Problem of the hair-trigger friend
From the IAmAnAtheist.com feedback form:
Ive been an athiest for 2 years now, I recently met a friend, for a little over a month we were friends, she knows Im athiest, she’s christian. I got a journal for me to write it, I thought it was cute, it just happened to be a christian journal. I cross off all the quotes at the bottom of every page, on the cover I covered up the quote by writing Love in marker over it. I unthinkinly (is that a word?) show it to my friend while my christian friend is present. She see’s what I did and gets angry about it, she tells me Im wrong and I piss her off and just because Im athiest doesnt mean I shouldn’t have a little god in my life, (I couldn’t help thinking that thats exactly what bieng athiest means, having no god in your life) so as not to say anything I’d regret I just walked off to cool down. Later I tried to talk to her but she just got angry and said “Now you want to talk to me after walking off earlier?” and tried to start another argument. I left apparently were not friends anymore, I find this completely frustrating, what do you think?
What an unusual problem. I certainly agree that it must be frustrating!
Before I go any further, though, I want to make sure we’re on the same page. I assume that the following are true:
- You’d still like to be friends with this girl.
- You had no intention of insulting her.
- You crossed out the quotes in the journal because they did not relate to your beliefs or did not represent you as a person.
If that’s all true, then I think we have plenty to work with if you want to try and rescue the friendship.
I’d start off by apologizing to your friend (I’ll still refer to her as your friend because I don’t think you should give up hope quite yet) for the misunderstanding and for upsetting her by walking off. Tell her you didn’t mean to make her feel bad, and that it has upset you that you inadvertently did so. Note that I’m not saying you should take blame for anything (it doesn’t sound to me like you did anything unethical), but you can still express your regret over the situation.
I think you need to tell her that you still don’t really understand what you did to upset her, but that you’d really like to know. Then — and this is the tricky bit — listen to her explanation without getting defensive or arguing. Concentrate on trying to see the situation from her point of view, no matter how strange it sounds or how much you disagree with it. If she tries to put you on the defense (“Why did you walk off like that?”) don’t take the bait; just let it slide. If it matters, you can argue your side later.
Once you’re sure you understand where she is coming from, you can make an informed decision about how to move forward.
If it was a misunderstanding — she thought your crossing out the quotes was because you “hate” God or were intending to be blasphemous, or something like that — you can explain that this was not at all what you intended. Hopefully, she’ll accept that.
If she thinks that your crossing out the quotes was an insult to her religion or to God, tell her that you honestly never thought of it that way and certainly didn’t intend to be offensive. If seeing the quotes crossed out is going to continue to bother her, write in the journal at home or get another one. You could even invite her to come with you to pick out a new one.
If she didn’t realize that you were an atheist or didn’t understand what “atheist” means, tell her that you don’t believe in God, but that your atheism doesn’t mean you dislike her or look down on her for being a Christian. I’m guessing that, if this is the situation, there’s a good chance she’ll try to argue (e.g., “But how can you not believe in God?”). I’d suggest that you try not to get into it at this time, but tell her either that you’re happy to talk about religion later but don’t feel like it at the moment, or that maybe it would be best for your friendship if you decided to “agree to disagree” on the subject and not focus on it.
If you get the impression that none of these are true and that she has some larger personal issue that you somehow triggered (for example, maybe her parents have threatened her with punishment if they find out she’s associating with atheists), you’re going to have to play it by ear. There are tons of possibilities — I’ve seen plenty of them — and there’s no way for me to guess which might be the issue.
All of this assumes, of course, that you still want to be her friend after hearing her explanation.
It’s quite possible that she’s so religious that there’s no way you can have more than a polite acquaintance, or that she’s such a wingnut that you can’t possibly have a meaningful relationship with her. If that’s the case, I’d suggest you just thank her for explaining things and say, “No hard feelings? See you around” (or whatever people say these days — I’m old so I haven’t a clue). If she still wants to be friends, she can work on the relationship from her end and you can decide if it’s worth giving friendship another shot.
As an aside, it can be quite valuable to have a religious friend who is willing to discuss religion intelligently. You could try reading the Bible together using one of those “read the Bible in a year” plans, or something like that. In my experience, such exercises help all concerned and help the theist get a better handle on their beliefs (or abandon Christianity entirely). But the two of you have to be very intellectually open and empathic for this to work.
I hope I’ve been helpful. Readers may leave comments with further suggestions, and I’m hoping you’ll leave a comment to let me know how things progress.