The Ethical Dilemma: Lincoln

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at All inquiries are kept confidential.


Lincoln Logjam: Years ago I met a man at a professional meeting. We began having lunch about once a year to discuss business issues as well as other topics—current events, philosophy, religion. I told him I was atheist but very interested in the teachings of all religions, and he said he also loved studying religions. Once in a while we’d communicate by phone or e-mail about business (I have since changed careers), but otherwise it was just the occasional lunch, which he always initiated. The conversations were challenging and exhausting for me (he’s much more intellectual than I), but enjoyable.

The last time we got together, we got into an intense argument after I said Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t believe in god but invoked “the creator” for political reasons. He was enraged that I could be so cynical as to even suggest that, and was sure Lincoln was a firm believer. After he badgered me relentlessly to defend my assertion and refused to change the subject, I told him I’m not a Lincoln scholar, nor can I contact the man for clarification of his views. I paid my half of the check and left.

When I got home, I found an e-mail from my friend highlighting Lincoln’s references to god in a speech. I forwarded him an article on the subject of Lincoln’s non-belief. He called my response “foul” and demanded we continue by phone, and I reluctantly complied. After his verbal battery moved beyond Lincoln’s to my own views, I refused to keep arguing and suggested he read my favorite book on atheism. The next day he said he’d borrowed the book from a library but refused to read the whole thing, I should assign him specific passages. I named one chapter. The following day I got a lengthy e-mail with point-by-point rebuttals to the text. I couldn’t even bring myself to read it. I wrote back that I would not respond any more. When he replied, “Where do we go from here?” I never answered.

I keep mulling this over, wondering if I’m deficient for refusing to engage any further and no longer wanting anything to do with this guy. I never asked him to agree with me, but I feel he won’t quit unless I agree with him. While I really valued our long relationship up until this episode, I now think perhaps we were on different pages all along. I also suspect he may be nuts. Is it me?

—Disagree to Disagree

Dear Disagree,

Talk about disagreeable! I guess that’s why they say never discuss religion or politics. But that shouldn’t apply to those you expect to hear your ideas without declaring heresy.

When both of you claimed interest in all religions, you assumed you were on the same page. But it seems you are interested in the ideas, while he perhaps sees god everywhere. Still, that shouldn’t prevent two rational people from having enjoyable conversations—unless one has an agenda to convert the other.

You apparently triggered some hot button with him. Given the limited nature of your annual lunch-only relationship and the demise of its professional dimension, forget “same time, next year.” There’s nothing to be gained by delving into what set him off or forcing yourself to reopen communications if you are feeling repelled. He sounds belligerent and unbalanced. Leave this connection disconnected, and let’s hope he doesn’t appear at your door channeling Honest Abe.

Communion without the Holy: When I was involved in a religion, as uncomfortable as it was, I had holidays and routines, I knew people from my church, and I had a support network for births, deaths, weddings, personal problems, etc. Now that I’ve become a non-believer, I’m at a loss for community. I can’t see myself attending atheist meetings, and some of the alternatives to churches look too much like churches. But I want to be part of a group that I care about and that cares about me. Family is great but it’s not enough.

—Where Everybody Knows My Name

Dear Everybody,

Cheer up! There is community to be found if you open your mind as you look for it. As you mention, the religion you were in really didn’t do it for you. Many of us have this ideal image of nurturing, welcoming religious communities, perhaps based on movies and TV, but how many people actually experience that? For every person who genuinely enjoys a cozy embrace in the bosom of his or her church, many others are completely alienated in that milieu. Just like believing, a sense of community within an organization is not something you can make up your mind to feel and magically you feel it.

Before you rule out joining any non-believer groups, you might want to explore a bit. You don’t have to commit to attending weekly meetings. Perhaps you’d get a charge out of an occasional atheist meet-up where people discuss particular topics, or you wouldn’t mind participating in some humanist-sponsored recreational events. Getting involved, no matter where you begin, would help you meet like-minded people and lead to discovering more options for activities and groups you might find rewarding.

But you don’t need either a church or an un-church to establish a community for yourself. You can build bonds with people via all sorts of avenues. You can beef up your calendar of secular occasions like New Year’s and Independence Day by celebrating Darwin Day and the solstices. You can join a book club, maybe one that includes freethought literature. There are groups for pretty much every sport, even walking, where extended relationships can flourish. Political and social activism is another way to find people who share at least some of your values. Being active in schools, hospitals or community centers or any kind of volunteering can help fill your need to be part of an organization whose goals align with yours. And like the regulars in the “Cheers” bar, the “Friends” coffee shop, and the “Seinfeld” diner, you might even find a local hang-out that can become your haven (although perhaps a gym, library or park would be a healthier option).

Don’t limit yourself to settings that exclude religious people. All you need is ones that have no problem with people who aren’t religious. The main thing is to take the time and energy to be receptive and accessible to people and dynamics you’d like in your life. Being there for others tends to inspire others to be there for you.

That said, loneliness and disconnectedness are serious challenges for many people today, religious or not, and it’s not clear if the proliferation of virtual social networks is making things better or worse. I’d love to hear from readers about their own experiences finding a sense of belonging and purpose through non-religious communities.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.