Ask Richard: Struggling with an Impulse to Disrespect Christians


Oct. 21, 2009

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Hi Richard,

I'm on the state board of a high school student organization. As a vice-chair I was in charge of an icebreaker and we did a series of questions. As an avid reader, one of the questions was "What is your favorite book?"

We had a great discussion until one of our members stated that the Bible is the greatest book ever written. I didn't know what to say to that. My knee jerk reaction was to think "Have you actually read the Bible?"

The person in question is starting seminary in the fall and I think that this was a way to work that into the conversation; however, I immediately lost all respect for this woman. I knew she was Christian but didn't realize she was that Christian.

This was a really uncomfortable situation for me as the discussion leader. Do you have any sage words of advice on how to handle this in the future? I couldn't even comment and just moved on to the next person – I totally looked like an idiot! (I'm a non-believer, but not out to anyone but my husband and son.)



Dear Speechless,

I'm glad that you remained silent. Maybe you looked like an idiot, but if you had blurted out your knee jerk reaction, you likely would have looked like a bigot.

I don't think that you're either one, but your reflex disapproval of the woman's position put you into that awkward predicament of looking like one or the other. I think that you'll be much more comfortable when meeting people like her if you eliminate that automatic reaction and tension inside, so that you have more control and choice over your responses.

I live by the maxim, "You are what you do," and I regard others according to that criteria.  The reality of a person's character, of their very life is in their actions, not in their thoughts, beliefs, self-image or self-description.  For instance, if someone thinks of themselves as a kind and honest person, but they consistently act in unkind and dishonest ways, then they are not a kind and honest person. 

I try very hard to treat everyone courteously, simply because they are human beings.  As I get to know them and I see persistent patterns in their conduct, their actions, their behaviors, those patterns will cause me to respect them more or less than the initial level of respectfulness that I show to everyone. 

When I first find out that someone is a Christian, my respect for them does not automatically go up or down.  I will only be interested in how that fact affects what they do with other people.  In their actual conduct, are they tolerant or intolerant of people who see things differently? In the concrete things that they do, are they compassionate or aloof to those who are suffering or struggling?  In their observable behaviors, are they open-hearted and fair-minded, or are they conceited and arrogant? Are they mindful and gentle with the environment, or are they wasteful and destructive in how they really live? Do they in fact practice honesty, fairness, kindness, responsibility and the encouragement of freedom?

I don't look for perfect performance, just persistent patterns.

The same holds true when I meet an atheist or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist, or a person in any other such category. I look at how they treat people, how they live their ethics, what they do.

If they practice those virtues I mentioned, I will hold them in greater esteem and even grow to like them, regardless of their religious opinions.  There are some Christians whom I respect, admire and like.  There are some atheists whom I disrespect, disapprove of and dislike, and all the other possible combinations.  It all depends on what they do, not what they believe.

Now Speechless, for you too, what you DID is what counts. You did not blurt out all that disapproving stuff, you held it in check – good for you! You were courteous in your conduct, or at least you were not discourteous.

A challenge to her opinion of the Bible might have been completely appropriate in the proper setting such as a debate, but that icebreaker wasn't it, and so you correctly held your tongue.  Maybe it was awkward, but, so what? You commendably restrained your impulse to be antagonistic.

We all have such impulses, but with practice we can be relieved of them to the point that they hardly ever come up.  Then we can be more relaxed and at ease with people who have different views and not have to work so hard to mind our manners. 

If you want this equanimity for yourself, you don't have to change your opinion of the Bible, you only have to change your criteria for respecting people: Actions. Behaviors. Doings.

Look into yourself and find the Golden Rule.  All normal, healthy people have it in them.  You would not want someone else to "immediately lose all respect" for you just because you like something about a book, or just because you are in a category such as "atheist."  You'd want them to give you a fair chance to express yourself and to demonstrate your character in your actions.  Simply do that for them. If you persistently do the Golden Rule outwardly, it will steadily become what you are inside. You are what you do. 

So imagine a future interaction just like the one you described:

You: "And what is your favorite book?"

Her:  "I think the Bible is the greatest book ever written."

You:  "Oh, that's interesting. Can you tell me about how the Bible affects your actions and your conduct with other people?  How does the Bible influence the ways you live and interact?"

Speechless, thoughts, beliefs and opinions are as insubstantial as morning mist.  They are not what you are. 

If you consider this carefully enough, you'll see that it is your actions and behaviors that make up the solid reality of your life.  By seeing yourself as a set of actions and behaviors rather than a set of thoughts, beliefs and opinions, you'll start to see other people that way too. As you talk with people, you'll ask questions that guide them toward a discussion about their doings, and you'll be more likely to find something interesting, and quite possibly something respectable, and maybe even something likable.

You'll end up with friends in unexpected places.


(Richard Wade is 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.)