations may be shaken, but they usually recover. It's helpful to have some understanding friends close by as they go through it.
I think the best possible friend you can be is the friend who cares about them enough to always honest with them. The fact that you want to avoid being insensitive to their feelings and worry about their life foundation being shattered is a good sign that you can find ways to tell the truth as you see it without being callous or brutal.
You wonder if, as a friend, you should "back off completely and encourage them to keep their faith." I think that would involve your being disingenuous or even dishonest. Taking extraordinary steps to maintain their beliefs could be as unwise as taking extraordinary steps to tear their beliefs down.
Be supportive of them, rather than supportive of any particular belief or loss of belief. Accept them whichever way their beliefs go. If their faith starts to crumble, you can be supportive by reassuring them that the good traits and behaviors you have admired in them can be preserved–even if the religious framework previously built around those traits and behaviors is dismantled.
Also, don't overestimate your power. I think it's rare when any person single-handedly causes another person to de-convert. It's usually a complex and gradual process involving many factors, including inborn personality traits, personal experiences, level of education and exposure to differing opinions. You may be an influence in their decision whether or not to leave their faith, but you're not the only influence.
It sounds like your friendship with them enriches their lives, just as they enrich yours. There may come a time when they can return the favor by being honest with you about an important question you have, rather than trying to keep information or opinions from you because they feel it's for your own good.
That's what friends are for.
(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 counseld 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.)